Redeeming America: Politics, Culture and the Intellectual in the USA, with special reference to the ʻNew York
Timothy David Shakesby
Thesis submission for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Faculty of Social and Political Sciences The University of Cambridge Kingʼs College September 1996
Part One: Americaʼs Errand into the Future 10
1—The New Colossus
ʻWhat is an American?ʼ 11 Declaring Independence 22
Tocqueville and the Fate of America
2—Emerson, Thoreau and America
American Prophets 48
An American Religion and ʻThe American Scholarʼ 52 Thoreauʼs Redemptive Writing 61
3—Two Romances: Democracy and Pragmatism in America
Democratic Vistas 73 80
Pragmatism as an American Romance Redeeming America 88
Part Two: Redeeming America
4—The New York Intellectuals and America
The Vocation of the Intellectual in America The ʻMind of Americaʼ 107 94
New York Jews—Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz
5—The New York Intellectuals and Mass Culture
The Institut für Sozialforschung and Marxist Cultural Criticism The New York Intellectuals and American Mass Culture Neutrality and Cultural Criticism 154 143
6—Robert Warshow and the ambivalence of the Cultural Critic 162
Robert Warshow and Cultural Criticism American Intellectuals at the Movies 162
The Awkward Commitments of the Cultural Critic
This dissertation is entirely my own work. All the sources which I have used have been duly noted in my footnotes and bibliography.
This dissertation does not exceed 80,000 words in length, including the main text and footnotes, but excluding the bibliography.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the invaluable support I have received over the years I have been working on this dissertation. My parents have, as always, been a model of civilised life for me: they have exemplified the value of kindness and love, and they have influenced my thinking more than they know. My supervisor, Graham McCann, has shown me how I can hope to write in a way that truly expresses my own voice; his own writing has always been a profound example to me. My friends have helped me in many different ways: Bruce Beckles, Jeanette Blair, Elaine Brown, Elizabeth Eger, Desmond Keane, Rebecca Keane, Jocelyn Pye, and Patrick Sheil in particular have taught me much and have supported me unselfishly. I would also like to thank the E.S.R.C. and the British Academy for the financial support that made this research possible, and King’s College for the important yet often overlooked work put in by its staff. The staff of King’s College Library in particular have provided a wonderful environment in which to work. Finally, I would like to thank Silvana Dean at S.P.S. for her tireless help and sympathy.
In 1951 the actor and director Charles Laughton toured America with a production of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body. Laughton was deeply committed to what one might call the idea of America.1 He had always relished reading aloud inspiring texts from America’s past as a way of expounding the human meaning of the idea of America, partly because he found America’s spirit of democratic egalitarianism a wonderful relief from what he felt was the snobbery of the English. Laughton intuitively realised that Benét’s poem manifested a peculiarly American anxiety. As Simon Callow has written: What is clear is that this poem of Benét’s touched Laughton deeply; like so much American literature its subject is America’s destiny: what is this country, and who are we? The ontological anxiety at the heart of the American experience was something to which Laughton was no stranger. Laughton, like America, took solace in sturdy affirmations drawn from the soil and from the Bible; like America’s, his affirmations seem more willed than achieved. The glory of his version of John Brown’s Body is that it fully reflects his, its, and America’s ambivalence.2 This sense of ambivalence is the subject of this thesis. It is therefore concerned not so much with what American society is, as with what Americans have hoped it might become. These hopes have been remarkably potent, such that, as Stanley Cavell recently noted, “one can’t think about America without having a theory of America”: one is drawn into debates about America’s political ambitions, its ‘romance’.3 America, indeed, has come to exhibit a striking intimacy between history and imagination. Its hopes have informed its political and cultural life to a remarkable extent. Yet these hopes have always seemed confusing and ambiguous to America’s intellectuals, who have felt both drawn to the nation’s democratic ideals, and repelled by its apparently pluralist and conformist reality. This thesis explores these hopes and anxieties through the developing conception of the American intellectual. It examines the complex relationships that obtain between society, culture and politics, and the characteristic ways in which American intellectuals have attempted to think through these issues. It is divided into two parts. The first part
introduces in a broad way the efforts of figures such as Jefferson, Tocqueville, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and the Pragmatists to define America and its destiny. Exploring the work of these writers is a necessary preliminary to understanding the development of theories of America and the American intellectual, since it was within their work that these theories received the earliest and most influential formulations. To this end, chapters one to three examine the importance of Jefferson’s multi-faceted Declaration of Independence, Tocqueville’s ambivalence towards America, Emerson’s vision of the American scholar, Thoreau’s exploration of conscience and writing, Whitman’s ‘performative’ commitment to democracy, and the pragmatist’s and neo-pragmatist’s vision of American openness. The perspective on America and its intellectuals that developed in this work emphasised the importance of a self-reliant and pragmatic outlook, and was deeply concerned with the consequences and meaning of the rise of democracy. These considerations laid the basis upon which a vision of the intellectual as a ‘connected’ critic of society developed. The second part of this thesis examines the nature of these visions of the intellectual, specifically by exploring the relationship between the New York Intellectuals and America between the 1940s and 1960s.4 These intellectuals dominated American intellectual life from a position that was by turns iconoclastic, arrogant, ambiguous and anxious, yet which was explicit, focused, and rich in complexity. Figures such as Lionel Trilling, Robert Warshow, David Riesman, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, considered the identity of American culture and the responsibilities of the intellectual in a fresh manner, contributing immeasurably to continuing debates over the role of the cultural critic in modern society. This thesis is rooted in their ideas about the interaction between politics and culture. As Richard Rorty has written: American culture is essentially political. … There is a kind of national romance about a country that says, “We are different from Europe because we made a fresh start. We don’t have traditions, we can create human beings as they are supposed to be.”5 The New York Intellectuals experienced this ‘national romance’ and the ways in which it bound American politics and culture together in an ambivalent fashion. They saw themselves existing at what Lionel Trilling called a ‘bloody crossroad’ between politics
and culture.6 They were committed to America’s democratic and pragmatic political traditions, yet none the less felt that redeeming these traditions would require a huge intellectual, cultural and political effort. This effort was complicated by their belief that collective culture should not be approached as if it was just another form of politics in disguise: they had a complex dialectical view of the relationships between culture and politics. They consequently felt deeply ambiguous about their role within national cultural and political life, and they recognised the difficulty they faced in trying to bring political and cultural ideas and movements into more intelligent relationships with one another. They were, as a response to this difficulty, resolutely broad in the focus of their thinking. Subsequent specialisation in the study of politics and culture has made it increasingly difficult to recover the qualities of this breadth of focus. Political theory and political science have developed in contradistinction to cultural history or literary studies. Those who have specialised have been marked deeply by this, while those who have attempted to maintain a more interdisciplinary approach have found this cognitively and personally difficult to sustain. Many thinkers have therefore found themselves on one or the other side of a fundamental dividing line between ‘political’ and ‘cultural’ studies, and few have ventured to cross it. This thesis is particularly concerned with those who did attempt to make such crossings—figures such as the literary critic Lionel Trilling, the novelist Saul Bellow, and the film critic Robert Warshow. Due to the remarkably interdisciplinary quality of the work of these thinkers, it is only by adopting an equally broad focus that they can be understood. In particular, their thinking needs to be explored in relation to the issues raised in part one of this thesis. For instance, the importance of pragmatic and democratic political thinking within their literary or cultural work has been downplayed. Existing work has tended to approach the New York Intellectuals and their background in isolation from the wider American setting within which they themselves were working.7 This thesis aims to recover this wider setting, and to show the full richness and importance of their thinking about culture and politics, and their practical experiences as thinkers.
Clarifying their arguments has in particular entailed exploring an opposition between ‘the intellectual’ and ‘the scholar’ which Cavell has termed “one of the most deeply rooted in today’s American culture”.8 The New York critics attempted to establish themselves as intellectuals rather than as scholars—they strove to be what Edmund Wilson called ‘Metropolitan Critics’. For Warshow this ambition was intimately related to a certain awkwardness of position. America’s ‘errand into the future’ functioned as a powerful impetus to the formation of collective life, yet the content of this life somehow still needed to be forged and deepened: America needed to be educated. New York’s aspiring ‘Metropolitan Critics’ hoped that they would be able to contribute to a process of democratic and mutual education. Warshow’s experience, however, made it clear that the intellectuals’ commitment to America had to be balanced with a personal capacity for self-reliance and integrity. Being an American intellectual meant, ultimately, being able to find one’s own voice, perhaps one which was necessarily ‘against the grain’ of American culture and politics. These intellectuals felt that taking part in a mutual process of education required being true to oneself and providing through one’s own life, an example for others to follow.
Throughout this thesis ‘America’ is referred to in the singular. This is not intended to imply the existence in reality of a singular and uncontested America. This thesis is concerned with talk about America. Such talk has a particular historical and cultural profile, and it is necessary, if the New York Intellectuals are going to be understood, for it to be addressed on its own terms. I would hope that this thesis will show that although this America is only one amongst many, it is peculiarly interesting since it offers us important insights into certain central modern ideals. Modernity proclaimed the malleability of history to human action, the arrival of the self-reliant individual, and the rise of a democratic vision of the need for mutual respect and concern amongst such individuals. These ideals all reached potent forms in the United States, and it was these
ideals with which the New York Intellectuals were fascinated.9 The work done by these intellectuals thereby not only offers an invaluable, if increasingly over-looked, route into the study of the cultural and political dilemmas facing modern societies, but also a rich and compelling response to these dilemmas.
(Footnotes) (So as to avoid duplication and in order to keep the footnotes as brief as possible, I have contracted references when ever this is appropriate.) 1 Laughton, who was born in Scarborough, later became an American citizen. 2 S. Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (London: 1995) , pp. 224-5. 3 G. Borradori, The American Philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, MacIntyre, and Kuhn (Chicago and London: 1994), p. 135. 4 Who were the New York Intellectuals? A number of extant discussions of the meaning or membership of this group can be consulted. See in particular: A. Bloom, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World (New York and Oxford: 1986), I. Howe, ‘The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,’ Selected Writings, 1950-1990, (San Diego: 1990), N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America (Berkeley: 1991) and N. Podhoretz, Making It (London: 1968). (D. Bell, ‘The ‘Intelligentsia’ in American society,’ The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960-1980, (New York: 1980), pp. 119137, especially pp. 127-129 is a useful taxonomy of the various figures involved.) I have largely followed Howe and Podhoretz, in emphasising the importance of a core Jewish contingent, who grew up in the ghettos of New York, and went on to live and work in and around Manhattan. However, I am more interested in an intellectual spirit than an actual group, and so have allowed myself to adopt a certain degree of looseness. In particular, I am interested in what Podhoretz has called the ‘second’ and ‘third’ generations of the ‘family’: figures such as Kazin, Podhoretz, Warshow, who came to maturity around the Second World War. The major figure within the first generation who has been an inspiration to my reading of the New York Intellectuals’ intellectual spirit was Trilling, who was a major influence on such figures as Warshow and Podhoretz. I am particularly interested in those within the New York group who were marginal to its political/polemical wing, that is, those who contributed mainly through work which wasn’t directly or obviously ‘political’ in its concerns. 5 G. Borradori, The American Philosopher, p. 109. 6 See L. Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: 1950), pp. ix-xv for an excellent discussion of these themes. 7 One finds a large number of gossipy memoirs, histories and biographies, structured around an interest in the group’s (perennial) feuds and disagreements, yet little work which is more analytical concerning their relationships with America. 8 G. Borradori, The American Philosopher, p. 12o. 9 I am of course aware of the degree to which using ‘America’ to denote the United States of America is a contested form of imaginative imperialism. I have chosen to do so to make it clearer that I am speaking of an ‘ideal’ nation, rather than an actual place.
Americaʼs Errand into the Future
1—The New Colossus
America, filling the present with greatest deeds and problems, cheerfully accepting the past … counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success … almost entirely on the future. Nor is that hope unwarranted. To-day, ahead, though dimly yet, we see, in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring. For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come. Walt Whitman1
‘What is an American?’
Upon the base of the Statue of Liberty there is carved a sonnet entitled ‘The New Colossus,’ as an encouraging yet arrogant invitation: America promises to shelter the ‘huddled masses’ and poor of the old world.2 Beyond the steerage and processing, America, or at least New York, proclaims itself to be a place of freedom. Such an extravagant invitation runs deep within American culture; ‘The New Colossus’ is in fact intended to stand for a mythic America that promises to redeem the toils of history. America is proclaimed as an exceptional place, and in a sense it indubitably is. Walt Whitman’s conception of America as leaning towards the future, waiting for and dreaming of results to come, strongly expresses the Utopian vision of the nation’s exceptionalism. America is a place defined by the fact of hope, of imagined vistas, where it is the intimacy of the relationship between ideal and real, between history and imagination, that is striking. Tocqueville captured something of this sense of America’s identity when he noted that America was born in ‘broad daylight’. America, it was hoped, would bring reason, nature, and religion into harmony. For Tocqueville, as for Whitman, America was destined to show whether individual self-reliance and self-mastery could be made consistent with collective and democratic greatness.3 They both felt there was a good chance that America would fulfil its destiny. A new contract between men and their own nature would thus be made. Nevertheless, as a shadow to this hope, America appeared to many of its
intellectuals to be beset by dangers: by conformity, by the sapping demands of commerce, by the democratic dominion of the charismatic over the ignorant. Hope and anxiety existed alongside one another, jointly inscribed within the “copious, sane, gigantic offspring” which America was becoming. So as to understand the importance of the hopes and anxieties that characterised the idea of America, part one of this thesis will explore the notion that America had an ‘errand into the future’.4 This examination will focus on what has been seen to be (particularly by intellectuals) unique in American life. This life has been so typically defined in terms of freedom and individualism, that the first part of this thesis will return continuously to these ideas. They have survived in America on the basis of a dramatic investment of faith in America. However, these ideas are neither as self-evident nor as simple and direct as is so often felt. They are ideas which have had a powerful and stimulating impact upon American intellectuals, an impact which itself needs unpacking. The condition of faith, whilst it has often helped to entrench a mythic and ideologically dangerous sense of America’s exceptionalism, has also forced many Americans to grapple, often poorly, with complex issues concerning the ultimate ends of American life. The play between faith and anxiety within these visions of America has often turned upon respective evaluations of the condition of American culture. Given America’s democratic ambitions, the reflection within popular culture of American destiny has become an important issue. Against the grain of a providential vision of America’s destiny, there has existed a great concern with making an American culture as grand as American hopes. This fabrication of ‘America’ has been powered by utopian desires, yet has also been marked by the terrible costs of American exceptionalist thinking. America has at once seemed individually empowering and collectively disempowering. It is a claim of this thesis that this collective disempowerment has wreaked its revenge upon American ideals by reducing them lexically, by making them dumb. Yet it is also a claim of this thesis that there has always been a resistance to this, that within American cultural life there has been a long history of attempts to make good upon the lapses of collective experience and will.
From the beginnings of the colonial period, North America was perceived by many of its settlers as a place of escape and new beginnings, where exotic possibilities and dangers intertwined. There was a widespread recognition, amongst foreign observers and colonists alike, that America had a unique—if often worrying or imperfect—potential as a place and culture.5 For instance, Puritan settlers such as John Winthrop hoped that a New Jerusalem could be built upon America’s distant shores which could overcome the corruption of Europe. America was to be a new Eden. Others felt, in a more worldly way, that they could make something of themselves in a new and rudely formed society at the rim of civilisation, where personal energy would count for more than status. By the eighteenth century, it was an unexceptional commonplace to emphasise the positive openness of American life. Benjamin Franklin was thus emphatically confident in his ‘Information for Those Who Would Remove to America,’ which was written in 1782: Land being cheap in this country … hearty young laboring men, who understand the husbandry of corn and cattle … may easily establish themselves there…Multitudes of poor people from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany, have by this means in a few years become wealthy farmers, who, in their own countries, where all the lands are fully occupied, and the wages of labor low, could never have emerged from the poor conditions wherein they were born.6 Franklin argued that “the almost general mediocrity of fortune that prevails in America obliging its people to follow some business for subsistence, those vices, that arise usually from idleness, are in great measure prevented. Industry and constant employment are great preservatives of the morals and virtue of a nation”.7 America was thus a place of promise, where hard work could readily lead to (moderate) success. In America, one was only held back by one’s natural inclinations: society ceased to mediate between one’s identity and one’s destiny. These ideas were reinforced by the French enthusiast, Crèvecœur, within his now canonical probing of the question, ‘What is an American?’. Crèvecœur concurred with Franklin in emphasising that America had its own rough, independent, and liberating
nature as a place. In this, Crèvecœur, a recent summary has suggested, “set the tone for many future discussions when he observed that Americans tended to act with far greater personal initiative and self-reliance than Europeans and that they tended to be unimpressed by social rank or long usage”.8 America was a land of immigrants, making a new life and world for themselves. Those who were ‘useless plants’ in Europe, transplanted to American soil were able to enjoy a regeneration, a ‘surprising metamorphosis’ brought about by the power of ‘the laws and that of their industry’: He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank that he holds. … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them the great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle … Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? … The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. … This is an American.9 Thus, the idea that Americans were new men and women making a new world and a new culture upon the basis of new principles, was established. This newness was expressed in terms of a new foundation in nature: enlightened self-interest. America’s people displayed for Crèvecœur, just as for such exemplary Americans as Franklin, an admirable individualism. The pursuit of self-interest supposedly harmonised with the public good, not least because the pursuit of that interest was marked by a necessary industriousness.10 Franklin, for instance, “…gave classic expression to what many felt in the eighteenth century—and many have felt ever since—to be the most important thing about America: the chance for the individual to get ahead on his own initiative”.11 In America, immigrants could re-make themselves, and they could fulfil their potential: these are themes that we will come across again and again, since they are a keystone upon which typically American ambitions have been erected. The newness of America amounted to a new naturalness—a stripped down sense of society. Crèvecœur exhibited the same optimism regarding personal industry that characterised Franklin’s presentation of himself.12 (It was this very pride in personal industry that so often came to regulate the self-images of later Americans looking for
ways to describe the virtues of a democratic mass society.) In America, conditions of life appeared to ensure the virtuous personal self-reliance of the individual, thereby grounding an egalitarian culture where the flowering of human potential seemed uniquely free from the constraints of mere conventions. As we shall see in the next section of this chapter, the American Enlightenment materialised these assumptions within a powerfully elaborated political and cultural heritage.13 Political figures such as Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Adams placed the work of self-development and cultural newness centrally upon the stage of their political imaginations. The centrality of self-development can be illustrated in their view that enlightenment was as much a duty as a property (as we shall see later). It was often understood to be a process rather than a state, where the head and the heart were in an endless struggle with one another.14 Enlightened man struggled to achieve a balance between reason and passion, upon the basis of the idea that there was virtue enough and reason enough in human life to achieve an amelioration of conditions. It was in America that this process appeared to take a particularly practical and concrete direction, for in America a democratic and pragmatic spirit appeared to be fostered by the very conditions of life that elsewhere threatened Enlightenment. In America every man had a chance at greatness: America proposed, it seemed, to generalise the Enlightenment, to make it actual. Crèvecœur and Franklin are central symbols of this proud and self-sufficient ambition.15 There are many visions of America jumbled up with this pride which provide premonitions of a darker sense of identity, which show the ways in which positive virtues were constructed against vices within a wider conceptual backdrop. The observations of travellers, Americans and settlers reproduced febrile doubts about the nature of American civility.16 America appeared to be close to the unkempt, savage and natural world that had existed prior to the onset of civilisation; where Indian tribes threatened settlements, a sense of America’s larger fate seemed apparent. Settlers were only—even in Thoreau’s day—scattered on what he called ‘the shores of America’; America was still ‘undiscovered’.17 America was too new, too unknown, to free itself of the exotic, attractive yet also dangerous flavour of that which had not yet properly revealed its
destiny. Thus, while America could be represented as a potential Utopia, an Eden free from the damning ruination of history and cultivation, these mythic hopes were more than matched by the terrible costs of settlement and cultivation, and the repressed wilderness of the Frontier which stood as such a potent double to the civility of Puritan culture.18 This dialectic between culture and wilderness was itself complicated by the bond between self-determination and escape. America promised self-determination, yet this very promise ensured the survival of doubt and the need to determine the self against something.19 For instance, D. H. Lawrence recognised what he saw as an American sense of place as a reflex of escape from “the old master of Europe,” despite the talk of freedom and equality: democracy was a tool for achieving a liberty from old Masters that turns out to be a false dawn.20 America was thus constituted for Lawrence by the necessity of freeing itself from Europe. The achievement of freedom with regard to Europe could be a relatively simple matter for many Americans, even while a wider collective search for freedom was a potent force in American cultural history for centuries. Many Americans felt an unchallenged and effective sense of place: though rude and unformed, their world was open and clean, and they could imagine themselves as transcending the tensions of European civilisation. The crucial point is that Americans understood that they were forming for themselves a new world, by making and constituting that world’s forms of life and habits (as Crèvecœur noted: “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles.”)21 The fabrication of America is consequently a central fact: Americans had to come together to make America into something.22 The centrality of this theme can be seen in the fact that many popularising accounts of American history or culture concentrate upon an act of creativity. For instance, Max Lerner began America as a Civilization with a discussion of America’s “living heritage” of “changing meanings,” an American “dynamism,” which he believed was the key to American civilisation, which was itself the result of pragmatism and openness.23 Indeed, D. W. Brogan’s The American Character contains a central section titled “America is Made”.24 The condition of American self-determination reflected the fact that American
colonists needed to define themselves and their relationship with America. Perhaps the most influential crucible for the forging of colonial American identity was to be found in New England. The Puritan colonists of this region—contrasted interestingly with their Southern counterparts in Georgia, Maryland and Virginia—developed and explored a mythic landscape and rhetoric of selfhood that was to prove both resilient and hugely consequential, and which has been taken as a central component within American ideology by historians such as Perry Miller.25 As we have noted, these colonists felt that they had been led by their own biblical heroes to a promised land that had been laid down by God for their taking. Unlike the Spanish, they were not in the business of Conquest; the land was already theirs through God, and awaited their transfiguring cultivation. A strong millennial streak within American culture was thereby entrenched. By becoming ‘true’ Americans who lived deliberately, the colonists began to embody the regenerative and redemptive possibilities that millenarianism sketched out. Millennial hope invoked and promised redemption to those able to transform and perfect themselves and their communities. Hope was thereby naturalised within a mythic conceptualisation of America as Eden. This vision of America has proved profoundly important. For instance, Sacvan Bercovitch has noted what he calls the “prophetic errand” of America, a sense of mission invested with “all the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual appeal of a religious quest” that brings into American life this millennial hope, and thereby patterns American culture: Here was the anarchist Thoreau describing his “westward walk” as an emblem of “America’s errand into the future”; here, the solitary singer Walt Whitman, claiming to be the “American Way”; here, the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, descendant of slaves, denouncing segregation as a violation of “America’s errand to freedom”; here, an endless debate about national directions, full of rage and faith, Jeffersonians claiming that they, and the not the priggish heirs of Calvin, really represented the errand, conservative politicians defending the errand against its “un-American” critics, left-wing polemics recalling the nation to its true origins and mission.26 Bercovitch recognises something very important about the identity of America as a collective ‘errand’. He postulates an American Jeremiad, which: Posits a movement from promise to experience—from the ideal of community to the facts of community life—and thence forward, with prophetic assurance, toward
resolution that incorporates both fact and ideal. The dynamic of the errand, that is, involves a use of ambiguity that is not divisive but progressive, and that is impervious to the reversals of history, because the very meaning of progress is inherent in the rhetoric itself.27 Thus Bercovitch feels that American community “defines itself by its relation to a promised future,” such that American identity “obviates the usual distinctions of national history, the conflicts, say, of ideological and economic interest, because the very word American implies a cultural identity, a commitment to a certain way of life and to the quasi-religious myths and symbols through which that way of life has perpetuated itself.”28 America aspires, in this view, to complete history by means of self-fashioning. Stanley Cavell has captured well the tension between hope and anxiety, or openness and dogma, attendant upon this process of self-fashioning: Everyone is saying, and anyone can hear, that this is the new world; that we are the new men; that the earth is to be born again; that the past is to be cast off like a skin; that we must learn from children to see again; that every day is the first of the world; that America is Eden. So how can a word get through whose burden is that we do not understand a word of all this? Or rather, that the way in which we understand it is insane, and we are trying again to buy and bully our way into heaven; that we have failed; that the present is a task and a discovery, not a period of America’s privileged history; that we are not free, not whole, and not new, and we know this and are on a downward path of despair because of it; and that for the child to grow he requires family and familiarity, but for a grownup to grow he requires strangeness and transformation, i.e., birth?29 Yet the conceit that America can allow growth, even for grown-ups, is a matter of some urgency for a nation needing to assimilate waves of European immigrants, and to fulfil its early promises of freedom and openness. America had to assimilate if it was to sustain itself as America, yet the process of assimilation could threaten the possibility of personal freedom. America’s capacity for political life appeared to depend upon assimilation and common identity, upon the acceptance of the idea of America, yet also (obviously) upon the qualities or nature of this common identity, upon its robustness and flexibility. Happiness, freedom and a boundless scope for self-invention were implicitly promised to those who faced assimilation. Hopes were tentatively embellished, and allowed to become expectations. These expectations were the source of a powerful identification with the ‘errand’ of America, even though they could also be a potential source of grave dissatisfaction. As a consequence, these hopes could become a powerful and empowering
basis for common life, even though they could, by their blinding force, encourage a confusion concerning what is real and what is imagined.30 America thus could conjure up a collective and hallucinatory faith in its own future. Perfectibility required a sense of purpose, a science of practical action, a training of the intellect and body, a constant and far from trivial effort to do better. It required, indeed, the achievement of new culture fit for democracy; the ideal of perfectibility registered a need to change society. Indeed, as an ideal it could act as a powerful opponent to the dull pressures of inertia and dogmatism.31 It remained a demanding yardstick by which to measure any society, such that it induced a restless apprehension amongst those willing to lay themselves open to its judgement.32 As Ernest Cassara argues: The civilized discourse which played so great a part in the Enlightenment was based on a firm conviction that men are reasonable creatures who are capable of discovering truth. Ideas and beliefs, solely because they had been handed on with the authority of the past, were not to be accepted.33 This capacity to question the authority of the past depended upon a conviction or faith in the possibility of improvement or perfectibility, which provided the basis upon which collective culture and politics could constructively proceed. Without conviction politics can quickly lose its capacity to entertain constructive collective ambitions at all. For instance, it is a commonplace in American public life that American ideals have to be actively embraced and endlessly endorsed, since they are seen to be the roots of American common life. These ideals are seen to be dependent upon a collective capacity for faith. As Woodrow Wilson famously proclaimed in 1919: “Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know that I am an American. America, my fellow citizens—I do not say it in disparagement of any other great people—America is the only idealist Nation in the world”.34 For Americans the roots of this faith have often been materialised within a common history and common memories. Their nation is founded upon (self-proclaimed) self-evident truths, as interpreted within their constitution, and they can thereby understand the huge ambitions of American life as if these were readily to hand, already formulated within the key texts of an heroic past.35 A redemptive faith in America’s modernity and ingenuity and the rousing power of the founding ideals of
liberty, self-determination and self-reliance appears thereby to be entirely reasonable, to be reflected in a glorious history. Whitman expressed the sense in which America was ultimately founded upon a commitment rather than an achievement: For, I say, the true nationality of the States, the genuine union, when we come to a mortal crisis, is, and is to be, after all, neither the written law, nor (as it is generally supposed) either self-interest, or common pecuniary or material objects—but the fervid and tremendous IDEA, melting everything else with resistless heat, and solving all lesser and definite distinctions in vast, indefinite, spiritual, emotional power.36 Where European life aimed to redeem itself through the recovery and transfiguration of particular histories, American life was to be redeemed not through some special act of remembrance, but by learning to selectively forget, and reaching confidently out towards the future upon the basis of a consequently mythic past.37 In part this condition of selective amnesia and potent ambition characterises the myth of ‘an American Way’ which escapes the qualifications of history and learns to really believe in the dreams of the Enlightenment.38 As Melville put it, the importance of the Declaration of Independence is that it made a difference, giving to Americans both a common language with which to understand their common life, and a sense of their right to make up their own minds.39 This common reference point or memory, taken alongside the myth of an ‘American Way,’ has helped to ground a faith in American politics that has itself helped that politics survive formidable tests, born most often of the impact of slavery and racial conflict. Yet this common reference point, although it still allows Americans to consider themselves to have common interests, is endangered by its very contingency, by its very reliance upon a common act of commitment or possession of faith. There has to be a willingness upon the part of Americans to narrativise America together, to conjure amongst themselves some common desire to seek a common framework for American life, itself upon the basis of a common history. This willingness may be haphazardly reproduced by the fact of a myth, yet it is an ongoing part of that myth and its reproduction that the collective basis for such a willingness needs to be reworked. Cultural and political amnesia leaves the existing mythic America open to disintegrative attack, just as it allows it to be reproduced: a proper sense of the hopes Americans have for their future, and the roots of these hopes in the past, needs to be
fostered in its place, so that a faith can be built that is palpable and convincing. Whether this is in fact possible is a moot point. It is not clear, however, that the canonical monuments of American political history and its culture have been exhausted to the extent that is often asserted at present. In fact, there are strong reasons for thinking that this political history and culture still possesses the resources it needs to build a widespread conviction that America has a future capable of redeeming its past hopes. In particular, American political traditions have placed an especially strong emphasis upon the establishment of individual independence alongside (or as a means to) collective virtuousness and national greatness. It is the resiliance of the self-reliant or independent individual in the face of collective danger—be it cultural or political, social or economic—that has so often appeared to be the key to America’s future, the method for achieving greatness. Yet it is individualism that has so often appeared to be the root of America’s problems. This chapter will illuminate this problem by examining two key intellectual episodes: the ‘founding’ of America in the Declaration of Independence, and the critical evaluation of America’s early achievements in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
When forced … to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Thomas Jefferson40
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this contintent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. … It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us— that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the face of the earth. Abraham Lincoln41
Abraham Lincoln is peculiarly central to the power which the Declaration of Independence has wielded within American cultural and political life since the Civil War. Lincoln examined the Declaration in terms of its religious, millenial significance—its capacity for untangling America’s exceptional destiny. Lincoln made the Declaration a foundationally American document for later Americans, the fountain of national political life, its fundamental shibboleth. As Gary Wills has argued: A belief in our extraordinary birth, outside the processes of time, has led us to think of ourselves as a nation apart, with a special destiny, the hope of all those outside America’s shores. This feeling, of course, antedated Lincoln. It was part of the Puritan ideal, of the city set on a hilltop. It turned George Washington into a Moses during the revolutionary period. It arose from Protestant America’s strong feeling of kinship with the chosen people of the Old Testament. It returned in visions of manifest destiny at the beginning of this century. But Lincoln’s was the most profound statement of this belief in a special American fate. His vision of it was not pinned to a narrow Puritanism or imperialism, but simply to the Declaration itself. Its power is mythic, not sectarian. Lincoln did not join a separate religion to politics; he made his politics religious. And that is why his politics has survived the attack on less totally fused forms of ‘civil religion’.42 Lincoln had to re-forge a (romantic or transcendental) Union within America, and he
chooses to rhetorically ground this within the Declaration.43 It becomes possible, Wills went on to argue, to imagine that America was invented by Jefferson: Americans have felt for some time that Jefferson invented America—the country, not the continent. He put it on our conceptual map, as it were; recognised and named that new thing we are. The Declaration drew a new plan of the world, with a Presence theretofore unsuspected. The nation is not, in this view, simply a found object, but a contrived thing, a product of the mind.44 The Declaration suggests a conceptual map by the means of which Americans may think of their identities as Americans. This map has appeared to be largely Lockean and individualistic, rooted in a commitment to liberty and equality, and it has been taken to accord to America an exceptional place in human history, a blessed condition. America is disclosed within its act of declaring independence; its nature is thereby made apparent. Wills echoes the arguments explored in the first section of this chapter: America was the American idea for Lincoln, and that idea is contained in the Declaration: “I have insisted that, in legislating for new countries where it [slavery] does not exist, there is no just rule other than of moral and abstract right. With reference to those new countries, those maxims as to the right of people to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ were the just rules to be constantly referred to” (1858). … If there is an American idea then one must subscribe to it in order to be an American. One must sort out one’s mental baggage to ‘declare’ it on entry to the country. To be fully American, one must adopt this idea wholeheartedly, proclaim it, prove one’s devotion to it. Unless we know what our fellows think, we do not know whether they are Americans at all, much less whether they are truly American. Indeed, since the idea is so pure and abstract, we must all be constantly striving towards it, trying to become more American.45 It is important, however, to recognise that we are here examining a mythic Declaration of Independence—a vision of America’s ambitions, its ‘errand into the future’. The Declaration must be, if one wishes to explore the origins of its power, read with reference to its rhetorical and performative setting, and placed within the actual context within which it was formulated. It is a far less stable and politically idealistic document than Lincoln is willing to recognise, and it is not at all clear that it should be read as a religious call-to-arms. Wills summarises this argument thus: [Jefferson] was not, like Lincoln, a nineteenth-century romantic living in the full glow of transcendentalism … He was an eighteenth-century empiricist, opposed to generalizations and concentrating on particular realities … He did not believe one could ‘embalm’ an idea in a text … He denied that a spiritual ideal could be posed over-against some fleshly struggle toward it … He would not have accepted Lincoln’s mystique of national union as transcendentally ‘given’ imperative.46 The Declaration does not simply proclaim a faith in equality and rights; it displays a
rhetorical and practical concern with the effort to remake language and culture.47 This section will introduce and examine a powerful conflict between pragmatism and myth in American political life by means of a discussion of this act of independence and its wider context. America’s ‘errand into the future’ may not be a purely millenial affair; it may be, indeed, rooted in a pragmatic and realistic sense of politics. The fecundity of what Daniel Boorstin termed the ‘genius of American politics,’ it will be argued, did not come so much from its refusal to theorise, as Boorstin believed, as from the inner tensions of its theoretical imagination.48 A rhetorically powerful commitment to the future in the context of an empiricist and realistic attempt to grasp the dangerousness of politics, as we shall see, bequeathed to American political thinking a potentially supple and empowering, but also potentially religious sense of its nature. A largely sociological need to make something of America, to try to entrench the habits and ideals of democracy, had to find its way against the alternate dangers of an overly resigned cynicism, and an overly implacable millenialism.
