Beyond the genteel.

Author:Wilson, Robert
Position:EDITOR'S NOTE - Editorial

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,"...

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