Boston Review: The Passion of Ellen Willis

By Judith Levine
Boston Review

Willis_Essential cover“My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect,” the radical cultural critic and journalist Ellen Willis wrote in 1977. The sentence sums up the writer, the woman—and her contradictions.

Willis, who died of lung cancer in 2006 at sixty-four, was one of the great public intellectuals of her generation. Read the latest anthology of her work, The Essential Ellen Willis (2014)—the posthumous anthology that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism this year—and you will see that she was virtually incapable of writing a poor sentence or conceiving an unsurprising insight. Her rigor was unmatched, her fearlessness an inspiration. In every piece, wit lilted like an aria over a basso continuo of moral seriousness.

A self-described “irrepressible crank,” Willis was skeptical as a detective, logical as an engineer. “Irreverent” doesn’t begin to describe her loathing of received truths and ideologies. She was also the smartest person anyone who knew her ever knew. So it is easy for friends and admirers to understand the “intellectually suspect” part of that sentence.

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