Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America
by Daniel J. Flynn
(ISI Books, 224 pages, $27.95)
It took your humble scribe two goes to get through Blue Collar Intellectuals, Daniel Flynn’s latest uneven but ultimately quite good work of Americana. Usually I’ve found it’s best to treat book intros as one might treat movie trailers. If the trailer is any good, there’s a decent chance the film will be worth watching. If the trailer is not so good? Best pick a different venue to munch popcorn.
There are exceptions. Some perfectly good movies have perfectly lousy trailers — and vice-a verse-a! as the Italians might say. Likewise, book intros can fail to do justice to the material to follow. So it was with Blue Collar Intellectuals. Flynn’s intro left me cold for reasons of temperament. The author is a confirmed declinist where I am not so sure. His first utterance is “Stupid is the new smart.” “Pop culture is a wasteland,” begins the next section. The third carries the subhead “I Don’t Read Books,” which called forth the reply, “Not this one, anyway!”
That was not a remotely fair assessment, and I feel a little sheepish about it. The thing that annoyed so was not that Flynn fails to land good shots against neo-Philistines, clueless book-learning-is-obsolete tech optimists, and all manner of liberal rotters. He does, and his prose is even less of a barrier to entry. There may be a few irksome sentences in this volume but there are no laborious ones.
“It’s just,” I wondered, chronological snob that I can be, “haven’t we heard this all before?” Conservative critics have been sounding the alarm about cultural rot since roughly the paleolithic era. It might be a good and virtuous thing to do so yet again but… such a boring one. Fortunately I found out when I started it again that the bulk of “Blue Collar Intellectuals” is not that kind of a book. I skipped ahead and read the fifth and final chapter first and was hooked.
That chapter, “Poet of the Pulps,” is a short biography of Ray Bradbury. In it, we learn that Bradbury was born poorer than dirt. How dirt poor? “In 1938, Ray graduated from high school wearing his only suit, which his uncle had been wearing when murdered by a stick-up man six years earlier. It still sported the bullet hole.”
We learn a lot of other things about Bradbury as well. As a kid, he did good Hitler and W.C. Fields impressions and was ostracized by the local science fiction club. He lost his virginity to a “fleshy redheaded prostitute.” When he first moved to L.A., he was a dedicated and slightly crazed autograph hound. Flynn explains, “Hoping to get George Murphy’s attention, [Bradbury once] hung upside down from a tree like a monkey outside the actor’s house.”
Alongside the brief biography of Bradbury is Flynn’s close, mercifully concise reading of his works. Take the book/movie/teleplay/radio broadcast that everybody knows Bradbury for, Fahrenheit 451. Flynn grasps the most important thing, that it is not really a book about censorship. “Despite the arresting imagery conveyed by a title referring to the temperature at which paper burns, the threat to the life of the mind comes not as much from people who burn books as from people who don’t read them,” he writes.
Flynn quotes Fire Captain Beatty’s famous defense of literary immolation (“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.”) and reminds us that in the world of Fahrenheit, “Book burning…is not an exercise in nihilism. It has a social function: harmony, civility, unity.” Bradbury uses this post-literate world to explore what happens to a society that ceases care about learning.
In Bradbury’s case, that learning was overwhelmingly self-directed. Having no money to go to college or buy a lot of books, he “went to the library instead for three days a week — later loudly proclaiming the Los Angeles Public Library as his alma mater.” Indeed, in Flynn’s telling, intense self-education is something Bradbury shares in common with all of the writers and thinkers, those blue collar intellectuals, that make up this book.
Eric Hoffer was an “unschooled hobo” turned “longshoreman philosopher.” Great Bookie Mortimer Adler got a Ph.D. from Columbia, true. He also skipped high school, all undergraduate and masters studies, and most of his doctoral classes. Though, thankfully, Adler decided to give his seminar on the classics a fair shot. Will and Ariel Durant studied the history of civilization by going to historical places, reading and taking copious notes. This Johnny-on-the-spot routine caused Will to lose a few admirers when he came back from the Soviet Union enraged and tore it a new one. Milton Friedman earned degrees from both Rutgers and the University of Chicago, yet Flynn locates Friedman’s real economic education, and thus his ability to connect to the everyman, to his hustles to pay for school.
The connection between these intellectuals is tentative but, Flynn insists, important. They may have been more redneck or more elitist in their personal tastes. (Adler wore expensive suits. Hoffer didn’t own a tie.) Their creeds and ideologies and party affiliations overlapped rarely and only by accident. Their intellectual wares were championed by a truly diverse non-collection of politicians, pressmen and publishers. But they were all, by inclination, small-d democrats. These American originals wanted to reach the masses and lift them up.
Their broadmindedness didn’t always endear them to critics, or even to one another. Hoffer refused to meet with Friedman, though they lived only miles apart in San Francisco. Adler penned a nasty, nose-turning-up review of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy in the Nation, and came to deeply regret it. Critics savaged their efforts at mass education as tacky and vulgar and futile. Flynn chronicles some of these attacks but he does not go far enough for this reader’s taste. For his next book, I would like to suggest a title: “Snobbery: A History.” Tell me you wouldn’t want to read that?
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