Thursday, March 29, 2012

Everyday Enlightenment

Blue Collar Intellectuals: 
When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America 

Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America

"A specific time and place gave rise to blue-collar intellectuals.  Twentieth-century America witnessed a democratization of education unparalleled in human history." and "Blue-collar intellectuals proved as unsettling to the intellectual elite as the nouveau riche had been to old money." (p 10)

I have neither the patience nor the political wonkism to view C-SPAN on a regular basis, but I am a frequent viewer of their cultural programming called BOOKTV on C-SPAN2 weekends. It was there that I saw Daniel J. Flynn lecture on the topic of his enlightening book, Blue Collar Intellectuals. Inspired, I acquired the book and was not disappointed with his stories of five intellectuals, outsiders with uncommon backgrounds, who reached out to "blue collar" people everywhere.
I first encountered one of the five intellectuals included in Flynn's book during my teen years reading science fiction. One of my favorite authors was Ray Bradbury and his tales, especially those of Humans and Martians collected in The Martian Chronicles. Flynn tells of Bradbury's impoverished family background as he grew up in the 1920s and his early reading of Edgar Allan Poe (also a favorite of mine since my pre-teen years) and others like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even after he became famous for his own fantastic stories Bradbury was considered an outsider in traditional publishing circles, but maintained popularity with everyday folk. Time magazine labelled Bradbury "poet of the pulps" that seemed to sum up the cognoscenti's opinion of him.
My next encounter with the intellectuals that Daniel Flynn depicts did not begin until I was on my way to college at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1967. Required reading for all incoming freshmen was a short book by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer. This was my introduction to one of Flynn's "Blue Collar Intellectuals" and to a book that is as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago. While distant from Hoffer in his political philosophy, Milton Friedman shared similar blue collar background and an ability to explain complex ideas of economics to the readership of Newsweek magazine and also to the viewers of PBS through his multi-part series "Free to Choose". In that same year of 1967 as a freshman student in "Honors Economics" I read Friedman's most famous book, Capitalism and Freedom, and in it found some of the principles that I hold dear to this day.  These two experiences with blue-collar intellectuals belie somewhat Flynn's claim that these writers were all completely excluded from the realms of the cognoscenti, but they do not deflate his claim that they all had a special ability to communicate with the common man.
Also included in the book are sections on Will Durant, who went from anarchist speaker to become a popularizer of history both of philosophy and civilization, and while I have not read the eleven volumes of Will & Ariel Durants' History of Civilization from cover to cover, I have dipped in to sections of the books from time to time. Finally, he tells the story of Mortimer Adler who founded the "Great Books" movement and wrote many books explaining the ideas in those books. I, too, was inspired by the lure of great books and have spent more than twenty years of my adult life reading them in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago. These form the foundation for my reading and my participation in the search (see The Moviegoer by Walker Percy).
In his book Daniel Flynn is able to clearly and succinctly elucidate the inspirational achievements of these blue collar intellectuals and how they shaped an era in which popular culture included a significant place for serious ideas. One of the most important lessons imparted by the lives of these intellectuals is how they inspired readers like myself to continue to read and learn and love the search for ideas in books.

Blue Collar Intellectuals by Daniel J. Flynn. ISI Books, 2011

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