April 9, 2012


Grounding the Life of the Mind: a review of Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America by Daniel J. Flynn. (MATTHEW A. RAREY, University Bookman)

Describing a blue-collar intellectual as "a thinker who hails from a working-class background, and whose intellectual work targets, in part or whole, a mass audience," Flynn profiles exemplars of the species in chapters as engaging as their titles: Will and Ariel Durant, husband-and-wife distillers of Western civilization into mighty tomes that made the best-seller lists for decades ("Apostate Historians: How an Excommunicated 'Cradle Robber' and His Anarchist Bride Made History"); Mortimer Adler, the manic philosopher who put the best of what has been written and said into the hands of ordinary men ("The People's Professor: How a High School Dropout Launched the Great Books Movement"); perhaps the twentieth-century's most influential economist for good, Milton Friedman, for whom "people were not the masses . . . but individuals with a multitude of interests unmanageable by remote" ("Free-Market Evangelist: How a New Dealer-Turned-Libertarian Taught the Everyman Economics"); Eric Hoffer, the "Stevedore Socrates" of San Francisco who remains as refreshingly counter-cultural today as he was in his Sixties and Seventies heyday ("The Longshoreman Philosopher: How an Unschooled Hobo Became a Favorite of Presidents and Prime Time"); and the only exemplar still alive, Ray Bradbury, that tireless fiction writer whose truth-telling tales of dystopia and fantasy intelligent readers never find tiresome ("Poet of the Pulps: How a Down-and-Out Outcast Wrote His Way into the In-Crowd").

These "blue-collar intellectuals," Flynn notes, "spoke to educated laymen without talking down to them. In the process, they uplifted the masses and rescued ideas from the academic ghetto. Such sins are not easily forgotten." Indeed, this rigorously researched but smoothly written book, which occasionally flares up with the author's passion for his subjects, details the whippings these laborers endured from the overseers of America's intellectual plantations. [...]

Occasionally Flynn can be unkind to some figures who, despite deserving comeuppances for beating his blue-collar heroes, do deserve a hearing. For example, he dismissively quotes the historian Paul Fussell's derision of the Great Books as the preserve of "the middles, the great audience for how-to books." This judgment came down in Class, Fussell's largely truthful--disconcertingly truthful--revelation of America's invisible class structure. Class is a classic in its own right. Its scathing observations of American manners and mores, delineated according to class, have been borne out time and again through subsequent experience.

But this is just one of several minor quibbles with an otherwise important contribution to the life of the mind, compressed into relatively few pages. Flynn's description of Hoffer's approach to book writing--the Longshoreman Philosopher's crisp, accessible style "as well suited to the era of '60s automation as it does to the world of blogs, Twitter, and six-second sound bites"--could apply to the author's own: "For Hoffer [as for Flynn], big books obscured what the author didn't know while slim ones offered no hiding place." Like those blue-collar intellectuals he celebrates--though never whitewashes, their failures and shortcomings duly noted--this little book packs a big punch.

Posted by at April 9, 2012 6:59 AM

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