[home] [this issue] [back issues] [call for papers] [books for review] [selections] [about] [contact]

the minnesota review n.s. 52-54 (2001)

Jeffrey J. Williams

New New York Intellectual: An Interview with Louis Menand

Jeffrey Williams: It seems as if you effortlessly bridge the two spheres of literature and criticism, or journalism and scholarship, without discernible tension. You're now a staff writer for The New Yorker, contributing editor of the New York Review of Books, and you were at one time an editor of The New Republic, but you're also an academic critic, with an Oxford book on modernism, and editor of the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism on the modern period. I'd like to ask about your background and how you came to do this. But I'd also like to ask how you see the two spheres fitting together; on the one hand, you make it seem like a natural mix, but on the other hand, you have a somewhat anomalous position. You could easily be identified as part of the new breed of public intellectuals, but still most professors don't usually do both journalism and academic work.

Louis Menand: The answer to the first part of your question is that I went to Pomona College, whose English department in those days was very eclectic. Some of the people there wrote poetry; some directed theatre; some did scholarly editions, literary history, criticism, and so on. The big thing that we English majors did was follow contemporary poetry in little magazines. This seemed a very natural way to have an English department, with a lot of different approaches to literature and to literary culture, and with connections to the bigger world of contemporary literature and the arts. So it doesn't feel anomalous to me at all to be someone who has an identity that embraces both scholarly and non-scholarly kinds of writing. I'm also fortunate to be at CUNY, because we have a relatively eclectic faculty. We all do different things, but we don't make any invidious distinctions among them.

I think that because I am a professor and because I write for magazines like The New Yorker, people make the assumption that I wear two different hats. I don't think of myself that way. I just think of myself as a writer. I write about things that interest me. If it's for a scholarly audience, obviously you make certain assumptions about your audience that are different from the assumptions you make if you're writing for The New Yorker. But as far as the writing goes, I don't think myself as doing anything differently. I pretty much write the same way and strive for the same virtues in my prose.

JW: What are the virtues you strive for?

LM: I just try, like any writer, to be entertaining and interesting. I want people to get some pleasure and to learn something. It doesn't really matter whether it's about T. S. Eliot or about Tom Clancy. I don't think of myself as someone who has a scholarly motive and a political motive. I think the term "public intellectual" tends to imply that distinction. When people talk about public intellectuals, they seem to be talking about people who have an academic career that's based on work in a professional discipline or with a small group of peers, who then step outside of that discipline to address a larger audience on issues of public interest that they feel strongly about. I certainly don't identify myself with that model. So I don't think of myself as a public intellectual; I just think of myself as a writer.

Another thing about public intellectuals that's confusing is that there are two models, and they're quite different. One model is the New York intellectuals of the 50s—Trilling, Howe, Kazin. They played the role of purveying intellectual culture to a wider audience, and spoke to people outside their own fields. People who get called public intellectuals today are different. Now it's thought of as citizen-scholars, people who want to engage with issues about globalization or affirmative action or U.S. policy or whatever it might be, which drives them to find some kind of public space to let their views be known. They're engaged, which I think is great, but I wouldn't put myself in that category.

JW: I want to come back to the question of politics, but first I want to ask more about your trajectory. After Pomona, you went to Columbia for grad school. Why literary studies?

LM: Why did I get into literature? I don't know. I went to law school first, for a year when I got out of college.

JW: Where?

LM: Harvard. But I just wasn't interested enough in it, I think partly because I was a creative writing major in college. I wrote poetry and didn't really do much else, so I didn't have enough of a social science background to get what was going on in law school. Now I regret it because I'm much more interested in those things. I didn't know what to do, and I applied to the journalism school at Columbia and to the English department, because one of my college teachers had a Ph.D. from Columbia. I had never really been to New York, but I went to see the dean of the journalism school for advice, and he asked me, what kind of writing do you want to do? I said, I want to write for The New Yorker. And he said, don't bother with the school of journalism, which was good advice.