Thomas Jefferson is often presented as an ‘idealist,’ setting down the lineaments of American life, and resisting the more worldly concerns of such federalists as Hamilton and John Adams. Jefferson was, however, like many of his colleagues, a profoundly practical man, driven by a desire to bring Enlightenment ideas and political practice into a productive relationship with one another. He refused the ostentation, the aristocratic manneredness and pomp, of Washington and Adams once he became President. He had a thirst for freedom—of the mind and of the body—that led him to resist authority in the guise of tradition. Ernst Cassara has argued that this was a common feature within the Enlightenment in America: The men of the Enlightenment stressed the importance of resisting all encroachments of ‘authority’ on the free mind. It was in the context of an attempt by clerical leaders to create a national religion—and thus national control—that Jefferson made his famous pronouncement: “I have sworn on the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of men.” Nonetheless, the enlightened man maintained a healthy
skepticism concerning the capacity of reason. It had its definite limits and these had to be recognised.49 Jefferson hoped that American politics could be grounded in a harmony between the virtuous individual and a just polity. This harmony was not rooted in a conventional view of the ancient virtu of the small city-state Republic, so much as in a more worldly sense of the sociological grounds upon which collective life could be built. The confidence of Jefferson and his colleagues that this harmony could be achieved is usually linked to the influence of John Locke, who inspired, it has often been argued, their attempts to grasp the importance of self-development and integrity in politics.50 Locke largely wrote in the context of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and against the political theory of the divine right of Kings advanced by Filmer. He attempted to justify the replacement of a King by his subjects. In the process of such a defence, he developed a view on the nature of political obligation that relied upon the idea of a contract between citizens and state. Citizens could reject the legitimacy of the state if the state transgressed certain natural rights—if it acted imprudently and with intolerance. This was clearly, in its general form, a powerful and attractive argument for prospective revolutionaries in the American colonies, who were also attempting to find ways to justify a potentially bloody and disastrous rebellion. In line with Locke, they could base their rebellion upon the importance of self-reliance and self-determination. Further to this, Locke’s defence of religious tolerance and his sense of the need for a balance of powers between differing wings of government, were largely in tune with the political interests of enlightened Americans. Through Locke the Americans seemed to have found a way to talk of liberty and independence. Yet John Locke could not offer a complete solution to American dilemmas. Indeed, it has been argued, by John Dunn and Gary Wills amongst others, that Locke was not as directly influential in early eighteenth-century America as was commonly felt, and it is important to see why this was so. John Dunn has argued that there was a shift, between the work of John Locke and the work of the Scottish Enlightenment, from a largely theocentric to a largely ‘sociological’ perspective on politics.51 For Locke, political security was ultimately guaranteed by a theocentric premise. Where Hobbes
had feared the disarray brought about by judgmental strife between differing ideologies, and felt that this disarray could only be kept within bounds through the exercise of arbitrary and external power, Locke felt that there was no need to curb the individual’s freedom to judge their own interests, since God pre-ordained the existence of harmony between self-interested individuals, such that disarray could resolve itself within society. However, during the eighteenth century it became increasingly difficult to directly follow Locke, whilst at the same time it became harder to avoid Locke’s sense of the need for individuals to exercise their judgement in the face of the world. Locke’s dependence upon a theocentric argument could not adequately explain the roots of stability and wealth, and it was not easily incorporated into their more empiricist habits. American thinkers received their understanding of the guarantees that would provide the rationale for a less Hobbesian state from other sources. They were far more deeply influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and in particular early eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers such as Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson, than by a Lockean theological natural rights theory. For many eighteenth-century thinkers, the rise of a commercial and socially advanced civilisation increasingly offered a partial solution. The doux commerce, which Montesquieu praised as a potentially robust basis for a properly modern civilisation, could provide a sociological argument for suspecting that disarray could be overcome, and human potentials expanded, even without the reassuring presence of the strong civic homogeneity so often required by republican traditions.52 Moral life could be grounded, not in God’s providence, but in Man’s mutuality. In America, the puritan and Enlightenment faith in industriousness, pragmatism, and relative social openness supplemented and grounded these hopes for a new civilisation. It was hoped that the potentially disastrous consequences of a lack of strong central authority could be mitigated by the formation of a countervailing force towards civilisation within social, cultural and economic life. In America, self-reliance and individuality were typically seen as both natural components of the ecology of American life, and ideals by which that life could be sustained and improved. It was through self-reliance that a civilised culture
able to ground political life would become possible. Indeed, Jefferson’s practice was crucially informed by a recognition of the importance of individual self-development—as the mode of action of this more sociological vision—within collective life. This recognition clearly owed much to American puritanism, which had attempted to reflect God’s providence through vigorous personal and social industry. Ernest Cassara has noted that for the mid-eighteenth-century generation self-cultivation was a duty: It was assumed that life was a long process in which education never came to an end. The more one studied, the better prepared one was to play an intelligent, constructive role in human affairs … One could entreat and cajole, but the young were expected to learn what a later generation would call inner-directedness.53 The importance of ‘inner-directedness’ (to which we shall return later in this thesis) was illustrated by Cassara by examining the education of John Quincy Adams, who struggled between “fickle” thoughts “running after birds’ eggs, play and trifles,” and a deep desire to (obediently) turn his day to useful things: By age eleven, John Quincy felt qualified to give the younger Charles some brotherly advice, since he said their goals were the same: “to qualify ourselves to be useful members of society and to get a living in the world.” “We are sent into the world for some end,” he added; “it is our duty to discover by close study what this end is and when we once discover it to pursue it with unconquerable perseverance.”54 Jefferson, like most of his contemporaries within American intellectual society, possessed a profound confidence in America and its self-motivated citizens, even though he continued to think of Virginia as ‘my country’ throughout his life. He noted that “one evening at Dr. Franklin’s in Philadelphia in the company of David Rittenhouse, the astronomer, and Francis Hopkinson, wit and musician as well as lawyer and politician, was worth a whole week in Paris”.55 This confidence helped him to hope that in America self-reliance and self-development would act as a bulwark against degeneracy and provinciality, of both a republican and a personal kind.56 He possessed a more classical and less Christian notion of virtue than was common perhaps one hundred years earlier. As Cassara noted, Jefferson, Franklin and their contemporaries “discarded belief in the fall of man, believing the story of Adam to be a myth. As rational creatures of God’s making, it was incumbent on them to strive to live virtuous lives. This attempt became
their form of worship”.57 Jefferson and his colleagues were thus commited to what might be called the redemption of America through self-development: the achievement of a condition of composure through a ‘theatre of the self,’ where a recognition of the power of language and culture threatened the solitude of the self. Jefferson has left a number of letters and traces of his understanding of the nature of such a form of redemption. Man was social and naturally inclined towards a comprehension of good and evil, yet some effort was needed to render one’s self and one’s society into a civilised state capable of limiting the impact of evil and maximising the good. In a famous letter to one of his charges, Peter Carr, from Paris in 1787, Jefferson wrote: He who had made us would have been a pitiful bunglar if he had made the rules of our moral character a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality therefore was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right & wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, & not the το καλον, truth, &c. as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened through exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman & a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.58 Jefferson is here expressing the conceptual distance between his ethical thought and the characteristic Kantianism of much modern moral theory; his thinking bears far deeper links with that of Hume, Smith and Hutcheson, and in particular so-called ‘common sense’ theories.59 Jefferson perhaps stood closer to the more ‘sociological’ visions of Smith and Hume, where morality and virtue were increasingly related to the condition of society and to the idea of a ‘moral’ history, than to a more ahistorical approach. Crucially, however, Jefferson felt that one does not need to be especially learned to grasp the ‘really’ right thing to do. Jefferson was not alone in this feeling. The gentleman, advised Cadwallader Colden, “while he reads and thinks by turns…should, in the intervals, cultivate his intellectual faculties by general conversation, where he may obtain more useful knowledge than can be learned from books”. Colden concluded that “the mere
scholar, the mere physician, the mere lawyer, musician or painter, take them out of their own way, and they are often more insipid than the mere plowman”.60 Jefferson and Colden here approach a position later developed by R. W. Emerson, which was to prove widely influential amongst those who attempted to define the characteristics of the democratic American. Emerson wrote that: I have the belief that of all things the work of America is to make the advanced intelligence of mankind in the sufficiency of morals practical; that, since there is on every side a breaking up of the faith in the old traditions of religion &, of necessity, a return to the omnipotence of the moral sentiment, that in America this conviction is to be embodied in the laws, in the jurisprudence, international law, in political economy.61 For Emerson, therefore, Americans are to apply the genius of humanity; they are to turn from detached observation to practice. Jefferson argues as corrosively as these later thinkers that the Professor suffers from his ‘artificial rules’.62 One certainly can interpret virtue a posteriori, yet that interpretation is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a virtuous person. One becomes more virtuous by acting virtuously, using one’s virtues to develop one’s goodness and sense of what human eudaimonia in fact is.63 Virtue may spring from man’s breast through God’s will, yet it has to be cultivated and sustained through the achievement of a truly civilising environment; it is a condition of a particular life, in a particular place: the parallels with Burke’s impassioned response to the French Revolution are obvious enough.64 For Jefferson, moral life is rooted in society and human nature, rather than within God. Morality is grounded, in particular, within a sort of calculus of influence and benevolence. Humans in society are driven by the spectacle of society, by its beneficient capacity to bring, through interaction, deeper bonds and moral sentiments. This ‘moral sense’ view is related, in Jefferson’s thought, with his concern to root American virtue within American culture and language. In a letter to John Waldo in 1813, on the subject of the nature of America’s language, Jefferson wrote: I am no friend…to what is called Purism, but a zealous one to the Neology which has introduced these two words without the authority of any dictionary. I consider the one as destroying the nerve and beauty of language, while the other improves both, and adds to its copiousness. I have been not a little disappointed, and made suspicious of my own judgement, on seeing the Edinburgh Reviews, the ablest critics of the age, set their faces against the introduction of new words into the English language; they are particularly apprehensive that the writers of the United States will adulterate it. Certainly so great a growing population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its
purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.65 The constraints of passion and imperfection need to be made acceptable through the exercise of human imagination. Language, and more generally society, can thereby civilise and perfect human life. Without the slow accumulation collectively of the fruits of individual life, excellence cannot be achieved. The necessary qualifications of such an approach can lead one towards optimism or pessimism. Jefferson felt more confidence than, say, Weber or Nietzsche or even Emerson, in humans in society: the dangers of degenerating democratic institutions are mitigated by natural human virtues which render humans fit for collective life. As we have seen in his letter to Carr, Jefferson felt that humans were naturally social beings, who, through the humanising impact of social life, could begin to (teleologically) approach their destiny. Republican virtues thus flow from the environmental capacity of a society to educate and command the natural sociability of its citizens. Degeneration is possible when human affairs fail to embody human nature expressed in terms of the virtues: where virtue, environment, and knowledge fail to maintain a state of achieved and responsive harmony with one another. It was important to fight degeneration by symbolically making America. This central task of forging and reproducing a common American identity—even amidst a strong sense of local differences—was itself marked by those very ideals of virtue, selfreliance and individuality which were at the same time taken to be uniquely descriptive of the actual if still immature state of American society. The myth of America took the shape that it did because it was required to so do. Forging actual commonality was impossible in a wildly heterogeneous society; symbolic unity based upon common ideals was another matter entirely.66 As Michael Zuckerman has put it: The very fragmentation of the country that had occurred in the colonial era made all the more imperious, and poignant, the craving for social solidarity that attended the creation of a nation. And since that craving could not be satisfied in a social reality that was already too heterogeneous for successful centralisation, it had to be gratified in symbolic ways. The symbols would begin to be forged in the maelstrom of revolution.67 It is crucially important that the symbols and tenets of American political consciousness that developed in this maelstrom grounded a faith in individual self-determination.
These symbols and tenets asserted that humans stood inviolate, alone before the world, free to combine as they pleased. Jefferson considered humans to be essentially dignified and reasonable beings, who could potentially act in an adult and orderly manner in their own and their society’s best interests. The individual’s interests were vested with authority by God. The tutelage of a patriarchial order could thus be replaced by a system of government that derived its legitimacy from its representation of its people, rather than its mere brute existence. Reason could replace the false beliefs of the past with new, self-evident truths. Thus: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.68 Although Jefferson felt that these rights offered a robust and concrete basis upon which people could come together, he also realised that these rights would need to be culturally established: they were not (in fact) universally self-evident, despite the need to describe them thus. They had to be made self-evident. Where Lincoln took self-evidence to imply a transcendental pact, Jefferson understood that the Declaration was a timely document. What is self-evident, and thus amounts to common sense, needs to be made clear; it has to flow from within a community, from within its traditions and its habits, and has to accord to these: by rendering these underpinnings clear, a society may be able rise to a higher level of articulacy. Here we can see the importance of Jefferson’s attempt to defend an American way of speaking, a defence which was also being prosecuted by Noah Webster. A form of linguistic and intellectual harmony, between the condition of society and existing collective lexical means for grasping that condition, can help a society achieve independence, and those within a society achieve bonds of amity and benelovent mutuality. It is not for nothing that one of the strategies Jefferson deployed in the Declaration, was to show that bonds of brotherhood based on amity between the English and the Colonists had been rendered obsolete. The reasoning individual in civil society, who was proclaimed by Jefferson and his colleagues as the ideal basis upon which progress could be built, was in need of cultural and political schooling. Self-development had been, in its puritan guise, always
a struggle towards perfection against imperfection, a struggle in which success was never guaranteed. In an imperfect world, where the endeavour to achieve clarity of vision replaced a less dynamic state of fallenness, extreme effort had to be put into the achievement, individually and collectively, of a state of virtuousness, an effort that was finally rooted in a metaphysics of benevolence and ‘moral spirit’ in Jefferson’s thought. Thus, the possession of reason or virtue in themselves did not guarantee the quality of collective life; reason was an occasion for development, virtue a reflection of one’s capacity to flourish.69 This recognition of the need to struggle to achieve clarity and virtuousness inscribed Jefferson’s understanding of independence. He saw independence, of self and polity, as the central goal in his political life, and he felt that the power of a widespread desire for this goal could be great enough to ensure the existence of the political will and clarity required to achieve it. Independence, he felt, harmonised, within a civilised society, with the capacity to exercise one’s judgement and thus act upon amity and benevolence so as to bring society to a higher plane.70 The compelling quality of the human desire for independence was also buttressed by a new and more democratic vision of politics. American society prepared common people for a life that was grander and potentially more fulfilling than that enjoyed by their forefathers, a life that was rooted, Jefferson felt, in their possession of ‘virtue enough’ for political life. The whole logic and force of his thinking tended towards the democractic and egalitarian. Yet Jefferson understood that a compelling desire for independence—which his capacity to command assent perhaps could generate—had to be something that men came to love: it had to be cherished, since it could be betrayed. His experience of national power perhaps allowed him to embrace the possibility that commerce may be a necessary support of America’s collective liberty (a position his agrarian sensibilities had long prevented him from reaching); for Jefferson balanced his approach between a vision of men in society that recognised the power of imperfection and greed, and a vision that hoped that men together could achieve something more than a mere containment of this power. Jefferson leapt into the political dark upon the basis of a hope, not upon the basis of a
certainty. Hope could be entrenched and made concrete by the very power it had to command assent: it had the capacity, as a wonderous illusion, to render itself material by the tantalising empowerment which it promised.71 America moved towards democracy, away from aristocracy with its comforting disrespect for the judgements of the people, because it seemed that aristocracy would only ensure that America was second-best, copying Europe, and thus unable to follow its own logic. Even if a democratic America would shudder under the burden of collective vigilance, of a demanding need for a political life as such, and would be thus required to extend the political revolution in as yet unknown ways, its republican life would be that much greater for the effort—America would have a fitting future. American greatness would require a new revolution in culture, and a new form of social life. Americans, who had come to America in order to re-make themselves, and who were now beginning to think of themselves for the first time as having a national identity, would be required to bring into being a cultural world to match their new political world. Jefferson hoped that this would bring into life the hopes of the Enlightenment, focused upon the pragmatism and self-reliance of the individual citizen.72 This view of America as a culturally bracing society, where political greatness and cultural health are intimately linked, was later explored by Alexis de Tocqueville, as we shall see in the next section of this chapter. Tocqueville suggested that the moeurs of America, rather than its geography or its political history, determined its capacity to deliver both individualism and collective political self-determination.73 This is a necessarily qualified vision, one that relates political greatness to the contingencies of cultural and social life. For instance, for Jefferson and many of his colleagues, citizens could only truly become Americans once they were able to see the identity between their self-interest and the public interest, to actively and symbolically forge their Americanness. They were called upon to undertake a perpetual effort to establish their Americanness. The vigilance of the citizen mattered so much to Jefferson because he was fearful about the development of a modern, more-or-less democratic republic, rooted in the alternative poles of commercial, urban society, and the agrarian economy of the
‘backwoodsman’.74 There was an important tension in his life between these two poles. He valued the property-owning yeoman farmer as a ground for his understanding of political interest, yet his awareness of self-development was rooted in the urban virtues of cosmopolitanism, openness and concourse between like-minded thinkers. His thinking was consequently ambivalent, even though it was often supremely enthusiastic. He feared the possibility that America could lose its taste for self-development, because he knew that it was in the nature of a ‘taste’ that it could be lost. For instance, he noted the danger of a degeneration of American republicanism even during the revolutionary war, reflecting a common fear that republicanism could easily lead to tyranny: [F]rom the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of the war, will remain on us long, will be heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.75 War ensured unity; peace threatened disintegration. For Jefferson this could seem to a be a theological question: for instance, he asked, in ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? They are not to be violated but with his wrath.”76 Yet the immediate significance of God’s will was unclear, since God wasn’t expected to intervene directly, since God was no ‘pitiful bunglar’. Jefferson was convinced of the rhetorical need to breed conviction, and believed there was virtue enough in man by nature to allow him to command assent. One had to decide for onself what to do, but the state of society grounded Jefferson’s rhetoric.77 Upon this basis the roots of prudence could be laid.78 Thus, just as with the whig critics of the court before him, Jefferson realised that the good life was a collective project that could not be entrusted to a corruptible system of government: its survival as a project depended upon the qualities of judgement and action of individuals, taken one by one, qualities that themselves depended upon the character of society.79 This was the very contingency that threatened to undo Jefferson’s confidence.
In Jefferson’s time, the ideal of self-reliant self-development served to patch over possible tensions between commerce and citizenship. Confidence in progress and the benefits of enlightenment was very common and largely unquestioned. A successful war of independence had been fought. America had become a new nation. Declaring independence was felt to be a central aspect of this future. American culture became enamoured with the idea of the independent self as the paradigmatic American, whilst American politics was profoundly affected by the idea of the self-reliant citizen. The language of virtue was thus able to survive. Yet, by the 1830’s, Tocqueville and Emerson amongst others felt that a tension between individuality and individualism was becoming increasingly apparent. Where the independent self, declared free by the eighteenth century, had seemed the indomitable root of collective virtue, Tocqueville dreaded that the American thirst for democratic equality was endangering her thirst for liberty because of the degeneration of this notion of the independent self. Individuality was, he feared, being replaced by routinised individualism. Thus America appeared to move from an age of independence towards an age of democracy: the age of Adams, Jefferson and Washington shaded into that more recognisably modern age, the age of Jackson.
Tocqueville and the Fate of America
Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the most perspicacious of the many intellectual visitors who travelled to America to attempt to understand its nature during the ninteenth century.80 His work continues to be hugely influential, especially amongst ‘republican’ critics of American political habits.81 His writings have become part of America’s collective political heritage: in the recent remake of the film Born Yesterday, in which a young and naive woman discovers for herself the political truths upon which America is founded, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of the foundational texts she reads.82 Tocqueville lived during a period of great turmoil in Europe and America, where the need to sustain some degree of cultural and political continuity or stability appeared to many observers to be of great importance.83 He recognised the dissolving impact of modern commercial life upon traditional, aristocratic culture and hoped that a new cultural basis for modern civilisation could be found. He felt that American democracy and society offered the clearest possible chance for developing such a new civilisation. America, he believed, had the potential to avoid the political tyranny experienced in France, whilst embracing individual liberty to its fullest. Tocqueville’s thinking on America was thus primarily concerned with the relative fates of equality and liberty in a democratic age. He argued: I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.84 In Democracy in America, Tocqueville traced the experience of equality and liberty within the habits, feelings and imaginations of Americans.85 One particular aspect of his account worth highlighting concerns the accentuation of the isolation and independence of the individual. Tocqueville noted that Americans “are independent of each other, isolated, weak”.86 He argued that: Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.87
Indeed, “in periods of equality men have no faith in one another, by reason of their common resemblance,” and everyone is driven into his or her own self for confirmation and judgement.88 The American stands alone: “They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands”.89 Tocqueville thus felt that American life would become increasingly ‘private,’ dominated by the household and the achievement of individual success: The love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one’s condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success, are so many spurs to urge men onward in the active professions they have embraced, without allowing them to deviate for an instant from the track. The main stress of the faculties is to this point. The imagination is not extinct, but its chief function is to devise what may be useful and to represent what is real. 90 Self-interest, physical gratification and self-development through practical activities thus assumed a looming importance. Public life threatened to become a mere shadow of private existence, an emasculated realm dominated by the faceless and self-seeking (despite the apparent openness of American careers to the talented). Public moralists, Tocqueville believed, would increasingly concern themselves with the supposedly harmonious bond between self-interest and public good, and less with the nobility or necessity of a personal involvement in public affairs.91 Tocqueville thus argued that the development of a utilitarian individualism and the growing cultural importance of democratic equality and self-reliance would imperil the very liberties supposedly secured by democratic institutions. Unlike Benjamin Constant or Adam Smith, Tocqueville had very little confidence in the capacity of modern commercial society to resolve its own problems; but like both of them, he was well aware of the centrality of that society to modern political life.92 As Albert Hirschman has written: In focusing on the dangers that material progress can hold for liberty, Tocqueville takes as his point of departure a situation in which ‘the taste for material enjoyments … develops more rapidly than the enlightenments and habits of liberty’. Under those conditions, with men neglecting public affairs for the sake of making private fortunes, Tocqueville questions the then already firmly established doctrine of the harmony of public and private interests.93 Democracy was in danger of degenerating into slavery. Thus, as Hirschman summarises the argument, the withdrawal of citizens from public life to make money brings the
spectre of tyranny closer: As long as not everyone is playing the ‘innocent’ game of making money, the total absorption in it of most citizens leaves the few who play for the higher stakes of power freer than before to pursue their ambition. In this way social arrangements that substitute the interests for the passions as the guiding principle of human action for the many can have the side effect of killing the civic spirit and of thereby opening the door to tyranny.94 These were anxieties which the American revolutionaries themselves had understood, as we have already seen. As Bellah argued: For Montesquieu, the virtuous citizen was one who understood that personal welfare is dependent on the general welfare and could be expected to act accordingly. Forming such a character requires the context of practices in which the coincidence of personal concern and the common welfare can be experienced. For a specialised ruling group, an aristocracy, this conjunction of private and public identity is, other things being equal, more likely than it is in a democracy whose citizens spend most of their time in private affairs, taking part in government only part-time.95 This fear of a collectively enervating individualism was not the only danger Tocqueville perceived. He believed that another interesting and linked effect of the spread of democratic and egalitarian individualism was the weakening of the individual’s capacity to hold meaningful opinions or retain a faith in the opinions of others: Men are no longer bound together by ideas, but by interests; and it would seem as if human opinions were reduced to a sort of intellectual dust, scattered on every side, unable to collect, unable to cohere. Thus that independence of mind which equality supposes to exist is never so great, never appears so excessive, as at the time when equality is beginning to establish itself and in the course of that painful labour by which it is established.96 Tocqueville feared that independence of mind would induce a reduction of ideas to interests or mere preferences. The collective ideals and bonds that hold a society together are thereby threatened. Vulgar popular opinion, a mere aggregate of interests, preferences and prejudices, becomes all that comprises a collective social life. Democracy is flattened into itself, thereby losing its properly political nature.97 The weak individual, deprived of the basis upon which meaningful opinions may be forged, deprived of public discourse, falls prey to the blandishments of social habit. For instance, Frances Anne Kemble wrote in 1838 of a “vulgar dread of vulgar opinion” amongst Americans, a dread which “pervades the American body-social from the matter of church-going to the trimming of women’s petticoats,” and thus “has eaten up all
individuality amonst them, and makes their population like so many moral and mental lithographs, and their houses like so many thousand hideous brick-twins”. Kemble concluded that: The fact is, that being politically the most free people on earth, the Americans are socially the least so; and it seems as though, ever since that little affair of establishing their independence among nations, which they managed so successfully, every American mother’s son of them has been doing his best to divest himself of his own private share of that great public blessing, liberty.98 Thus Americans are viewed as possessing abstract political freedom whilst exhibiting social and intellectual conformity.99 This conformity threatened more than political liberty, since it was linked by Tocqueville with an intellectual and aesthetic hollowness which menaced American culture. Tocqueville feared the ‘vulgarity’ and ‘pettiness’ of the pleasures that ruled over the private worlds already forming in American society in the early 1830s.100 The command to ‘obey one’s own opinion,’ and the desperate attempt to be an individual who is as ‘good as anyone else,’ would combine to hamper the capacity of American society as a whole to develop its aesthetic and intellectual potential.101 Individuality and self-development, which Tocqueville took to be largely aristocratic virtues born of the inequalities of artistocratic societies, could deteriorate in a democratic society into a merely destructive individualism. Tocqueville still felt that individuality and selfdevelopment were very important ideals, by the means of which individual liberty could be given content. However, he feared that individualism, as a system of rigid and largely dead conventions which grew out of the ideals of American society, would threaten the personal responsibilities individual Americans felt towards these commonly held ideals. The democratic force of American society would become little more than a bewitching spectacle.102 The suspicion that politics has unwittingly turned into mere spectacle has long haunted American life. Tocqueville understood the danger. He suggested that the individual’s desires in a democracy were increasingly boundless and fantastical. Equality spawned a search for signs of success within every individual’s life, such that the simulation of luxury became everyone’s pursuit. Displaying the outward signs of success
was a way of showing to everyone else that one had indeed succeeded, that one was the equal of everyone else, and that one thus deserved equal respect. Everyone could feel that they had a right to make a display of the (necessarily) conventional signs of success and happiness since the political culture of America promised happiness. As Tocqueville argued: In democracies there is always a multitude of individuals whose wants are above their means, and who are very willing to take up with imperfect satisfaction rather than abandon the object of their desires. The artisan readily understands these passions, for he himself partakes in them: in an aristocracy he would seek to sell his workmanship at a high price to the few; he now conceives that the more expeditious way of getting rich is to sell them at a low price to all. … When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones: few are now made which are worth much.103 This argument was explored explicitly by Daniel J. Boorstin in The Image, which was written during the post-Second World War boom, when expectations throughout American society reached new heights.104 Boorstin argued: We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for ‘excellence,’ to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighbourly, to go to a ‘church of our choice’ and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and be God. … Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.105 The idea of a nation committed to freedom and equality promised so much. America appeared to offer a chance of happiness to all, irrespective of religion, class, or ethnicity. This offer ignited hopes and expectations. Yet there was always a danger that these hopes would not be able to stand up to the difficult collective work that was needed to redeem them, that they would become either a source of anger at the failure of the national dream to live up to its promises, for those who felt let down, or a form of mythic belief in the rights of the individual to be who or what ever he or she wishes. Anger and self-satisfaction thus transform the effort to redeem the Enlightenment into a heated argument about the distribution of perfection. A search for improvement gravitates into a squabble over apportionment. Contrary to the drift of this transformation, however, it must be recognised that before perfection can be reached, imperfection has to be
overcome. The struggle against imperfection can have no clear end-point. This was a position, as we have seen, which was held by Jefferson, despite his confidence. The hope that makes the strenuous activity of personal and collective improvement worthwhile is rooted in a collective faith in the future. Such a hope depends upon the existence of a national ‘errand into the future’. When people begin to form their expectations upon the basis of indifferently understood collective hopes this errand begins to loose its capacity to determine the nature of collective life. Collective life becomes increasingly rootless and inarticulate, since it is increasingly deprived of the common lexicon which had been previously given to it by a national errand. Thus, the exaggerated expectancy that Boorstin saw amongst his contemporaries was in effect a denial of the collective effort to make happiness more widespread and less contingent. In short, this exaggerated expectancy failed to achieve reconciliation because it assumed the empirical possibility of the impossible. Boorstin understood the emasculation of ideals into interests to be the secularisation of the providential vision of America as Eden. Ideals, towards which one can feel responsibility, lose their capacity to prompt self-development, and are thereby replaced by a calculus of static interests. These static interests can masquerade as ideals, since democractic desires continue to pretend that everything is possible in an exceptional America. Desire thereby underpins a flattening of the distinction between utopia and reality. This flattening threatens collective understanding itself. Understanding can be taken to grow out of the coarse struggle for a better life, tempered by an acknowledgement of provisionality and imperfection in the struggle to achieve perfection. Yet collective understanding is jeopardised by the enervation of ideals into interests, and the transformation of faith into belief and hope into expectancy. Jefferson’s commitment to the ideal of self-development is thereby reduced to being a sign of providence, an heroic act at the dawn of American exceptionalism, which is falsely taken to guarantee the entitlements and freedoms of later Americans. The Fathers of the republic are fêted partly because it is possible to feel that they did all the work that was necessary. Jefferson’s commitment to an ongoing personal struggle between
perfection and imperfection is replaced by the relatively flaccid enjoyment of a given and presumably eternal social and political world. In a world in which political invention is deemed to be largely a thing of the past, conventions and habits become powerful forces. This does not mean that conservative energies replace disruptive energies, and that stability surplants change, since conventions are not necessarily conducive to stability. This is the heart of Boorstin’s position: Americans, he feels, have come to think of themselves and their entitlements in such a way that they are failing to live up to the collective achievements of the past, due to their own embalment of the spirit of that past. This attack upon convention and routine in the name of the political self-determination of the self-reliant individual draws implicitly upon the ideals of Jefferson and his colleagues. We shall see later in this thesis that a similar position developed within American pragmatism, and eventually fed into the thinking of those intellectuals who, like Boorstin, attempted to determine America’s cultural and political identity after the second world war. An American dialogue concerning convention, the individual, politics and culture can thus be traced which is illuminating, yet increasingly ignored. Boorstin’s vision of the triumph of spectacle over politics is an extreme development of Tocqueville’s more qualified anxieties. The dazzling vibrancy of America and the admirable dynamism that equality appeared to produce prevented an observer as sympathetic as Tocqueville from abandoning all hope. For Tocqueville, a capacity for self-reliance and self-development still seemed a powerful characteristic of Americans. Indeed, he was convinced that American democracy would continue to be able to combine equality and liberty. He felt that extended participation in public affairs through intermediary institutions would help build the required moral unity within society.106 Americans, Tocqueville argued, were peculiarly politically motivated. He believed that this was because the moeurs of America were uniquely suited to the task of reconciling liberty and equality. Religious life, physical geography and human character combined so as to ensure a commitment to local and national public life. Thus for Tocqueville culture acquired huge political importance. By entrenching healthy
‘habits of the heart,’ American culture could ensure the survival of a healthy democracy. Tocqueville remarked that when America ceased to be good it would also cease to be great. Thus, a cultural sense of what America stands for would have to be endlessly recreated, within a society which would soon be labouring under a widening division of labour.107 People would learn to recognise their interdependence by means of a cultural commitment to the idea of America and its ‘errand into the future’. Otherwise, Boorstin’s threatened lapse into the spectacle would become all the more likely.108
Tocqueville recognised the importance of writers in this task. For instance, he argued that America’s poets had an expansive and exciting task ahead of them: “[d]emocracy, which shuts the past against the poet, opens the future before him”.109 (Whitman seemed to many Americans to fulfil Tocqueville’s brief, painting an enticing, fleshedout picture of America’s future which was high on democracy).110 It appeared to be the writers’ task to forge a literature adequate to America’s ‘errand into the future’. This burden was enthusiastically if erratically embraced by many American writers, as we shall now see.
