book cover imageBlue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America
by Daniel J. Flynn.
ISI Books (Wilmington, DE), 2011.
187 pp., $28 cloth

The Great Books approach to education, promoted by one of the subjects of this book, Mortimer Adler, is noble in conception yet potentially naïve in practice if dogmatically pursued. It takes more to appreciate a seminal thinker than simply reading his works—an academic form of Sola Scriptura that, ignoring tradition and authority, can sidestep blinker-eyed students into intellectual pitfalls. To really appreciate great works, it is necessary to know about the lives and times of the great thinkers—real people, rooted and shaped by their historical and cultural contexts—through secondary sources under the guidance and direction of trustworthy teachers.

Although Blue Collar Intellectuals stands squarely on its own, it would be a disservice to the author to take a Great Books approach to reviewing this book: Knowing Daniel J. Flynn imbues the book with a deeper appreciation that other readers also might gain by knowing the man behind the print. For the author of this thoughtful book written from the heart is himself a blue-collar intellectual, though he might shy away from saying so in so many words.

I first met Flynn in the fall of 1996 when I wrote for The Wabash Commentary, the conservative magazine of Wabash College. I had traveled from Hoosierland to Byzantium-on-the-Potomac to attend Leadership Institute workshops for young conservative activists. Flynn, who worked at Young America’s Foundation at the time, was one of the speakers. But I made his acquaintance at Irish Times, that Capitol Hill pub where I made two other admirable acquaintances that memorable night: blue-cheese burgers and Guinness.

Straight-talking, jocular, his bluff wit perfect for a bar—he found inspiration in a poster on the Irish Times wall depicting a waving Margaret Thatcher above the slogan “Crime Wave,” creating a poster for YAF that swapped in Slick Willy for the Iron Lady—Flynn’s roots were laid bare from his South Boston accent, even the very roots of his hair: a short-cropped affair of a latter-day Roundhead, appropriate to his then-service in the Marine Reserve, but which he kept a decade after resigning the Corps as a gunner with the rank of sergeant.

First impressions were confirmed and deepened as our acquaintance grew over the years, especially when I worked at The Washington Times after graduating college. Flynn’s idea of a fete was inviting friends over to his Spartan bachelor pad to watch pay-per-view boxing matches. The main furnishings of the condo were stacks of serious books on history, politics, literature, and the arts, all voraciously read by its largely self-taught occupant, who had worked his way through the University of Massachusetts Amherst—hard work being nothing to a guy who starting pounding the streets when he was eight, working first as a newspaper delivery boy, then as a vendor at Fenway Park.

It was around this time, just after the turn of the century, that Flynn began writing books of his own. By then executive director of Accuracy in Academia, his previous work promoting conservative ideas in higher education had already made him terribly familiar with the Left’s intellectual and social stranglehold on America’s campuses. (On one occasion, administrators at Columbia University, succumbing to campus activists’ outcries, forced him to hold a conservative conference in an off-campus park. It was not the only time he had experienced the Left’s “liberating tolerance,” however.) While continuing to whack at the weeds, he exposed the roots of our present disorder in his first book, the blunt-force-trauma titled Why the Left Hates America (2002). Then he dug up and examined the bodies, both dead and ought-to-be dead, of the figures providing compost for the weed patch of academic and political life. Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas (2004) and A Conservative History of the American Left (2008) reveal the warping effects of bad ideology (though all ideology, by its very nature, is bad, boxing man into constructs of anti-reality).

Today Flynn is back in his native Bay State, having left the trenches of the conservative establishment in Washington to storm the leftist No Man’s Land of that bluest of blue states. But home is home, and a deracinated conservative is a contradiction in terms. Now a family man and married to a redoubtable philosophy professor, whom he met while she interned at YAF, he makes his way as a man of letters and lecturer. And make it he does with Blue Collar Intellectuals, a red-hot read for people who believe a life of the mind is best lived while living life in the real world rather than chasing rainbows down rabbit holes.

This book, the flip-side of Intellectual Morons, celebrates six intellectuals of humble origins who remained rooted in reality in their quest to discover and disseminate truth: antipodes to those ethereal-minded creatures who, educated into imbecility and wielding power from their ivory towers—whether in academia, ideologically driven think-tanks, or the board rooms of mass media—strive and often succeed in making hell on earth. Though the latter comprise today’s academic and cultural establishment, the six Flynn profiles can serve to inspire other humble truth-seekers to bravely redeem the time, starting with their own personal and professional lives.

