Editor's Note - Winter 2011

Beyond the Genteel

By Robert Wilson | December 1, 2010


Alfred Kazin, the distinguished literary critic, who died in 1998, wrote in his journals about meetings he attended of the editorial boards for two quarterlies of his day, one of them the quarterly you are reading. The passages (from excerpts that appear in this issue) describe a “genteel . . . Englishy . . . academic” atmosphere at such occasions that, despite its “pleasant o pleasant comfort,” seems to have made him, a perpetual outsider, uncomfortable. In such gatherings in wood-paneled rooms (“the fire, the martinis before lunch, the drapes, the cigars”), leading thinkers, writers, and academics, not only at the quarterlies but also at the weeklies and the book clubs and in university departments, would de­cide what sort of intellectual life the country would have. Men (as Kazin points out, they were mostly men) like himself and the scholar Jacques Barzun, whom Kazin describes here, might have felt like outsiders, but they were very much on the inside.

It’s hard to feel much nostalgia for this world that no longer exists. Our culture, which is anything but  genteel, now comes from an invigorating number of sources. Of course the culture the genteel were creating, or promoting, was not really circumscribed by their taste but only seemed that way because it ignored so much that deserved their attention. Half a century later, our lives are infinitely richer. To take a small example of a large shift, read Professor Paula Marantz Cohen’s essay “The Seduction,” which describes how her approach to teaching literature was changed by, unthinkable as it would have seemed way back when, motherhood. Cohen was trained in the genteel, or at least top-down, tradition, and that was the approach she used with her students for many years. But her own children taught her to see the world through their eyes, bottom-up, and that made all the difference.

African-American culture has a huge role in today’s larger culture, a dramatic change from the 1950s, but the effects of racism in housing, income, and education rage on. In “Affirmative Inaction,” William M. Chace describes the national retreat from affirmative action, argues  that it is premature, and makes a strong case that only private colleges and universities can reinvigorate this revolution on behalf of those who have been left out.

If the changes have a horrific aspect, it is from the accelerating influence of celebrity culture. Celebrities have become so powerful they can dictate what can be written or said about them. Luckily there is one colossus who can stand up to them: the indomitable Kitty Kelley. Her piece, “Unauthorized, But Not Untrue,” tells us how she does it and explains why unauthorized is a tag a biographer should wear proudly.

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