Remembering Ellen Willis (Essay)

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Most of us have a shortlist of bylines that quicken our readerly pulses; that make buying whatever issue of whatever publication they appear in a non-decision; that we Google regularly; whose owners we gossip about (intellectually, of course) and fondly imagine ourselves shmoozing with someday as peers. Ellen Willis was high on my list. Since I encountered her writing in the Village Voice thirty years ago, I don't think I've ever passed by a piece of hers without reading it--even the rock criticism, which I knew perfectly well I had no business reading while Marx's Grundrisse and Heidegger's Being and Time languished, neglected, on my bookshelves. I didn't even listen to the music she wrote about. But her passionate, protean intelligence fascinated me. How could she write so knowledgeably, so authoritatively, about politics, psychology and sex; about Reich, Roe v. Wade, Israel, the family, the First Amendment and the New York Dolls? Her versatility and verve reminded me of Irving Howe's famous description of the "New York style," which "celebrated the idea of the intellectual as anti-specialist, or as a writer whose specialty was the lack of a specialty: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories." Many people in her generation and since have tried to become New York intellectuals. Few succeeded as well as Willis, perhaps because smartness alone isn't enough; moral seriousness is at least the half of it.

Her death comes in the middle of an argument she was indispensable to, about the right balance between economics and culture in left/liberal strategy. Earlier this year, in response to Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, she published an important essay, "Escape from Freedom: What's the Matter With Tom Frank (and the Lefties Who Love Him)?" It hasn't generated much discussion, at least so far, and I doubt she would have left the matter there. As a Frank-lover, I wasn't persuaded, but I couldn't wait to see what she'd say next. I hope someone else will say it, but I can't imagine anyone else saying it so well.

George Scialabba
The Nation Online - Nov 10, 2006


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