(Footnotes) 1 W. Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas,’ Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose, ed. by Ellaman Crasnow and Christopher Bigsby, (London: 1993), p. 496. 2 Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus,’ 1833, C. Ricks and W. L. Vance, ed., The Faber Book of America (London: 1994), p. 43. 3 See section three of this chapter. 4 The phrase is taken from S. Bercovitch, ‘New England’s Errand Reappraised,’ New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. by John Higham and Paul Conkin, (Baltimore and London: 1979), pp. 85-104. 5 The significance and nature of local definitions of American identity have been widely contested ever since American independence; the extent to which American identity provided the foundations upon which independence was built, determines the extent to which the American Revolution can be seen to be bound to a ‘national errand’ or a sense of national destiny—or the extent to which it can be seen as a directly political affair that says little about the nature of American society, which perhaps ‘made’ America itself. 6 Cited in The Faber Book of America, p. 25. 7 The Faber Book of America, p. 26. 8 R. Bellah, R. Madsen, W. M. Sullivan, A. Swidler and S. M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1985), p. 35. 9 J. H. S. J. D. Crèvecœur, ‘What is an American?,’ The Faber Book of America, pp. 241-2. 10 A. O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton, New Jersey: 1977). 11 R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 33. In his Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin displayed the triumph of making a home and a life for oneself—the great comfort of self-reliance and the just deserts that flow to those who are willing to work at their labours. See B. Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, Conn.: 1964), and The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin (Indianopolis: 1965). 12 See J. G. Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man: Changing Concepts of Success in America (Chicago: 1965). It is interesting that the question of fairness and justice in American culture is heavily loaded with significance. The requirement that virtue should be socially rewarded can only be culturally overcome where the rewards of virtue are seen to be personal in nature. The fear that unrewarded virtue is typical in the real world, that
modern life cannot guarantee justice automatically, cuts against the structure of individualist beliefs, since it requires ongoing collective deliberation and action to develop substantive justice. 13 E. Cassara, The Enlightenment in America (Lanham, MD: 1988). 14 See Jefferson’s famous letter, ‘Dialogue Between my Head & My Heart,’ to Maria Cosway, Paris, October 12, 1786, in ‘Letters,’ Writings, ed. by Merrill D. Peterson, (New York: 1984), pp. 866-877. 15 America also displayed for many observers the brute and basic characteristics of a ‘frontier’ culture, where European civilisation stood as an alternative centre of gravity drawing upon the minds of Americans. This weight of Europe in American cultural life remained fundamental, even after independence: American culture was always in part in dialogue with Europe; it was always partly provincial in self-image, at least until its cultural and perhaps artistic pre-eminence in the mid twentieth century became more clamorous. 16 P. Conrad, Imagining America (London: 1980). 17 See S. Paul, The Shore of America: Thoreau’s Inward Journey (Orbana: 1972). 18 The imaginary America where freedom and innocence coexisted could not itself coexist (without violence) with the real America that was slowly unfolding, such that the idea of America was often marked by the repression of an understanding of limits and conditions. The centrality of the experience of violence within American culture bears the mark of this repression. On the West and the centrality of an experience of the ‘Frontier’ for America, particularly as a pressure towards ‘honesty,’ democracy and self-government, see R. Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialism (New York: 1985), H. N. Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: 1970), F. J. Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York: 1948) and T. Tanner, Scenes of Nature, Signs of Man (Cambridge: 1987). Also, see W. Cronon, G. Miles and J. Gitlin, ed., Under and Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (New York: 1992). 19 The story of America is in this respect a story of the making and remaking of the very idea of America in the light of the fate of that idea: a dialectic at a tortuous standstill. Where hope spoke of a belief in an imaginary America, more mundane needs ruptured this imaginary surface, introducing the requirement to carry on with life. It is crucial in understanding the idea of America to grasp the ways in which hope was able to survive this testing encounter with need. 20 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (Harmondsworth: 1977), p. 14. Also, see the chapter on Lawrence in P. Conrad, Imagining America. 21 M. J. Lasky, ‘America and Europe: Transatlantic Images,’ Paths of American Thought, ed. by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Morton White, (Boston: 1963), pp. 468-472. 22 As we shall see, the political monuments of the Revolutionary period—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—condensed this act of fabrication into an instant of apparent political genius or inspiration. America is constructed thereby around its achieved liberties, its balanced constitution, its thorough acceptance of political egalitarianism and religious and personal freedom, its recognition of universal human needs and the consequent potential dignity and equality of all humans. See, for a political corollary and examination of the idea of invention in terms of political identity, G. Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Garden City, N. Y.: 1978). 23 M. Lerner, America as a Civilization: Life and Thought in the United States Today (New York: 1957), p. 1; see also pp. 2-51, especially, pp. 47-51. 24 D. W. Brogan, The American Character (New York: 1956), pp. 3-114. 25 See, particularly, S. Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven and London: 1975), pp. 136-186, and P. Miller, ‘Errand into the Wilderness,’ Errand into the Wilderness, (Cambridge: 1956); see also: R. Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn.: 1973); and his The Fatal Environment. 26 S. Bercovitch, ‘New England’s Errand Reappraised,’ , p. 87. 27 Ibid., p. 91. 28 Ibid., p. 98. 29 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden (Chicago: 1992), pp. 59-60. 30 Assimilation produces its own dilemmas: as Lasch argued in The Revolt of the Elites, upward mobility through assimilation creates identity and common purpose for those who are able to rise; for many, and for an increasingly populous underclass, such assimilation is not seriously available. See C. Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York and London: 1995). 31 It can, of course, be understood dogmatically itself; perfection can be simulated through narcissistic personal pleasures for those who have apparently succeeded, and by a regenerative hope for those who have not. 32 A rather Faustian situation, considered by Marshall Berman to be peculiarly apt for describing modern experience: see M. Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: 1982), ch. 1. 33 E. Cassara, The Enlightenment in America, p. 31. 34 Taken from speech given on 8th September, 1919, cited in The Faber Book of America, p. 249. America appears to be an idea, such that it seems remarkably resilient to a properly delicate sense of its own contingencies (it will become clear how I would qualify this claim). 35 Nothing extraneous is required; yet the endless delays in achieved happiness bring a shadowy sense of nihilism into play, and with it a penchant for hysterical renunciation. The barbarity of modern history fascinates, horrifies and endlessly surprises such a tradition. Humans can trust in something more than their contrivances, it is suggested: they can place trust in a logic of reality, identity, or thought—that is, something
more universal or general than the mere contingencies of personal will. Such trust however is hard to sustain. 36 W. Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas,’ p. 501. 37 American cultural reality, one could say, obviates history: for Europeans recovering history is a way to understand the nature of the present; for Americans, such recoveries are often as not acts of denial of that present—acts of fabrication. Hence the saga of black consciousness. I do not aim here to suggest that there are not repressed or denied histories for Americans that need to be recovered. Rather, I am trying to clarify the extent to which a distinction can be drawn between a closely considered care for the past and the repressed scars it has left, and the symbolic use of the past to resolve present disputes, in particular where the resolution depends for its effectiveness upon a further denial of present difficulties. The recovery of an Afro-American history that is no doubt fallacious, but supposedly ‘therapeutic,’ runs the considerable risk of entrenching the disenfranchisement of black Americans by turning them into objects rather than citizens. 38 It is precisely the significance of the fact of the apparent coherency to Americans of the rather implausible notion of ‘the American Way’ that is under view here. Bellah noted four important components that have helped define the character of this myth: republicanism, most clearly represented by the figure of Jefferson; Puritanism, as discussed above and represented by the figure of Winthrop; instrumental individualism, represented by the figure of Benjamin Franklin; and expressive individualism, represented by the figure of Whitman. R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart, pp. 27-38. 39 Cited in G. Marcus, Mystery Train (London: 1991), p. 175. 40 Letter to Henry Lee, Monticello, May 8, 1825, T. Jefferson, ‘Letters,’ p. 1501. 41 ‘Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetry at Gettysburg,’ The Faber Book of America, pp. 128-9. 42 G. Wills, Inventing America, p. xix. 43 See G. Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: the words that remade America (New York: 1992) for a further discussion. 44 G. Wills, Inventing America, p. 364. Jefferson is powerfully identified with the struggle for independence in American political life during the Revolutionary period. In popular memory he is a father-figure to the American Republic, standing, with Lincoln, Madison, Adams, as a timeless monument to the achievements and genius of that Republic. His work on his draft of the Declaration of Independence has been particularly important in forging this emminent position. See B. Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: 1967), J. Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance (Stanford, California: 1993), P. S. Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies (Charlottesville: 1993), G. S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: 1992) and C. L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence (New York: 1942). 45 G. Wills, Inventing America, pp. xxi-xxii. 46 Ibid., pp. xxii-xxiii. 47 Ibid., pp. 167-255. See also J. Dunn, ‘The Politics of Locke in England and America in the Eighteenth Century,’ John Locke: Problems and Prospectives, ed. by J. W. Yolton, (Cambridge: 1969). 48 See D. Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (Chicago: 1953). 49 E. Cassara, The Enlightenment in America, pp. 32-3. 50 See for instance C. L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence, C. B. Macpherson, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: 1973), T. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago: 1988). It is not surprising that the canonical historian of American intellectual liberalism, Louis Hartz, saw Locke as foundational for American political culture, enshrining a form of (possessive) liberal individualism that was to become central to American liberal consciousness: L. Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought (New York: 1955). 51 See J. Dunn, ‘From applied theology to social analysis: the break between John Locke and the Scottish Enlightenment,’ Rethinking modern political theory, (Cambridge: 1985), pp. 55-67. 52 Tocqueville’s comparisons between French and American republicanism are central to debates around these issues; see also G. A. Kelly, The humane comedy: Constant, Tocqueville and French Liberalism (Cambridge: 1992). 53 E. Cassara, The Enlightenment in America, pp. 36. 54 Ibid., pp. 37. 55 Cited in ibid., p. 31. 56 Independence had to be tempered with prudence, and prudence enlightened by means of a rejection of all forms of tyranny. 57 E. Cassara, The Enlightenment in America, p. 44. 58 T. Jefferson, ‘Letters,’ pp. 901-2. See G. Wills, Inventing America, pp. 184-6. 59 See, most importantly, A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (South Bend, Ind.: 1981). 60 Cited E. Cassara, The Enlightenment in America, p. 31. 61 Cited C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (London: 1989), p. 37. 62 The presence of a typically American response to intellectualism can be felt here. See R. Hofstadter, Antiintellectualism in American Life (London: 1964). As Dunn notes, “[c]ognitive duties have … to be conceived not in terms of the discretionary holding of a belief at a single particular moment of time but rather of the deliberate adoption and implementation of vigorous policies of inquiry and reflection, policies, above all, which seek to elude the self-protective or complacent myopia of the adaptive culture of political professionals.” J. Dunn, ‘Political Obligation and Political Possibility,’ Political Obligation in its Historical Context, (Cambridge: 1980), pp. 281-2. 63 Virtues, following Aristotle, are dispositions: ‘for the acquisition of virtues … knowledge has little or no
force.’ It is great consequence for the creation of stable and trustworthy political systems to what extent this can be held to be true. See Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle (Harmondsworth: 1976), book two section iv, (1105b2-26). 64 E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford: 1993), P. Thody, The Conservative Imagination (London: 1993). 65 T. Jefferson, ‘Letters,’ pp. 1295-6. 66 Questions had been raised early on concerning the centrality of federalism in American political life, in part because of this heterogeneity. Early Americans differed over the degree to which a strong federation was needed to secure national life, or the degree to which individual freedoms could eventually be jeopardised by commercial growth, or the degree to which the mass of people could be trusted as a basis for a democracy. For instance, Madison and Hamilton pushed for a stronger federation for reasons of a more Tocquevillian sort than Jefferson’s search for a more pastoral world. See, for instance, D. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: 1960). Also, see B. Manin, ‘Checks, balances and boundaries: the seperation of powers in the constitutional debate of 1787,’ The Invention of the Modern Republic, ed. by Biancamaria Fontana, (Cambridge: 1994). 67 M. Zuckerman, ‘Identity in British America: Unease in Eden,’ Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, ed. by Nicholas Canry and Anthony Pagden, (Princeton: 1987), pp. 156-7. See, also, M. Zuckerman, ‘The Fabrication of Identity in Early America,’ William and Mary Quarterly, 34 (1977) 183-214. 68 L. Kriegel, ed., Essential Works of the Founding Fathers (New York: 1964), p. 189. 69 See C. B. Macpherson, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: 1973), and J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N. J.: 1975); for a general, if rather shallow and uncareful, summary, see R. B. Fowler, The Dance with Community: The Contemporary Debate in American Political Thought (Lawrence: 1991). 70 Once freedom became a living ideal, it could never be quietened, it was commonly felt. 71 Hope could not crossover into the religious domain of faith without becoming mere belief if it lacked a religious metaphysics; such were the deep problems facing those who hoped to stay within an inductive logic. Of course, one must remember, as Wills is quick to point out, that Jefferson was a practical thinker, who spurned the construction of a mythic sense of America’s exceptionalism. 72 This combination of self-reliance with a desire to contribute to collective life, was to be termed innerdirection by David Riesman, and was to prove an important yardstick by which the rise of mass society was judged, as we shall see in chapters five and six below. 73 See next section. 74 See M. Breitwieser, ‘Jefferson’s Prospect,’ Prospects, 10 (1985) 315-53, H. Hellenbrand, The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Newark: 1990), P. S. Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies. 75 T. Jefferson, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ Writings, p. 287. 76 T. Jefferson, ‘Letters,’ p. 289. 77 Consider Fliegelman’s arguments concerning a ‘natural language’: J. Fliegelman, Declaring Independence. 78 Prudence was ultimately underwritten by God, but was increasingly understood sociologically as a feature of certain sorts of society, rooted in their contingent histories and common aspirations. For later generations it came to be underwritten by science, Revolution, and finally Man. 79 J. Dunn, ‘From applied theology to social analysis,’ pp. 55-67. 80 On Tocqueville, see R. Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought I (London: 1965), S. Drescher, Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization (Pittsburg: 1968), A. Eisenstadt, ed., Reconsidering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (New Brunswick: 1988), L. Siedentop, Tocqueville (Oxford: 1994), M. Zetterbaum, Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy (Stanford: 1967). 81 Note the huge influence of J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N. J.: 1975). See, for a critical account, ‘Republican Revisionism Revisited’ in I. Kramnick, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America (Ithica: 1990). See also R. B. Fowler, The Dance with Community. 82 For a foundational influence upon American politics and culture, Tocqueville is perhaps of peculiar interest for his capacity to retain a detached yet sympathetic and intelligent perspective. His importance is rooted in the carefully qualified nature of his approach. This can be seen in his account of the ‘democratic historian,’ who “prefers talking about the characteristics of the race, the physical conformation of the country, or the genius of civilisation, and thus abridges his own labours and satisfies his reader better at less cost”. Such historians thereby “not only deny that the few have any power of acting upon the destiny of a people, but deprive the people themselves of the power of modifying their own condition, and they subject them either to an inflexible Providence or to some blind necessity”. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (London: 1994), vol. 2. pp. 86-7. This desire on the part of Tocqueville to develop a perspective that was free from the distortions of providence and necessity, that recognised danger and greatness in equal measure, accounts for much of the analytic depth of his account. His approach had the strength of attempting to relate the social and historical conditions of the United States to its cultural and intellectual life. This breadth of focus was motivated by an attempt to grasp the sociological, economic, moral, aesthetic and political impact of modern commercialism and individualism. See A. Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography (New York: 1988), esp. p. 263, and G. A. Kelly, The humane comedy: Constant, Tocqueville and French Liberalism (Cambridge: 1992). 83 See M. Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air.
84 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 97. 85 Note that Tocqueville, although he returns endlessly to ‘equality,’ does not feel that all can be swept into
line through a mere flourish of this concept: he is engaging with the rhetorical construction of America; making a case, starting a polemic. 86 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 15. 87 Ibid., p. 98. 88 Ibid., p. 10. 89 Ibid., p. 99. 90 Ibid., p. 71. 91 See J. Fliegelman, Declaring Independence. 92 See B. Fontana, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind (London: 1991), B. Fontana, ed., The Invention of the Modern Republic (Cambridge: 1994) and G. A. Kelly, The humane comedy. 93 A. O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, p. 123. See, also, C. Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: 1991), p. 9. 94 A. O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, p. 125. 95 R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 254. Recently, the sociologist Robert Bellah and the political theorist Charles Taylor have championed what they see as a possible resurgence of political responsibility and involvement, a resurgence they recognise requires a new configuration of those ‘habits of the heart’ that at present appear to send Americans apart from one another. It is apparent to Bellah that the inability of American individualist traditions to counter the disintegrative impact of modern industrial and urban life has neither gone unchallenged nor unnoticed; ordinary Americans are attempting to face up to the problems of these traditions in a manner that is often refreshingly open and democratic in spirit. Many American intellectuals feel the need to revive their cultural responsibilities, or to try to remodel American university education towards an resurgent Deweyian ideal, for instance by developing a robust ‘core curriculum,’ so as to respond to this longing. Yet these responses have seldom moved beyond a recognition of crisis. It is as if American culture is balanced on a knife edge, where the tensions between alternative traditions are unresolved; the very dynamism of American life appears related to this tension. 96 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 7. 97 J. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: 1989), R. Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: 1977). 98 The Faber Book of America, pp. 272-3. 99 R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 147-8. (See chapter 5 below.) 100 See, for a biographical discussion, A. Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography. 101 The exploration of the dangers to democracies attendant upon this tendency have been undertaken particularly fully, within the sociological tradition, by Weber, and after him by the Frankfurt School. Karl Popper and Raymond Aron are also of passing interest. 102 See P. Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay (Ithica and London: 1983) R. Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: 1977) and L. Frank, Society as the Patient: Essays on Culture and Personality (New Brunswick, N.J.: 1948), C. Lasch, The Culture Of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: 1991), P. Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic Uses of Faith after Freud (New York: 1966). 103 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 50. 104 D. Boorstin, The Image, or, What Happened to the American Dream (London: 1961). Boorstin has been somewhat notorious for his questionable conduct during the McCarthy period; he later became almost the ‘official’ historian of America: his three-volume history is, however, not as turgid as his personal history would lead one to suspect. See in particular Boorstin’s elegiac histories: D. Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: 1965), and The Americans: The Democratic Experience (London: 1988). 105 D. Boorstin, The Image, p. 4. 106 In a manner reminiscent of Hegel, and later Durkheim. See, for instance, D. Lockwood, Solidarity and Schism (Oxford: 1992). 107 By the expedient of raising the affective qualities and visibility of functional interconnections. 108 Commitments, Boorstin and Tocqueville believe, are by their very nature acts of hope, where an individual draws a line, and says: I shall take this as my project. 109 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 74. 110 See chapter 3 below.
2—Emerson, Thoreau and America
Sole amongst nationalities, these States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivalling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long deferr’d, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards, self-reliance. Walt Whitman1
Our classical writers tended to see themselves as outcasts and isolatoes, prophets crying in the wilderness. So they have been, as a rule, American prophets, simultaneously lamenting a declension and celebrating a national dream; hypersensitive to social failings, and yet offering in their most communitarian, idealistic works a mimesis of cultural beliefs; profoundly suspicious of the uses of the errand, but describing the errand itself, as did the early Puritans, in the ambiguous terms of millennium or doomsday. Sacvan Bercovitch2
Tocqueville was not isolated in his hopeful rendition of the tasks of the democratic writer. In the mid-nineteenth century, many American writers were searching for the first great American novel, whilst simultaneously seeking to spread the recognition that America had an authentic and valuable culture of its own, fit for its own heroic literature and politics. Herman Melville, in ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses,’ published in Literary World during the summer of 1850, stated: “Believe me, my friends, that men not very much inferior to Shakespeare, are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio”.3 Melville argued: But it is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation … Let us believe it, then, once for all, that there is no hope for us in these smooth pleasing writers that know their powers. Without malice, but to speak the plain fact, they but furnish an appendix to Goldsmith, and other English authors. And we want no American Goldsmiths; nay; we want no American Miltons. … no American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this leaven of literary flunkyism towards England …While we are rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically awaits us at the close of the present century; in a literary point of view, we are deplorably
unprepared for it; and we seem studious to remain so … we should … duly recognize the meritorious writers that are our own;—those writers, who breathe that unshackled, democratic spirit of Christianity in all things, which now takes the practical lead in the world, though at the same time led by ourselves—us Americans. Let us boldly … foster all originality, though, at first, it be crabbed and ugly as our own pine knots.4 Melville believed that America was destined for greatness through political supremacy. He felt that this greatness ought to be accompanied by cultural supremacy, which could only be achieved through originality. He discerned a potent capacity for originality which seemed to reflect the American political taste for liberty and independence. Melville’s celebration of American achievements, however, was itself founded upon the rejection of what had been achieved so far. American cultural greatness would, it seems, require exceptional work. In the face of this conflict between celebration and rejection, the need for ‘American prophets,’ individuals capable of great deeds and visions, was deeply felt, at least by those who felt themselves to be, however marginally, candidates for such a role. These prophets would, it was hoped, discover originality by utilising materials that had otherwise been abandoned as unsuited to the work of cultural creativity, or which had never before been used for the purposes of cultural greatness. American prophets would thus found a cultural revolution which would match America’s achieved political revolution. Yet the means by which a cultural revolution could be propagated were far from clear. Indeed, the need for these prophets to be American marks out their awkward responsibility towards national life, where the very notion of responsibility can cut against the pursuit of originality. The pressure of expectation threatens independence of mind. The key ‘prophets’ who have lived out their lives under the pressure of such an awkward responsibility, and who felt themselves to be under some special obligation towards America, have canonically been identified as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and perhaps Melville and Hawthorne. These writers were hugely important in the development of intellectual responses to America’s ‘errand into the future’. In particular, their work was central to the self-consciousness of those intellectuals who dominated American cultural life in the mid-twentieth century. This can be seen in the narrative structure of F. O. Matthiessen’s groundbreaking American Renaissance, which was widely influential within the American Studies movement during the 1940s and 1950s.
