With gravity and wit, the late University of Chicago sociologist honors ten prominent 20th-century intellectuals and evokes...

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PORTRAITS: A Gallery of Intellectuals

With gravity and wit, the late University of Chicago sociologist honors ten prominent 20th-century intellectuals and evokes for posterity their continental scholarly world. Introducing the collection is Epstein's lively essay on his friend Shils, in which the latter emerges as a classic Chicago intellectual--formidable, possessed of a wide-ranging intellect, acerbic, without self-congratulation, and always able to make ""intellectual effort seem worthwhile."" The subjects of Shils's profiles shared the same devotion to ideas and were possessed, as Shils characterizes Polish intellectual Leopold Labedz, by ""an insatiable drive to absorb the content of any printed surface."" Some men, like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Harold Laski, were known as public intellectuals; others, like John Nef, made lasting marks through teaching and scholarship. Shils presents each in detail (e.g., Labedz ate no vegetables and drank Diet Coke) with vivid historical background (Sidney Hook's 1920s New York was ""never a city for clergymen's daughters"") and trenchant observations and analyses. He is particularly good at pinpointing character assets and deficits. In Hutchins, for example, who led the University of Chicago with distinction but into some decline, he saw two flaws: a failure of intellect that told him basic human truths were ""capable of general and exact formulation"" and a flawed judgment that gave him ""unquestioning loyalty to those undeserving of it."" Italian scholar Arnoldo Momigliano was, simply, ""one of the greatest scholars of his age, perhaps of any age."" Throughout the collection also run common threads: the theme of exile occasioned by ideology or persecution, and the contested place of the intellectual in society. Free of academic jargon and glamour, these essays delight with their lucidity and sharp judgment of character, and they stir one with their quiet urgency, the conviction that these figures should be remembered.

Pub Date: May 1, 1997

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1997