Virtually everyone who has spent time in Europe tends to come away with the impression that Europeans have a higher regard for people who devote themselves to the life of the mind than Americans do.
Why is this so?
A lot of it appears traceable to our history. We were founded by people who knew they would be foregoing books, music, and art to claw the basic necessities of life out of a wilderness. What types of people were most likely to do this? It seems reasonable to believe that the “finer things in life” weren’t quite as important to our pioneers as they may have been to their neighbors in the old country.
Even after the land was settled, people who had spent their lives in an environment where cultural refinements were scarce probably didn’t miss what they weren’t used to quite as much as other people might have.
At the same time, some hard laws of genetics were at work.
The distribution of biological assets being what it is, figures like Lord Byron, whose poetic gifts were paired with physical ones that reportedly made him one of the more formidable swordsmen of his day, tend not to be especially common. Typically, the most brilliant intellectual is neither the sturdiest sodbuster, nor the last man standing in a saloon brawl.
Having trouble competing in the areas that a frontier society tends to pay the most attention to, and lacking an established cultural milieu in which to capitalize on their talents and gain stature from them, Americans of intellectual or artistic bent have had a tougher row to hoe than their European counterparts.
To make matters worse, artistically or intellectually talented Americans have sometimes been regarded by their peers as tainted based on where they sold the fruits of their labors.
Ordinary Joes, after all, don’t commission symphonies or life-sized oil portraits of themselves. They didn’t do so in Europe any more than they did in America. But in Europe, the fact that artists and intellectuals associated more with people in the upper reaches of society at least prompted other people to treat them with a certain measure of deference.
In aggressively egalitarian America, these same associations had a way of making artists and intellectuals seem somehow suspect—as if they were just the coddled lap dogs of an entrenched Old World-style elite.
As a result, after having to endure the childhood humiliations of being chosen last for playground sports, instead of having the last laugh by having their gifts recognized and honored later in life, Americans of intellectual or artistic bent continued to feel the stings of ongoing small-town Babbittry, and were still subject to being treated contemptuously for not being “regular guys.”
An environment that was never particularly hospitable to artists and intellectuals became even less so in the 1950s, with the rise of the Cold War and the Red Scare.
From the time of the Great Depression, Americans who were well-read and socially concerned were more likely than their fellows to question the continued viability of capitalism, to feel greater concern for the plight of Okies and other dispossessed people, and as a result, to be willing to consider more extensive types of reforms—even alternate systems of social structure, like socialism and Marxism. In the 1950s, orchestrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, such tendencies—both real and imagined—were relentlessly dredged up for public denunciation and revulsion.
At this juncture, America’s intelligentsia were in about as bad a position as they had ever been. After having been largely underappreciated and often disrespected throughout American history, in the 1950s they had to further contend with the suspicion that they were full-fledged enemies of the state.