Mostly here I have been talking about Manhattan, but in certain parts of the other boroughs it was even worse. The war zone my old neighborhood in Brooklyn had become was matched and even trumped by the South Bronx, whose very name evoked an image of urban decay at its most extreme. An occasional improvement would be announced, and perhaps even effected, through some initiative or other. But more commonly, well-intentioned interventions either collapsed or only made things worse.
In general, no one seemed to know what to do about the deterioration, and morale sank to a lower level than I had ever seen it go. Amazingly, even very prosperous New Yorkers who could enjoy the glamorous life — the great restaurants, the star-studded parties, the hugely expensive apartments on the Upper East Side — began to talk of leaving the city.
In the intellectual community, which was my milieu, people to whom anywhere in America but New York had once been “Nowheresville” now also not only talked of leaving but actually left, most often for Washington. Indeed, so many intellectuals started moving there in the late ’70s that articles began to be written claiming that Washington, replacing New York, was becoming the intellectual as well as the political capital of the country.
The most formidable such article came from none other than my old friend Irving Kristol. Long regarded as the quintessential New York intellectual, Kristol of all people had pulled up stakes and relocated in Washington, taking the magazine he edited, The Public Interest, with him. So portentous did Kristol’s desertion of New York seem, and so persuasive was the case he made for its decline as an intellectual center, that I — considered another quintessential New York intellectual — was suddenly getting calls from reporters who wanted to know whether I agreed with him and whether I intended to follow him down there. My answer was that I thought he was right about the decline of New York as an intellectual center, but way off in claiming that Washington would or could replace it.
The problem, I said in a piece I then decided to write in reply to Kristol, was that Washington was a company town. As Detroit was to automobiles, and as Los Angeles was to the movie business, so Washington was to the one great industry for which it had been created. No matter how many think tanks might set up shop there, or how many veterans of New York’s ideological wars might join them, Washington would remain umbilically tied to the affairs of the federal government.
As such, it would always strangle any idea that could not immediately be translated into a legislative proposal or a political scheme. But for ideas that aimed “only” at analyzing or synthesizing the realities around us so that we could comprehend or appreciate them better, Washington had little patience and less time. Which meant that it could never provide an environment for a genuinely serious intellectual community.
The New York I had once lived in was a world made up mainly of writers and critics and magazine editors like myself, with an admixture of painters and musicians, who saw one another on a regular basis and who spent much of their time arguing with great heat and seriousness about the arts and politics. The politics in question did not as a rule involve the issues that usually agitated elected officials or that arose in electoral contests. For none of us cared all that much about Democrats and Republicans (“Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber,” as one well-known New York intellectual, Dwight Macdonald, once dismissed them). It was politics in the ideological sense that preoccupied us almost exclusively.
This meant arguing about Karl Marx and which of his latter-day disciples, if any, was the legitimate carrier of his analysis and his vision. It meant (since we all agreed that Stalin had betrayed the cause of socialism for which the Russian revolution had been fought) arguing about whether a change of regime in the Soviet Union could make a difference, or whether the crimes of Stalinism were the logically inexorable consequence of the Communist system, or even (a breathtakingly bold idea) of Marxism itself.
But it also meant arguing about America. Was this country nothing more than the embodiment of a materialistic, plutocratic, puritanical, and philistine culture? Intellectuals not only on the left but also on the right (like Henry Adams and the “Southern Agrarians” of the 1930s) had been saying so for at least a century now. Yet some of us (the ones who ultimately became known as “neoconservatives”) were beginning to believe that America was the single greatest bastion and defender of freedom and prosperity in a world menaced by murderous totalitarian tyrannies. About this, too, furious debate raged on and on.
On that level, we were all very passionate about politics. And we were equally passionate about the arts. I had seen grown men nearly come to blows over the merits of a book of poems (the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959 was one such occasion), and I myself (in 1953, at the age of 23!) was threatened with ruin by another famous poet, John Berryman, for what to him was the unforgivably bad critical judgment I had shown in writing an unfavorable review of Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March. I had also known people who ceased speaking to each other because one of them was convinced that Jackson Pollock was the wave of the future in painting, and the other was betting on Willem de Kooning.
Yes, that New York was pretty well dead and gone by the mid 1970s. It had already been weakened by the dispersal of its members to universities all over the country, and then it was killed off by the assault on its foundations that came from the New Left and the counterculture of the previous decade. Hence the intellectual life of the city was now conducted almost entirely on paper, with very few face-to-face encounters to give it an extra lift and a heartier dose of spice.