I was way too insecure and unformed and hadn't really written anything, so I didn't look for a job but decided to go to graduate school. It was a little bit of an accident, in other words; it was just where I ended up. When I was in graduate school, I thought I would probably not continue in the profession when I got my degree. But I started teaching—which is where we met—and I was amazed that I enjoyed it (even teaching you, a very contrary student). I got a job fairly easily out of graduate school, really liked being a college teacher, and I stayed in it.

JW: That's not the first time I've been called contrary. After Columbia, you taught at Princeton, you worked for The New Republic in the late 80s, and then for The New Yorker in 92 or so . . .

LM: I worked for The New Republic from 86-87, and The New Yorker from 92-93.

JW: Not many people walk away from jobs like that.

LM: Well, I walked away from law school, so I'm big at walking away. That's one of my specialties. I've had chances to get out of academic work, but it just seems like a good place to go back to, not only for job security and tenure, but because you're your own boss. There's not many places where you feel that.

In terms of the literary angle, most of my work has actually been on criticism, not on literature. My book on Eliot is almost entirely about his criticism and his dissertation on Bradley. Even the stuff that's on his poetry is not so much a reading of it as it is a historicizing of what he was doing and an examination of the context of ideas about literature that people had in that period. In other words, I've been interested in the history of ideas probably more than in the history of literature. And that's how the new book, The Metaphysical Club, which has nothing about literature in it at all, seemed a very natural thing for me to do.

JW: I'm curious about how you see yourself in relation to contemporary literary theory, to New Historicism and the like. In The Metaphysical Club you talk about how the pragmatists were very much formed by the Civil War, and you allude to the fact that the 60s generation was similarly formed by Vietnam. One of the effects typically attributed to the 60s generation is the establishment of literary theory. Whether that's true or not is debatable, but it seems that you are not entirely in step with normal academic literary criticism or theory, as people like Fish or Michaels or others who might be identified as neo-pragmatists.

LM: One thing that I can say is that those people are important, and wrote more important essays, and I'm not and haven't. But I don't feel at all out of sync with what they do. I feel completely in sync; I just do it in my own way. I'm not a theorist, I don't write theoretical essays, but I think that I'm as much a postmodernist as anybody. I think one of the things that gets attached to the reputation of being a writer for The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books is the assumption that you have traditional, conventional ideas about the value of literature. I don't have those views, but because of the way I write it seems anti-theory or pre-theory. I wouldn't set myself up as a deep theoretical thinker, but I don't feel at all out of step with what's going on.

As far as New Historicism is concerned, I think, again, that that is my mode as a writer. I try to historicize everything I write about, and to see what's going on in a deep cultural sense. I don't feel as though I'm fighting a battle to rescue high culture.

JW: What do you think is especially interesting on the current scene in literary studies?

LM: I don't think I'm up to date enough to answer that. Naturally I've been following the pragmatist revival, so I'm interested in people who are associated with it, like Richard Bernstein, Benn Michaels, Fish, or Rorty. That's been my main academic interest for the last four or five years working on the book. But I don't really know what's going on in, for instance, queer theory.

JW: Your first book, Discovering Modernism, focuses mostly on Eliot, but, if I remember correctly, your dissertation was on Edmund Wilson, as well as F. R. Leavis and Eliot. Was Wilson a model for you, as a journalist as well as literary critic?

LM: No. The dissertation was about the reception of modernist literature, arguing that it involved a certain characterization of nineteenth-century literature, Romantic literature and Victorian literature. It tried to show that, in an effort to repudiate nineteenth-century literary values, those values were transposed into modernist language, which clicked for various reasons having to do with both the literary and the extra-literary contexts. Wilson's Axel's Castle was an instance of that kind of performance, as was New Bearings in English Poetry by Leavis and Eliot's early criticism. I didn't write about Wilson because he was an important figure for me, but because he was part of that phenomenon. Actually Eliot was the most interesting of the critics I wrote about, and that's why, when I came to write a book amplifying what I had done in the dissertation, I picked Eliot. I disagree with Eliot about almost everything, but I think he was very canny and intelligent, and I thought it was fascinating to try to figure him out.