Matthiessen argued that Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne and Melville were the ‘great minds’ who forged the ongoing patterns of American cultural life during a period of remarkable creativity in the 1850s. He also felt that these figures were the agents of American cultural maturity. He argued: It may not seem precisely accurate to refer to our mid nineteenth-century as a re-birth; but that was how the writers [Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville] themselves judged it. Not as a re-birth of values that had existed previously in America, but as America’s way of producing a renaissance, by coming to its first maturity and affirming its rightful heritage in the whole expanse of art and culture.5 Such a position was accepted without dissent by many of the New York Intellectuals, certain of whom were at one time or another colleagues of Matthiessen.6 For instance, William Phillips agreed with Matthiessen’s judgement concerning the centrality of this moment, when he argued: The Concord school may be said to mark the first appearance, in full intellectual dress, of an American intelligentsia. Revolting against the all-absorbing commercialism of the day and against the bleakness of the Puritan heritage, they set out quite consciously to form, as Emerson put it, “a learned class,” and to assimilate the culture of Europe into a native tradition.7 In this Phillips recognises in the ‘Concord school’ part of the origin of his own generation’s intellectual life.8 Alfred Kazin’s magisterial An American Procession demonstrates this impression of intellectual companionship, as does Irving Howe’s The American Newness, in which it is argued that: The Emersonian is the canniest of American vocabularies. As social creed it grew limp, a soft harmless idealism of nostalgia—except when turned to the uses of Social Darwinist reaction. … But the surprise of it all would be that, while declining in the America of the Gilded Age, and all the later gildings, into a manipulable sentiment, Emersonianism remained sharp, strong, and critical in our culture. It is everywhere among us, visible in writers who align themselves with its claims, but also, perhaps still more, in those who resist it, often after an earlier attachment…We are descendants, through mixed blood, who have left home after friendly quarrels. Yet the patriarch’s voice still rings clear.9 This conflict between a manipulable sentiment and a sharp and critical Emersonianism reflects tensions that the New York Intellectuals themselves were never able to transcend. Critical self-consciousness grew out of, yet was in tension with, a need to establish a tradition and cultivate an audience. Yet the audience had to be challenged, and the distractions of manipulable sentiment confounded. This was recognised by Phillips, Matthiessen, West and Bercovitch, who all agreed that the Concord school
was preoccupied with the dialectical work of creative critical appropriation for a wider audience.10 While such central figures as Emerson, and perhaps to an even greater extent Thoreau, often felt themselves to be ‘outcasts,’ who were ignored by a society drawn to ‘scribbling women’ and literary sensationalism (as Matthiessen put it), they were, as Bercovitch recognises, “simultaneously lamenting a declension and celebrating a national dream” at a cultural centre of their own. For these writers and thinkers, the process of coming to terms with America’s fate was also a process by which they could come to terms with their own potential; they felt tied to the collective future of their nation, bound to respond to its problems, and to bring an intellectual and independent perspective to bear. They were celebrating an America about which they also felt terribly ambiguous.11 In the process of a dialectial struggle to make sense of America, they thus developed a sense of the problems of being an intellectual in relation to American culture which has proved hugely influential. In particular, Emerson and Thoreau presented responses to the confidence of Jefferson and his colleagues in a harmony between the individual and society. Like Tocqueville, they were coming to terms with the possible degeneration of self-reliant individuality into a narrower, conformist individualism. Bellah has argued that: The cramped self-control of Franklin’s ‘virtues’ seemed to leave too little room for love, human feeling, and a deeper expression of the self. The great writers of what F. O. Matthiessen has called the ‘American Renaissance’ all reacted in one way or another against this older form of individualism. … Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne put aside the search for wealth in favour of a deeper cultivation of the self.12 This deeper cultivation of the self was a move, in the case of these writers, towards a more satisfying and productive conceptualisation of the duties of modern intellectuals. In order to bring out the nature of this conceptualisation, and its relationship to their hopes for America, I will in this chapter explore the idea of ‘self-reliance’ in the work of Emerson and Thoreau. I will do this as a prelude to examining the vocation of the cultural critic in American intellectualism as a form of tensed self-reliance that is forced to mediate between self and society, inner feelings and external pressures, intellectual commitments and the demands of the audience.13
An American Religion and ‘The American Scholar’
In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, in his essay The American Scholar, the “arrival of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters any more”.14 Emerson avowed that “our dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close”.15 Freedom from dependence was destined, Emerson felt, to lead to the expression of an uniquely American perspective within culture. Emerson had strong ideas about what this uniquely American perspective would amount to. He reinforced the sense of Americans as a busy, democratic people. He likewise emphasised the importance of the lowly: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrely; I embrace the common, I explore and situate the feet of the familiar, the low”.16 Yet he was not emphasising the lowly so as to denigrate the greatness of the elevated. He felt that American democracy could lead to a new form of greatness and a new sort of redemptive individuality. He was not endorsing an egalitarian position, so much as praising the daring and audacious effort to overcome complacency in favour of (self-)invention which he hoped the freedom from convention in a democracy would foster. He claimed: We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be too timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant … We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence.17 Again, as with Tocqueville and Crevècœur, we have the perception that America, unlike Europe, enjoyed special geographic, cultural and political conditions. America turned its people to work and action, and engaged all in useful labour, thereby laying the basis for individual inventiveness. Americans strove to “stand on [their] own feet”. Emerson argued in ‘Nature’: All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, Heaven and Earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.18
Emerson, like Melville, was intoxicated with American potential. According to Cornel West, Emerson asserted a ‘theodicy’ which saw sin as the only limitation upon human capabilities, and which saw that this limitation could be overcome—and that this overcoming was beautiful and good.19 He had a strong feeling for the providential potency of America, as the chosen location for this revelation. He disclosed self-reliant individualism as the ‘American Religion’.20 Emerson wrote in his journal: What shall be the substance of my shrift? Adam in the garden, I am to new-name all the beasts of the field and all the gods in the sky. I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air. I am to fire with what skill I can the artillery of sympathy and emotion. I am to indicate constantly, though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life, the Forgotten Good, the Unknown Cause in which we sprawl and sin. I am to try the magic of sincerity, that luxury permitted only to kings and poets. I am to celebrate the spiritual powers in their infinite contrast to the mechanical powers and the mechanical philosophy of this time. I am to console the brave sufferers under evils whose they that cannot see, by appeals to the great optimism, self-affirmed in all bosoms.21 Emerson’s new-naming is a prototypically American act. Yet Emerson was not comfortable with the America of the 1830s which was contemporaneously alarming Tocqueville.22 The New England which had been represented as a ‘City on a Hill,’ peopled by deeply moral, virtuous and plain-living folk, was undergoing a series of changes brought about by the increasing tempo of commercial, industrial and agricultural life within the Jacksonian period. The immediate wilderness was vanishing, replaced by a Western frontier, while small towns and villages like Concord experienced the intrusion of the ‘iron-road’: an intrusion well marked by Hawthorn and Thoreau.23 The future for young men and women was not as clear as it may have been for their parents. Options were increasingly apparent, yet faced figures such as Thoreau with huge personal problems: many left for the West, or for the larger cities; many stayed at home, aware that they were choosing something in doing this, that they were abandoning something unknown but mythically present. In this context, Emerson feared the growth of conformity. Thoreau illustrated this fear in Walden, in a typical outburst: “We know but a few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow?”.24 The increasing density of society brought with it an increasing density of pre-judgements, an apparent
tyranny of public opinion as Tocqueville would soon argue (just as did ‘the fashions of London and Paris’ according to Thoreau). Emerson laboured against the bonds to unimaginative rules which he saw in the guise of cooperative or utopian socialism.25 His rhetorical rejection of society could become extreme and sweeping: Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.26 This was also a period during which the spirit of commerce became an object of suspicion for those like Emerson.27 The retreat of the wilderness seemed to mark a potential retreat of America’s freedom.28 Emerson consequently wrote: A question which well deserves examination now is the Dangers of Commerce. This invasion of Nature by Trade with its Money, its Credit, its Steam, its Railroad, threatens to upset the balance of man, and establish a new, universal Monarchy more tyrannical than Babylon or Rome. Very faint and few are the poets or men of God. Those who remain are so antagonistic to this tyranny that they appear mad or morbid, and are treated as such. Sensible of this extreme unfitness they suspect themselves. And all of us apologize when we ought not, and congratulate ourselves when we ought not.29 Emerson hoped that he could escape the fate of the apparently mad or morbid, through his new-naming and great optimism, yet he nevertheless believed that commerce was upsetting the balance of man. As we shall shortly see in more detail, Emerson associated the dangers of a slavishly conventional individualism with the rise of commercial society in America, and he particularly feared the impact of what might be called social entropy upon exceptional figures. For Emerson, the great were in danger of being swamped by public indifference, branded as madmen, despite commitments to individuality. Accordingly, Emerson offered himself as a sacrifice, trusting in his own sense of moral, spiritual and intellectual certainty that the genius he represented would finally be revealed as redemptive. The truly great men would be stars around which others would orbit. Emerson immoderately stated: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”.30 He felt that since society was seldom ready to understand greatness, the achievement of individuality would be a lonely struggle with one’s conscience. He wrote in his journal (in reference to Thoreau):
Though we pine for great men, we do not use them when they come. Here is a Damascus blade of a man such as you may search through nature in vain to parallel, laid up on the shelf of our village to rust & ruin. It seems as if they were never quite available for that very idea which they represented.31 America thus seemed destined to produce greatness, yet incapable of acknowledgeing such greatness. Emerson appeared to be caught between the elegiac and the apprehensive. He praised America’s destiny, yet was anxiously critical of the character of the America he lived in. Although his faith in an ‘American Religion’ may have diluted his critique of Jacksonian America, he still remained a fierce non-conformist. Ultimately, he was a thinker who moved between neurotic anxiety and an extremely self-confident and idiosyncratic self-mythologisation. He “believes he is already on the right track and moving towards an excellent destiny,” as Cornel West put it, yet there were signs in some of his work of a darker helplessness.32 Thankfully, these ambiguities imparted great power to his thinking; he was one of America’s first intellectual outsiders, at once against and with his world. Emerson succesfully established a new vision of the American intellectual, which (as we shall see) foreshadows the New York Intellectuals’ experiences. West has argued that Emerson’s life was in fact pledged to the foundation of the organic intellectual as an exemplary American; that Emerson achieved his understanding of this vocation by mapping the figure of the self-reliant individual (in this instance, the prototypical intellectual) onto the “very content and character of America”—“His individualism pertains not simply to discrete individuals but, more important, to a normative and exhortative conception of the individual as America”.33 Emerson felt that the fate of American greatness depended upon the achievement and propogation of individual self-reliance and integrity, and he understood this to be the definitive theme within American cultural life. He candidly wrote, expressing both his distrust of government and his concern with integrity: The less government we have the better—the fewer laws and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual…the appearance of the wise man; of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation…To educate the wise man the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise man the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State.34 Emerson is thereby, like Tocqueville and Jefferson, emphasising the centrality of the
private character of the individual within American political life. The State is conceived primarily in terms of its educative qualities. Emerson’s emphasis upon the redemptive power of the wise (or good) man gives to American culture an important task, since it would be American culture which ultimately educated the wise man. American culture already embraced this task. Emerson responded directly to the Enlightenment ideals of self-mastery and self-fashioning, and hoped to bolster them in the face of new dangers. Where Jefferson and his colleagues rooted the ideal of self-reliance within the ideal of a broad and cosmopolitan society, Emerson recognised potential tensions between the selfreliant individual and the drift of that society, and he began to examine the significance of this for the intellectual. In particular, the intellectual would have to exemplify the self-reliant individual, and thereby start to redeem American hopes independently of society. Emerson believed that by founding and praising individuality against society, the intellectual could come to an understanding both of his own personal condition, and of America’s destiny. The intellectual (who is for Emerson neither a traditional intellectual nor an academic) would become the perfect American, the exemplar of America’s ‘errand into the future,’ by refusing what America had become in reality. This line of thinking was lent great force by the perceived impact of the division of labour upon American life. Emerson claimed “the state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about like so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man”.35 This rather conventional analysis of the impact of the division of labour upon modern society was particularly pressing in a society that hoped to do away with artificial hierarchies. The impact of the division of labour even extended to those who may have imagined themselves too cultivated to become culturally amputated. The intellectual or scholar, as ‘Man Thinking’ within the division of labour, faced the same danger as the ‘good finger’ or ‘neck’ of becoming a walking monster.36 The division of labour threatened to compound the impact of conformity, such that thought too would bewitch itself.37 Nevertheless, for Emerson it was axiomatic that thought possessed the capacity to transcend the empirical world.38 Emerson understood himself to be freeing thought from the constraints
of utility and science, where man looked too quickly to his mundane needs and his immediate concerns, and failed to consider the eternal and the exceptional. Thought needed to strain to express the unknown or inexpressible. In ‘Nature,’ Emerson argued that, The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake (sic). The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.39 Man becomes disunited with himself, by means of specialisation, and surrenders his longing for improvement, for the unknown and unexpected. All he sees is a terrible condition of disunity, yet he is the cause of that disunity, and accordingly of its potential redemption. The ‘drab’ amputated beings whom Emerson saw around him would, he felt, never possess the openness of spirit or originality of imagination required to recognise the disunity of modern man for what it was. Only that ‘Man Thinking’ who had overcome the constraints on thought could possess these qualities. For Emerson this freedom of thought amounted to a refusal to accept the limitations of the modern world. Intellectuals had to choose to overcome their timid slavery to limits. Emerson demonstrated this idea in relation to the tyranny of books. Books, disclosing ‘Mind Past,’ could ideally inspire, yet could equally enslave. As Emerson argued, “thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year”.40 Just as the scholar is urged to turn away from a bondage to books, Emerson, prefiguring American pragmatism, underlines the importance of experience and experimentation.41 Through the practical exercise of personal will, human life passes from an unconscious state into a conscious one, he argues, where theoretical knowledge cannot determine what is possible or what is not: “Only so much do I know, as I have lived … Life is our dictionary”.42 Emerson hoped that the tradition of established usage would be replaced by the tradition of ‘life’. He was transforming the Enlightenment faith in cognition into a new faith in freedom.
So as to make this freedom possible, the scholar had to abandon thoughts of success and popularity, and instead embrace isolation and self-trust: “But the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”.43 Emerson thought that solitude and integrity were of crucial importance for the intellectual in a democratic and egalitarian world. Intellectuals were endlessly distracted by chatter and false prophets. Given this, the quietness of a thought which is able to govern itself is a central part of the intellectual’s resistance to conventional truths. Emerson asserted, in his search for character, the need to be truly ‘free,’ even from public definitions of freedom, and he felt that this demanded a capacity for bravery. Around the scholar there amassed ‘bugs’ and ‘spawn,’ the ‘men of history’.44 Self-trust was required to render freedom possible. Emerson declared: To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgement. … Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.45 Self-trust suggested a further liberation of the present self over the past and a commitment to the future.46 The self had to be free from tired constraint in order to live up to its potential. It is within this rhetoric of self-actualisation that the expressive side to Emersonian individualism can be recognised, which emphasises an increasingly aesthetic and personal, rather than political and collective, dimension to individualism.47 Emersonian individualism may appear in this guise to amount to little more than an exhortation to do as you please. It would be wrong, however, to see Emerson as a writer who turned away from collective life. As we have noted above, he attempted to found new conventions and new traditions in order to redeem America. This side of his work can easily become obscured. In a famous passage, Emerson wrote: Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. … Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to
live. My life is for itself, not for a spectacle. 48 Emerson was not here arguing for a cruel and selfish individualism. On the contrary, he was bringing his thought to bear upon the notion of ‘possession’ (or what we might call membership or belonging). He was arguing against automatic obligations without a deeper degree of involvement or active choice. As Cornel West noted, “the aim of Emersonian cultural criticism—and subsequently, most of American pragmatic thought— is to expand powers and proliferate provocations for the moral development of human personalities”.49 Emerson hoped to provoke development by emphasising that human life must be imaginatively willed. The resistance of Jefferson and Codwallder Colden to the untested acceptance of Professors marked a similar concern, as we saw above: mere status is no guarantee of truthfulness, and often a good sign of the opposite. Emerson was underlining the inadequacy of obligation without a co-belonging that required one to treat one’s fellows as things rather than individuals. As he put it: Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things. Where he is, there is nature…50 Thus, the self that is able to reach within and achieve self-reliance, is also able to achieve a condition of greatness which can provide the very basis upon which American hopes can be redeemed.51 The conflict between the individual and conformity aims to redeem yet also keeps at a distance America’s utopian ambitions. Bercovitch has summarised the importance of this: The journal entries of November/December 1842 may be said to have launched Emerson, fresh from his “heretical” Essays: First Series, on a journey from utopia to ideology; but … the relationship between these two sites was dynamic rather than linear. The journey from one to the other was not so much a progression (or regression) as it was an oscillation … Emerson’s abiding utopianism demonstrates the radical energies potential in American liberal ideology. … Emerson’s role as prophet was to carry the basic premises of “America” as far as they would go, to the hither verge of what was ideologically conceivable—and thereby to challenge his society in the act of drawing out (furthering, in the double sense of the word) its grounds of consensus. … Emerson discovered in his culture’s symbols, values, and beliefs the agencies of change, reform, and “the new” that expressed the utopian dimensions not only of his own society but of modern liberal culture at large … Emersonian dissent reminds us that ideology in America works not by repressing radical energies but by redirecting them into a constant conflict between self and society: the self in itself, a separate, single, non-conformist individuality versus
society en masse, individualism systematized.52 For Bercovitch, Emersonian dissent is a form of utopian consciousness developed within the premises of liberal culture. It develops an “appeal to subjectivity as the sine qua non of union”.53 Consequently, Emerson was committed to attacking ‘society en masse, individualism systematised’ in the name of non-conformist individuality. The seat of measurement and of judgement lies within one’s own breast; one must exercise the faculty of self-trust if one is be a true scholar, and evade the corruptions of convention. This figures a turning-inwards, a revolution of the spirit, to guard the self against the instrumentality of making something of oneself in society. Emersonian self-reliance originally stood not as a poem in praise of the individual’s liberty, but as a statement of the need to resist society in order to stand in a true relation with authentic human society. Emerson, as Bercovitch recognises, is exploring a utopian space where socialism and individualism meet. One must refuse society so as to live properly in society—one must become the sort of person who can see society clearly so as to live a life that allows human social life a future. This is a clear statement of responsibility for intellectuals— live against the grain, yet remember that this life of opposition is bound to the life of the society that surrounds you as your only stage and arena; one’s criticism has to negotiate between extreme individualised withdrawal and an abandonment of criticism in favour of conformity. Emerson is writing a reflection upon the demands of integrity and nonconformity for the sake of society in a society that imperils integrity and non-conformity for the mass of people; he is thus one of America’s many troubled and dissenting democrats.
Thoreau’s Redemptive Writing
These issues can be traced clearly in the work of Thoreau, particularly in Walden, and Resistance to Civil Government. Daniel Walker Howe has recently summarised Thoreau’s message as “the necessity of individual self-realization”: [Thoreau] calls upon each member of his audience to obey the fundamental laws of his or her own being, without regard for neighbours, nation, church or custom. Observing Nature and reading great literature can help one discover these laws; the chief hindrance is society. Organized society is especially dangerous: businesses, clubs, political parties, philanthropic associations, and, of course, the State.54 In Resistance to Civil Government, Thoreau presents a justification of his refusal to pay poll tax to the state government of Massachusetts. That government was implicated in the war on Mexico and the continuance of slavery in the South. Thoreau stated clearly that, “[u]nder a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison”.55 He was exploring the importance of conscience: Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.56 People are alone in their experience of moral responsibility. (“You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs”.57) This is partly because Thoreau felt, like Jefferson, that: Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. … The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.58 Thoreau’s distrust of government appeared initially to reflect a strong anti-political stream in American culture. Personal fate was deemed to be an individual’s responsibility, such that government—and collective life more generally—became a shadow of the individual. Freedom stood as the ultimate representation of America: yet the ideal of freedom threatened to undo America’s capacity to function as a collective society. It would be wrong, however, to read Thoreau as an anti-political thinker, as Howe makes clear, just as it would be wrong to read Jefferson in this manner. Thoreau was
examining the personal roots of resistance to conformity. He followed Emerson, who argued in ‘Politics,’ that the core role of the state was the education of the wise man, and that the State was ultimately subordinate to ‘eternal morality’. For Howe, Thoreau “undertook to show how moral individuals could enlighten and redeem the State, even against its will”.59 Howe concluded: ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ is the work of a prophet. The message of the great essay is existential rather than philosophical … Be clear about your priorities in life, he constantly challenges his audience. Set these priorities for yourself. Simplify your life by sticking to what you really believe in; refuse to be distracted by other people’s standards.60 Thoreau’s stance as a prophet, attempting to educate the State, was grounded in the idea of integrity: “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not every thing to do, but something; and because he cannot do every thing, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong”.61 Integrity was valuable in and of itself, since Thoreau was opposed to the orthodoxy of liberal utilitarian arguments: “What is once well done is done for ever”.62 Thoreau’s politics can be understood as an attempt to redeem society by making his own life an example of integrity: he hoped that such an example would help others. Yet Thoreau thereby found himself in a paradoxical situation: In all his writings, Thoreau was in the somewhat self-contradictory position of one who exhorts his audience not to listen to others. His way of resolving the paradox was to rely upon his own example, leaving others to apply it as they saw fit. His symbolic action of going to jail … functions in this way, as does his symbolic withdrawal to a cabin in the woods in the book Walden.63 Thoreau thus presents a claim that integrity entails a careful refusal of the automatic claims of society, of the pieties of liberal political sentiment, which echoes Emerson’s desire to found a new intellectual tradition which redeems America by refusing its actual condition. This is a call for the enactment of freedom by men and women who fancy themselves free: “If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him”.64 Freedom allows one to see things right, to cut through rhetoric, distraction and evasion, to get to the core of things. Both Thoreau and Emerson were fundamentally concerned with the achievement of a ‘truthful telling,’ so to speak. By
cultivating personal non-conformity, and by opening the self up to the world, they hoped such a ‘truthful telling’ would be made possible. Thoreau restates Jefferson’s suspicion of systems, and Emerson’s debunking of influence, through a desire to get beneath the surface of things. As he states: They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head. 65 These are themes that are more fully developed, in a powerfully metaphoric manner, in W alden, as Stanley Cavell has argued.66 Cavell notes that: The drift of Walden is not that we should go off and be alone; the drift is that we are alone, and that we are never alone—not in the highest and not in the lowest sense. In the highest sense, we will know a good neighbourhood when we live there; and in the lowest, ‘Consider the girls in a factory—never alone, hardly in their dreams’ … The quest of this book is the recovery of the self, as from an illness.67 He feels that “Walden is … a tract of political education, education for membership of the polis,” such that it “locates authority in the citizens and it identifies citizens—those with whom one is in membership—as ‘neighbors’. What it shows is that education for citizenship is education for isolation”.68 Thoreau’s model for the citizen is the neighbour: someone who can make claims on you, and upon whom you too can make claims. His politics thereby threatens to be unsuited to a world of strangers, an urban world that was engulfing America at this time. He seems to possess the suspicions of a backwoodsman (Jefferson’s Republican) who cannot accept the easy yet fickle mobility of the cosmopolitan urban élites. For Thoreau there are deeper commitments to places and forms of life than the shifting forces of urban life can apparently generate. He fears that modern men and women are unable to fulfil the task of citizenship. Thoreau’s sense of the importance of isolated self-determination is highly sophisticated. He states, in the first paragraph of Walden, that he is (at present) “a sojourner in civilised life again”. He was at home in Walden, yet Walden was an experiment, through which Thoreau hoped to discover how to spend his time; how to return to a sense of being a pilgrim; how to be a stranger in America, finding his way, or a double to himself. Thoreau speaks of searching, pursuing, and tracking: he merely
sojourns; he is a wanderer, yet, unlike the ‘man of the crowd,’ or the flaneur, Thoreau is observing himself, wandering through a succession of selves. (In ‘Economy,’ he notes that “perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged and dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, like the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives”.69) Cavell argues that: W alden’s phenomenological description of finding the self, or the faith of it, is one of trailing and recovery. This is the writer’s interpretation of the injunction to know thyself. His descriptions emphasise that this is a continuous activity, not something we may think of as an intellectual preoccupation. It is placing ourselves in the world. That you do not know beforehand what you will find is the reason the quest is an experiment or an exploration.70 Thoreau, like Emerson, feels that “most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superflously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them”.71 Systematised individualism has generated conformity, ignorance and weakness. America needs intellectual leaders to lead a cultural revolution or reformation, since “[t]he mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats”.72 This ‘quiet desperation’ is the mark of a society too desperate to achieve its ends, such that it is unable to begin the ‘learning of resolution’. Americans have lost their feeling for their own ideals, in a world which is displaying its growing complexity and imperfection, and where conflicts, between races and classes, have become painfully abrupt.73 It is often claimed that Thoreau was a proto-anarchist who rejected the America he saw around him. Yet Thoreau does not abandon society; his retreat to Walden is not that of a hermit grappling with enlightenment through silent contemplation. Hermits don’t write, let alone write Walden. Walden brims with conversation and neighbourliness. We have here, as with Emerson, a commentary on the vicissitudes of attempting to maintain critical autonomy, where that autonomy is understood as something more complex than a mere act of will, as something that is built up by one’s use of language,
one’s habits of description, the pace of one’s life: one’s character, which is itself a distillation of one’s country and one’s nature. Thoreau’s work is designed to rekindle the Utopian hopes which had earlier ignited the striving for American greatness, by extending the revolution in American culture into new linguistic and personal domains. He offers himself as an example, hoping to show that quiet desperation can be overcome by understanding the ways in which people determine to follow fate. Things are mistaken for what they appear to be: society (a collective experiment) for fate, such that society becomes fate. Again, Cavell has seen this clearly: Society remains as mysterious to us as we are to ourselves, or as God is. That we are the slave-drivers of ourselves … is an open realisation of what we have made of the prophecy of democracy. It is what we have done with the success of Locke and the others in removing the divine right of kings and placing political authority in our consent to be governed together. That this has made life a little easier for some, in some respects, is a less important consequence than the fact that we now consent to social evil. What was to be a blessing we have made a curse. We do not see our hand in what happens, so we call certain events melancholy accidents when they are the inevitabilities of our projects, and we call other events necessities because we will not change our minds. The essential message of the idea of a social contract is that political institutions require justification, that they are absolutely without sanctity, that power over us is held on trust from us, that institutions have no authority other than the authority we lend them, that we are their architects, that they are therefore artefacts, that there are no laws or ends, of nature or justice, in terms of which they are tested. They are experiments.74 In ‘The Ponds’ Thoreau discusses the theme of grounds and dreams. Walden pond can be sounded, measured; there are bottoms everywhere, as Thoreau has it: like Wittgenstein, he knows that explanation has to stop somewhere, that bedrock will turn the spade; yet as long as men believe in the infinite, they will find bottomless ponds.75 Human ambition and hope transcends the apparently finite world; the sparks of Utopia exist in the mundane debris of everyday life, yet these sparks need to be stoked into flames by means of a larger recognition of reality. Thoreau memorably wrote: Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time.76 It is Thoreau’s task, and by extension, the task of the writer, to bring the reader to a sense
of where the bottoms are, of what it is to have a true conviction, of the requirement of the citizen to seize their sense of the true necessities that society entails. Thoreau is gesturing towards the idea (also notably explored later by Wittgenstein) that the many important aspects of life which are vague and difficult to understand must not be avoided by a philosophical culture desperate to establish validity before or increasingly against God.77 The writer is presenting reality not through careful and reproducible dissection but by referring to some common context of experience, some specific cultural tradition. Kafka wrote: If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.78 For Kafka books may intervene in one’s life; writing can have a literally redemptive power.79 Likewise, for Thoreau writing can be disclosive; it can be an extension of one’s nature and one’s senses, a way of seeing. By finding the right way to speak, America can be brought to its senses. The capacity writing has to become part of life, can be approached when it is able to catch a common context or specific cultural tradition in such a manner as to bring alive the problems people face, to show as Thoreau would have it, their force and necessity. It is undoubtedly a troubling task facing the writer to give people a way of speaking clearly about things that are murky and difficult to grasp; to develop a translucent, clear quality to one’s writing. It is also, however, just as important to give people a way to recognise what it is that they do not in fact understand; to be ambiguous and rhetorical when mere facts offer little solace. Prudence depends upon the recognition of the limits to one’s clarity. Thoreau is exemplary in his troubled understanding of this problem. Thoreau hoped to bring to the surface the nature of writing in his work. This is perhaps clear, for instance, in Thoreau’s sense of ‘words’. In the ‘Economy’ chapter of W alden, Thoreau talks of commerce. One of the central features of modern civilisation is the vastly augmented power of the language of commerce. Society is read as a ‘contract’;
people ‘exchange’ love and hate, they ‘invest’ their feelings as much as their time and money. These words, as Marx understood, became fetishized; as the abstract laws of capital wind themselves up into a simulacrum of life, the tracks of the machine age mark more than the path of industry. Thoreau said of the steam train: When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a new race worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made their elements their servants for noble ends!80 Words are, for Thoreau, precious because they can offer a resistance to this determination to embrace fate; they need to be listened to, for the prophetic sound of the owl, or the glimmer of dawn. Words embody the sociological fate of America, since a democracy needs “clarity and precision in public discourse”.81 For this reason, words need to cut through convention. In ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,’ Thoreau expresses what he felt it could be like when words truly disclose the world: If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career.82 The task of the writer is to distort the language of commerce and the clothes habitually embraced and conventionally chosen. For America, Cavell argues, “an epic ambition would be the ambition to compose the nation’s first epic, so it must represent the bringing of language to the nation, words of its own in which to receive instruction, to assess its faithfulness to its ideal”.83 This is the attempt to revitalise language; to bring to it a sense of the gap between what is exchanged in words and what remains. (This means that an American epic isn’t going to be able to achieve its effects by massing the detail of a way of life, as in, say, the writings of Balzac, but by reconfiguring the world as it appears, bringing out its proper but hidden meanings.) Thus the march of commerce noted by Tocqueville can be answered by a critical articulation of the incompleteness or lack of self-evidence of the fully realised commercial life. Thoreau wrote: It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you … I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. … The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their
truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.84 Thus, as with Emerson, the intellectual is to be committed to truth above all; he or she is not to try to speak “so that they can understand you,” for that would be to merely reproduce the positive language of ‘opinion and prejudice’. Thoreau not only supplements Kantianism with a language of moods—as with Emerson—but also with a recovery and quest for ‘facts,’ things-in-themselves, which surely would cut through appearances, or the shrouding conventions of gentility. Integrity stands as the invocation of this quest, its mode. The shucking-off of unnecessary clothes and the grasping of the neighbouring of self and world combine in a form of active revitalisation: a calling to arms that hopes through a fronting of the facts of the ‘activity’ of knowing thyself, to deepen the possibilities of a ‘fragrant’ experience of words. The tracks this process follows are laid down by the apprehension of nature and the contemplation of the writer’s response; but more than this, they are given by the self-conscious effort to put into words subordinated for other purposes a sense of the world.85 What is important here is the expression in Thoreau of the duty of the writer or the ‘serious reader’ to pursue a lonely course, to strip away convention and obey an inner conscience. We have here a critical perspective, one that resists the utilitarian mode that would enslave truth to know-how. Thoreau follows Emerson in concentrating on the need for individuals to see things clearly for themselves.86 He is re-presenting and expanding upon Emerson’s notion of the self-reliant scholar; healing language, bringing “our ordinary assertions back into a context where they are alive,” a context, it would seem to Thoreau, where society is ‘transparent’ to Man.87 Thoreau tells us Fate is overcome by developing within reason a distinct relationship between human reason and its conditions, a development only accessible to the ‘sojourner’ who has visited his or her own Walden. Whilst Thoreau touches at one end of the American experience; Melville reaches towards the other. Melville’s Moby-Dick rehearses the weight of fate—Ahab rages against Nature and Fate, such that “This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ Lieutenant;
I act under orders. Look though underling! that thou obeyest me.”88 Thoreau, on the other hand, hopes to find a way out, and feels that a way out is near by. Where Thoreau transcends society through nature, Melville brings us a modern capitalist carnage. We are not without hope—Marshall Berman has written of Marx: The great gift he can give us today, it seems to me, is not a way out of the contradictions of modern life but a surer and deeper way into these contradictions. He knew that the way beyond the contradictions would have to lead through modernity, not out of it. He knew we must start where we are: psychically naked, stripped of all religious, aesthetic, moral haloes and sentimental veils, thrown back on our individual will and energy, forced to exploit each other and ourselves in order to survive; and yet, in spite of all, thrown together by the same forces that pull us apart.89 It is this very image of the naked human thrown back upon itself, that sits so ambiguously at the centre of American culture. In America a terrible price is paid for the incessant stripping of moral haloes and sentimental veils. Yet American culture is not only subjected to the dominion of this singular image; there are also many attempts to make sense of community in America, and of intellectual and republican virtue; attempts, as Thoreau and Emerson demonstrate, to bring the power of a revitalised individuality to bear upon the life of the community. Thereby, momentarily and occasionally, a sense of society as a collective project, as a hazardous journey or a dangerous voyage, becomes apparent.90
Emersonian dissent seems peculiarly central to grasping the condition of the liberal intellectual, who is torn between self-reliance and a search for acknowledgement from others. Before a greater understanding of this condition is possible, however, it is necessary to grasp the impact of two romantic visions, each cutting across the other, upon American intellectuals: the first was that of democracy, as it was potently presented by Whitman, the second was that of pragmatism. The counterpoised yet related forces of self-reliance, pragmatism and democracy seemed to many intellectuals to define America’s destiny.
