George Scialabba is no wild man. A soft-spoken, introverted soul, he doesn’t drink or smoke; no alcohol, tobacco, or recreational drugs. Healthy, moderate eating (no red meat, and "a kind of cerebral Mediterranean diet") keeps Scialabba, at age 67, lean to a degree that is downright un-American. He has never married nor fathered children, and lives alone in a one-bedroom condo he has occupied since 1980. He doesn’t play sports ("I don’t exercise — I fidget"). For 35 years, Scialabba, a Harvard College alumnus, held a low-level clerical job at his alma mater that suited his low-profile style. For the past decade, his desk has occupied a windowless basement in a large academic building.
That’s the physical Scialabba: a bespectacled reed who could slip into any cocktail party nearly unnoticed.
The intellectual Scialabba is another story. Over those same 35 years, he has written nearly 400 essays and book reviews for The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Commonweal, Dissent, Grand Street, The Nation, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, and many other outlets. His acuity, erudition, and polished prose have earned him thousands of readers and the admiration of some of the country’s leading minds.
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 film featured 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.
Four books skim the cream off Scialabba’s oeuvre: Divided Mind (Arrowsmith, 2006), What Are Intellectuals Good For? (2009), The Modern Predicament (2011), and For the Republic: Political Essays (2013). The last three are from Pressed Wafer, which this winter will publish a fifth collection, Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews, 1980-2015. In his work, Scialabba brings his supple prose to bear on contemporary authors like Stanley Fish, Thomas Friedman, Edward Said, and Peter Singer, as well as historical icons such as George Orwell, Adam Smith, and Edmund Wilson. A history and literature concentrator at Harvard (we were classmates, although I didn’t know him then; George and I became acquainted years later as fellow writers in Cambridge), Scialabba also explores literary and philosophical lights such as T.S. Eliot, Kierkegaard, D.H. Lawrence, and Nietzsche.
Scialabba is a throwback of sorts, a writer who recalls the heyday of the postwar New York Intellectuals, the era of Hannah Arendt, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling. Scialabba even goes pre-typewriter, writing his first drafts in longhand, but more important, he is a generalist. Christopher Lydon, host of the nationally syndicated radio program Radio Open Source, quotes Irving Howe to describe Scialabba: "By impulse, if not definition," Howe wrote, "the intellectual is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field." Lydon’s own take: "In the din of over-caffeinated wonks and touts who pass for thinkers, I rejoice in a modern guy from the old neighborhood who reads around the clock in Matthew Arnold’s realm of ‘the best that has been said and thought in the world’ and keeps writing what he thinks."
"George is writing for the public, not for other researchers," explains Summers, The Baffler’s editor. "Doing this is considered obsolete on both the writer’s and reader’s sides — it’s an archaic art, like glassblowing. It implies the existence of people who are interested in a range of subjects. They still exist, but such writers and the public have lost each other."
They might bond again through essays like 2012’s "Plutocratic Vistas," first published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a gloomy but stimulating take on the comatose state of democracy in America that seriously entertains radical ideas like choosing members of Congress by drawing lots rather than elections. Scialabba clears the decks with bracing assertions: "The first illusion to kill on the way to self-government is professionalism. Currently, the profession of legislators is getting re-elected. Estimates I have seen of the amount of time legislators spend raising money seem to average around 50 percent." He asks, summoning James Madison’s ideal, "Is the present American national legislature an ‘exact transcript of the whole society’? The question invites ridicule. Racially, sexually, economically, and ideologically, the members of Congress more closely resemble the executive ranks of most large corporations, or the membership of most large country clubs, than they do the society as a whole." Furthermore, "Political messaging in our society is, like commercial messaging, wholly unidirectional. Voters, like consumers, exercise only an unavoidable and irreducible minimum of choice at the very end of a process from which their self-organized and unmanipulated input is entirely absent."
Scialabba can dissect the intricacies of an individual writer’s style as well as the grand social landscape. For example, in a critique of Christopher Hitchens, he notes that listing the best of Hitchens would be impossible: "There’s simply too much very good Hitchens." But, he goes on to say, "of course, not all of Hitchens was very good, even before 9/11 drove him mad. He was always too ready with abuse (‘stupid’ and ‘tenth-rate’ were particular weaknesses). He is a compulsive name-dropper: In his very short Letters to a Young Contrarian, for example, the words, ‘my friend,’ followed by a distinguished name, appear dozens of times, giving the reader’s eyebrows a considerable workout."