The writers who influenced me the most were Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Norman Mailer, and Pauline Kael. It wasn't Edmund Wilson and it wasn't Lionel Trilling, even though I certainly read them. When I was a graduate student I thought about them as possible models, but when I look at what I have done since they have not been particularly influential. The reason I like the writers I named is because they seem very sophisticated in seeing through issues about culture and ideas that actually is very like contemporary academic thinking. The thing about Wilson—that in the end is frustrating about him—is that he had no ability to think theoretically. In the few cases where he does, it is his least satisfactory work.

JW: I'm surprised by Mailer, but they have in common a kind of American style, that's spare, Hemingway-esque, colloquial.

LM: I don't try to write like any of those writers. I certainly don't write like Pauline Kael or Norman Mailer, and couldn't do it if I tried. But it's not the style, it's the intellectual component of what they do that I think is inspiring and what good writing is. And they are also very clear, entertaining writers, which is good.

JW: So how did you go the pragmatist route?

LM: That happened when I was at Princeton, where I started in 1980. I had been in the Columbia department, which was very literary-historical, and that was what I was, a literary historian. And the Princeton department was literary-historical too, which was why they hired me. But most of the other assistant professors who came in with me were very interested in theory. There really hadn't been much theory at Columbia, except for Edward Said. So I was suddenly confronted with issues raised by deconstruction and all the stuff surrounding it then. I was very confused for a long time about what theoretical paradigm I should adopt, what I should read, what was useful and what was not important. I wasn't really sure how I was going to fit into the discipline, which suddenly was showing a different face to me.

JW: I think first jobs are underestimated as part of our formation, as a kind of second graduate education in the profession. One usually thinks it all happens in grad school, but it's also where we end up institutionally.

LM: I wasn't completely sure I wanted to stay in the field, but then I read Consequences of Pragmatism, Rorty's collection of essays. They're still my favorite things in all his work. There's an essay on Derrida called "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing," and it was incredibly clarifying. If there's one thing I ever read that changed my life, it was that essay. And the thing that was clarifying about it was that he explained what Derrida was doing by essentially saying, don't pay any attention to the theoretical plane that Derrida works on and you'll get it. It was really an eye-opener. I became a lifelong fan of Rorty's work. He is, for me, the Man. My field was the history of ideas, and Rorty had a way of talking about ideas that made it possible for me to do my work. It made it possible by allowing me to take a step back from having to champion or critique a set of ideas, but simply to look at them as instruments that people used to cope with the world they find themselves in.

On the other hand, I don't think of myself as a pragmatist in the sense that I have a philosophy. I'm not a philosopher, and one thing I try to do in the book is not make it seem like a referendum on the philosophical merits of pragmatism. I just wanted to present a kind of balanced historical account of it. But there's no question that I felt that, in their time, the pragmatists had the better argument. And I think that's true today.

JW: The Metaphysical Club refers to—just to fill in some background—a group that Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles Peirce formed in 1872, for a short time when they were students, and the book interweaves a history of ideas with their biographies and the various people that they run across. You also make a point of situating their trajectory in the wake of the Civil War, which spurred a new set of ideas for its time.

LM: The Civil War was very important in creating a set of conditions out of which pragmatism emerged, but another factor was On the Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. Pragmatism is as much influenced by Darwin as it is by the reaction against the Civil War. One thing that happened to pragmatism is that after 1945 it went into eclipse. The heroic figures of pragmatism—Holmes, James, and Dewey (Peirce was much less well-known)—were rarely taught and were generally condescended to during the Cold War. Rorty and a couple of people like Richard Bernstein were the lone academic defenders of Dewey and James.

JW: Why? I would have thought it would've been an apt fit with American imperatives, at least as an indigenous American school of thought.

LM: I think it had to do with the moral imperatives of the Cold War era: people felt it was very important to have a set of political principles that could be treated in a more or less absolute way. The entire intellectual culture of the Cold War period was very anti-pragmatic. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached continually against relativism and pragmatism, and Reinhold Neibuhr was a big antagonist of Dewey. I even think that the first wave of theory in the 1970s and 80s was anti-pragmatic in the sense that it was kind of foundational. That's what I felt at Princeton. I felt these people always have a place to stand, and I didn't.