(Footnotes) 1 W. Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas,’ p. 496. 2 S. Bercovitch, ‘New England’s Errand Reappraised,’ p. 99.
3 Cited L. Bersani, The Culture of Redemption, p. 136. 4 Cited ibid., p. 137. 5 F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford: 1968),
p. vii. 6 Kazin was rather scathing in his attacks on Matthiesson’s later complicity with the Stalinst left—see A. Kazin, New York Jew (London: 1978). However Kazin’s On Native Grounds followed in Matthiesson’s footsteps, in terms of its scale, ambitions, and dialectial openess. See M. Dickstein, Double Agent: The Critic and Society (New York and Oxford: 1992), pp 106-108; 153-4. 7 W. Phillips, ‘The Intellectuals’ Tradition,’ The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), p. 480. 8 Kazin and Howe have echoed this sense of the past in the last decade—I. Howe, The American Newness: culture and politics in the age of Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: 1986), A. Kazin, An American Procession (London: 1985). 9 I. Howe, The American Newness, pp. 88-89. 10 It was dialectical because it resisted the tendency to give in to either the audience, or the autonomous demands of the supposedly transcendental artist. 11 Grasping this sense of identification yet simultaneous otherness was crucial for the New York intellectual group in this century; the experience of the ‘Concord school’ was a significant episode in the formation of their sense of American identity. 12 R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 33. 13 I would like to emphasise here that although I am straying into a well studied and reconstructed period and topic, I am not doing so as a literary critic or even (quite) as an intellectual historian. I am trying to examine the ambiguities concerning society and the pursuit of happiness, that the discourse concerning the notion of self-reliance often brings to the surface; to relate aspects of the American literary canon to the interests of the political theorist and cultural critic. My primary concern is with the manner in which certain languages of criticism have prospered, and the extent to which this prosperity can be linked to the achievement and embodiment of cultural values that have not lost their currency. I am interested in the ways in which thinkers earn articulacy. This dissertation is an implicit, but not explicit, meditation upon the relevance of canons. Of course, I am claiming that canons are not external features of the world much like storms; they are tools that we can learn to use, or that we can fail to use. We are only as intelligent, one could say, as we are able to collectively become intelligent. This is an important point that I will return to later. I have drawn inspiration most readily from the thinking of Stanley Cavell, since he has attempted to take Emerson and Thoreau seriously as American thinkers, and has not done so in a narrowly analytic, or political, manner: see especially S. Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: 1988); Conditions handsome and unhandsome: the constitution of Emersonian perfectionism (Chicago: 1990); ‘An Emerson Mood,’ The Senses of W alden, (Chicago: 1992a), pp. 141-160; The Senses of W alden (Chicago: 1992b), and S. Mulhall, Stanley Cavell: Philosophy’s recounting of the ordinary (Oxford: 1994). 14 R. W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), p. 53. 15 Ibid., p. 53. 16 Ibid., p. 69. 17 Ibid., pp. 70-1. 18 R. W. Emerson, ‘Nature,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), pp. 5-49. 19 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (London: 1989), p. 17. Note also the argument of Philip Nicoloff: “More and more Emerson was inclined to explain the human past, present, and future in terms of some long-range destiny implicit in racial seed and the fated cycle of circumstance. The dominant concern was no longer with the possibility of private ecstasy, but rather with the endless pageant of racial man advancing irresistibly out of his “dread origin” in “the abyss” towards a ripeness of vision which, once held, could only ebb away into over-fineness and loss of power.” Cited p. 35. 20 As West calls it following Sydney Ahlstrom and Harold Bloom, The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 17. 21 Cited in V. L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: 1930), vol. 2, p. 386. 22 R. Lebeaux, The Young Man Thoreau (Amherst: 1977), esp. chp. one, pp. 9-27. 23 S. Danly and L. Marx, The Railroad in American Art: Representations of Technological Change (Cambridge, Mass.: 1988), R. Lebeaux, The Young Man Thoreau, L. Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral in America (London: 1967). On the ‘Gilded Age’ see A. Trachtenberg, ed., Democratic Vistas, 1860-1880 (New York: 1970) and The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: 1982). 24 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ Walden, and Resistance to Civil Government, Authoritative Texts, Thoreau’s Journal, Reviews and Essays in Criticism, ed. by William Rossi, (New York: 1966), pp. 14-5. 25 See S. Bercovitch, ‘Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,’ South Atlantic Quarterly, 89: Summer (1990) 623-62. 26 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), p. 261. 27 See P. Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, Mass.: 1950). 28 One is reminded, perhaps, of Wordsworth’s poem of loss, ‘Tintern Abbey,’ and the failure he felt of childhood memories in the face of adult life. 29 (my italics), cited in V. L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: 1930), vol. 2, p. 306. 30 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ p. 267. His friendship with Carlyle perhaps allows us to locate his sense of
‘great’ here with more precision. See R. Williams, Culture and Society (London: 1982), and H. James, ‘Emerson and Carlyle,’ The American Essays, ed. by Leon Abel, (Princeton, NJ.: 1989). Carlyle was a huge influence on Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. 31 Cited in J. Porte, Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time (New York: 1979), p. 304. 32 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, pp. 12-13. 33 Ibid., pp. 12-13. 34 R. W. Emerson, ‘Politics,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), pp. 567-8. 35 R. W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar,’ p. 54. 36 See, in particular, M. M. Sealts Jr., Emerson on the Scholar (Columbia: 1992). 37 Which would lead to a condition where “all of us apologize when we ought not, and congratulate ourselves when we ought not”. C.f. discussion of Cavell in chapter 4 below. 38 R. B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge: 1990), pp. 34-58. As Emerson put it, “in fine, the ancient precept ‘know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘study nature,’ become at last one maxim”. R. W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar,’ p. 56. In a revision of Kant, the Romantics attempted to extend the notion of ‘experience’ to include emotions and ‘moods’. They suggested that above and beyond a level of action and engagement adequate to the reproduction of the world as it was, there stood a possible relationship to the world, willed and far from necessary, that recognised some ‘higher’ unity, some ‘natural supernaturalism’. (See M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: 1971).) 39 R. W. Emerson, ‘Nature,’ p. 47. 40 Ibid., p. 59. 41 See R. B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, especially pp. 34-57. The notion of bondage here resonates with the ‘slavishness’ to the past which would later be understood as an instrumentalisation of thought by Theodor Adorno, as we shall see in chapter 5 below. 42 R. W. Emerson, ‘Nature,’ p. 61. The similarities between this position, and that developed amongst Jefferson and his colleagues, are obvious enough. 43 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ p. 263. 44 C.f. M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays (London: 1981), J. O. Y. Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (Notre Dame, Indiana: 1985), and V. Havel, ‘Politics and Conscience,’ Václav Havel, or, Living in Truth, ed. by Jan Vladislav, trans. by E. Kohák and R. Scruton (London: 1987). 45 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ pp. 259-260. 46 Consistency implied to Emerson a conformity to past images. As with Nietzsche one can recognise a belief in the redemptive power of action and will, as if Emerson thinks that good action depends upon clearing away the ties of social habit: daring to be different; such that being different delivers all the good consequences that count in a conventional world. F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: 1968). 47 However, it must be noted that both Nietzsche and Emerson were operating in contexts that they believed were primarily characterised by the existence of stagnant conventions: at times in which a ‘revolution of the spirit’ was necessary, audacity was legitimate. See, classically, F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance. 48 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ pp. 262-3. See, also, the discussion in S. Cavell, ‘An Emerson Mood’. 49 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 37. 50 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ p. 267. 51 As Thoreau put it, “Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength”. ‘Walden,’ p. 7. 52 S. Bercovitch, ‘Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,’ p. 342. 53 Ibid., p. 345. 54 D. W. Howe, Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience: An Inaugural Lecture delived before the University of Oxford on 21 May 1990 (Oxford: 1990), p. 21. 55 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Resistance to Civil Government,’ Walden, and Resistance to Civil Government, Authoritative Texts, Thoreau’s Journal, Reviews and Essays in Criticism, ed. by William Rossi, (New York: 1966), p. 235. 56 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 227. 57 Ibid., p. 237. 58 Ibid., p. 226. 59 D. W. Howe, Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience, p. 18. 60 Ibid., p. 31. 61 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 234. 62 Ibid., p. 235. 63 D. W. Howe, Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience, p. 2. 64 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Resistance to Civil Government,’ p. 243. 65 Ibid., p. 244. 66 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden. See also J. Bennett, Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (Thousand Oaks: 1994), M. E. Moller, Thoreau in the Human Community (Amherst: 1980), S. Paul, The Shore of America: Thoreau’s Inward Journey (Orbana: 1972), H. D. Peck, Thoreau’s Morning Work: Memory and Perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and W alden (New Haven: 1990). 67 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 80. 68 Ibid., pp. 85-6. 69 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ pp. 15-16. 70 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 53.
71 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 3. 72 Ibid., p. 5. 73 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 99. 74 Ibid., p. 82. 75 Ibid., pp. 73-77. 76 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 66. 77 For Wittgenstein’s argument, see F. Cioffi, ‘Why do empirical methods bypass ‘The Problems which
Trouble Us’?,’ Philosophy and Literature, ed. by A. Phillips Griffiths, (Cambridge: 1984). 78 Cited in G. Steiner, Language and Silence (London: 1985), p. 88. Also, see E. Canetti, The Conscience of Words (New York: 1979). 79 Such expectations are perhaps far too immoderate to act as anything more than a vague irritant for a writer. Yet the quality of compulsion Kafka here expresses is of great interest. Both George Steiner and Elias Canetti, for instance, felt that this compulsion makes explicit the manner in which a book can become a character in the narrative of a human’s life—a participant in that life. See Canetti’s autobiography: The Tongue Set Free (London: 1987); The Torch in my Ear (London: 1989); and The Play of the Eyes (London: 1990). 80 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ pp. 78-9. 81 M. P. Kramer, Imagining Language in America: from the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton, New Jersey: 1992), p. 120. 82 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 66. 83 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 13. 84 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ pp. 216-7. 85 This may very well be mysticism: Thoreau’s texts are, however, still remarkably powerful. They derive this power, it may be surmised, from the subtle confounding of expectations that his use of words conveys. 86 That is, it is not enough to just concentrate on bringing everyone into the conversation; seeing things clearly also matters. Dewey recognises that everyone needs to be given the best education, to instil the right sorts of habits and values, yet he finally relies upon a ‘procedural’ solution—that is, he hopes that conversation in the public sphere will be able to resolve all problems. This subdued Hegelianism fails to recognise that ‘wording the world’ is an open-ended task that requires a more critical and less sanguine attitude towards the possible strengths of democracy. See J. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: 1989). 87 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden. 88 Cited in C. L. R. James, American Civilization (Oxford: 1993), p. 82. 89 M. Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air, p. 129. C.f. the vision of political integrity—the stripping of haloes—exemplified in the work of Karl Kraus and H. L. Mencken. 90 See M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays (London: 1981).
3—Two Romances: Democracy and Pragmatism in America
The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto, the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is action untied from strings, necessarily blind to particulars and details, magnificently moving in masses. Walt Whitman1
Because of the peculiarly free conditions of democracy in the United States, the American intellectuals as a social group were the first to face as a practical question the beginnings of a problem which has been fully recognized during the last twenty years— the relation of individualism to democracy as a whole. C. L. R. James2
The first part of this thesis has been concerned with the hopes and fears that Americans have held regarding America’s future.3 These hopes were transformed, along with America, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Rapid historical change confronted men and women at this time with great imaginative problems. It was a period which was later symbolised by Henry Adams through the figure of the dynamo: for Adams it was a time of uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety, yet for an initially much more confident Walt Whitman it was also a time of excitement and possibility. Whitman styled himself as the nation’s poet, and attempted, through a vocative and ‘democratic’ poetry, to turn the nation to its democratic tasks: to ride the juggernaut of modern society by building a modern democratic national culture. As we have already seen, this was not an unusual ambition at the time. Tony Tanner has noted Henry Adams’ attempt to develop new metaphors for describing America’s destiny in a modern context: Adams wanted a theory which would act as a ‘trail’ in ‘the thickset forests of history’ and even if we change that metaphor of the forest to that of the urban wasteland, thick with the rubble and dead of our century of total wars, the need for a trail or a track may still remain. A philosophy, a theory of history, a law of thermodynamics—any one of these may be a ‘trail’ and their significance may reside not so much in their verifiable
applicability as in the human compulsion to formulate them.4 This ‘human compulsion’ should not be underestimated; its relationship with the politics of hope and ambition is clear.5 The need to establish a ‘trail’ through the forests of modern culture underpins the dynamics of identity. Yet, where for Adams such a trail was endangered by democracy’s commonness, for Whitman it was through the energy of a popular democratic cultural revolution that it could be rendered meaningful in the first place. C. L. R. James has written that the key to understanding Whitman is that “as an artist Whitman is first, last and nothing else but a lyric poet, self-centred, individualistic, in the tradition of the great individualistic Romantic writers and poets”.6 James argued that Whitman hoped to overcome the gulf between individualism and democracy, partly by subduing the terrible loneliness generated by individualism: “The old heroic individuality was going and Whitman, the intellectual, passionately wanted to be one with his fellow-men”.7 However, James felt that Whitman was doomed to failure, and that his work was thus rendered largely rhetorical and performative, a resonant yet unconvincing romance with America. James maintained that Whitman’s poetry thus became an index of America’s need rather than its achievement: Whitman showed the American individualistic passion and the craving to mingle with all his fellow-men, the American dream which had been a reasonable reality and which was going to become a universal reality. The greatness of the effort and the poverty of the result show equally the greatness of the need and the impossibility of its realisation in the America Whitman knew.8 This chapter will examine the contours of Whitman’s passion, alongside an alternative passion about America, one which arose within the pragmatic and neo-pragmatic traditions. Perhaps the most important prose statement Whitman made concerning his feelings for America was the pamphlet ‘Democratic Vistas,’ written in part as a reply to Carlyle’s ‘Shooting Niagara’. Carlyle had attacked the achievements of democracy and democratic culture, arguing that they were irreparably opposed to the fulfilment of cultural and human greatness. Whitman’s work was galvanised by his refusal of the underlying force of Carlyle’s position, even though he drew upon Carlyle’s passionate
concern with the condition of democratic life.9 While Whitman felt terribly disappointed with America, his faith in the democratic principle was undimmed. In ‘Democratic Vistas,’ he explored what it meant to be a poet in a democracy. America assumed the task, he felt, “to put in forms of lasting power and practicality” both the democratic principle and self-reliance. Whitman felt that America was a “fervid and tremendous IDEA, melting everything else with resistless heat, and solving all lesser and definite distinctions in vast, indefinite, spiritual, emotional power,”10 an idea which would crown human experience: Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training-school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium, not of good only, but of all. We try often, though we fall back often. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes, fills these arenas, and fully satisfies, out of the action in them, irrespective of success.11 Democracy demanded much of America, and America demanded much of democracy; their fates were tied together. They both proclaimed the value of freedom, Whitman felt: “Indirectly, but surely, goodness, virtue, law (of the very best), follow freedom. These, to democracy, are what the keel is to the ship, or saltness to the ocean”.12 America was destined to materialise democracy’s future.13 For Whitman democracy held up both the principle of the average, and the principle of ‘individuality’. It had the potential to balance these two fundamental principles against one another, allowing a national and individual greatness to flower: For to democracy, the leveller, the unyielding principle of the average, surely joined another principle, equally unyielding, closely tracking the first, opposite … This second principle is individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself—identity—personalism. Whatever the name, its acceptance and thorough infusions through the organizations of political commonality now shooting Aurora-like about the world, are of utmost importance, as the principle itself is needed for very life’s sake. It forms, in a sort, or is to form, the compensating balance-wheel of the successful working machinery of aggregate America.14 The aggregate and the individual needed to be brought into some relationship to one another, as a basis for democratic greatness. Echoing Tocqueville, Whitman believed that democracy depended ultimately upon the power of the aggregative function—of love—and its religious representations for its strength and suppleness.15 As he put it: [Democracy] is the old, yet ever-modern dream of earth, out of her eldest and her youngest, her fond philosophers and poets. Not that half only, individualism, which
isolates. There is another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties, and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all.16 This dream of comradeship had, as we have noted, motivated figures as diverse as Jefferson and Thoreau; it marked a force in the world, a foundation, and an ideal. As Whitman wrote: Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man—which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviours of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly develop’d, cultivated and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of the United States, will then be fully express’d.17 Comradeship, the root of a healthy democracy, was reproduced by and through ‘manners and literature’. Whitman thus emphasised the centrality of culture to politics in a democracy. Just as Emerson and Thoreau had hoped to redeem America through writing, and in Emerson’s case through the development of a new, American, intellectual class, Whitman hoped that an American literature would be able to enrich America’s sense of its own nature: For not only is it not enough that the new blood, new frame of democracy shall be vilified and held together merely by political means, superficial suffrage, legislation, etc., but it is clear to me that, unless it goes deeper, gets at least as firm and as warm a hold in men’s hearts, emotions and belief, as, in their days, feudalism or ecclesiasticism, and inaugurates its own perennial sources, welling from the centre for ever, its strength will be defective, its growth doubtful, and its main charm wanting.18 This settling of democracy within “men’s hearts, emotions and belief ” would depend upon the formation of “a new class of native authors,” which could be “sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage”.19 Indeed, “Dominion strong is the bodies; dominion stronger is the mind’s”.20 Whitman felt that the heart of democracy lay in the future, rather than within any existing system of government: “We see that while many were supposing things established and completed, really the grandest things always remain; and discover that the work of the New World is not ended, but only fairly begun”.21 He felt that the New World had not yet got the measure of ‘the grandest things’. He stated that “[n]ever was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States.
Genuine belief seems to have left us”.22 Indeed, he argued—echoing Emerson and Thoreau—that: The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. … The best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians. … It was as if we had been endowed with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.23 Whitman, just as much as Emerson and Thoreau, feared the impact of conformity and gentility: “To prune, gather, trim, conform, and ever cram and stuff, and be genteel and proper, is the pressure of our days”.24 This complacency was, he felt, a form of sickness that struck those who depended upon cultivation and civility, rather than what he termed ‘personality’.25 Against this complacency, Whitman urged a cultural or more properly ‘inner’ revolution (of the Soul)—he spoke of “the true revolutions, which are of the interior life, and of the arts”.26 (He understood only too well that such a revolution was hardly routine: “You can cultivate corn and roses and orchards, but who shall cultivate the mountain peaks, the ocean, and the tumbling gorgeousness of the clouds?”27) Like Emerson, Melville, and Thoreau, Whitman proclaimed America’s need for a new culture and poetry, a new language suited to a new world: America demands a poetry that is bold, modern, and all-surrounding and kosmical, as she is herself. … Like America, it must extricate itself from even the greatest models of the past, and, while courteous to them, must have entire faith in itself, and the products of its own democratic spirit only.28 Whitman was ambivalent about America’s future. While he sketched out great vistas and hopes, he knew that these were contingent upon an inner receptiveness amongst Americans, a certain sort of courage. He felt, during the Civil War, and expressed within his recognition of the common and the everyday throughout Leaves of Grass, that Americans en masse possessed such a courage, and that their culture was a deep foundation upon which to work, yet he knew that he would nevertheless have to throw himself into a cultural battle against conformity. His writing exhibits a great urgency—he piles clause upon clause, in a deeply oratorical style that demands to be spoken aloud. His literature seems to be a report on America, aimed at making America’s dreams tangible. He understood that the greatness of America and democracy appeared to be caught up with its weakness—that America could only achieve its destiny by learning to
abandon the standards and comforts of others, and by learning its own rough ways: Shift and turn the combinations of the statement as we may, the problem of the future of America is in certain respects as dark as it is vast. Pride, competition, segregation, vicious willfulness, and license beyond example, brood already upon us. Unwieldy and immense, who shall hold in behemoth? who bridle leviathan? Flaunt it as we choose, athwart and over the roads of our progress loom huge uncertainty, and dreadful, threatening gloom. It is useless to deny it: Democracy grows rankly up the thickest, noxious, deadliest plants and fruits of all—brings worse and worse invaders—needs newer, larger, stronger, keener compensations and compellers.29 Where were these keener compensations and compellers? Whitman dreamt of a rough and democratic Emersonianism, which later thinkers would perhaps term an ‘organic’ intellectualism; he hoped that an urban, modern democratic culture could thereby be promulgated. Whitman imagined the American poet as a figure who was deeply involved in the collective life and struggles of his or her society, as the antithesis of the scholar who lived under the tutelage of other’s thoughts. Whitman’s intellectual would move, cajole, and transform its audience. He or she was bound to the audience in a more direct way than had been the case with Emerson or even more so Thoreau: Whitman interceded through oratory; his writing was a transcription of American speech. By holding a mirror up to America, America could learn to recognise its own positive and negative forces. Yet Whitman feared, perhaps with more intensity towards the end of his life than before, that in America this vision of the intellectual was endangered by the great risks the American experiment seemed to be taking. In democratic life the intellectual is continually forced to make an audience and a constituency for him or herself.30 This can be seen in relation to what the political theorist Sidney Hook examined as the dilemma of the democratic ‘Hero’. Alexander Bloom characterised Hook’s argument thus: The ‘potential hero’ does not want to make himself independent of the majority, but by his vision, his will, and his knowledge he is more likely than not to be in the minority. “His sense of his vocation impels him to fight for his insight. His loyalty to the democratic ideal compels him to make this insight the common faith of the majority.” Thus, the individual must not renounce politics as a sphere of action but must continually work to influence others.31 Whitman understood the centrality of this need to work to influence others within American culture. His example helps bring into focus what might be called the performative or rhetorical quality of democratic intellectual life. As C. L. R. James
argued, Whitman, when faced with the way in which individualism isolated people, and the limits which democracy appeared to be facing, responded by voicing an incantation: the answer was democracy ‘with a big D’. Whitman experienced a romance with the idea of a democratic America which ultimately sentimentalised that which it hoped to influence. In contrast to this sentimentalisation, pragmatists and neo-pragmatist proclaimed a thinking which was supple and open to experience. Where Whitman emphasised the idea of an American romance with democracy, they emphasised the idea of an American romance with ‘openness’.
Pragmatism as an American Romance
American culture is essentially political. America was founded upon an ethical concept of freedom. It was founded as the land of the freest society, the place where democracy is at its best, where the horizons are open. There is a kind of national romance about a country that says, “We are different from Europe because we made a fresh start. We don’t have traditions, we can create human beings as they are supposed to be.” I think that the romanticism about America runs through from Emerson to Dewey. Richard Rorty32
The ideal of openness—or freedom from tradition—has always been a central theme in American life, which we have already touched upon in relation to Crèvecœur and Jefferson. It developed into one of its clearest and most strident forms during the Cold War. At this time Sidney Hook attempted to distinguish between heresy and conspiracy as a means to defining the distinction between American liberalism and Communism.33 Hook defined the intellectual life as the pursuit of truth and the expression of honesty. He understood heresy to be a fundamental part of the pursuit of truth—by means of the heretic, he believed, progress could be achieved, since heresy counteracted the congealing power of complacency which would otherwise cause atrophy. Heresy was a figuration of the ideal of openness, and conspiracy was a reflection of a need for faith. As Neil Jumonville has argued in relation to Hook’s wider circle: Communists and ex-Communists appeared to the New York group as seekers of mystical truths in an irrational realm … for the New York group as a whole, the need for an allencompassing faith was a misguided quest for psychological and intellectual certainty.34 The counterpoint to mystical truths and an ‘ideological’ search for certainty was, they felt, to be found in America: Those driven by faith, the New York group assumed, found themselves embracing total solutions. Faith led to monolithic rather than partial beliefs and plans, the sort of absolutist approach that could endanger freedom in postwar America. Over the course of the 1940s, the ideal of the New York group was increasingly articulated in terms of values such as pluralism, moderation, tolerance, pragmatism, diversity, democracy, and freedom. Increasingly the New York intellectuals began to celebrate the tentative, provisional, and experimental.35 America itself appeared to teach these conclusions: Hook argued, against the exCommunist Whittaker Chambers, “The American experience itself is after all the best
answer to Chambers”.36 Jumonville emphasises the attraction of pragmatism to these intellectuals: For the New York group, Chambers’s apologia was yet another chapter in the conflict that had begun in the late nineteenth century, the battle in American intellectual history between the forces of philosophical absolutism and the forces of pragmatism, relativism, and scientific naturalism.37 Pragmatism asserted, most simply, that truth was an outcome, or corollary, of immersion in practical life, rather than something external that could be imposed on practical life without being ‘tested’ against practical life; truth was a residue of dialectical play and process, and was not a static property derived mechanically from given foundations.38 Pragmatism wanted to get into the thick of life, to bind intellect and reality together, and it set its heart against dogmatism. This intellectual and philosophical tradition ran through the work of figures such as Emerson, Peirce, James and Dewey.39 It also can be seen in a more imprecise fashion, as Hook maintained, as part of the American character. For instance, we have seen that by the eighteenth century a notion of the American citizen as a self reliant, self-made man was becoming increasingly popular. Tocqueville also noted a corrosive yet exhilaratingly pragmatic tone within American thinking. The American philosophical method, he argued, aimed: To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson to be used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for oneself, and oneself alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to strike through the form to the substance.40 Tocqueville felt that this induced an incessant motion and change into the life of Americans, and a taste for a constant openness to improvement.41 This implied that Americans had the nerve to impose themselves on history, since they possessed a confidence in the benign qualities of historical progress. As we have seen, Tocqueville felt that Americans were obsessed with opening themselves to the empirical or ‘real’ facts of the matter, to the extent that they set themselves against dogmatism or received opinions. This expressed the intimacy between reality and myth in American culture, since pragmatism was just another American myth. In a sense, however, it was also the
central American romance, since it denied that America was subject to myth at all.42 The apparent virtues of provincial or frontier life supported such an image of America. The rarefied and genteel culture of the East Coast élites often appeared, as Emerson and Thoreau contended, to be reproducing a mere simulacrum of the cultural wealth of Europe, against which many Americans chose to emphasise the muscularity of life in America.43 It was felt that in America the Enlightenment search for a civic culture of refinement could be tempered into a particularly practical and egalitarian form.44 It was also hoped that this form could provide an outlet for the Romantic desire for ‘wholeness’: the poorly-formed life of the frontier, it was hoped, could allow individuals a deep degree of self-determination, and this self-determination could be powerfully enabling for the modern citizen, as Thoreau tried to show.45 American pragmatism grew out of the confluence between this desire for wholeness and the effort to praise American achievements and the character of American culture.46 This can be seen clearly in Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy.47 West emphasises the Romantic search for resolution which he feels underlies much of pragmatism and neo-pragmatism. For instance, West understands the intellectual’s condition to be one of a struggle to achieve perfection in relation to intellect, and hence in relation to ideas, spirit, and freedom. This search for perfection sustains a search beyond the boundaries of philosophy, into the realm of action and feeling. West argues that Emerson stands at the beginning of the formation of the ‘intellectual’ as a public and dynamic figure in American history, emphasising in particular: The role and function of Emerson as an organic intellectual primarily preoccupied with the crisis of a moribund religious tradition, a nascent industrial order, and, most important, a postcolonial and imperialist nation unsure of itself and unsettled about its future. Not only does he create a vocation and constituency for himself—new discursive and institutional space in America of the organic intellectual—he also formulates a conception of power that enables himself and others to respond to the crises of his day.48 West emphasises that Emerson ‘evades’ modern philosophy by refusing “its quest for certainty and its hope for professional, i.e., scientific, respectability” and “its search for foundations”.49 For West, “this distinctly American refusal is the crucible from which emerge the sensibilities and sentiments of future American pragmatists”.50 Thus,
Emerson pursues a mode of cultural criticism which indulges in a quest for power, a perennial experimental search sustained by provocation and a hope for the enhancement and expansion of the self (viz., America). This pursuit locates Emerson at the “bloody crossroads” between weaving webs of meaning and feeling and criticising structures of domination and exploitation (“Cut these sentences and they bleed” and “Let us answer a book of ink with a book of flesh and blood.”).51 Emerson sets pragmatism on its course by focusing attention upon ‘experimentalism and power’. He “prefigures the major themes (power, provocation, personality) and crucial motifs (optimism, moralism, individualism)” of pragmatism and “creates a style of cultural criticism which evades modern philosophy” which attempts to “both legitimise and criticise America,” and which is situated “within and among the refined and reformist elements of the middle class—the emerging and evolving class envisioned as the historical agent of the American religion”.52 William James picked up and popularised the notion of pragmatism as a wider philosophical position. He used Charles Peirce’s Emersonian analysis of “contingency and revisability” to develop a philosophy of personal and moral life. As West argues, he was an “Emersonian individualist, moralist, meliorist, popularizer, and intellectual hero to crucial fractions of the refined and reformist middle class”.53 James unlike Peirce, however, directed his attention to the idea of ‘multiplicity,’ arguably a philosophical mirror to Randolph Bourne’s ‘Trans-national America’. This idea of multiplicity was rooted by James within a potentially millenial faith in progress, as is clear in his statement in an address ‘What makes life significant’ given in Cambridge in 1892, that “the thing of deepest—or, at any rate, of comparatively deepest—significance in life does seem to be its character of progress, or that strange union of reality with ideal novelty which it continues from one moment to another to present.”54 This reflects the progressive commitments of figures like Lippman, Croly, and Theodore Roosevelt, and demonstrates a pervasive faith in the ‘destiny’ of America. Yet, in a letter to Mrs Henry Whitman, June 7, 1899, James made clear the distance between himself and a nationalist ‘booster’ such as Roosevelt, and the extent to which the character of pragmatism was more closely related to its attacks on dogmatism than its faith in progress:
I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like as many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time, the bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favour of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.55 Such an opposition to ‘bigness’ resonated with an American anxiety about the tyrannical nature of a forced unity or community, and helped to focus the degree to which pragmatism could be used to refuse a rationalistic or technocratic vision of the modern state (or a Marxist version of this vision).56 James commited himself here, just as Emerson and Thoreau had, to the value of habits of individual self-reliance, and with this to a qualified degree of individual non-conformity. It is important, as Dewey’s work has made clear, and as our discussion of Thoreau suggested, that this does not necessarily entail a refusal of society. Rather, this tradition conceives of the individual as a source of meaning and power, and sees a perpetual struggle between truth and conformity. It was dogmatism and hypostasis rather than ‘society’ that these thinkers feared. Academic philosophical pragmatism was by no means a dominant tradition amongst the professional philosophers of the academies, yet the more public attempts of pragmatists such as James and Dewey to support a Romantic and popular emphasis upon ‘relevance’ and ‘breadth’ (or generality) proved to be repeatedly interesting to intelletuals who believed themselves to be marginal.57 Pragmatism seemed to such intellectuals to be ‘moral,’ socially and politically engaged, and well-rounded. As we have seen, Sidney Hook found pragmatism to be a powerful resource in his attempt to found a radical philosophy more inclusive than that of the empiricist tradition, and less dogmatic than Marxism. As we noted above, Hook was profoundly drawn to Dewey’s work; Dewey was his Ph.D. supervisor at Columbia in the 1920s.58 Hook set the philosophical pace for the New York Intellectuals, and his interest in pragmatism proved to be influential amongst his colleagues. Where James was a populist for the genteel middle-class, Dewey was more democratic in his ambitions, and more concerned with examining the critical dimensions of pragmatism.59 When Hook expressed a commitment to a strong relationship between
open-mindedness, political tolerance and democratic legitimacy, so as to underpin his attacks on communists as ‘secret agents,’ he was drawing upon Dewey’s sense of pragmatism as a basis for a democratic and public philosophy.60 Such a philosophy prioritised the effort to improve oneself and one’s environment. For Dewey, thought was in the service of society, not through the technologies of bureaucracy, but through a collective effort to develop everyone’s capacity for social self-determination and fulfilment.61 Dewey felt that self-fulfilment and the social good were conjoined, and that democracy as a way of life was not merely ‘political’ or ‘public’ but also private. The collective improvement of a democratic society was not something that could be forced upon people, but was something which had to come from within the cultural and personal life of all. In contesting Richard Rorty’s claim to be a Deweyian, Robert Westbrook has written: For Rorty, liberal-democratic politics involves little more than making sure that individuals hurt one another as little as possible and interfere minimally in the private life of each. There is little in his social or political vision of the communitarian side of Dewey’s thinking, nothing of Dewey’s veneration of shared experience. Rorty argues for the centrality of solidarity in public life, but his is an extremely thin solidarity, amounting to little more than a common aversion to pain and humiliation and explicitly not “a common possession or a shared power.62 For Dewey, the strength of pragmatism lay in its capacity to provide a philosophy and culture for a properly democratic society—and hence a society which he felt would be importantly different from the one that had existed in America during the first half of this century. Dewey was no revolutionary, but he did recognise the need for polemical criticism of society, culture and politics, or more precisely, a will on the part of citizens to engage critically with the conditions of their lives. Dewey did not endorse a minimalised vision of the force of public life. He believed that public life was both the engine of America’s renewal, and a human good in itself. He also had great faith in the capacity of American society to adjust itself according to experience: he too romanticised America. Intellectual openness came to be the favoured means by which American intellectuals hoped to achieve their American virtues. Neo-pragmatists such as Sidney Hook wished to demonstrate, by means of their own lives, that the public intellectual could combine openness with caution. The spread of pragmatism amongst the New York
Intellectuals was aided by a wider elective affinity between their ‘metropolitan’ or urbane and generalist criticism, and the vision of the intellectual’s vocation which was contained within the tradition of pragmatism. The New York Intellectuals came to recognise a relationship between the intellectual curiosity and redemptive ambitiousness of Jewish culture, and American pragmatism. Pragmatism, disguised as a form of revisionist liberalism, was eventually to supplant Marxism at the core of the New York Intellectuals’ thinking. Through pragmatism they found they could justify intellectual curiosity, dialectical playfulness and a taste for skepticism. Pragmatism therefore appeared to be the perfect antidote to the very middlebrow moralism and conformist fundamentalism which the New York Intellectuals believed would otherwise swamp America. To the extent that pragmatism opposed fundamentalism, it also required a recognition that there were ‘no easy answers’. It needed to be protected against its own potential degeneration into myth. Intellectual openness needed to be combined with the recognition of limits within intellectual life. Alfred Kazin has written of a struggle between faith and skepticism in the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet pact which illustrates the importance of moral and personal complexity to his generation of New York Intellectuals. He notes how suddenly many who had embraced Communism as a necessary part of anti-fascism were faced with the reality of Stalinist politics. Kazin argued that many of the communists he knew attempted to justify Stalin’s act as a sign of his ‘realism’ and his ‘seriousness’. He noted: All my life I had lived among people who had seemed to me beautiful because they were the dust of the earth; I had taken literally the claim that they identified their suffering with the liberation of humanity. I now saw that the ideologues among these people had no moral imagination whatever, and no interest in politics. They were merely the slaves of an idea, fetishists of an ideology; the real world did not exist for them, and they would never understand it. They were as cold as their leader, as self-concerned, heartless, mediocre; but being Communists, they existed by an intellectual pretension from which their stupidity would never deliver them.63 Kazin’s experience traces a restless intellect searching for roots and for the recognition that a real interest in politics and a real moral imagination were difficult and qualified achievements. He captures fully the distinction between intellectual pretension and intellectual honesty. It is not a distinction that can be routinely grasped, for ultimately it
depends upon the individual intellectual’s powers of comprehension, courage and scope. Pragmatism was a way of thinking about the forms which intellectual honesty could take: it described the ways in which intellectual pretension could cloud the imagination. As we shall see in the next chapter, an idealised vision of American openness offered part of the means by which the New York Intellectuals could commit themselves to America, envisioned as a ‘process’ rather than a fixed idea, as a nation going through an endemic process of self-formation. Within the thought of Dewey, Emerson (and to a lesser extent Thoreau), they found grounds for their search for redemption, and by perfecting the self they could overcome history; through enlightenment the democracy to which they were committed could be an expansion of the self, rather than a levelling of the self. Thus, they could embrace democracy as a condition for this redemption, without necessarily giving up their sense of their own independence and excellence. Pragmatism could achieve this, through its commitment to the idea that one would have to achieve understanding—and perfection—for oneself, and that one could not indoctrinate others with the results of such an understanding. Pragmatism thus seemed to be a peculiarly American style of thinking, a romance with America which was caught between the mythologisation of America and its critique.
