Write Like a Man: Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals

Image of Write like a Man: Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals
Release Date: 
March 26, 2024
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by: 

The subtitle of Write like a Man is Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals, the implication being that the (mostly) Jewish intellectuals who dominated the mid-century American literary intelligentsia adopted a way of writing that enacted a “masculine” style, tone, and polemics. These writers came to be highly influential. As Grinberg writes in the introduction, the book “shows how the tether of masculinity, so crucial to the lives and works of the New York intellectuals, shaped broader political, intellectual, and cultural debates in American life in the last quarter of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”

The group was said to include “some 50 within the inner group and perhaps several hundred others on the periphery,” and the introduction provides a detailed table classifying the relevant writers by age, affiliation, and genre. The subsequent chapters follow a more or less chronological history, tracing the ideological and political evolution of the group, the magazines they started and/or wrote for (Commentary, Dissent, The Partisan Review, The New York Review of Books, and others), and the favoring of a “combative, masculinized style” which projected a “standard of secular Jewish masculine toughness.”

For example, here is Grinberg’s description of the evolution of the left-wing intellectual magazine Dissent, started by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser. “Most of the founders of the magazine were men. They would work out a local masculinity as any military unit or sports team would. But for Howe, the masculinity—like everything else he developed, was thoughtful, an act of conscious opposition to the trends for the outside world. At Dissent, Howe strove to develop a way of being intellectual that was combative, polemical and critical . . .”

Grinberg delves into the motivations, political, psychological and social, that drove the phenomenon, and in doing so touches on some of the key issues that dominated midcentury America: Communism, Feminism, Freudian theory, the rise of suburban culture and the escape from that culture, the psychological dynamics of immigration, WWII, the cold war, the Vietnam war, and the emergence of neocon politics. By homing in on these subjects from the point of view of the Jewish American intelligentsia that wrote about them, the book offers a rare view of the people and magazines that shaped the way the times were understood.

Crucially, Grinberg shines a light on the place of women in this milieu, exploring the cases of both the few women who were considered part of the group: Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, and those who, despite being accomplished writers, reviewers, and editors themselves, were relegated to the status of “wives,” such as Diana Trilling, Midge Decter, and Pearl Bell. She examines the ways in which these women engaged with second-wave feminism, illuminating the disdain, suspicion and even fear of the women’s liberation movement. Writing about the writer Midge Dector, who was something of a pioneer in her neocon outlook, Grinberg points out: “Decter, in many ways reflected the view of most New York intellectuals. This was a group that understood male-female distinctions as deeply and inescapably biological, not social constructions as younger feminists argues. The also viewed intellectual work as masculine.” In calling up these attitudes, Grinberg’s study portrays the great challenge of bringing feminist sensibilities to mainstream American society.

Also of interest is Grinberg’s discussion of the notion of “maturity” and how it powerfully shaped notions of masculinity in the post WWII years. She writes: “Immaturity and maturity were common themes in mid-century American discourse. Coming at the high tide of mid-twentieth-century revisionist Freudianism or neo-Freudianism, “maturity” was integral to the postwar Zeitgeist in its fever to restore the nuclear family and “traditional gender roles.”

In this way, maturity became a political term, implying a wizened, clear-eyed understanding of the perils of Marxism—a conservative world view that didn’t sit well with the notion of the critic that stands outside mainstream society. As Grinberg explains: “Two visions of masculinity collided in this debate. On the one side was maturity, which meant, among other things, embracing a virile anti-communism and assimilating to mid-century American norms of masculinity. On the other side was an outsider’s faith and a deeply help conviction that an intellectual needed to be a critic.” The book helps to explain the way that these writers navigated the problem.

Though the book began as Grinberg’s doctoral dissertation, her writing style succeeds in presenting a complex but still-relevant phenomenon in a way that is both thought provoking and friendly to the non-academic reader.