So it was liberating to encounter Rorty. You know, in the beginning, for example in Philosophy as a Mirror of Nature, which was published in 1979, Rorty barely mentions pragmatism; he ends up suggesting hermeneutics might be a way of doing things. It wasn't really until Consequences of Pragmatism that Rorty became identified with pragmatism, and it wasn't until Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that he started having a bigger influence, which was towards the end of the 80s.

I conceived of and started The Metaphysical Club right at the end of the Cold War, around 1989. And, in the ten or twelve years it took me to write it, more biographies came out about Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey, more collected letters, and more editions, plus a huge amount of secondary work, than had appeared in the fifty years before.

JW: One of my frustrations with pragmatism is its account of change. For instance, with Fish, interpretive communities explain a lot about literary practices, but it's been pointed out that they do not explain how you change from one community to another, or that you might straddle multiple communities. You provide one account of change at the end of a response to Richard Poirier in the thick Duke volume, The Revival of Pragmatism. Sorry to spring a quote on you, but there you say, "Theories are just one of the ways we make sense of choices. We wake up one morning and find ourselves in a new place, and then we build a ladder to explain how we got there." Now, I'm with you on the first part, but not on the second, about how we just magically wake up to find ourselves in a new place. It doesn't explain the institutional conditions that bring us to particular places and give us particular choices, and it elides any sense of politics.

LM: Toward the end of The Metaphysical Club, I talk about pragmatism's limitation as a philosophy, that it takes interests for granted and doesn't explain where they come from. It's something that Weber and Freud and Veblen and other contemporaries of the pragmatists were interested in—where we get our desires and why we choose to do one thing rather than another thing. The pragmatists have a kind of Whiggish view: as organisms we need to adapt to the world and make it a better place. It's unproblematized by things like mediated desire and charismatic or institutional authority, and I think that's a great weakness. One of the places that we do get our desires and our needs is through the mediation of the institutions that we are enmeshed in.

On the other hand, the greatness of pragmatism in its time, in the first generation, was that almost every large-scale nineteenth-century philosophy was determinist in one way or another, either as a kind of absolute idealism or providentialism or materialism. Pragmatism gave people credit for individuation. It said that people can make choices and those choices can have an effect on the world. That was very liberating. If it leaves out some of the determining influences on behavior and choice that we recognize, in its time it had the effect of allowing reformers and progressives and liberals some kind of philosophical breathing room in which they could feel they could make a difference in the world.

JW: To segue to some political issues, I want to ask you about what you think of the current university. You have fairly regularly commented on the state of the university, from the well-known New York Times piece about reforming the Ph.D. to the book you edited on tenure. And more recently you had a piece in the New Yorker on The Game of Life, about the imbalance of the stress on sports in universities.

LM: Well, there's a lot of different areas that I've written about. I did review a lot of the big "culture war" works, like Bloom's and Kimball's and Jacoby's, so I was part of that conversation when it was happening in the late 1980s and early 90s. Some of the stuff I've written attempts to address what I think are institutional problems which everyone experiences, and one of them is graduate education. I felt, from my own experience but also from the statistics of the job crisis, that people now spend eight, ten, twelve years in graduate school, and that it is destructive of their lives, especially because a lot of people ultimately don't get tenure-track jobs but are relatively old before they realize that they are not going to have the careers they hoped to have. So I proposed in the Times piece restricting graduate school to three or possibly four years, on the model of law school, so that, if you don't get a job, you aren't thirty-five or forty years old. No one seems interested in doing that; I think that they think it would devalue the degree.

JW: Part of it is the labor problem—universities need the bodies to staff courses, that are essentially disposable and replaceable. It's attractive to administrators who keep the books.

LM: There's no question that it's attractive, especially in a place like CUNY where there's a huge amount of graduate student teaching, and it's a very big system. But that's a poor reason to defend the practice of keeping people in school that long. I also think shortening the degree would add focus to the disciplines. I'm not just talking about English; it's a problem in math, it's a problem in chemistry, it's a problem in history. I think that's the main area for reform in higher education, because graduate education is where the academic profession reproduces itself. The values and the assumptions that graduate students acquire when they're in doctoral programs become the values and assumptions that they have when they teach. That's their idea of what the discipline of literature is.

