I haven’t read much of George Scialabba‘s writing. Back in 2012 I did a post on a Scialabba piece on intellectuals, academia, and Christopher Lasch. But after I read Craig Lambert’s article on Scialabba’s retirement at The Chronicle of Higher Education I realized that I need to read more of him.
What fascinates me the most about Scialabba is the fact that he has spent the last thirty-five years working a clerical job at Harvard University. Since it is difficult for one to make a living as an essayist and book reviewer, Scialabba worked arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard, operating out of a basement office with no windows. Over the years he has written over 400 reviews and essays in the Washington Post, Village Voice, The Nation, The American Conservative, Commonweal, Dissent, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, to name a few. He has published four books.
Here is a taste of Lambert’s piece:
The Harvard English professor and New Yorker contributor James Wood calls him “one of America’s best all-round intellects.” The author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that “he is not only astoundingly intelligent, he knows just about everything — history, politics, culture, and literature.” The political theorist Daniela Cammack, currently a visiting lecturer at Yale, declares, “For my money, George is the finest living writer of nonfiction English prose. I know that’s a grand claim, but I stand by it. Every time a new book of [his] essays has come out, I’ve stayed up ’til 4 a.m. devouring it. That doesn’t usually happen.”
“When people bemoan how few public intellectuals there are these days, essays like George’s are what they’re missing,” says Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer at The New Yorker. “He is skeptical without being cynical, earnest without being sanctimonious, and truthful without being a scold, and that might be his rarest quality of all.”
On August 31, Scialabba retired from his “day job” at Harvard, and then something extraordinary happened. John Summers and other Scialabba fans at the inventive, contrarian quarterly The Baffler (“The journal that blunts the cutting edge”) staged a party under the banner “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” and a sellout crowd of 230 filled the venerable Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, on September 10 to honor the shy writer.
The Boston Globe ran a feature on the event, and the city of Cambridge declared the date “George Scialabba Day.” Speakers converged on Harvard Square to pay tribute to Scialabba; these included The Baffler’s founding editor, Thomas Frank; Ehrenreich; and the celebrated 86-year-old linguist, philosopher, and social activist Noam Chomsky. A short tribute filmfeatured a couple dozen Scialabba fans from the literary world voicing their encomiums. The Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band played jazz, one of Scialabba’s favorite musical forms.
Onstage, those toasting the guest of honor mixed insight and humor. Frank, for example, devoted much of his time to the misquotation and misattribution (commonly to Albert Einstein) of Scialabba’s most famous sentence, from a 1983 review he wrote for Harvard Magazine: “Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.” Ehrenreich rose to observe that not one of the featured speakers had a “regular” job; Chomsky, as an emeritus MIT professor, came the closest. “Noam, you’re the most respectable one here,” she declared. “When Noam Chomsky is the most respectable person in a gathering, you’re in trouble.”
In a way, Chomsky’s appearance brought Scialabba’s career full circle, as he had unintentionally launched the honoree’s vocation decades earlier. In 1979, Scialabba heard Chomsky dissecting political issues on the radio and was impressed by the scholar’s cogency; he had known him only as a linguist. He began reading Chomsky, including the two-volume series The Political Economy of Human Rights (South End Press),which he felt would “set American political culture on its ear.” Several months later, “the culture remained upright,” Scialabba recalls. He’d seen no reviews of the books.
Somewhat scandalized by this, Scialabba wrote to Eliot Fremont-Smith, literary editor of The Village Voice, enclosing a 3,000-word review to suggest the kind of treatment he felt Chomsky’s work merited. The self-effacing 31-year-old acknowledged that he was no writer and wasn’t submitting the text for publication, but Fremont-Smith replied to disagree, asserting that Scialabba was a writer and that he wanted to publish the piece in the Voice. The rest is history — specifically, intellectual history, the field Scialabba would work in, were he an academic.
I also found Scott McLemee’s article about Scialabba at Inside Higher Ed