The notion that Americans had a style all of their own, which was in harmony with their history and destiny, was endorsed by many intellectuals; as we have seen in the preceding chapters, figures such as Jefferson, Emerson and Thoreau all felt that America had an ‘errand into the future’ which required Americans to find their own way of thinking.64 America was searching for a voice of its own. It was held up as a place that allowed the individual a peculiar power of self-determination. However, as we have seen, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman also felt that although America was a home to them, it threatened their intellectual lives. Their feelings about America were ambiguous. America seemed to be an exciting and open arena within which people were prepared to take risks and enter into new covenants. Yet this excitement and openness—an ‘American newness’ as Howe put it—was dependent upon the capacity Americans had to sustain their nerve. Finding ways of describing what it is that is valuable and different about a culture is part of the process by which that culture comes to possess an exhalted sense of itself, such that it can eventually render at least part of its self-image actual. America has been blessed by the power of its formative narratives: its democratic commitments have helped it to become a democratic society. In support of America’s democratic ideals, pragmatism was a central rhetorical resource within the America imagination. Yet both America’s democracy and its pragmatism were dependent upon the continued development of personal character and collective culture. America was both enshrined within ideals which were personally and collectively demanding, and a place which seemed to threaten those ideals. How was America to retain its ideals without becoming imprudent and self-defeating? This was a central question which faced all American intellectuals: America was enamoured with the pristine power of the ideal of freedom, yet had to come to terms with the historical conditionality of freedom. Thus the American genius for pragmatism appeared to be both natural and contrived, both an natural corollary of America’s national condition, and a national invention that needed to be protected and nurtured.65
While millennial and pragmatic visions of America’s virtues and destiny sustained the hope that America could combine individual freedom and collective greatness, intellectuals themselves understood that they were not entirely at home in America (particularly given the way that American millenialism dreamed of the abolition of politics).66 The idea of American openness gave to American cultural and political life powerful commitments and ambitions. Yet these ambitions and commitments did not come easily for many of the New York Intellectuals. They wished to embrace liberalism against America’s liberal orthodoxies; they wanted to redeem America in the name of its own ambiguous ideals against alternative readings of those very same ideals. They embraced the ideal of freedom, of the individual’s self-determination, of the importance of a democratic and open sense of collective life, yet struggled to authorise traditions of understanding and culture which could give content to these otherwise abstract and selfdefeating ideals.67 They aimed to redeem America through culture.
Where the first part of this dissertation has examined the idea that America was special—that it had a peculiar ‘errand into the future’—and the impact that this had upon American thinkers and their sense of themselves, the second part of this dissertation will examine the fate of this idea in the age of mass society: an age which had also lost its innocence. How could the hope that America could be redeemed through culture be sustained? It will be a central argument in what follows that, just as with Emerson and Thoreau, a redemptive faith in writing or criticism can be traced in which a model of the intellectual as ‘metropolitan critic’ is developed. This was a faith which had to face up to the terrible distractions of mass society, yet it was also a faith which began to find within American popular culture a peculiar mirror to its own feelings about America.
(Footnotes) 1 W. Whitman, ‘Preface, 1855, to first issue of Leaves of Grass,’ Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose, ed. by Ellaman Crasnow and Christopher Bigsby, (London: 1993), p. 483. 2 C. L. R. James, American Civilization (Oxford: 1993), p. 50. 3 It is important to note here the point made earlier (see the Introduction above) that this thesis does not seek to endorse an hypostatized notion of America through its support of a generalised language of ‘America’. The idea of America explored here has an actual historical and intellectual existence, as a feature of certain intellectual and historical traditions. The thinkers examined in this thesis all spoke of ‘America’ and it is the
intention of this thesis to uncover the assumptions, ambitions and hopes which motivated them to so speak of America. 4 A. Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 (New York: 1971), p. 153. 5 Where the politics of hope proclaims a possibility of ‘meaning’ in history itself. 6 C. L. R. James, American Civilization, p. 51. 7 Ibid., p. 55. 8 Ibid., p. 58. 9 The first version of ‘Democratic Vistas’ was far more critical of Carlyle; Whitman came to realise that there were many similarities between his argument and that of Carlyle. Whitman also wanted to castigate the conventional democratic life he saw around him. For background, see B. Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet (New York: 1989), E. Folsom, W Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge: 1994), E. Greenspan, alt Walt Whitman and the American Reader (Cambridge: 1990), D. Kuebrich, Minor Prophecy: W Whitman’s New alt American Religion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: 1989), J. Loving, Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse (Chapel Hill: 1982). 10 W. Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas,’ p. 501. 11 Ibid., pp. 514-5. 12 Ibid., p. 513. 13 Ibid., p. 535. 14 Ibid., p. 520. 15 Whitman’s dream of comradeship is erotically suggestive: he seems to want to say that comradeship is physical as much as intellectual, about passion as much as reason. 16 W. Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas,’ p. 512. 17 Ibid., p. 539. 18 Ibid., p. 500. 19 Ibid., p. 498. 20 Ibid., p. 517. 21 Ibid., p. 549. 22 Ibid., p. 502. 23 Ibid., p. 503. 24 Ibid., pp. 521-2. 25 Ibid., p. 524. 26 Ibid., p. 536. 27 Ibid., p. 522. 28 Ibid., p. 537. With regard to Whitman’s thought on language, see E. Folsom, Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge: 1994), pp. 12-26, and K. Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: 1990), D. Simpson, The Politics of American English, 1776-1850 (New York: 1986), J. P. Warren, W Whitman’s Language Experiment (University Park: 1990). alt 29 W. Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas,’ p. 546. 30 See E. Greenspan, Walt Whitman and the American Reader (Cambridge: 1990). 31 A. Bloom, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World (New York and Oxford: 1986), p. 130. 32 G. Borradori, The American Philosopher, p. 109. 33 S. Hook, ‘The Faiths of Whittaker Chambers,’ New York Timed Book Review, May 25, 1952, pp. 35; Heresy, Yes—Conspiracy, No! (New York: 1953); and ‘From Alienation to Critical Integrity,’ The Intellectuals: a Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), pp. 528-532. 34 N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, p. 105. 35 Ibid., p. 106. 36 Cited in ibid., p. 106. 37 Ibid., p. 107. Jumonville qualified this argument by noting that “although Rahv, Howe, and Hook correctly identified the pragmatic impulse as important, they conveniently forgot the millenial, apocalyptic, and evangelical strains so predominant in American history” (p. 106). I am arguing that the conflict between the millenial and the pragmatic inflected the very idea of ‘America’ and gave to that idea both its ambitiousness and its self-critical flexibility. 38 See W. James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: 1916), W. James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (New York and London: 1919). See also A. Malachowski, ed., Reading Rorty (Oxford: 1990), R. Rorty, Contingency, irony, solidarity (Cambridge: 1989) and R. J. Bernstein, Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics, and praxis (Oxford: 1983). Of course, analytic arguments over how best to understand the nature of truth have been far from conclusive. See, for contrasting views, B. Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: 1985), L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: 1967). 39 It has also recently undergone a revival within and due to the work of certain contemporary philosophers, most obviously Richard Rorty. See the references above; also P. K. Conkin, Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Emminent American Thinkers (Bloomington and London: 1976), G. Gunn, Thinking Across the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect and the New Pragmatism (Chicago: 1992), C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy. 40 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 3. 41 He believed that Americans had taken the moral lessons of Locke to heart by embracing the power of character over environment. This tradition, as we have already seen, appears to have been transformed around the turn of the twentieth century, by a shift towards a language of ‘personality’. See W. I. Susman,
‘“Personality” and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture,’ New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. by John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, (Baltimore and London: 1979), pp. 212-226, and C. Lasch, The Culture Of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: 1991), R. Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: 1977), L. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: 1972). 42 Being open to new experiences and ideas requires one to accept that the reality which one faces on a daily basis may not contain the material out of which one may comfortably learn to better oneself. 43 See L. Trilling, ‘Reality in America,’ The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: 1950). 44 For a discussion of these themes, see T. Bender, ‘The Cultures of Intellectual Life: The City and The Professions,’ New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. by John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, (Baltimore and London: 1979), pp. 181-195; his New York Intellect (Baltimore: 1987), and R. Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: 1977). 45 On Romanticism, see M. Butler, Romantics, rebels and reactionaries: English literature and its background 17761830 (Oxford: 1981), R. B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge: 1990), T. Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: 1990). 46 For background, see R. B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithica and London: 1991), R. J. Bernstein, ‘Dewey, Democracy: The Task Ahead of Us,’ Post-Analytic Philosophy, ed. by R. Rajchman and C. West, (New York: 1985), N. Coughlan, Young John Dewey: An Essay in American Intellectual History (Chicago: 1975), D. W. Marcell, Progress and Pragmatism: James Dewey, Beard and the American Idea of Progress (Westport, Conn.: 1974), G. Gunn, Thinking Across the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect and the New Pragmatism (Chicago: 1992), D. A. Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington: 1985). 47 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy. I am also drawing upon Cavell’s recovery of Emerson and Thoreau as American philosophers: see S. Cavell, Conditions handsome and unhandsome: the constitution of Emersonian perfectionism (Chicago: 1990); ‘An Emerson Mood,’ The Senses of W alden, (Chicago: 1992a), pp. 141160; The Senses of W alden (Chicago: 1992b). 48 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 11. 49 Ibid., p. 36. 50 Ibid., p. 36. 51 Ibid., p. 36. 52 Ibid., pp. 40-41. 53 Ibid., p. 55. 54 Ibid., p. 53. 55 Cited ibid., p. 59. 56 Hook attemted to temper Marxism with pragmatism. Such an attempt may be more cogent than it seems, however, the rather deterministic Marxisms that were dominant during the twenties and thirties served to render Hook’s efforts rather difficult: he was eventually to abandon ‘determinism’ in favour of a more fluid position. 57 Note Cavell’s interesting remark on Dewey: “In philosophy a way to handle the matter [of the professional definition of a discipline] in this country is to become a technical analytic philosopher. That is a recognizable profession, and it is the way that Dewey took, adopting the only technical apparatus to which ‘professional legitimacy’ was attached, and abandoning any historical visions of ‘philosophical’ questions. To some extent, even before analytic philosophy, Dewey tried to dismantle the history of philosophy by not attending to it”: G. Borradori, The American Philosopher, pp. 124-5. 58 Morris Cohen at CCNY was the other philosopher who had a major influence upon the New York Intellectuals. See D. A. Hollinger, Morris R. Cohen and the Scientific Ideal (Cambridge, Mass.: 1975). 59 See N. Coughlan, Young John Dewey, D. W. Marcell, Progress and Pragmatism, and R. B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy. 60 See S. Hook, ‘Academic Integrity and Academic Freedom,’ Commentary, October (1949); ‘From Alienation to Critical Integrity: The Vocation of the American Intellectuals,’ Partisan Review, 19 (1952); ‘The Prospects of Academe,’ Encounter, August (1963), and N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings:. 61 Dewey emphasised what we might call a democratic and republican dimension to pragmatism, over and against the ‘expertise’ of the high liberalism of the New Deal era. More generally, see section one above, and R. Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (New York: 1973). In this, he placed himself on very similar ground to Christopher Lasch. See particularly C. Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York and London: 1995). 62 R. B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy, p. 541-2. 63 A. Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties (London: 1966), pp. 140-1. Trilling noted: “So far as The Middle of the Journey had a polemical end in view, it was that of bringing to light the clandestine negation of the political life which Stalinist Communism had fostered among the intellectuals of the West,” cited in N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, p. 103. 64 Trilling felt a strong affinity for English culture and English criticism. Trilling oddly enough exemplifies certain parts of this American style—its uneven existence at the ‘bloody crossroads’ between culture and politics. This suggests the importance of a North Atlantic, Anglo-American cultural conduit. (See the discussion of the idea of ‘clerisy’ below, in chapters 4 and 5). However, Trilling was very aware of an American philosophical temperament, or an American ‘province,’ (D. A. Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington: 1985).) In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling recognised the
powerful influence of what he deemed a ‘liberal’ orthodoxy, as we noted above. 65 Thus the qualified quality of Tocqueville’s interpretation. 66 Of course, many intellectuals were drawn to certain ideologies precisely because they promised the intellectual a prime role in the abolition of politics. Here I am referring to the anti-Stalinst left group around Partisan Review, the New York Intellectuals, who were always attempting to develop a dialectical position between tradition and change, past and future, self and society. 67 See J. Dewey, Freedom and Culture (New York: 1939) for a similar argument.
4—The New York Intellectuals and America
Historically it may be useful to fancy playfulness and piety as being the respective residues of the aristocratic and the priestly backgrounds of the intellectual function. The element of play seems to be rooted in the ethos of the leisure class, which has always been central in the history of creative imagination and humanistic learning. The element of piety is reminiscent of the priestly inheritance of the intellectuals: the quest for and the possession of truth was a holy office. As their legatee, the modern intellectual inherits the vulnerability of the aristocrat to the animus of puritanism and egalitarianism and the vulnerability of the priest to anticlericalism and popular assaults upon hierarchy. We need not be surprised, then, if the intellectual’s position has rarely been comfortable in a country which is, above all others, the home of the democrat and the antinomian. Richard Hofstadter1
Does this democracy produce and sustain an intellectual existence? It is the perennial question of American thinkers and writers, to the extent that they cannot identify themselves as professionals. If you can, then you don’t have to ask the question any more. Stanley Cavell2 The V ocation of the Intellectual in America
Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman all addressed the question: Does American democracy produce and sustain an intellectual existence? Emerson and Thoreau attempted to show how America’s intellectuals could respond to the nation’s material and ideal greatness, by measuring themselves according to its principles of self-reliance and independence. Whitman, in turn, explored the centrality of the democratic spirit to such an intellectual’s identity. Although choosing to be an intellectual in America was difficult, these writers felt that America had great potential for intellectual life. Indeed, they held that the intellectual could help to redeem the nation’s hopes: they maintained that the democratic experiment required a vigilant, imaginative and energetic class of intellectuals, who would be responsible for protecting America against itself.3 However, this broadly Emersonian tradition was only one tradition among many, and the affiliations, responsibilities and prospects of the intellectual were always strongly contested. Such contests eventually helped to forge and deepen native intellectual
traditions, and to bring a new focus to the Emersonian tradition itself. Ironically, it was the New York Intellectuals, the first generation of which began their careers by refusing America’s claim upon them, who best came to explore this resolutely American tradition. The idea of alienation has been crucially important to explorations of the vocation of the intellectual in America:4 To what extent could intellectuals identify themselves with America and its common culture? To what extent did the very idea of the intellectual imply separation and independence? Could this independence be forged through contact with national traditions, or did it necessarily imply an alienated cosmopolitanism? The modern idea of the intellectual has always seemed in tension with society. For instance, the thought of figures such as Matthew Arnold and Coleridge in England emphasised the importance of an intellectual class, or as Coleridge expressed it, ‘clerisy’.5 The clerisy would hopefully resist the corrosive impact of modern industrial and urban life, and it would protect intellectual and cultural greatness against what Arnold termed the ‘barbarism’ and ‘philistinism’ of the middle and working classes. It would guard the ideal from the apparent corruptions of the real. Thus, since intellectuals seemed to be natural aristocrats, a question immediately arose concerning their suitability for life in America.6 The modern intellectual, who was aware of the importance of separateness and self-integrity, and who was wary of the culture and views of common people, was also alienated from common life. Such a figure could find solace in the past and could dream of a transformed future, yet would also feel awkward in the present.7 The alienated intellectual in society has dominated sociological discussions of the intellectual.8 These discussions have focused on the extent to which the intellectual is responsible for a society’s ideals and ends. Karl Mannheim, for instance, emphasised the power intellectuals have to illuminate a society’s condition by their exercise of the analytic power of intellect: “The only concern which this stratum has in common is the intellectual process: the continuing endeavour to take stock, to diagnose and prognosticate, to discover choices when they arise, and to understand and locate the various points of view rather than to reject or assimilate them”.9 For Mannheim,
intellectuals alienate themselves from the world through their achievement of intellectual autonomy. This view can be contrasted with that of Gramsci’s, who contended that intellectuals could not be ‘independent’ because they could not master the conditions of their existence.10 However, since he believed that intellectuals had the power to redefine meanings, they thereby also mattered politically: intellectuals could change what was possible. Mannheim’s intellectuals are prophets who stand apart from the world and capture its essence in their thinking, while Gramsci’s intellectuals derive their power from their organic relationship with society.11 Mannheim aims to emphasise the value of the life of the mind, and Gramsci the importance of the life of society: these appear to be incommensurate visions of the intellectual. However, the American political thinker Michael Walzer has argued that it only an apparent gulf which exists between the life of the mind and that of society.12 For Walzer, the ‘connected critic’ stands astride the worlds of the mind and society, and attempts to bind each to the other.13 Such critics are mavericks who are required by their intellect to take up critical positions. They are ‘organic’ in Gramscian terms, yet their relationship with society is neither comfortable nor explicable.14 They are alienated from society yet also involved.15 The intellectual’s vocation, which appears initially to be solely about the purified life of the mind, thus seems also to be bound up with more worldly affairs—with the achievement of influence and impact, with the recognition of dependency and co-existence. In this general sense, then, America’s intellectuals are irredeemably of America.16 As Stanley Cavell put it, “If an American is an intellectual, he or she more commonly would have to feel they are composing the autobiography of America when they write”.17 One must not ask: Who is the Intellectual in general? so much as: Who is the American Intellectual in particular?18 It has been common for the peculiar qualities of the American intellectual to be defined in terms of his or her practicality. Indeed, in America there have always been great pressures towards the active engagement of scholars in the life of society.19 America’s practicality has been understood to be a positive human force by such writers as Merle Curti or Max Lerner, a force towards an unpretentious culture remarkably free
from the major snobberies of more aristocratic traditions. In such a culture, intellectuals ideally assume the ‘connected’ or organic position outlined by Walzer and Gramsci, yet perhaps without Gramsci’s belief in the endemic conflicts bedevilling capitalist society. Yet American culture has also been seen by figures such as Tocqueville, Emerson and Thoreau to be bedevilled with conformity and blandness, so as to undermine the recognition of complexity, discernment, or difficulty. The millennial dreams of America’s exceptionalism (“America the Beautiful” as Mary McCarthy put it) were matched by the sociological dangers facing American democracy. Accordingly, in America the intellectual has a peculiar need to come to terms with the way in which a democracy promises a universal audience yet cannot easily deliver such an audience: the intellectual is torn between the comforts of separation and the desire to be part of something genuinely popular and thereby legitimate. American intellectuals have always been able to hope that these tensions may be resolved. Thus while feeling alienated from common America, the intellectual is nevertheless part of this same common America, and the (perhaps unrealistic) hope remains that this common America and the intellectual’s America might be brought together.20 Such a hope can perhaps be extended to address a conflict noted by Stanley Cavell between the ‘professional’ (or ‘scholar’) and the ‘intellectual.’ The professional concentrates upon a given and local world, and the intellectual is a more public figure concerned with national issues. Cavell argued: The opposition between intellectual and scholar is one of the most deeply rooted in today’s American culture, yet they are very difficult terms to use, partly because of the lack of tradition for either of them. What do these mean in America? I constantly ask myself. They’re undefined for America, America is undefined. I don’t mean there aren’t great scholars in America. There are some great scholars. But there are no, or very few, nationally famous professors or intellectuals who speak for the country. It’s hard to think, at the moment, of one individual who speaks from both sides, the scholarly and the intellectual, but just think of Hannah Arendt or Theodore Adorno, who spent time in this country.21 Cavell went on to argue: “You can’t talk about this distinction if you don’t talk about America as such. I think this distinction represents the country, and represents it in all its indefinability”.22 In America individuals have to come to terms with their hopes and expectations; they have to choose to live deliberately, to stand somewhere in
relation to the ideals that America proclaims. Cavell maintains that the indefinability of America has forced her intellectual life into a state of inventiveness and has consequently undermined the power of traditions. (America aims for more than Europe, and is impatient with what is merely given.) As a result, American intellectuals are always having to find for themselves an audience and a voice. Being an intellectual “is not a profession in America,” and seems to require some implacable act of self-determination; it means, in effect, going ‘against the grain’ of American culture. As Cavell concluded: The problem is always, ultimately, America itself. Now we come to what the differences in the professions are in America as opposed to other places, and how intellectual disciplines exist in such radical isolation from one another. … That has terrible intellectual costs, but it also has intellectual virtues. The cost is professionalization and over-specialization, but it also has the virtues of a profession, namely knowing something very well. Professional progress, responsibility, the ability to be understood, of being a teacher and of explaining yourself to your fellow citizens, are all virtues. Why do you do what you do? You must have an answer to this. The answer can’t be “Because I’m an intellectual,” or “Because I’m an artist.” When Howard Hawks was discovered by American universities he had to pretend he was a cowboy in order to make himself comprehensible. He couldn’t let them know that he had a very good education. He wouldn’t have been taken seriously as an American artist.23 The broader and more interdisciplinary the intellectual’s interests, the less they could depend upon socially determined roles or professions to legitimate them as professionals and as intellectuals. Yet Cavell contends that ultimately this raises a central American issue, since it is up to everyone in America (he asserts) to answer the question “Why do you do what you do?”. Professions offer ready-made answers to such a question, yet as a consequence they tend to leave a powerful feeling that the question hasn’t been answered at all. It can be argued, for instance, that what really matters in intellectual life is the intellectual’s engagement with troubling questions, which strike at the root of his or her life, or the society or culture in which he or she lives. To such a view, intellectualism has to be a vocation, rather than a career. As Alfred Kazin has written, “Philosophy was the highest intellectual calling because it was inescapable, not a profession but a way of life”.24 It is as if America itself, as a way of life, was inescapable yet indefinable. In Europe one knew who the intellectuals were, while in America one had to be prepared to be surprised by cowboys who were not what they seemed. The American intellectual was thus not only marked by the dialectic between alienation and connectedness, but also by a certain
amorphousness, a lack of definition.
