Book Review: Blue Collar Intellectuals

Blue Collar Intellectuals:  When The Enlightened And The Everyman Elevated America, by Daniel J. Flynn

When we think of blue collars and intellectuals, we do not think of the two being connected to each other or relating to each other at all.  Even as an intellectual person from a very modest personal background myself, it has been rare for me to find occasions where my background and my native inclination to be bookish and intellectual match at all.  This was apparently not necessarily the case in all periods of American history, for even if the intellectual interests of blue collar folk are not viewed as very high in the present period and the interest in addressing  or respecting the common person among intellectuals is definitely not at a high point right now, this particular work does a book job at highlighting the connection that once existed between the academic and intellectual world and ordinary hoi polloi, and it is almost enough to make the reader wish that this sort of thing happened more nowadays.  After all, there are a great many cases where it would be a good thing for there to be less animosity between intellectuals and ordinary folks.

This book is between 175 and 200 pages long and is divided into five chapters, each of which is a biographical essay that deals with the life and works of a particular person (or in one case a couple) the author defines as a blue collar intellectual who brings intellectual culture to the masses without talking down to them.  The author begins with an introduction about the need for blue collar intellectuals and the seeming lack of interest many people have in cultural and intellectual elevation.  After that the author talks about Will and Ariel Durant, their interesting relationship (given that Will was a cradle robber and Ariel was only about fourteen or so when they got together), and the way that they brought history to the masses and were early critics of the evils of Soviet Russia (1).  This leads to a discussion of Mortimer Adler (2), a high school dropout who eventually launched the Great Books movement [1].  After that the author discusses the life and writings of the everyman libertarian economist Milton Friedman and the help of his wife in his work. (3).  After that the author discusses the hobo longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer (4), and closes with a look at Ray Bradbury’s success as the poet and short story writer despite his down-and-out outcast background (5), after which the book ends with notes, acknowledgements, and an index.

What this book demonstrates is that it has never been particularly easy for intellectuals to seek to appeal to the common person.  And in some cases–as was the case for the Harvard Classics–intellectuals may seek to provide classic material of worth to ordinary readers while simultaneously wishing to de-emphasize the classics in their own institutions.  Those who have sought to appeal to ordinary folks as academics have often been viewed as traitors, even where (perhaps especially where) there has been a high demand for intellectual elevation among ordinary people.  Those of us who come from ordinary backgrounds may feel a tie to where we came from no matter how much learning and erudition we have acquired, but it has seldom been easy to travel between the worlds of the intellect and those of the blue collar places where some of us at least came from.  This book presents several ways where people have in the past been able to straddle those worlds and perhaps offers a chance for some readers to do the same if circumstances permit and the interest exists both for intellectual achievement for ordinary people as well as the desire to communicate and relate to ordinary people on the part of at least some intellectuals.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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