Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs, a weekly column on books and ideas at Inside Higher Ed, and contributes to Bookforum, Dissent, and the International Socialist Review, among other publications. In 2004, he received the National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.

Recent Articles

Christopher Hitchens, Contradiction

Where did the literary luminary go wrong?

C hristopher Hitchens was never one to refrain from pissing on a fresh grave if the occupant seemed to have earned it. So now, monitoring Google from the afterlife he didn’t believe in, he can’t be surprised at the steady downpour. And surely it’s a watered-down tribute to treat his final decade of polemics as incidental—to insist that, no matter what you thought of them, Hitchens was, after all, a bon vivant and wonderful stylist the likes of which we will not see again. Of course we will. The ability to be witty on TV and meet deadlines while pickled may be rare, but there are always candidates out there practicing. Give it time. No, the most fitting way to mark his passing is to pose about Hitchens the old question inspiring many a debate among radicals about the Russian revolution: At just what point did things go irrevocably bad? Hitchens and I were not friends, really, but we shared certain mutations of the Trotskyist genome—with a particular affinity for the Trinidadian Marxist...

The Mind as Passion

Once upon a time, American intellectual life featured a ritual known as the Partisan Review symposium. It was a solemn event, combining elements of high Mass and a boxing match. Here is how it worked: Every year or so, the tribal elders, gathering in the journal's offices in New York, would prepare a list of questions about some grand topic in contemporary politics or culture. The questionnaires were sent out to a select group of thinkers, and their answers printed, in batches, across two or three issues of the journal. It was a ceremony of ideological boundary testing, of defining both the core of Cold War liberal thought and its radical margin. In 1952, it was Norman Mailer and C. Wright Mills who made defiant gestures at the outer limits. In 1967, Susan Sontag played that role in her essay “What's Happening in America?” It was the last performance of the ritual of any importance, for the very notion that Cold War liberalism might have a radical margin was already looking...

The Literary Life: The Honorable Menace

In 1954, James T. Farrell published a collection of essays called Reflections at Fifty . It is long since out of print, like most of his novels and, so far as I can tell, all of his nonfiction volumes. Digging it out now, Reflections is a reminder of what the author of Studs Lonigan was like -- or rather, of how he wished to present himself -- halfway to his centennial, which we mark this year. A fitting shorthand expression for that role would be the "Great American Novelist." One of the pleasures, as well as the frustrations, of reading Farrell is that the cliché fits so neatly. By 1954, some 20 years had passed since the days when the Studs Lonigan trilogy appeared, followed by several other novels chronicling life in the Irish 'hood during the first three decades of the century. Each novel cut its slices of life pretty close to the bone. The combination of sex, coarse language, and low-life insouciance made his fiction seem a kind of menace to the public order. When the first...