The intellectual odyssey which was eventually to lead New York Intellectuals to embrace America and thus to become self-conscious American intellectuals—giving form to that indefinite figure in the process—began to come to the surface during the turn of the century. America was experiencing the first effects of a ‘Modernism’ which was to grow dramatically stronger over the next half-century. America’s cities were becoming foci for new visions of the transformative impact of immigration and industrialisation. ‘Genteel’ traditions in philosophy, ‘material culture,’ social habits and economic and political life, which emphasised a comfortable and natural route to progress, began to lose their authority.25 Many intellectuals asserted the virtues of disruptively new forms of behaviour and knowledge, placing an emphasis upon using the ‘machine age’ to build radically new forms of life, and upon the importance of developing a wider sense of experience.26 Figures like Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford proclaimed the need to turn these new forces to liberating ends: to reforge America upon the basis of her new powers.27 Magazines such as The New Republic cemented a ‘progressive’ movement which hoped to apply human science and knowledge, understood initially in a broad and inclusive way, to the organisation and improvement of social affairs. Mable Dodge and Alfred Stieglitz presided over the reception and expansion of avant-garde art forms which must have seemed shocking to those still committed to the aesthetic of the Hudson Valley.28 One can find signs of syncretic change29 in a bewildering range of locations: within a growing consumerism; within the ‘pragmatic’ philosophy practised by James, Dewey and Peirce; within a new desire to apply evolutionary ideas to the formation of society; or within the culture of the radical and bohemian avant-garde. Daniel Joseph Singal has argued that an American modernism was forming which exhibited a “…passion not only for opening the self to new levels of experience, but also for fusing together disparate elements of that experience into new
and original ‘wholes,’ to the point where one can speak of an ‘integrative mode’ as the basis of the new culture”.30 Against this backdrop a desire for wholeness flourished in modernist clothes, disguised often as this search for newer and fuller experiences; this was a time that was conscious of the limits that were being overturned. There were various efforts to establish new forms of synthesis or dialectical mediation, uniting science with religion, or reason with desire.31 Singal argues that: Underlying all these efforts at integration has been the Modernist reconstruction of human nature. If the Victorians sought to place a firm barrier between the “higher” mental functions, such as rational thought and spirituality, and those “lower” instincts and passions that Freud would in time ascribe to the “id,” Modernists strove to unite these two levels of the psyche. Thus where the Victorians held “sincerity” to be their most prized character trait, with its injunction that a person’s conscious self remain honest and consistent, Modernists have demanded nothing less than “authenticity,” which requires a blending of the conscious and unconscious strata of the mind so that the self presented to the world is the “true” self in every respect.32 This American modernist interest in maximising experience and human potential was a powerful force in twentieth-century intellectual history. It found an initial home in Greenwich Village, where everything appeared to be permitted, and the constraints of traditional society were (temporarily) abolished and replaced with free self-invention.33 Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’ could come into his own.34 The ‘bohemians’ were refugees from another America, from the small town and distant prairie town, who went to the ‘Village’ in search of freedom, excitement, novelty and friendship. They were optimists and doers, overwhelmed with the power of youth, action, and America. They thus seemed to be a new sort of archetypal American: the city-dweller as frontiersman. However, the bohemians did not, initially at least, attempt to resolve their relationship with the problems facing America except on a personal level; they were not necessarily good citizens nor concerned with wider social and political issues.35 Their excitement and expectation was also mixed with a fear of trivialisation: even though Van Wyck Brooks believed America was ‘Coming of Age,’ he and his friends also feared the impact of what he influentially termed ‘middle-brow’ culture, and thus felt marginal to mainstream America.36 Figures like Bourne, Dodge, and Stieglitz, who drew from the energies of the Village yet transcended its confines, were cementing the value of the engaged, public, and honest intellectual; they were also showing the extent to which
alienation and isolation were to hound such a figure. The hope existed, for example in the work of Randolph Bourne and Edmund Wilson, that radical political and cultural life could be fused, thus providing a bridge from high culture to the masses. The idea of the ‘modern’ itself seemed to bind cultural and political life together. However, it was also clear that there were tensions between cultural and political radicalism. For instance, to many progressives the ‘bohemians’ were trivial and narcissistic in their pursuit of ‘life as art,’ and bohemia was thereby constrained in its power, and limited in its reach. Without a transformed politics, bohemia seemed little more than a ghetto. Modern radical culture needed to find a political form; it needed its own philosophy and vision of America. Neither Wilson nor Bourne believed that progressivism was an adequate political or social response.37 Randolph Bourne tirelessly attacked the progressivist New Republic for its enthusiasm for a technocratic and organisational solution to modern problems.38 The progressives were criticised for the apparent ease with which they made their peace with power.39 However, an alternative was becoming increasingly clear: the Bolshevik Revolution radically augmented the attractiveness of political radicalism. After 1917, the pressure upon radicals to embrace an apparently more muscular political consciousness—a proletarian and Marxist vision of the intellectual as radical partisan—served to emphasise the importance of deciding where one stood with respect to society, and where one consequently stood in relation to class and culture. This seemed to mean that America’s own cultural modernism was to be measured according to its capacity to reflect class—a reflection deemed to be best pursued through realism and naturalism. (This explains the influence of the writings of Drieser, Steinbeck and, in a more complex way, Dos Passos.40) America itself, in its specificity, seemed relatively unimportant: it was an example, not a kind. Thus, for America’s newly influential Marxists, a faith in science which was ‘universalistic’ in its impact, was supplemented by an explicit—yet perhaps ambiguous— alienation from modern America. American radicalism for a time appeared to derive its energies and metaphors from the repression of America itself. Aesthetic modernism also seemed to be a largely European affair during this
time. The first generation of the New York Intellectuals—figures such as Trilling, Rahv, Phillips, Macdonald, Cohen—seemed to reject America, and embrace ‘advanced’ European aesthetic and intellectual movements. Exile appeared to be the intellectual’s natural condition. As Norman Podhoretz noted, “when the family [the first generation of New York Intellectuals] spoke of itself or was spoken of as ‘alienated,’ the reference might be to any number of things, but the deepest thing of all was this: They did not feel that they belonged to America or that America belonged to them”.41 He was speaking for the first generation (which he was in time to move rapidly away from) when he argued: I did not think of culture as anything national, and in any case American culture had no real status in the eyes of anyone in the 1940s; even if it had, and immersion in it would have left me feeling more, not less, alienated from the national life than before—would have left me feeling, in fact, that the country was hopelessly in the grip of the forces of commerce and that there was no place in it for a man of sensibility and taste.42 These intellectuals saw America’s great modernists reject America and turn to Europe. Thus, “insofar as they were formed by native American influences of the immediate past,” they were most touched by “the Greenwich Village rebels of the ’teens and ’twenties, the battlers against philistinism, commercialism, and bourgeois values—writers like Edmund Wilson and Van Wyck Brooks, and the ‘red-ink boys,’ as Mencken called them, around the old Masses, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Floyd Dell”.43 Indeed, even Edmund Wilson’s comfortable sense of being an American seemed alien to them. These intellectuals did, however, retain the avant-garde dream of a unity between radical art and politics, even while this dream was crumbling around them.44 The democratic and proletarian credibility of the values of high culture were coming under increased scrutiny under the pressure of the Great Depression. For most intellectuals on the left the prescribed positions of the popular front era were powerfully insistent. The masses clearly represented a new democratic spirit, and there was a widespread hope that this new democratic spirit would be able to encompass cultural freedom and openness, as well as political and social justice. Alfred Kazin, a Jewish literary intellectual who ‘started out’ in the thirties, has written about a new mood within American literature: More than the age of the ideologue, of the literary revolutionary and the “proletarian” novelist, roles usually created within the Communist movement, the Thirties in literature were the age of the plebes—of writers from the working class, the lower class, the
immigrant class, the non-literate class, from Western farms and mills—those whose struggle was to survive. When you thought of the typical writers of the Twenties, you thought of rebels from “good” families—Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cummings, Wilson, Cowley. What was new about the writers of the Thirties was not so much their angry militancy, which many shared, as their background; writers now came from anywhere.45 Against the backdrop of the ‘age of the plebes,’ a prescribed solidarity between thinkers and the working class was forged which repressed many tensions concerning the degree to which the critical power of thought ought to be subordinated to the ‘truth’ of the class struggle.46 Yet these tensions, and the feeling that advanced culture did not necessarily guarantee political progress, were insistently expressed by dissenters. The second incarnation of Partisan Review, which was driven by the first generation of New York Intellectuals mentioned by Podhoretz, and the continued existence of Trotskyite sects and old socialists, marked the realisation amongst many left-wing intellectuals that there could be no easy commitment to the Soviet model. This was despite the huge pressures being brought to bear, and despite the fact that a clear break was difficult to justify at this time.47 It became increasingly clear that modernist culture needed defending itself against a cultural politics of expedience and propaganda. There was a pervasive faith in the authentic value of a ‘correct’ (that is, ‘true’) class culture, and the hegemonic evil of an ‘incorrect’ mass culture, yet beneath the simplicities of prescribed consciousness, many complexities lurked. Thus, although politics was unavoidably the guiding passion of a generation of intellectuals, there was also a commitment amongst anti-Stalinists to the independence and the individuality of the critic, which implied the existence of uncomfortable complexities.48 This commitment often took the form of a faith in the redemptive power of literature or culture, since the life of the mind was seen as something universal, which allowed one to escape one’s terrible parochialisms, yet it was also understood to be ultimately personal. Cultural modernism was intuitively understood to be more sophisticated than the work of ideology, which seemed to be the core fact of radical politics at the time. The roots of the New York Intellectuals’ later reconciliation with America can in part be found in the awkward relationship they thereby had with the politics of
the popular front. While their resistance to the popular front was initially rooted in European consciousness rather than American native culture, they were to find that modernism in America was generally more democratic in spirit than it was in Europe, and that there was an underlying elective affinity between the individualism and pragmatism of America’s cultural and intellectual traditions, and their own desire to resist the conformity of Stalinism.49 As we shall see in this chapter, it took some time for this ‘critical crossing,’ as Neil Jumonville has called it, to take root. However, even while the modernisms of art and politics faced themselves in an apparent stand-off throughout the twenties and thirties—such that allowing Marx and Joyce to co-exist seemed as important as the effort to bring Marx and Freud together—the basis upon which a rapprochement could be made was already in place. In the thirties these tensions were palpably not resolved. The extremity of the times and the need to respond to the rise of fascism, made it hard for doubts to develop into clear positions: the battle had to be fought. However, after the Second World War, it became clearer that a separatist clerisy need not necessarily fear an unambiguously barbarous mass culture or a rotten mid-cult; that it did not need to understand itself as constitutively alienated from America; that modern life was not (as it had temporarily seemed) only going on in Russia. Affluence appeared to offer new possibilities, as many of the distinctions between rich and poor in the West seemed to become less stark. Left and right thus began to reformulate their positions, especially during the period in which the Cold War was at its most intense. This thesis is directly concerned with the ambiguities attendant upon this process of reformulation: coming to terms with America meant trying to come to terms with the ideals of modernity and their weaknesses, since in America ideals and reality were so intimately related.
We have seen that intellectuals have often argued that they are by vocation the prime agents of collective culture, partly in order to make it clear that they have jurisdiction
over cultural standards and canons. However, they have also often felt marginal to collective culture—particularly in a democratic America which, as Tocqueville contended, has found it difficult to make room for intellect. The literary New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review and Commentary understood themselves to stand in a unique position with regard to the work of defining the nature and ideals of America, yet they feared that in an age of mass culture they would always be isolated and alienated from the mass of Americans. They felt that American culture democratised the work of canon formation and the making of tradition, and they did not feel comfortable with this. They believed that a multiplicity of American voices could drown out intellectually advanced work.50 The literary intellectuals found themselves thereby in a state of tension with given popular definitions; they saw themselves as connected critics of the ongoing work of cultural creativity, supporting certain qualities while attacking others, and they expended much energy attacking what had been from Mencken and Brooks onwards a favourite object of revulsion—the culture of the middle-brow. Despite feeling a distinction between themselves and a wider, quotidian culture they often absorbed popular definitions of American uniqueness without recognition or remark. Of course, their feeling that it was their superior generality of focus, and their all-embracing intelligence, which authorised them to speak, often led them to assume they grasped more than they did.51 In this, they seldom found themselves standing as far outside America as such European observers as Tocqueville, Bryce, Thackeray, or Dickens.52 That is, they were directly immersed in the culture they hoped to determine and remake; they had a tense, but therefore living, relationship with its values, commitments, and weaknesses. As Wittgenstein wrote: Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he can pick up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors. Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.53 They were Americans who ultimately were caught up in the process of defining America—of measuring the specific gravity of democracy’s future. They reproduced for themselves its contradictions and ambiguities, and hoped through the power of their understanding to transcend many of these contradictions, or clarify these ambiguities. In
doing so they were led to examine the ‘Mind of America’.
The ‘Mind of America’
I look back with nostalgia on the intellectual life of the 1950s. I think there are many people who, if they were really honest, would agree with me. That intellectual life got radicalized in the 1960s, and was turned into dross. Everything got politicized: art, criticism, history, popular entertainment, sex, and too much more. It was more stimulating and less doctrinaire in the fifties. There was more discussion, less selfrighteousness, and fewer moral epithets in place of arguments. I know that I am talking about the McCarthy era, but the period did not belong exclusively to the late lamented senator. There was McCarthy, but intellectual life of a high order was also going on. This life engaged more serious people, more seriously trying to figure out what they thought, with minds more alive than at any time in my experience. Midge Decter54
The main element in the intellectual atmosphere of those years—years which were later to be lumped vulgarly and indiscriminately with the latter part of the decade as the dull ’fifties—was an exhilaration at the sudden and overwhelming appearance of new possibilities, in life as in consciousness. There was a world out there which no one, it seemed, bothered to look at before, and everyone, happily shedding his Marxist blinkers, went rushing out to look. At what? Why, at America, of course. Norman Podhoretz55
Between the Second World War and the Vietnam War, many intellectuals in America came to feel that the ‘idea’ or ‘mind’ of America needed to be reappraised. The Second World War had shattered earlier radical hopes, and the onset of the Cold War had hardened American visions of the future. As Robert Booth Fowler has argued, “[t]he mood that dominated American political thought in the years after the Second World War was scepticism”.56 The credibility of Marxist political thinking had collapsed and there was a movement away from the political enthusiasm of the popular front mentality towards a knowing cynicism about politics. Marxism was the ‘God That Failed,’ and the search for alternative utopian visions appeared naive.57 Reinhold Niebuhr’s tragic view of human capabilities was perhaps emblematic of an intellectual climate that now put great store on being politically realistic, and which began to find much comfort in Freud.58 As Norman Podhoretz has written: The anti-utopianism of the revisionist liberals—their Niebuhrian stress on human imperfection as the major obstacle to the realization of huge political dreams—jibed
beautifully with the “tragic sense of life” which, in common with all students of literature barely out of their diapers, I was certain I shared with Shakespeare.59 In the place of dramatic and radical commitments, many intellectuals found themselves drawn to a new sense of America and its nature. This was in part a search for identity: as Richard H. Pells argues, “[w]here the search for community had captured the imagination of the Left in the 1930s, the search for identity inspired the writers and artists of the 1950s”.60 While the convinced radicalism of the thirties had often reduced the complexities of political action and cultural achievement to the slogans of prescribed culture, during the forties and fifties radical intellectuals became more conservative and cautious. The idea of revolution was replaced with the idea of reconciliation. Thus, American history was increasingly defined in terms of a distinction between democracy and ‘totalitarianism’: where the latter depended upon the extinction of mundane politics and disagreement, the former seemed to rest upon a proper political contract, a felt and real consensus. For sociologists such as Daniel Bell and Raymond Aron, there appeared to be an ‘end to ideology’ in sight.61 However, the shift from radical struggle to muted reconciliation did not imply that the intellectual’s feelings for America were becoming any clearer or simpler. The disappointments that had dogged the radical project had to be absorbed and their significance worked through, along with an analysis of the importance of an apparently more friendly America. By defining ‘America’ many American intellectuals felt that they would be able to reassure themselves about the gulf between America and its Communist foes, and that they would thus be able to understand better their own need to move beyond rejection to partial acceptance. They would thereby be able to make peace with their own personal histories. The intellectuals’ search for identity in America thus took on weight and importance as a counterbalance to the political game they were otherwise forced to play. It was also a reflection of a new imperative to search deep within national and personal life for the possible signs of political and social sickness. For instance, a new interest in America’s identity can be seen in a style of intellectual history that developed rapidly at this time, and which was committed to analysing the ‘American character’. This style was ambitious in scope and ambiguous in significance, since it could act as an occasion for
both the endorsement and the criticism of America. The historian John Higham, who began his career during the 1950s, argued that: The most exciting, as well as the most controversial, single achievement of intellectual historians in the 1950s was a fresh vision of the meaning of America—a vision that comprehended the whole of American history and thus illuminated the present also. According to this approach, a unifying framework of ideas and values had created a distinctive American people. It explained the durability of their society and institutions. The crucial task of historians was to define the matrix of beliefs and attitudes that shaped American history. Intellectual history gave the bite of scholarship to a broad quest for the American character.62 Writers such as Merle Curti, Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, Marvin Meyers, H. S. Commager, D. W. Brogan, R. W. B. Lewis, Alfred Kazin, Reinhold Neihbur, and Henry Nash Smith, tried to grasp the ‘conditions’ of American success, or they tried to show how resolutely democratic and pragmatic values underpinned America’s potential. The need for social and political change and reconciliation was still recognised, and it was hoped that intellectuals could contribute to a wider process of national self-definition and self-knowledge. Thus, whereas the thirties intellectuals had felt embarrassed about American culture, these writers began to feel that the popular patriotism felt by ordinary Americans could be made intellectually acceptable. Higham was writing in response to the growing importance of social history, and the concomitant decline of interest in intellectual history. Murray G. Murphey, for instance, described the declining cogency of the ‘quest for the American character’ which Higham had embraced: It is clear that the grand synthesis, as developed by men such as Miller, simply cannot be applied to so complex an entity as modern society; whether or not there was a New England mind in the seventeenth century, there is no American mind today. An inventory of American beliefs today would yield not a system but a mass of inconsistent fragments.63 New social histories that developed after the sixties emphasised heterogeneity and the importance of conflicts between differing classes, localities, groups, sexes and races. The new social history of America (from below) emphasised the relative unimportance of ideas; indeed, the idea of the ‘mind of America’ looked increasingly like an absurd abstraction. Intellectual historians, following Pocock, Dunn and Skinner amongst others responded by developing a new interest in the interactions between linguistic forms
and the ‘uses’ of language.64 However, the earlier historians of thought, as Pells argues, rejected “the dualistic vision of Turner and Beard in part because they were fascinated by the multiple complexities of American life”: This was particularly true of those in the burgeoning American Studies movement who undertook an interdisciplinary quest for the national “character.” They drew on every conceivable source—a close textual reading of Puritan sermons, the recently rediscovered insights of Alexis de Tocqueville (whose Democracy in America was republished at the end of World War II), the political rhetoric of the Jacksonians, the novels of the nineteenth century, the myths and symbols of popular culture, legends and folk tales, painting and architecture, hand tools and industrial machinery, clothing and furniture—all in a massive attempt to portray the special qualities of the “American Mind.”65 For these thinkers American experience was enormously valuable in an age of totalitarianism. America’s material wealth underlined this value. While America was facing a deep crisis in relation to the Cold War, she was equally enjoying unprecedented levels of prosperity and affluence. Consequently, it appeared that the choices which had seemed pertinent in the thirties were no longer relevant. The unambiguous moral universe facing intellectuals in the thirties suddenly appeared frighteningly complex. The strengths of American cultural and political traditions increasingly seemed to be precisely those areas which had struck the thirties radicals as weaknesses. For instance, political scientists and historians such as Robert Dahl, Louis Hartz, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Harold J. Laski, and Charles E. Lindblom, felt that America ought to be increasingly understood in terms of a capacity to absorb and face up to conflicts; that ‘extreme’ choices had to be replaced with more mundane yet morally serious choices. Norman Podhoretz has described a shift in style: I and others like me were defending … [a] new way of looking at things which was being developed in so many different quarters during the early years of what Irving Howe was later to call “The Age of Conformity” and I myself—somewhat more accurately, as I still believe—called “The Age of Revisionist Liberalism.” As the word revisionist suggests, the effort was to purge the liberal mentality of its endemically besetting illusions regarding the perfectibility of man and the perfectibility of society, and to purge it as well of the particular illusions regarding the Soviet Union to which so large a part of its constituency had fallen prey in the 1930s. In line with this effort a whole range of questions was reopened—questions which had been locked for many years into the air-tight clichés that passed for political thinking among most Americans who saw themselves as decent, right-minded, enlightened, and progressive.66 It was Sidney Hook who came best to represent the shift Podhoretz describes: his earlier brand of Marxism gradually gave way to a form of neo-pragmatism. As Neil Jumonville
has written, “In both the political and the cultural spheres Hook was committed to the principles of pluralism, diversity, free choice and self-determination. His strident anticommunism sought to protect pluralism in the political arena, despite the fact that in the execution of his anticommunist impulse he often bordered on an absolutist orientation”.67 It was through Hook in particular that the influence of figures such as Dewey was felt amongst the New York Intellectuals. The pragmatic tradition’s support of self-determination and openness, which were discussed in Chapter Three above, became an implicit cornerstone of the New Yorkers’ understanding of America’s potential virtues, although many of Hook’s colleagues felt far more uneasy with American mass culture. The possibility of reconciliation with America was brought out explicitly by the journal Partisan Review in a symposium held in 1952 entitled ‘Our Country and Our Culture’.68 The ‘new’ Partisan Review had always been the ‘house’ organ of the New York Intellectuals, and its symposia were the central means by which these largely Jewish left-wing and anti-Stalinist intellectuals publicly discussed issues they felt were central to American life. ‘Our Country and Our Culture’ became a touchstone for the way it defined the New York Intellectuals’ accommodation with America. In their introduction the editors explained their reasons for staging the debate. They started by noting a change in intellectual styles. Until little more than a decade ago, America was commonly thought to be hostile to art and culture. Since then, however, the tide has begun to turn, and many writers and intellectuals now feel closer to their country and its culture.69 Such a shift involved, they felt, a response to the Cold War. The realisation that the Holocaust set new standards for barbarity deepened this response . Indeed: For better or for worse, most writers no longer accept alienation as the artist’s fate in America; on the contrary, they want very much to be a part of American life. More and more writers have ceased to think of themselves as rebels and exiles. They now believe that their values, if they are to be realised at all, must be realised in America and in relation to the actuality of American life. In one way or another, this change has involved us all, but it has not yet been the subject of critical reflection and evaluation.70 Of course, the reactions of this particular generation of American intellectuals to the declining fortunes of their chosenmodel of the future (Marxist) , or their chosen cultural
reference point (European Modernism), pushed them towards America. As the critic Alfred Kazin showed in On Native Grounds, there were ample grounds for a resurgence in interest in American modernism and American history.71 The debts these intellectuals owed to Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorn, Whitman and, indeed, Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln should not need enumerating today. During the forties these debts were becoming clearer. (Along with debts of a more prosaic kind to American popular culture.) Leslie Fiedler was representative when he noted the impact of the war on the relative values placed on European and American intellectual culture: The new American abroad finds a Europe racked by self-pity and nostalgia (except where sustained by the manufactured enthusiasms of Stalinism), and as alienated from its own traditions as Sauk City; he finds a Europe reading in its ruins Moby Dick, a Europe haunted by the idea of America.72 It was becoming harder for intellectuals to ignore the way in which America was a complex and ambiguous idea and place. Norman Podhoretz has recounted a similar experience: he found himself, while in Europe, learning to value and defend America.73 As Fiedler argued: Not only was the American mythos real and effective, the very opposite of the hypocritical and barren materialism it seemed; but also everywhere, down to the last layer of babbitry, there existed beside this belief its complement: an unspoken realisation of the guilt and terror involved in the American experience. In this sense of lonely horror, the writer was most at one with everyone else.74 A turn to native experiences exposed two counterpoised sentiments: the sentiment that America was a valuable and exciting place (even for the intellectual), and the sentiment that America might be irredeemably middlebrow: Mass culture not only weakens the position of the artist and the intellectual profoundly by separating him from his natural audience, but it also removes the mass of people from the kind of art which might express their human and aesthetic needs. Its tendency is to exclude everything which does not conform to popular norms; it creates and satisfies artificial appetites in the entire populace; it has grown into a major industry which converts culture into a commodity. Its overshadowing presence cannot be disregarded in any evaluation of the future of American art and thought. Its increasing power is one of the chief causes of the spiritual and economic insecurity of the intellectual minority… America is a country where at the same time cultural freedom is promised and mass culture produced.75 Mass culture threatened to undermine the intellectual’s reconciliation with contemporary America.76 Yet even here there were moves towards a more positive position. This was
in part a reflection of a new sense of confidence about America amongst the second generation of the New York Intellectuals. For instance, Alfred Kazin’s love-affair with America set him apart from the first generation of New York Intellectuals. According to Podhoretz, Kazin was of a new generation which felt American. As Podhoretz put it: When Rahv, of the first generation, wrote about American literature—and he did so with originality and depth in several seminal essays—it was with the eye of the learned outsider. When the twenty-five-year-old Kazin, of the second generation, turned his amazingly precocious attention on the same subject in On Native Grounds, it was with the aggressive conviction that this literature was his.77 This sense of ease with American culture was also present in two iconic Jewish writers of this period, Delmore Schwartz and Isaac Rosenfeld, of whom Podhoretz went on to argue: Both Schwartz and Rosenfeld (whom Schwartz once jokingly called “the Jewish Franz Kafka”) said in a 1944 symposium that Jewishness was not only a joy to them but a valuable asset in that it rendered them doubly alienated from American society. Yet nothing could have been clearer about those two extravagantly endowed young men, neither of whom the gods would ever allow to grow old—one from New York and the other from Chicago, and each in his own ebullient way embodying all the nervous energy, the quick brilliance, and the boisterousness of spirit of the American big city itself—than the easy relation they had to the national culture, both “high” and “low”: Hawthorne as well as Hollywood, the New England transcendentalists as well as the New York Giants. And much the same could be said of the whole second generation. The problem of how to reconcile the man in him who loved Hollywood westerns and the man who loved Henry James became the leading theme of Warshow’s work, and less explicitly of Bellow’s and Fiedler’s; it was not a problem which had interested the first generation, and it would never become a problem for them either.78 For the New York Intellectuals who were members of the ‘second generation’ in Podhoretz’s account, this tension between ‘high’ and ‘low’ was definitive: it appeared as a tension between European and American cultural life, between alienation and connectedness, and it was an index of their reconciliation with America that they felt as drawn to Hollywood westerns as to Henry James. While American mass culture—as we shall see in more depth in chapters 5 and 6—was becoming more fascinating for the New York Intellectuals, the need to sharply protect intellectual life from the dangers of cultural and ideological contamination was still strongly felt. However, this could also contribute to a wider process of reconciliation with America. Describing the psychology of the communist or fundamentalist became a useful way of sharpening the intellectual’s sense of their own importance in and for
America. It also supported their contention that America’s freedom could be protected by their own vigilance. Richard Hofstadter has described the fundamentalist mind in terms which make clear his belief in the value of pluralism: The fundamentalist mind … is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes to be trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. Whereas the distinctively political intelligence begins with the political world, and attempts to make an assessment of how far a given set of goals can in fact be realized in the face of a certain balance of opposing forces, the secularised fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. It cannot think, for example, of the cold war as a question of mundane politics—that is to say, as a conflict between two systems of power that are compelled in some degree to accommodate each other in order to survive—but only as a clash of faiths.79 Hofstadter here aligned himself with what was called a soft anti-communist line: however, many of his colleagues, and certainly most of the New York Intellectuals, were hard anti-communists.80 They felt that the gulf between political life in the communist states and America could not be understood as just another distinction within ‘mundane politics’. They upheld a dogmatic commitment to anti-dogmatism: as Fowler argues “[t]he usual attitude toward the old liberal values was by no means sceptical but rather quite the opposite. It was an attitude that treated liberalism and its chief norms as what Arthur Schlesinger called ‘a fighting faith’. This phrase was a popular one”.81 This could amount to its apparent opposite: perhaps this was best illustrated at the time by the career of Whittaker Chambers, who turned against his Communism to embrace Christianity, and then published Witness as an account of the need to replace a faith in Man with a faith in God.82 The New York Intellectuals liked to think that they were able to show that their recognition of America was not dogmatic: that they did not rely on faith for their understanding of political and social life. They found Chambers’ career to be deeply dangerous. Sidney Hook, for instance, worked strenuously to define the distinction between ‘Heresy’ and ‘Treason,’ so as to construct some sort of barrier between the liberal left and its potential populist foe. However, he thereby failed to prevent a deepening of the witch-hunter’s credibility.83
Of course, ‘correct speech’ appeared to be necessary if the McCarthyite menace was to be evaded. America’s intellectuals often felt that they had to be very careful about how they presented themselves. Under the influence of the Cold War, liberals were potentially open to attack for their ‘fellow-travelling’ and ‘idiotic’ pluralism, while hardheaded anti-Stalinists were often ex-communists who were clearly driven by the fear that their own radicalism in the thirties would catch up with them. Neil Jumonville stresses that in such an environment the major achievement of the New York intellectuals was the separation in the public mind they attained between liberalism and communism.84 They were able to sustain their own claims to an authentic anti-Stalinism which was not (at least at this time) allied with conservatism. They helped to ensure the survival of America’s liberal imagination. This external need to manage threats from the right and left underpinned the extent to which these thinkers abandoned their independence in what they considered to be dangerous and extreme circumstances. They attempted to hold on to a strongly anti-communist line without thereby wholeheartedly endorsing America, and without strengthening McCarthy’s explicit anti-intellectualism. Irving Howe, however, has argued that the new kind of society emerging in America after the war was still fundamentally grounded within ideological commitments, and that the reconciliation between the New York Intellectuals and America was going too far in the direction of critical quiescence. Like Lewis Coser in Men of Ideas, and Edward Shils in ‘The Intellectuals and the Powers,’ Howe felt that a ‘new class’ of intellectuals were central to the ratification and reproduction of Americanist ideologies.85 Whilst the New York intelligentsia, Howe argued, felt highly ambiguous about its relations with ‘America’ and capitalist society, and indeed felt misunderstood and ‘detached’ from political life, it was also increasingly happy to endorse and involve itself in the institutional structures of academic life. Howe believed that authentic intellectuals did not flourish in these new conditions of engagement. Indeed, he felt that these new conditions made it increasingly likely that intellectuals would be replaced by technicians. He argued that “far more prevalent” than ‘selling out’ as such, “is that slow attrition which destroys one’s ability to stand firm and alone”:
The temptations of an improved standard of living combined with guilt over the historical tragedy that has made possible our prosperity; one’s sense of being swamped by the rubbish of a reactionary period together with the loss of those earlier certainties that had the advantage, at least, of making resistance easy.86 Howe felt that the “whole idea of the intellectual vocation” has “gradually lost its allure”.87 He believed that the “ideology of American capitalism, with its claim to a unique and immaculate destiny, is trumpeted through every medium of communication: official propaganda, institutional advertising, and the scholarly writings of people who, until a few years ago, were its major opponents”.88 For Howe, intellectuals were now in the position of being needed but not necessarily wanted. He argued: What we have today in the literary world is a gradual bureaucratisation of opinion and taste; not a dictatorship, not a conspiracy, not a coup, not a Machiavellian plot to impose a mandatory “syllabus”; but the inevitable result of outer success and inner hardening. Fourth-rate exercises in exegesis are puffed in the magazines while so remarkable and provocative a work as Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art is hardly reviewed, its very title indicating the reason.89 Thus Howe sounded a common note: “It seems to me beyond doubt that, thus far at least, in the encounter between high and middle culture, the latter has come off by far the better. Every current of the zeitgeist, every imprint of social power, every assumption of contemporary American life favours the safe and comforting patterns of middlebrow feeling”.90 It was Howe’s contention that America’s intellectuals themselves were becoming middlebrow: redeeming America also meant redeeming its middlebrowism. Howe’s anxieties about America, and to some degree his anxieties about America’s intellectuals, were echoed in a collection edited by George B. de Huszar, which aimed to canvass views on the condition of the American intellectual at the end of the fifties. William Phillips, co-editor of Partisan Review with Philip Rahv at this time, implicitly supported Howe’s anxiety over middlebrowism, when he stated that important tensions existed between popularism and autonomy for American intellectuals. He declared: “All new and genuinely creative impulses in our time…tend to take the form of bohemianism, as the avant-garde in a kind of permanent mutiny against the regime of utility and conformity, proclaims its faith in the freedom, the irresponsibility, and the higher integrity of art”.91 Phillips saw the intelligentsia as generally taking the role of a ‘church,’ as a conveyer of secular as much as spiritual culture drawing upon the
clerisy arguments noted above. He believed, however, that in America “the outstanding features—not to speak of the failures—of our national culture can be largely explained by the inability of our native intelligentsia to achieve a detached and self-sufficient group existence that would permit it to sustain its traditions through succeeding epochs, and to keep abreast of European intellectual production”.92 Indeed, “the American intelligentsia exhibits a kind of ambivalent psyche, torn between the urge toward some degree of autonomy and an equally strong tendency to self-effacement, for it is largely its natural inclination to merge with the popular mind that has prevented any such lasting intellectual differentiation as has been achieved in European art and thought”.93 Phillips believed that America thereby faced intellectual uncertainty and a dangerous future. Phillips’ sense of the social ambiguousness of the position of the intellectual was echoed in the same collection by William Barrett, who argued that the ‘snotty young men’ who had made up the body of the thirties radicals, after 1945 “retained out of all their grand youthful illusions of rebellion not much more than a dissent that had become purely cultural and critical, and this was the thin gruel that fed even our liveliest review during the period”: The highest calling left seemed to be to denounce the fake, to keep a steady eye on the high and the serious even if the period could not quite produce these itself—in short, the dreary war upon the middlebrow. Premises of an Age of Criticism. And now in the midst of the great smuggery of the Eisenhower boom even this dissenting shade, gaunt and emaciated as he is, seems on his way to final internment: the snotty young men vanish into the Academy.94 Barrett believed that “a literary review depends for its existence on a society which still has some gaps in it, open spaces, interstices”.95 He argued that the increased degree of specialisation, and the decline of the small review, particularly in conditions “when the patronage is institutional and the money is poured down bureaucratically from the top,” led to “a peculiar kind of stilted and unspontaneous self-consciousness that we Americans have been developing towards the arts”.96 For Barrett, the intellectuals of America were being, as Howe had argued, undone by their very success in attracting bureaucratic support and status. By being absorbed into the academy, young intellectuals were being adapted too readily to mechanical work. Harold Rosenberg agreed that a new form of
‘post-radical’ intelligentsia was forming, for whom the notion of the ‘organisation man’ provided a blueprint. But there is more to the conception of the Orgman than regret for an older social type. As the representative of the new post-War employed intelligentsia, the post-radical critic suffers also a nostalgia for himself as an independent individual. For his former abstract sympathy with a nominal working class, the intellectual of this decade has substituted an examination in the mirror of his own social double as insider of The Organization and The Community. It is what he sees there that has caused him to project a morbid image of society compared with which the old “class struggle” America seems not only naïf but as relatively healthy as a war with rifles and cannons.97 For Rosenberg “[w]hat is new in America is not the socially reflexive person but the presence of a self-conscious intellectual caste whose disillusionment has induced its members to volunteer to serve as tools.” Indeed, “[t]he critics of the new America are disheartened by a revolution won—their revolution, which can go no farther than the ending of the underground life of the American intellectual mass through economic recognition of the services it has to offer.”98 Rosenberg elsewhere wrote about what he called ‘The Herd of Independent Minds’.99 He believed that the condition of independence the post-war intellectuals felt so proud of was in reality a condition of conformity; the intellectuals followed the masses in refusing the true individuality that is determined by a proper internal relationship with truth and vocation. For Rosenberg, intellectuals worried too much about their sociological condition, and not enough about what was true. They were ‘alienated’ and other-directed, far more than the general population of America. The anxiety felt by Barrett, Howe, Phillips and Rosenberg about the wider condition of America’s intelligentsia implied that they endorsed an active effort to redeem America (perhaps through the transformation of middlebrowism) rather than an achieved condition of reconciliation with America.100 Even for many of those who adopted a hard anti-communist position—for instance, Sidney Hook or Eliott Cohen and Robert Warshow at Commentary—this feeling of discomfort persisted: while Warshow felt American, he was not reconciled with America tout court (notwithstanding Howe’s arguments). However, not all of de Huzsar’s writers felt so negative about the ‘incorporation’ of the intelligentsia, even if most believed that intellectual life functioned best
independently of pecuniary concerns. David Riesman argued that “[w]hile, as we all know, a great deal has been said about anti-intellectualism in America during the McCarthy years and later, it is at least arguable that these very attacks on the intellectuals are, inter alia, a response to their rising power in a society that more and more requires intellectuals, or at least educated specialists, to get its work done”.101 For Riesman, it was important that businesses were increasingly paying attention to intellectual values. Nevertheless, there were dangers to the process of accommodation. As Riesman argued: As universities become bigger and bigger, it is hard for them not to judge their output by business standards or at least bureaucratic ones (as I am told the Michigan legislature has recently been judging the educational institutions of that state). I have heard professors in the social sciences pass judgement on each other in terms that would not be different if they were engaged in production control. They speak of a man’s “output” or his “productivity” as measurable and even quantifiable things, and yards of print take the place of foot-pounds or B.T.U..102 Hook believed that this transformation of academic intellectual life was regrettable, since “[t]he social function of the American intellectual is to think, and to act in such a way that the results of his thinking are brought to bear upon the great issues of our time. The cardinal attribute of the life of thought—its proper virtue—is the capacity to discriminate, to make relevant distinctions.”103 For Hook the growing accommodation between America and her intellectuals was not, however, disastrous, for he believed that a discriminatory and public intelligentsia needed to wield real influence and power in society. Hook’s vision was endorsed in Richard Hofstadter’s description of ‘the political intelligence of our time’ which “accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise”: It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and sceptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.104 Hofstadter, like Stanley Cavell, understood the intellectual to be something more than a professional or technician—to be someone who has made certain existential commitments. As he argued: A man in any of the learned or quasi-learned professions must have command of a substantial store of frozen ideas to do his work; he must, if he does it well, use them
intelligently; but in his professional capacity he uses them mainly as instruments. The heart of the matter—to borrow a distinction made by Max Weber about politics—is that the professional man lives off ideas, not for them. His professional role, his professional skills, do not make him an intellectual. He is a mental worker, a technician.105 Intellectual life was morally significant, encapsulating “disinterested intelligence, generalizing power, free speculation, fresh observation, creative novelty, radical criticism,” and a certain sort of piety—“The intellectual is engagé—he is pledged, committed, enlisted. What everyone else is willing to admit, namely that ideas and abstractions are of signal importance in human life, he imperatively feels.”106 The intellectual must try to live for more than one idea, to avoid being a zealot: this was the central vocational danger facing the man of ideas.107 Hofstadter’s understanding of the intellectual’s vocation bears a strong family resemblance to that of the Emersonian and pragmatic traditions. This resemblance became increasingly conscious, as the post-war reconciliation between intellectuals and America led to a reappraisal of America’s democratic, liberal and pragmatic traditions. Yet, although lines of influence can be drawn, and although it is clear that America’s intellectuals had always been more American than they cared to recognise, it is, none the less, difficult to see the New York Intellectuals drawing upon these native traditions in an uncomplicated manner. They absorbed American culture with the air they breathed, yet they had spent so much of their intellectual life in thrall to European culture that they only came to recognise their American involvements fitfully, in subterranean ways. As Alfred Kazin put it, with respect to the writers at Partisan Review: Their creativity was to arise out of a historic tension between whole traditions and systems of ideas. The aim was unlimited freedom of speculation, the union of a free radicalism with modernism. Somehow America in wartime supplied the assurance that this was possible. Fugitives from orthodoxy in religion and radicalism alike, they had been formed by the national culture without always knowing it. Their faith was to be “intellectuals”.108 This chapter has already charted various stages and moments in such a process of recognition, both from the perspective of the American intellectual in general, and from the particular perspective of the New York Intellectual. However, it is important to understand the specific qualities of the New Yorkers and their world. Many of them came from unusually rich yet parochial cultural backgrounds, where their commitments
to remarkably demanding ideals were deeply bound up with their sensations of both marginality and confidence: the majority of these intellectuals were on a journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan. One can learn much of the nature of their relationship with America from an examination of exemplary versions of such a journey and the city in which it occurred.