Graduate programs are the most backward, it seems to me, of the whole system of higher education. If you go to small liberal arts colleges that don't have graduate programs, like Trinity College or Wesleyan or Swarthmore or Antioch, and you look at the curriculum, what you see has very little relation to what goes on in graduate schools. It's much more interdisciplinary, much less tied to the traditional paradigm of scholarly inquiry, and a lot more on the model of study-centers. But you still have to get your degree in a field, in a discipline, and it's a very traditional kind of writing that you have to do when you write your dissertation.

JW: One thing that strikes me is that there's a disjunction in teacher training, between elite schools where people might have only taught or co-taught one course, and state schools, where they might have taught, without exaggeration, fifteen or twenty courses as a graduate student. I always think it a somewhat bitter irony that the people we hire at Missouri from elite schools—Harvard, Chicago—have taught very little, but our own grad students have taught more than they will at tenure time. The other thing that strikes me is that there seems to have been a split circa 1970 between the teaching and the research rationales of the university. In my story of the field, "theory" provided a research rationale for literary studies in the university, whereas the New Criticism was consistent and coherent with a teaching rationale.

LM: Christopher Jencks and David Riesman wrote a book, The Academic Revolution, in 1968, in which they said that for the first time in the history of American higher education, research became the dominant paradigm. That's what professors were expected to do for professional advancement, as opposed to teaching or service. The effect was to make the research university professor the type of the professor generally, so that even in liberal arts colleges where people taught three or four courses a term, they were expected to produce scholarship. Research universities are a fraction of the higher education world, but they tend to set the standard for everybody.

There's also an assumption when you get into the profession that you want to be mobile, and the only way to be mobile is to have publications because nothing else is transferable as a value. I think that that has had an unfortunate effect because it has tended to over-professionalize undergraduate teaching.

JW: Even though mobility is frequently a chimera, or false carrot. I think the truth of it is that, unless one is very lucky, very few people move. This is not to underestimate the effect on people without a secure job, but a side effect that I think no one pays attention to is actually that people stay at places far too long. Other than the question of graduate education, what other changes do you see in literary studies over the past decade? You talk about some of these changes in your essay "The Demise of Disciplinary Authority."

LM: I've thought for the last couple of years that there's been a breakdown of disciplinary boundaries in the humanities that would have some effect ultimately on the way in which departments were organized. For instance, I just spent a long time on and wrote a book that had nothing to do with literature, and most of my colleagues don't actually write about literature in a traditional sense anymore. Given that's where scholarship is going, and given what new study-centers represent, the credentialing process ought to move in that direction instead of staying with disciplines that no one really takes seriously anymore. But I don't actually see that happening. I don't see any moves to change the organization of the disciplines or departments. I think there is a postdisciplinary mindset that's accepted now, but I don't really see an institutional response to it.

The important thing about departments is that they protect academic freedom. They are self-governing, whereas programs are not. Programs don't hire; they don't fire; they don't credential. So you don't really want departments to wither away. And obviously a big problem is part-timers and adjuncts. It's bad for morale. It often weakens the caliber of education because it's divisive in a class way within the profession.

JW: At CUNY the union has been very active, especially with Barbara Bowen as the new president, and I keep crossing the paths of grad students who have come through the CUNY system and who have been active in the Grad Student Caucus of MLA, like Marc Bousquet, now at Louisville. What do you think of the CUNY union, or do you prefer to keep some distance from it? I guess I want to press on the question of what it means to be a writer as opposed to a public intellectual.

LM: I'm a member of the union—everybody on the professional staff is. I'm completely supportive of the union position on collective bargaining and hope that they win the concessions they want from management. But it's a complicated story. The thing you have to remember about CUNY is that it is a very much a political football—not just in the city because, in fact, most funding for CUNY and all the funding for the senior colleges comes from the state. So the governor has an enormous effect on the budget. The budget is set every year and it's a continual tug-of-war between the governor and the Democratic leadership of the Assembly in Albany. We have to compete with SUNY, and SUNY has much stronger representation because there is a SUNY campus in every legislative district in the state of New York. CUNY is just represented in the city, so we have a much smaller impact and it's a big problem.