Scialabba grew up in a working-class Sicilian-Italian family in East Boston; his parents were "conscientious and affectionate" but little educated and had "no interest in art, music, books, or politics," he says. Scialabba’s father worked as a minor bureaucrat for the state highway department, where his elder brother, now retired, also spent his career.
Bookish and energized by ideas, Scialabba trod a different path and went to Harvard. His Roman Catholic background had potentiated enrollment, as a high-school senior, in the doctrinaire lay Catholic organization Opus Dei, which oversaw its members’ intellectual lives so strictly that, at Harvard, Scialabba had to have his "spiritual director" vet the reading list of any "possibly heretical" college course before he could register to take it. Nonetheless, while at Harvard, Scialabba eventually "read his way out" of the dogmatic organization.
The break with Opus Dei in the late 1960s was "the watershed moment" of his life, he says, "both intensely exhilarating and disastrously upsetting." The exhilarating part was that "the whole of modern intellectual history came into both sharp and wide focus for me. My disenchantment with the church’s traditional orthodoxy and my growth in self-confidence was also the story of Western intellectual history. My fate was a microcosm. I felt a wonderful sense of identification with the whole sweep — I felt I was a drop in the great wave of human history.
"But when I started actually planning my departure, all of my psychic frailties and pathologies appeared," he says. "All sorts of doubts. Can I do this? More basically, can I say no to God? Is it worth living a free life and risking eternal agony? I totally fell apart once I walked out that door; the fear of having made a mistake grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let go for 10 or 12 years. It was like a prolonged panic attack." Even in the midst of that panic, though, Scialabba earned a master’s degree in intellectual history at Columbia and worked as a substitute teacher and social worker in Boston.
The agony Scialabba feared in the next world, alas, instead was visited on him in this one. Over the past 40 years, he has suffered several bouts of clinical depression, and received virtually every form of psychotherapeutic and drug treatment, with indifferent results. In 2005 Scialabba endured a midlife crisis that triggered a major depressive episode. "I was watching other writers of my age publishing books and writing for The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker," he recalls. "I was appearing in less prestigious places and had no books. It kind of grated on me, and I became obsessed with it." Things got so bad that Scialabba took a three-month medical leave from Harvard to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He did the same thing after another major depression in 2012.
And it worked. Although there were short-term lapses of memory, there have been no long-term effects, and Scialabba says, "I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is as desperate as I was." He’s grateful to Harvard and to his labor union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, for establishing policies that made those leaves possible.
Scialabba has been very open in print about his depressions. He wrote a first-person essay, "Message From Room 101," for Agni, and The Baffler recently published lengthy excerpts from his medical records, offering a backstage view of how therapists saw Scialabba’s plight.
It has not all worked out quite the way Scialabba envisioned, but it has worked out. "I always imagined I’d be a professor of intellectual history at some small college in Ohio or something," he says. "I didn’t have the Sitzfleisch to be a scholar."
Yet evidence of Scialabba’s strength of character goes beyond surviving his depressions. "While everything in the culture was insisting that what he does — reviewing books, writing essays — has no large value, and certainly no economic value," says Summers, "George kept on turning out his great writing for 35 years, all the while working his clerical job, arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard. To do that, you have to have grit."
In fact, Scialabba was comfortable, even if bored at times, in his clerical job, which in some ways recalled the habitat in which he grew up. It may even have been an advantage. "It’s not accidental that George wrote from a sidelong place," says Sven Birkerts, his editor at Agni. "He was not bound to do any kowtowing — there was no one in the halls harrumphing that he’d better go easy."
With a modest pension from Harvard, a significant other in Vermont, and a well-established literary career, Scialabba now appears poised for a very interesting retirement. He has a new gig writing a books column for The Baffler, which occupies spacious offices at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, in Harvard Square. Still, seems some things never change: Scialabba’s desk is once again in the basement. This time, though, there are a couple of windows.
Craig Lambert, formerly a staff writer and editor at Harvard Magazine, is the author of Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day (Counterpoint Press).