The death of Hilton Kramer this morning, two days after his 84th birthday, deprives the intellectual world of one of its brightest lights and his friends of a raconteur and aphorist as spellbinding and pithy as Doctor Johnson, with a breadth of knowledge, command of detail, and elegance of prose to match. He was one of the last of the New York Intellectuals—that band of opinionated, pugnacious, and fiercely intelligent writers and thinkers who did so much to shape the twentieth-century American mind, who made our city the nation’s (and perhaps the world’s) unquestioned intellectual capital, and whose stature and seriousness seem all the larger as their numbers dwindle and their voices grow still.
Hilton was a “public intellectual,” in the days when that term meant much more than a political pundit or commentator on current events. He was an art critic—indeed the art critic of the New York Times, during the era when that paper commanded universal respect. Even then, Hilton’s articles were like nothing else in the Times—often filling a whole page of the Sunday arts section, bursting with ideas, beautifully written and structured, coolly passionate, and more thought-provoking than one expected in a daily newspaper even then. As his intellectual ambitions expanded, and the paper’s contracted, he did as friends of Irving Kristol often did: founded a little magazine, The New Criterion, which more than lived up to its name as a standard of excellence in cultural criticism of wide range, deep seriousness, and polished prose, and that lives on today as the same touchstone of quality under Hilton’s hand-picked successor, Roger Kimball. Hilton even found time to write a weekly column in the New York Post, criticizing the New York Times with the grace, deftness, and mischievous glee of a matador fighting an elephant. The column made me and many others regular—even addicted—readers of the Post for the first time.
In 1999, Hilton gathered some of his finest essays into a wonderful collection entitled The Twilight of the Intellectuals, whose central purpose was to disabuse readers of the naive illusion that intellectuals dwell in a light-drenched realm of thought and reason, disinterestedly searching for truth. Among the Cold War–era intellectuals Hilton discussed—the dominant intellectuals of much of the post–World War II era—the life of the mind often was not so much a matter of reasoned discourse as of attitude, fantasy, wishful thinking, quasi-religious faith, and its attendant quasi-religious dogmas. We read in the book’s pages of “myths” and “mystiques,” of “progressive sentimentalities” and “literary and cultural pieties,” to quote some recurring phrases. We read of ideas making their way not by their own cogency but by “fashion,” by “social snobbery”—by political correctness, Hilton would have said, if the term had yet entered the language. As for the disinterested pursuit of truth and right judgment: he reminded us of how often just to utter what one knew to be true could be an act of high courage.
Twilight’s intellectuals are primarily men and women of the left, and as such they were faced with an insurmountable problem as far as truth-telling was concerned: the only place their ideals had ever been made reality was in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was one of history’s bloodiest and most oppressive tyrannies. As a consequence, Hilton wrote, “The verifiable facts of history had long ago ceased to be relevant to the progressives’ act of faith.” Indeed, as he said in another essay in the book, “Their loyalty is to something other than the truth.”
As a judgment on the regnant intellectual orthodoxy of the postwar era and a depiction of how the intellectual world really worked, The Twilight of the Intellectuals remains bracingly plainspoken and utterly convincing; as a portrait of the careers and ideas of such prominent writers as Irving Howe, Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and Dwight Macdonald, among others, it remains compulsively readable. In its clarity of vision and of argument, embodied in prose that has the beautiful, stately, and inexorable purposefulness of a frigate under full sail, it is a model of what the intellectual life ought to be. And it is a model no less essential in these post–Cold War days, when not only is the intellectual life teeming with orthodoxies and shibboleths rather than thought, but also the very ideas of reason and truth are themselves called into question.
All this from an art critic. I often asked myself why that was the career he first chose—and why a man so temperamentally conservative, with such exacting standards of taste and judgment and such reverence for the high achievements of the past, should have become the great champion of the abstract expressionist painters. Was it, I asked him, because he was looking for a realm of purity, beauty, and truth above the politicized squalor of everyday intellectual life—a realm that to reach such purity had to rise above language and even the representation of concrete sublunary things? He looked startled at the question, and nodded a rueful assent.
The last time I saw him, he was striding purposefully down the main street of the beautiful village of Damariscotta, Maine, where he had retired. He looked like a figure out of a Caleb Bingham painting, in carefully ironed dungarees (he would not have called them blue jeans) with cuffs folded up just so, a tightly buttoned blazer, and a broad-brimmed, low-crowned straw hat—like nothing ever seen there, before or since. “How elegant!” the locals said of him. “What a brilliant man!”
Indeed he was.