One of the things that happened over the years, with the former leadership of the union, was that faculty salaries began to deteriorate relative to other areas and institutions of comparable size, and now they're quite low. It's a problem for retention and it's a problem for recruitment and it's a problem for morale. I'm relatively well off because I'm in the Graduate Center, but if I were in a college, I would have a huge teaching load. So I'm very much in favor of the union taking aggressive action.

The reason I've qualified my answer a little has to do with the fact that two years ago the mayor got Benno Schmidt to head a commission to write a report on what we should do to with the City University. I thought that there was a lot of very divisive and unfortunate rhetoric coming from the mayor and the department of the budget, so, like a lot of people, I was suspicious of Schmidt's motives and not very optimistic about what he would find. But, unlike a lot of people, I actually thought he wrote an excellent report. He basically concluded, against what I thought were all the odds, that CUNY should retain its historical mission, which is to educate by and large first generation college students, and that it should receive adequate political and financial support to perform that mission.

Some of the proposals that were made in the Schmidt report did have the effect of changing the remediation procedures at the University, which were a bone of contention and which led to a situation in which remediation is being shipped out to the community colleges. And I can see why people have problems with that, because remediation in writing, for example, often just has to do with the fact that English is the student's second or third language, and hasn't much to do with anything else. But it's not that they're ending remediation; they're simply trying to provide it in a more efficient way. So I think it's worth trying.

I think that the union and others here unfortunately have taken a very antagonistic posture towards the Schmidt report and towards the board. I think that our posture as faculty should be: put your money where your mouth is. This is what you say we should be doing, and the report says you should be helping us to do it by giving us better budgets to work with. We should be asking for the money, not carping about the politics of the report.

JW: Though you don't usually take up many political mantles, you did come down fairly strongly about sports and the university in your recent New Yorker review of The Game of Life.

LM: I thought The Game of Life was one of the most revealing books I've read about higher education, even though it's a narrowly focused book. The fact is that universities don't make money off of sports: they're a racket. They're there to satisfy legislators. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact The Game of Life has, if any. That's a culture that very hard to change, but I thought that the implicit analogy to affirmative action was extremely powerful.

JW: I want to come back to the question of the public intellectual, and perhaps talk about the academic star system, which is the focus of this issue. One thing I especially like about your essay on Edmund Wilson, in the "Centennial Reflections" volume, is that you debunk received ideas about Wilson as a quintessential public intellectual, as well as the frequently made claim that there are no more public intellectuals. And you also correct notions that he was a New York Intellectual, and point out that he had two phases of his career, the second phase when he largely withdrew and became a "private intellectual."

I have an essay in this issue on "name recognition," where I try to debunk typical assumptions about the star system, for one thing that it only applies to the great theory stars. I think it applies across the board, and goes all the way down. And in general I argue against the idea that it's frivolous, to be dismissed, or for that matter to be praised; instead, it's the primary code of our present system of distinction. We don't get paid much in this business, or so everyone seems to complain, but, if we have one reward, I think it's the same reward that other writers have, of name recognition.

LM: It's not why I write. The most enjoyable writing I ever did was for The New Yorker when they had a section called "Comment," which used to be part of the "Talk of the Town."

JW: They're signed now.

LM: Right, but that was before they were signed. I used to write a lot of them and I loved doing it, because the people you really care about are the people at the magazine, and they all know you wrote it. There's pleasure in it. The truth is you don't really care what the rest of the readership thinks, because people read in crazy ways. You'd go crazy yourself if you worried too much about pleasing everyone out there.

The attractive thing about magazine work is that it's a group activity: you are trying to work with other people to get a product out. I'm not saying that writers are selfless, because they're not, but there are times when you share the pleasure that everyone shares in a finished product. You take pleasure in your colleagues' good work. That's not the case, most of the time, in academic disciplines, as David Damrosch says in We Scholars, where people are trained to work as atoms, according to an individualized notion of scholarship. Academics outside the sciences generally don't work collaboratively and are even suspicious of that kind of work. It's basically a very competitive individual enterprise. Magazines are not like that. That's what I like about them.

