Dennis Wrong, 94, one of the last of the ‘New York Intellectuals’
NEW YORK — Dennis Wrong, a Canadian sociologist who was among the last survivors of the formidable but fractious cadre of mid-20th-century sophists who argued together as the New York Intellectuals, died Nov. 8 in Westford. He was 94.
His son, Terrence, said the cause was cardiac arrest.
Dr. Wrong, an iconoclast who taught sociology for nearly three decades at New York University, contributed prodigiously to journals that were devoured and debated by the intelligentsia, and wrote book reviews and essays for broader audiences on culture and current affairs.
He not only profoundly influenced his chosen academic field with books on power, population, and socialization; he also helped shape public debate and even policy as one of a few dozen so-called New York Intellectuals who regularly wrote for left-leaning journals including Commentary, Dissent, and Partisan Review. Some later defected to form the neoconservative movement.
Along with Midge Decter, Jason Epstein, Nathan Glazer, and Norman Podhoretz, Dr. Wrong, an adopted New Yorker, was among the few surviving generalists whom journalist Nicholas Lemann called “the American Bloomsbury.”
While Dr. Wrong had precociously decided at 16 “to become an intellectual,” he recalled, he meandered along the way to achieving that ambition.
He chose sociology as his college major largely as a rejection of the family tradition of careers in the foreign service or more established academic fields. (Friends of his father had dismissed sociology as “an unsound, newfangled, and disreputable pseudo-discipline.”) Another factor, he allowed, was that a girl he had a crush on was majoring in the same subject.
Hobbled by writer’s block, he spent 12 years completing his doctoral dissertation (which ultimately became a book). And his transformative 1961 essay, “The Oversocialized Conception of Man,” was inspired in part by a 1955 Alfred Hitchcock dark comedy, “The Trouble With Harry,” starring Shirley MacLaine.
In that essay, Dr. Wrong contradicted the conventional wisdom espoused by 20th century classical sociologist Talcott Parsons that human behavior is dictated by internalized social norms rather than by individual free will. Dr. Wrong argued that behavior is driven by Freudian theories of human nature and sexuality.
The essay became one of the most cited articles in the American Sociological Review.
At his high school graduation, Dr. Wrong was voted the student with the most opinions on the most subjects. Small wonder, then, his son said, that his surname became “a yoke to bear for each generation of us.”
“At least the women can marry out of it,” Terrence Wrong, a documentary filmmaker, added. “But it would be a treasonous weakness of character in our family to abandon it.”
Dr. Wrong did not shy from controversy, but he later regretted having helped ignite a public internecine spat in 1970. That ensued after he avowed in Podhoretz’s Commentary magazine that The New York Review of Books, for which he had also written, had become “a vehicle of what might be called haute New Leftism” and “self-preening moralism.”
As a college research assistant to esteemed US diplomat George Kennan, Dr. Wrong had no illusions about the Soviet Union. But while he opposed the Vietnam War, he would also hold no truck with what he called the “muddled infantile rantings” of the antiwar movement.
Dr. Wrong generally deflected classifications but acknowledged that if any were to stick, he would be comfortable with “Cold War liberal,” “humanistic,” and “democratic socialist.”
Dennis Hume Wrong was born Nov. 15, 1923, in Toronto to Humphrey Hume Wrong, who was the Canadian ambassador to the United States from the 1946 to 1953, and Mary Joyce (Hutton) Wrong.
His paternal grandfather, George MacKinnon Wrong, was a distinguished Canadian historian. His paternal great-grandfather had been premier of Ontario; his maternal great-grandfather had been president of the University of Toronto. Proud of his Canadian heritage, Dr. Wrong never became a US citizen.
He attended schools in Toronto, Washington and Geneva, where his father was a delegate to the League of Nations when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
Because of a foot condition, he was assigned to the army reserve during World War II; when wartime manpower shortages ensued on the homefront, he helped harvest wheat in western Canada. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto in 1945.
From there he enrolled in Columbia University, where he studied under the influential sociologists C. Wright Mills and Robert Merton and spent two summers as a merchant seaman delivering relief cargo to postwar Europe. He earned his doctorate in 1956.
By then Dr. Wrong had gravitated to bohemian Greenwich Village, where, despite being an Anglo-Canadian Protestant, he fell in with the mostly Jewish group of New York Intellectuals, who included Saul Bellow, Anatole Broyard, Norman Mailer, and Jackson Pollock.
“I have always thought of myself, and have often been thought of, as standing in an area where two intellectual circles overlap: that of academic sociology and that of those writers and journals, predominantly literary,” he wrote in a book-length version of “The Oversocialized Conception of Man.”
His first marriage, in 1949, to Elaine Gale, ended in divorce. He married Jacqueline Conrath, an anthropologist, in 1967. She died last month.
In addition to his son, Terrence, Dr. Wrong leaves two grandchildren; two stepdaughters, Jaya and Sheila Mehta; and four step-grandchildren. He had moved to Massachusetts about five years ago, settling near the home of one of his stepdaughters.