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Cat's Cradle Blog

The New York Intellectuals: “Commentary” and “Partisan Review”

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Commentary magazineThe New York Times Book Review (August 1, 2010) yesterday published “Turning Right,” a review of two new books.  It captured my attention with its focus on the Jewish intellectual journal Commentary and its long-time editor, Norman Podhoretz.   I find the monthly Commentary and its cohort, Partisan Review, to be fascinating, especially issues from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.  Whenever possible, I add them to inventory. 

See our current list of Commentary here, and Partisan Review there.

Commentary, Partisan Review, and others of their genre represented the voice of American intellectuals who understood they were outside the mainstream.  Their role was to offer critcism of the culture within which they lived.  Intellectual forces collaborated and sometimes collided in their pages. 

Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee, provided a platform for Isaac Bashevis Singer as well as James Baldwin and many prominent and lesser known writers (a young homemaker-writer named Ethel Rosenberg published a short piece there in the 1940s). Its debates addressed the formation and sustenance of the new Israeli state as well as the issues of race in America. 

Partisan ReviewJean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and many other influential postwar philosophers and critics graced the pages of Partisan Review with their extraordinary work. 

Both periodicals struggled with the constraints of the McCarthy era, when “outside the mainstream” often meant “outside the safe zone.”   Some principals, like Norman Podhoretz, shifted their political leanings from left to right over a long career in changing times.  Ideas have always evolved in response to events (and vice versa sometimes).

To enter the pages of either of these publications is to enter the world of what used to be called the “New York Intellectual.”  Well crafted, well argued essays and opinion columns were the order of the day.  

Other intellectual journals of the last half of the 20th century included the New Left Review (a latecomer in the 1960s, published in Britain) and the Kenyon Review (for literary folk).   There were many others, of course.

Taken together, they remind us that intellectual life in the United States – the anti-intellectualism that often marks our public discourse to the contrary – was flourishing even under the constraints of the Red Scare and the angst of the Vietnam era.

See a full list of our periodicals in stock, with new titles being added daily to our inventory.

Kathy Carter at Cat’s Cradle Books