JW: Tell me more about your magazine work. Before I mentioned that you worked for The New Republic, and you were the literary editor of The New Yorker and now a staff writer, and you've been contributing editor of The New York Review of Books for a while. How did you get into it?

LM: It was just a lucky break. I was at Princeton and I had written a couple of pieces for The New Republic.

JW: You just sent them in over the transom?

LM: No, they called and asked for them. Everything I've written has been assigned, except for the very first piece, which was about Woody Allen. Someone had referred them to me to do a review of a book, they called me, and I wrote the piece. I wrote a couple more pieces for them, and I got to know them because I went down to Washington to meet with the editor and look around. One of the editors was taking a leave to write a book and she called and asked if I would take her place for a year as an editor. It was my last year at Princeton and I didn't have tenure and really didn't want to hang around, so I said yes. I had never been in that position before, except for college papers.

I really liked The New Republic in those days. Michael Kinsley was the editor and Leon Wieseltier was the literary editor. I spent a year in Washington and had a fabulous time. I expected I would stay in magazines because I was enjoying it and didn't see the point of going back into the academy. But I was lucky enough to get a job at Queens College, and my wife wanted to come back to New York. Then The New Yorker changed editors in 1992. I had started writing for The New Yorker a couple of years before, and when they changed editors, I was invited to be the literary editor. But I didn't really enjoy it, so I left and came back to teach.

JW: Why didn't you enjoy it?

LM: I felt that there was a lot of confusion about the editorial mission of the magazine, and I didn't feel I was in the loop. I edited the book review section (and theatre and art), but there wasn't a lot of editing that went into it because there were regular reviewers who had a beat and would just do what they do. I only did it for two or three months, and then I felt I wanted to write. I stopped editing and became a staff writer for about ten months, and then I decided that I had the same problem as a writer that I had as an editor. When I left I was asked to become contributing editor of The New York Review of Books, which I've done for the last seven years. It's more writing than editing, but I do consult with them on some of their articles, although I don't have an office there and I don't actually edit things. I write a certain number of pieces for them. I've enjoyed it a lot, and it's been a good place for me. Then last year I became a staff writer at The New Yorker.

JW: How does that link with your academic work? I take your point that it's not all that different from other kinds of writing that you do, but most people would see it as two different kinds of tasks that would be hard to mesh.

LM: It just seems natural to me. Like most academics, I write what I write because I'm interested in it. I like writing book reviews; I like writing "Comment" and "Talk of the Town"; I like writing about the history of ideas. To me, it's all part of what I'm interested in. I'm lucky to have good places to do those things.

That's one advantage of being in New York, the opportunities to do what you want to do. I have a love-hate relationship with New York, but part of the love thing is that you can be anonymous in the city, as opposed to a small town or college town, like Princeton, where you are constantly running into your colleagues. No one knows who you are when you are out of the building in New York. It's an extinction of personality. I like being in a crowd because nobody knows you. I don't like to see my name in the paper. Not that I don't have a sort of vain satisfaction when people enjoy what I write, but it's not that I want my name to be on a billboard.

JW: Now that you've finished The Metaphysical Club, obviously a hefty project, what are you working on? Once you mentioned you were going to write a book on the sixties.

LM: Well, a funny thing happened, which was that I taught a class on the sixties. It was a graduate class that was a kind of interdisciplinary look at art and political thought and philosophy and literature and movies of the sixties, and it was one of the best classes I've had here. The students were great, and they were very interested in the material. Some of them were old enough to have had memories of the period, and there was great chemistry in the classroom. At the end of the course, I explained to the class that I might write a book about the sixties based on the material that we covered, and asked if they thought it was a good idea. They all said no! It took me a while to figure out why, but the reason was that they were interested in the breakdown between high culture and low culture; they were interested in the introduction of gender into literary criticism and sexual politics; they were interested in The Golden Notebook and Betty Friedan; they were interested in Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But they thought that those things were primitive versions of ideas that they were extremely familiar with.

