The first sign that this was no ordinary literary event was the lady wandering around with a sousaphone. But then there’s nothing ordinary about the literary career of George Scialabba.
Nation readers know him as the author of brilliant book reviews, going back to 1993, on a staggering number of topics and authors, from Edmund Wilson to Irving Kristol to Pier Paolo Pasolini to—just this past May—Steve Fraser. You might also know him for contributing masterpieces of the essay writer’s craft to publications like Agni and Salmagundi.
For 35 years, however, faculty members at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies pretty much knew him as the dude who scheduled their seminars.
So when George finally retired from the 9-to-5 job that sustained him, John Summers, the editor of The Baffler, surveyed this gaping contradiction—on one hand, the towering scribe called by The New Yorker’s James Wood “one of America’s best all-round intellects”; on the other, the mild-mannered clerk in the basement—and came up with an inspired idea: As Summers put it in the invitation he sent to George’s friends this past July, he would organize a “Festschrift doubling as retirement party doubling as an act of social criticism.”
So here we all are: Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, Nikil Saval of the journal n+1 (who testified that when he was an office drone back in 2005, discovering Scialabba’s writings saved his life); a standing-room-only crowd at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre; and that lady with the sousaphone, holding down bass for the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, which followed two hours of toasts and videotaped testimonials by leading us dancing into the moist Massachusetts night.
Tom Frank had concocted a hilarious presentation on this gentle socialist’s ironic near-collision with success in capitalist America. In 1983, in an article for the Harvard alumni magazine, George penned the memorable line, “Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.” Mistakenly credited to Albert Einstein, it’s become a standby on coffee mugs, T-shirts, and in business books like Quality, Service, Teamwork and the Quest for Excellence. Thus the plight of the independent intellectual, according to Frank: “In exchange for letting us do the work we love—to be critics of ideas—the world swipes what we have to say, molds it into some kind of legitimation device having to do with the incredible and really innovative stuff they do on Madison Avenue, and then, for good measure, attributes it to fucking Einstein.” Hear, hear! (Each presentation was followed with a toast from plastic champagne flutes emblazoned with Scialabba’s image.)