“For much of the twentieth century,” he writes, “there was a concerted effort among intellectuals to spread knowledge and wisdom far and wide. Correspondingly, many regular people took full advantage of the great educational effort. Rather than mind-numbing amusements invading places of learning, learning invaded the leisure space. Blue-collar intellectuals were those most fervently dedicated to the idea of a well-rounded, educated citizenry.”

Describing a blue-collar intellectual as “a thinker who hails from a working-class background, and whose intellectual work targets, in part or whole, a mass audience,” Flynn profiles exemplars of the species in chapters as engaging as their titles: Will and Ariel Durant, husband-and-wife distillers of Western civilization into mighty tomes that made the best-seller lists for decades (“Apostate Historians: How an Excommunicated ‘Cradle Robber’ and His Anarchist Bride Made History”); Mortimer Adler, the manic philosopher who put the best of what has been written and said into the hands of ordinary men (“The People’s Professor: How a High School Dropout Launched the Great Books Movement”); perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential economist for good, Milton Friedman, for whom “people were not the masses . . . but individuals with a multitude of interests unmanageable by remote” (“Free-Market Evangelist: How a New Dealer-Turned-Libertarian Taught the Everyman Economics”); Eric Hoffer, the “Stevedore Socrates” of San Francisco who remains as refreshingly counter-cultural today as he was in his Sixties and Seventies heyday (“The Longshoreman Philosopher: How an Unschooled Hobo Became a Favorite of Presidents and Prime Time”); and the only exemplar still alive, Ray Bradbury, that tireless fiction writer whose truth-telling tales of dystopia and fantasy intelligent readers never find tiresome (“Poet of the Pulps: How a Down-and-Out Outcast Wrote His Way into the In-Crowd”).

These “blue-collar intellectuals,” Flynn notes, “spoke to educated laymen without talking down to them. In the process, they uplifted the masses and rescued ideas from the academic ghetto. Such sins are not easily forgotten.” Indeed, this rigorously researchedbut smoothly written book, which occasionally flares up with the author’s passion for his subjects, details the whippings these laborers endured from the overseers of America’s intellectual plantations. Just as often, however, right-minded defenders of sound sense came to their defense, as did Russell Kirk when Bradbury’s hitherto popular plays were run off Broadway in a matter of days:

“The rising generation in Los Angeles . . . loved those three plays—The Veldt, To the Chicago Abyss, and The Pedestrians [sic],” wrote Kirk, no stranger to the pecking of puffed-up popinjays, so soon forgotten after falling from their perches into the abyss awaiting yesterday’s critics. “Yet the New York play-reviewers were more ferocious with Ray Bradbury than with any other man of mark in my memory, and they succeeded promptly in preventing anyone in New York from perceiving those truths which are best revealed by fable and parable. The rising generation in Manhattan was left with such plays as The Toilet for ethical instruction.”

Pace Fahrenheit 451, some scripts deserve to the burned.

Occasionally Flynn can be unkind to some figures who, despite deserving comeuppances for beating his blue-collar heroes, do deserve a hearing. For example, he dismissively quotes the historian Paul Fussell’s derision of the Great Books as the preserve of “the middles, the great audience for how-to books.” This judgment came down in Class, Fussell’s largely truthful—disconcertingly truthful—revelation of America’s invisible class structure. Class is a classic in its own right. Its scathing observations of American manners and mores, delineated according to class, have been borne out time and again through subsequent experience.

But this is just one of several minor quibbles with an otherwise important contribution to the life of the mind, compressed into relatively few pages. Flynn’s description of Hoffer’s approach to book writing—the Longshoreman Philosopher’s crisp, accessible style “as well suited to the era of ’60s automation as it does to the world of blogs, Twitter, and six-second sound bites”—could apply to the author’s own: “For Hoffer [as for Flynn], big books obscured what the author didn’t know while slim ones offered no hiding place.” Like those blue-collar intellectuals he celebrates—though never whitewashes, their failures and shortcomings duly noted—this little book packs a big punch.  

Matthew A. Rarey, a journalist and education consultant, writes from Chicago.