In their published work during these years, the New York intellectuals developed a characteristic style of exposition and polemic. With some admiration and a bit of irony, let us call it the style of brilliance. The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to “go beyond” its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation. It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or ﬂashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle—such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers. Until recently its strategy of exposition was likely to be impersonal (the writer did not speak much as an “I”) but its tone and bearing were likely to be intensely personal (the audience was to be made aware that the aim of the piece was not judiciousness, but, rather, a strong impress of attitude, a blow of novelty, a wrenching of accepted opinion, sometimes a mere indulgence of vanity).
In some of these essays there was a sense of tournament, the writer as gymnast with one eye on other rings, or as skilled inﬁghter juggling knives of dialectic. Polemics were harsh, often rude. And audiences nurtured, or spoiled, on this kind of performance, learned not to form settled judgments about a dispute until all sides had registered their blows: surprise was always a possible reward.
This style may have brought new life to the American essay, but among contemporary readers it often evoked a strong distaste, even fear. “Ordinary” readers could be left with the fretful sense that they were not “in,” the beauties of polemic racing past their sluggish eye. Old-line academics, quite as if they had just crawled out of The Dunciad, enjoyed dismissing the New York critics as “unsound.” And for some younger souls, the cliffs of dialectic seemed too steep. Seymour Krim has left a poignant account of his disablement before “the overcerebral, Europeanish, sterilely citiﬁed, pretentiously alienated” New York intellectuals. Resentful at the fate which drove them to compare themselves with “the overcerebral, etc., etc.,” Krim writes that he and his friends “were often tortured and unappeasably bitter about being the offspring of this unhappily unique-ingrown-screwed-up breed.” Similar complaints could be heard from other writers who felt that New York intellectualism threatened their vital powers.
At its best the style of brilliance reﬂected a certain view of the intellectual life: free-lance dash, peacock strut, daring hypothesis, knockabout synthesis. For better or worse it was radically different from the accepted modes of scholarly publishing and middlebrow journalism. It celebrated the idea of the intellectual as antispecialist, or as a writer whose speciality was the lack of a speciality: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.