We read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When I first read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was probably around 1972, it blew me away. For them, it wasn't a big deal, it was sort of old hat. They read that stuff in the newspaper. It no longer has a provocative air to it. I was in despair for a while, but I decided the only way to do a book about the sixties was to write a book about the whole Cold War period. In order to explain the sixties, you have to explain the fifties, and you have to explain the seventies and eighties where the fallout happened and these ideas became part of a general way of thinking. So I decided to write an intellectual history of the Cold War period that I'm sure is way too big.

JW: What will it cover?

LM: It will be mostly American. It will be a book about how many of the things that happened 1945 through 1989 that seemed to have nothing to do with the Cold War were in fact shaped by the circumstances of the Cold War. We talked earlier about the Civil Rights movement and the general eclipse of pragmatism: that's an example of something that is distinctive about that period. You wouldn't think that the reputation of Dewey would have much correlation with fact that the U.S. was in the Cold War, but I think that is a very important part of what happened. It's going to be an effort to look at the history of literary criticism and the history of ideas about art and the history of moviemaking and so on as kinds of Cold War phenomena, not in the sense of allegorizing Cold War tensions, but more in the sense that those things were shaped by larger forces somewhere behind them.

To give you an example, one of the things that happened because of Sputnik and the arms race was the use of the federal government as a source of funding for university research, something that hadn't happened before 1945, when the government got its research by contract with independent laboratories. But after 1945 a system was put into place that allowed government money from the Defense Department and National Institutes of Health and other big agenices to go to universities, so that pumped up the research university. It had a huge overflow effect in the humanities, just because of the overhead, which provided all this extra cash. Also, a lot of federal money went into the teaching of foreign languages. One of the reasons that foreign language departments are shutting down is because there is no Cold War imperative for learning Russian and Chinese. The effect of pumping up the research university had an effect on literary criticism to the extent that it super-professionalized the job of the English professor, which you describe as the rise of theory, and which justifies a scientific model of inquiry in teaching and studying literature. So I'm trying to tell a story in that way. In between, I have a collection of essays coming out.

JW: I was going to ask you about that, because you must have a pretty sizeable collection of reviews and disparate essays, and you haven't yet gone the Edmund Wilson route and collected them into a Classics and Commericals or Shores of Light. Are they more academic pieces or more your journalism?

LM: I'm not going to call it Shores of Light, I can tell you that. I have a collection of longer pieces, mostly from The New York Review and some from The New Republic and The New Yorker. The first is on William James and the last one's on Al Gore, and it's called American Studies.

[This interview took place on 1 June 2001 at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Thanks to Laura Rotunno for transcribing it.]

Relevant Works

Menand, Louis.
American Studies. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.
---.
"The Demise of Disciplinary Authority." What's Happened to the Humanities? Ed. Alvin Kernan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 201-19.
---.
Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and his Context. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
---.
"Edmund Wilson in His Times." Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections. Ed. Lewis M. Dabney. Princeton: Mercantile Library/Princeton UP, 1997. 253-65.
---.
"How to Make a Ph.D. Matter." New York Times 22 Sept. 1996: sec. 6, 78+.
---.
"The Limits of Academic Freedom." Menand, ed. 3-20.
---.
The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001.
---.
"Pragmatists and Poets: A Response to Richard Poirier." The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture. Ed. Morris Dickstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. 362-69.
---.
"Sporting Chances." [Rev. of The Game of Life, by Shulman and Bowen.] New Yorker 22 Jan. 2001: 84-88.
---, ed.
The Future of Academic Freedom. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
---, ed.
Pragmatism: A Reader. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Romano, Carlin.
"The Uncertainty Principals." [Rev. of The Metaphysical Club, by Menand.] The Nation 11 June 2001: 56+.
Rorty, Richard.
Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980). Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.
---.
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
---.
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Louis Menand's most recent book, The Metaphysical Club, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Jeffrey J. Williams is editor of the minnesota review.





current issue | back issues | call for papers | books for review | selected works | contact | about