The Last of the New York Jewish Intellectuals?

January 25, 2017 | Daniel DiSalvo
About the author:

Along with Norman Podhoretz, writes Daniel DiSalvo, Nathan Glazer is likely the last of a group of Jews, centered in New York City, who played such an outsized role in politics and the life of the mind in the U.S. in the middle of the last century. A sociologist by training, Glazer wrote on an astonishing array of topics. Selections from his work, together with several appraisals thereof, have recently been published in a volume titled When Ideas Mattered. DiSalvo writes in his review:

The son of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Poland, Glazer grew up in East Harlem. He attended the City College of New York and then split his professional life between magazines and the academy. . . .

In his student days at City College, he was a part of Zionist-socialist group that argued with Stalinists, and he later became a staunch anti-Communist. He first came to national attention as David Riesman’s junior co-author of The Lonely Crowd (which remains among the greatest bestsellers of American sociology) in 1953. A decade later, based on ideas tested in the pages of Commentary, Glazer published Beyond the Melting Pot (with Daniel Patrick Moynihan contributing a chapter and writing the preface), which became a classic in the study of immigrants and ethnicity in America. . . .

Glazer cultivated and practiced intellectual virtues that are in increasingly short supply, including dispassion, humility, and love of debate. . . . Any reader of Glazer will appreciate in his writings the empathy for his subjects and his humility when confronted with the messiness of reality. Glazer’s personal grace and self-effacing style rarely made colleagues feel personally attacked even when he was witheringly critical of positions they held dear.

When Ideas Mattered shines light on the enduring themes of Glazer’s work. The first is Glazer’s lifelong interest in America’s “ethnic pattern.” In his study of immigrant assimilation in New York, he showed that Jews, Irish, Italians, Polish, and other groups continued to maintain dual identities rather than completely assimilating into a preexisting American identity. Assimilation took a long time—even with the help of epoch-making events like depression and war. And the overarching American identity that the ethnics assimilated into changed in the process.

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