Tomiwa Owolade: My New York Intellectuals

Leonard Benardo‘s note at Ideas Letter: The New York Intellectuals were a hallowed group of writers and critics who were convinced of the power and art of disputation. Writer and journalist Tomiwa Owolade, whose perspicacious 2023 book This is Not America would have undoubtedly resonated with the mid-twentieth-century NY Intellectuals, explains why he grew up besotted with the group’s writing. I myself then follow Owolade with my interpretation of the esteemed group through a critical review of a new book on their writing.

We then focus on a very different group of intellectuals—scholars in Russia– who Dmitry Dubrovsky argues are in a state of zugzwang, in which every possible action they endeavor to take results in negative consequences. Dubrovsky’s is a sad and distressing tale.

Tomiwa Owolade at Ideas Letter: I am not from New York. I am not Jewish. I am not a member of a Marxist group. I did not live through the 1930s and 1940s. I am a 27-year-old British-Nigerian who grew up in London. Yet the New York Intellectuals are my people.

They are my people because even though they had ample reason to be defined by their identity, they tried to transcend their personal circumstances with their wide-ranging embrace of culture. They didn’t see themselves, and they should not be seen, simply as Jewish New Yorkers who were advocating anti-fascism and anti-Stalinism in the middle of the 20th century; they possessed a universalist spirit. And this is a spirit to which I aspire.

I remember the wonder I felt reading my first James Baldwin essays from his 1955 collection Notes of a Native Son at my university library or watching I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s excellent documentary about Baldwin, on a bright spring afternoon of 2017. I remember in my early 20s picking up Elizabeth Hardwick’s fat collection of criticism (published by NYRB Classics) in a second-hand bookshop and devouring it. I remember discovering the lives and works of other New York Intellectuals in Louis Menand’s monumental 2021 cultural history The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.

More here.