New York Jews—Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz
They meant to declare themselves citizens of the world, and that succeeding, perhaps consider becoming writers of this country. Irving Howe109
But could I conceive of living outside of New York? Actually, I did live away for about fifteen years, while always feeling that I was more or less in exile. Implicitly all of us were very attached to the idea of New York, but it didn’t come into the open. It does make a difference to me where I live now. The myth of New York makes the difference. By the myth I mean a group of interesting people. A myth isn’t a lie; it’s a reality that takes on a kind of enlarged character. After a while it became clear to me that I belonged to a generation called the New York intellectuals. These people don’t necessarily have to see, or talk to, one another. They still have certain kinds of common experience. Irving Howe110
The idea of New York is a powerfully modern idea. New York has come to possess an enlarged character at the centre of American modernity, at its cultural and intellectual core. Irving Howe expresses the feelings of many of his contemporaries: the myth of New York made a difference. It was largely in New York that his generation of intellectuals, which Norman Podhoretz referred to as ‘the Family,’111 came to the realisation that they were a generation, who felt a certain way about intellectual life and the city in which they lived. New York was their town: they had made it their own. These intellectuals came to define a certain ideal cosmopolitan and urbane intellectualism—which will later be examined under the term ‘the Metropolitan Critic’— and in the process came to leave their indelible mark upon the intellectual and cultural life of New York and America. In turn, they were touched by New York and America. They were predominantly Jewish intellectuals.112 They took part in the process whereby New York’s cultural brilliance and restless modernity became a emblem of the arrival of a Jewish consciousness within America, representing both the Americanisation of the Jews and the impact of Jewish culture upon America. New York came to symbolise the achievement of a metropolitan cultural balance between assimilation and cultural distinctiveness. As the Encyclopaedia Judaica put it:
If the Jews gave to New York unstintingly of their experience, energies and talents, they received in return an education in urbanity and a degree of cosmopolitan sophistication unknown to any other Jewish community of similar size in the past. It is little wonder that many Jews developed an attachment to New York that bordered on the devotional. Above all, when the 20th century New York Jews thought of the city they lived in, they did not simply consider it a great capital of civilization that had generously taken them in; rather, they thought of themselves—and with every justification—as joint builders of this greatness and one of its main continuing supports.113 The greatness of New York was materially celebrated within its architecture. Its sublime skyline displayed its ambitions; its monumental architecture expressed an archetypally American evanescence. New York’s material infrastructure was always changing, forever on the move. It seemed to express a hopeful, dynamic and assured culture, which was nevertheless ambiguous and contradictory. New York mixed the deepest cultural aspirations with the shallowest. It juxtaposed extreme poverty with extreme wealth, thus rendering public the conditions of individual life to a startling degree. The individual was forced into themselves and out of themselves at the same moment: the city bestowed anonymity, allowing the individual the power to reinvent themselves, thereby reflecting the dream of America itself, whilst it took away the easy privacy of a less hectic and cramped environment, and threatened to destroy the individual’s inventions. Thus in New York’s paradigmatically modern streets, a terrible yet exhilarating freedom was promised even though the very conditions that allowed such a promise of freedom seemed at the same moment to compromise its quality. The price of freedom was anxiety—the power of man was faced with its limits and its absurdities. A rich mixture of confidence and anxiety, fear and optimism, repression and extroversion held New York and New Yorkers together.114 Between the 1880s and the First World War, there was a massive influx of largely Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The population of New York shifted. The Lower East Side became a Jewish ghetto; Brooklyn, Williamsberg, Brownsville, took on a new complexion. To begin with, these new immigrants seldom felt as comfortable with America as the German-Jewish immigrants; they felt excluded from what New York and ‘America’ seemed to stand for. Norman Podhoretz avowed: “I came from Brooklyn, and in Brooklyn there were no Americans; there were Jews and Negroes and Italians and
Poles and Irishmen. Americans lived in New England, in the South, in the Midwest; alien people in alien places”.115 As Alfred Kazin put it: We were of the city, but somehow not in it. Whenever I went off on my favourite walk to Highland Park in the ‘American’ district to the north, on the border with Queens, and climbed the hill to the old reservoir from which I could look straight across to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, I saw New York as a foreign city. There, brilliant and unreal, the city had its life, as Brownsville was ours.116 For these new immigrants, New York was an alien world, which could be locally madeover into more comprehensible neighbourhoods. However, the feeling of parochialism felt so powerfully by Kazin was not all the parents gave to their children. They also, in Kazin’s experience, inculcated a profound respect for ‘learning’ and a deep and disquieting desire for improvement. There was a profound yearning at work in Kazin’s Brownsville. Young immigrants like Kazin and Podhoretz were thrown out into the world by their parents’ desires and the necessities of poverty, and they approached the wider world with an almost visceral desire.117 For many New York immigrant parents, their children became their only hope, once it became clear that they would themselves never fulfil their own American dreams. As Kazin has recognised, this induced a tremendous sense of urgency, desire and fear amongst the children: I worked on a hairline between triumph and catastrophe. Why the odds should always have felt so narrow I understood only when I realised how little my parents thought of their own lives. It was not for myself alone that I was expected to shine, but for them— to redeem the constant anxiety of their existence. I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being—what they were.118 Whilst New York, or more specifically Manhattan, seemed to bestow a tantalising promise of intellectual and personal freedom upon many upwardly-mobile immigrant children, by grasping this promise the children demonstrated the very lack of freedom experienced by their parents.119 They were thereby always marked by the insecurity of their positions, and they were committed to the importance of social and political change. Kazin in particular was taught the significance of a struggle between self and society, where both modify and are modified by each other.120 Figures such as Kazin, Podhoretz and Howe were aided in their search for a better future by their relationship with Jewish street culture in New York. For instance,
Joel Kovel has recounted his experience growing up in Brooklyn: There were great cultural resources in Brooklyn. However, up to the age of twelve, I didn’t really use them. Resources in Brooklyn, for me, were people, and the life of the neighborhood, and being around very bright kids, and sensing an enormous amount of free-floating intellectuality. We were really clever, you know. We were smarter than our teachers and we knew it. In Brooklyn, while formal education was repressive, the students were rebellious. We had our own culture, all of us hung out on the street; that’s where life was.121 For Kazin, who restlessly walked the streets searching for a sense of identity, this ‘freefloating intellectuality’ was a palpable part of his identity, driving him to cross Brooklyn bridge into the heart of Manhattan, to discover himself at CCNY and within the small journals and papers of the time. He was looking for a way to take New York and make it his own, whilst also making it somehow true to his parents and their world. He thus made the journey from Brownsville to Manhattan—a long one, indeed, as Podhoretz has remarked—under the pressure of a strained sense of distinction and identification.122 He experienced a peculiarly American set of questions, and undertook a peculiarly American quest: But why that long ride home at all? Why did they live there and we always in “Brunsville”? Why were they there, and we always here? Why was it always them and us, Gentiles and us, alrightniks and us? Beyond Brownsville was all “the city’, that other land I could see for a day, but with every next day back on the block, back to the great wall behind the drugstore I relentlessly had to pound with a baseball. … To be a Jew meant that one’s very right to existence was always being brought into question.123 A ‘free-floating intellectuality’ seemed to be a partial solution: I felt then that I stood outside all that, that I would be alien for ever, but that I could at least keep the trunk open by reading. … I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimise my strange quest for the American past, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville.124 Irving Howe has argued that this feeling that books could ‘fill my every gap’ was strongly rooted in Jewish immigrant culture: Scholarship was, above all else, honored among the Jews—scholarship not as “pure” activity, not as intellectual release, but as the pathway, sometimes treacherous, to God. A man’s prestige, authority, and position depended to a considerable extent on his learning.125 Thus, as Harold Rosenberg put it, Jewish tradition helped lay the basis for “…a unique type of human being, the “Jewish Intellectual,” who springs from the tradition of the talmud hakhem, the lifelong student. For two thousand years the main energies of Jewish
communities in various parts of the world have gone into the mass production of intellectuals”.126 This Jewish tradition, Kazin maintained, boiled down to a ‘feeling for history’: It wasn’t school that made me a ravenous reader. It was the neighborhood and my family. My father and mother neither encouraged me nor discouraged me. They just took my voracious reading for granted. My sister, Pearl, and I used to carry three or four forged library cards so we’d be sure of enough reading. I’ve always been able to go quickly through a lot of material and, of course, the Jewish tradition has much to do with my desire “to know everything.” And I am very Jewish. My passion for knowledge makes me very much of a type. A great many traits that once struck me as being wholly personal I now see as the marks of a distinctive culture. Our intellectual voraciousness was really a feeling for history. Why don’t my students nowadays know many facts? I sense it comes from their sense that history is meaningless.127 Kazin’s awareness that history did mean something, or that it had to be taken to mean something—that history was a recalcitrant text to be wrestled with, a talmudic puzzle— was ultimately an indication of a feeling for the modern. These young immigrants had their eyes fixed upon what they could potentially achieve, and they consequently felt a strong affinity for the modern world which New York itself seemed to symbolise. (Yet they were of the provinces in a way that was different from that of their radical WASP predecessors.128 They possessed a new sort of hunger for power, influence and recognition, as Podhoretz in particular admitted.129) It was later that many came to believe that their perception of the modern was particularly Jewish and American. They also, after the horrors of the forties, came to understand the dark and anxious side of the modern: being intimate with history could be an utterly shattering condition. As Kazin later put it, his group felt itself to be somehow chosen by history: There are times in history when a group feels that it is at the center of events. Poor as we were, anxious, lonely, it seemed to me obvious that everywhere, even in Hitler’s Germany, to be outside society and to be Jewish was to be at the heart of things. History was preparing, in its Jewish victims and through them, some tremendous deliverance and revelation. I hugged my aloneness, our apartness, my parents’ poverty, as a sign of our call to create the future. I identified everything good with a distant period in time, when my class, my people, myself, would be finally justified.130 This mixture of the marginal and the metropolitan was a core aspect of the experience of modern intellectuals, who were typically against the world in which they lived whilst seeing themselves as carriers of its redemption. The Jews around Kazin felt this deeply; it disciplined their acceptance into the centre of American society. Even Lionel Trilling,
who immersed himself in the Anglo-American world and wanted to be a citizen of the world, was still a Jew. As Kazin argues, the Trillings: … were still outsiders for all their inside knowledge of the modern. The “accommodation to America” did not keep Jewish intellectuals like the Trillings from criticizing their own liberalism. They saw with the eyes of great twentieth-century masters, Eliot, Yeats, Mann, who were conservative and even aristocratic. To be Jew and yet not Jewish; to be of course a liberal, yet to see everything that was wrong with the “imagination of liberalism”; to be Freudian and a master of propriety; academic and yet intellectually avant-garde—this produced the tension, the necessary intellectual ordeal, that was soon to make Trilling the particular voice of intellectuals superior to liberalism. … No one could have been more discerning, and less involved.131 Trilling’s ambivalence could as easily have been Kazin’s. Both Trilling and Kazin were powerfully drawn to classical Western culture, such that their claims upon their own Jewish backgrounds were contested. Indeed, Kazin claimed possession over America with more passion than most of his colleagues could muster. Yet he felt like an outsider. He had come to a public accommodation between the Jewish and the America cultural streams in his own life at a time when many were only beginning to come to terms with their alternate claims. In this, Kazin stands alongside Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld and Delmore Schwartz, as the exemplary second-generation American Jew, who felt that America was open to Jewish life just as much as the other way round. These intellectual Jews were not peculiarly unusual.132 They possessed an urgent desire to get on and to know and experience everything. As intellectuals the very form and style of their intellectualism came to seem Jewish. They wanted to dazzle, to ‘beat the goyim at their own game,’ as Irving Howe has recently maintained : It may sound vain and childish now, but we thought we should know everything. “Everything” didn’t really mean everything, but it meant a great many things. I felt inadequate that I was not so hot in economics or that Delmore Schwartz would talk about certain kinds of poetry that I didn’t know. We had, I’d say, a mania for range; that’s why when I say literary intellectual I mean something other than a critic. We used to make fun of the guy who spent ninety-six pages analyzing a twelve-line poem, when in that space you could have analyzed the entire works of Dostoyevsky. … Behind this is a very profoundly Jewish impulse: namely, you’ve got to beat the goyim at their own game. So you have to dazzle them a little. I remember as a kid hearing old stories about medieval disputes between rabbis and popes; it was taken for granted that the rabbis were smarter than the popes. The problem was how did the rabbi beat the pope in an argument without making it too obvious, so that the pope wouldn’t cut his head off. In effect, without knowing it, we would repeat many of the same patterns.133
The desire to dazzle through the demonstration of dialectical skills and a very public intellectualism, was partly rooted in a Talmudic tradition. The immigrants’ need to get things right, to not put a foot wrong,134 was magnified by this tradition, which in turn was powerfully supportive of an engaged general intellectualism, and it worked as a foundation upon which a deep sense of the value and importance of self-development through learning could be forged. As Jerry Kovel said “[w]e were smarter than our teachers and we knew it”.135 This smartness became a theme, a badge of respectability and the key to personal development. Joseph Bensman recognised in the style of the New Yorkers a mixture of precociousness and aggressiveness which was nevertheless deeply impressive: I found hostility to the New York Jews almost everywhere for exactly the same reason that I provoked it: bad manners, argumentativeness, being too smart and too radical. They populated a separate world within the undergraduate universe. It was a world of unspecialized intellectuals who avoided narrow academics and concentrated on politics. The New Yorkers made me feel my own limitations. They had theirs too, but within a context of sophistication, practice, and intellectual competition. I had learned mainly from books, they much more from their social milieu.136 Irving Howe had argued in ‘The New York Intellectuals,’ that their writings were marked by ‘being too smart’. As he put it: The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions of literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to “go beyond” its subject, towards some encompassing moral or social observation. It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectics, dazzle—such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers.137 These writers, he noted, legitimated American Jewish writing, which was “[t]he fiction of urban malaise, second-generation complaint, Talmudic dazzle, woeful alienation, and dialectical irony”.138 They celebrated the idea of “the intellectual as anti-specialist, or as a writer whose speciality was the lack of a speciality: the writer as dilettanteconnoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories”.139 These ambitions were both powerfully enabling, and potentially dangerous. Kazin and Howe have both noted the existence of a certain sort of arrogant complacency within the Partisan Review crowd.
Kazin has written: The inner group of Partisan Review did not value imagination. “Who’s in it?” I once heard the editor Philip Rahv ask a writer who submitted a story to him. The Partisan Review group were interested in the people around them to the point of ecstasy; in this world nothing interested them so much as the personalities of their friends. The ability to analyze a friend, a trend, a shift in the politico-personal balance of power, was for them the greatest possible sign of intellectual power. … This boundless belief in criticism was actually their passport to the postwar world, for as society became more complex and intellectuals more consciously an elite, the old literary radicals were among the few, in an age of academic criticism, who understood the relation of literature to institutions. … The intellectuals who had failed at revolution were to succeed as intellectual arbiters. They had passion. They would never feel that they had compromised, for they believed in alienation, and would forever try to outdo conventional opinion even when they agreed with it.140 For Kazin these intellectuals were “sour outsiders analyzing a situation they could neither join nor control,” who would flirt with any position for a time: None of these excursions changed them; they would always remain radical intellectuals, dedicated to the better world that only intellectuals had imagined to be possible in practice. After the war, when concrete political issues exploded again, the radical tradition was to become more dynamic than it looked in 1940, in the depths of our defeat. But what would never come back in this most political of ages—not even in Russia—was the faith in a wholly new society that had been implicit in the revolutionary ideal.141 Once one abandoned one’s faith in a ‘wholly new society,’ one was required to look to one’s roots: to see where one in fact was living already. Not all of the New York Intellectuals found it easy to climb down from the abstractions of an intellectualism which was, despite its ambitions, too often enclosed within itself. However, figures such as Alfred Kazin, Robert Warshow, Harold Rosenberg, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Norman Podhoretz (the second and third generations, according to Podhoretz’s classification) did find themselves far more open to their roots in American popular culture, even though they also were committed to the intellectualism of the New York family. As Kazin put it: In the normal course of events I fell in love with other forms of modern Western culture, especially with American culture. A great many of my feelings are extremely ambivalent in the sense that I feel both an enormous fascination with Jewish culture and a great dislike of certain features of it. That didn’t mean conflict. I was simply part of two civilizations.142 As we will see in the next chapter from a different angle, the Partisan Review ‘family’ thus began examining America’s condition in a more interested manner; they began seeing
themselves as Americans, whilst feeling at the same time uncomfortable with America. Perhaps they could find a way to bridge the gaps between an idealised cosmopolitanism rooted in modern Manhattan, and their own pasts: the “boys from over the Bridges” (as Arendt called them), by turning to a new sense of America’s strengths, could find a way back to their homes and their more common ambitions.143 They could thereby learn how to be Americans as well as intellectuals, and, ultimately, American intellectuals.
(Footnotes) 1 R. Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (London: 1964), pp. 32-33. 2 G. Borradori, The American Philosopher, p. 124. 3 These objectives are on the surface rather similar to those which exercised figures such as Arnold and Coleridge in England, particularly those which led to the idea of a clerisy(see next footnote). However, it is important to note that this chapter is more interested in the distinctiveness of the American situation than its similarities with that in Europe. Although central figures amongst the New York Intellectual group, such as Trilling, drew strongly upon an English model, the importance of democratic and pragmatic traditions in America rendered their objectives fundamentally different from those of the Europeans. 4 See, for instance, D. Bell, ‘A Parable of Alienation,’ Mid-Century, ed. by Harold N. Ribalow, (New York: 1955), S. Hook, ‘From Alienation to Critical Integrity: The Vocation of the American Intellectuals,’ Partisan Review, 19 (1952) . 5 See J. Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice amongst the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (London: 1992), Coleridge, ‘On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each,’ On Politics and Society, ed. by John Morrow, (Oxford: 1992), pp. 152-221, B. Knights, The Idea of the Clerisy in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: 1978), R. Williams, Culture and Society (London: 1982) and R. Williams, Keywords (London: 1983). 6 As Tocqueville argued; see chapter 1 above. 7 In chapters 5 and 6, some aspects of the fate of this idea in a democratic and mass age will be examined more directly. 8 Sociologists have often defined intellectuals in terms of their possession of a special responsibility towards ‘symbolic’ life. For instance, Edward Shils argued that intellectuals were ‘symbolic’ operators in the cultural sphere, who existed as a separate class and whose power derived from their capacity to generate or modify ideologies. See T. Parsons, ‘The Intellectual: A Social Role Category,’ On Intellectuals, ed. by Philip Rieff, (Garden City, NY: 1969), P. Rieff, ed., On Intellectuals: Theoretical Studies, Case Studies (Garden City, New York: 1969), E. Shils, The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays (Chicago: 1972) and ‘Intellectuals and the Center of Society in the United States,’ The Constitution of Society, (Chicago: 1982), and P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (London: 1984). Lipset, in Political Man, argued that “intellectuals [are] all those who create, distribute, and apply culture, that is, the symbolic world of man, including art, science, and religion”. S. M. Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (London: 1960), p. 311. This rather inflated sense of the intellectual’s specific role was not universally accepted, even amongst sociologists. 9 K. Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Culture (London: 1962), p. 170. Also, see K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (New York: 1936). 10 See for an examination of Gramscianism in cultural studies, D. Harris, From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure: The Effects of Gramscianism on Cultural Studies (London: 1992). 11 Prophets are figures, of course, who do not find themselves in tune with their times, while ‘connected critics’ are bound to their time. However, in both cases, intellectuals are deemed to be peculiarly important with respect to a society’s political, cultural and social future. Arguments have proceeded over whether or not intellectuals ought to be considered a ‘new class’ or whether they can be taken ideally to transcend conflicts; Mannheim, for instance, was interested in the extent to which intellectuals were fated to degenerate into a ‘mere’ class—thereby, he felt, loosing their right to be called intellectuals. K. Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Culture, e.g., pp. 115-170. See A. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: 1979), and D. Bell, ‘The New Class: A Muddled Concept,’ The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960-1980, (New York: 1980), pp. 144-164. In general, the rise of the intellectual is considered an index of the growing complexities and cognitive challenges facing modern societies. 12 M. Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: 1987); The Company of Critics (London: 1989). 13 Walzer considers Gramsci to be putting forward a viewpoint that is in many ways similar to his own, yet which nevertheless over-emphasises the dependency of intellectuals (or social critics, in Walzer’s terms) upon pre-given classes. 14 Even a figure as sympathetic to Gramsci as Edward Said argues for a greater emphasis on independence
than Gramsci himself felt impelled to do. See E. W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (London: 1994). Walzer’s efforts to capture the subtlety of connection are in contrast to the usual positions of the mainstream sociological tradition. Sociologists have been dimly aware of a tension between intellect and society, yet they have typically hoped to understand this tension by trying to ‘fix’ their vision of the intellectual within an account of evolving forms of social organisation: their approach has been typological, so to speak, rather than therapeutic or expressive. As is clear in the work of Parsons and Shils, for instance. While these sociologists understood the significance of a cognitive division of labour, they hoped that a sociology of forms would provide enough illumination to allow the necessary and the contingent to be separated. Parson’s sociology, for instance, tended to evade questions concerning the content of intellectual life in favour of a ‘general systemic’ understanding, as J. P . Nettl argued in Rieff ’s collection; see J. P. Nettl, ‘Ideas, Intellectuals, and Structures of Dissent,’ On Intellectuals: Theoretical Studies, Case Studies, ed. by Phillip Rieff, (Garden City, New York: 1969), pp. 53-122, and T. Parsons, ‘The Intellectual: A Social Role Category,’ On Intellectuals, ed. by Philip Rieff, (Garden City, NY: 1969). 15 For Walzer, intellectual life exists through a dialogue—or in America’s case, perhaps, a Romance—between particular conditions and transcendent ideals. 16 To put it another way, the intellectual is particularly aware of the friction between ideals and reality; the very friction which appears to be peculiarly active in America. 17 G. Borradori, The American Philosopher, p. 121. 18 Unfortunately Walzer has not adequately addressed this question in his published discussions of social criticism, despite his recognition of the importance of ‘local colour’ to relevant criticism. The precise failings of Walzer in this area are perhaps failings, more over, of the ‘analytic’ tradition in political philosophy. 19 For instance, Merle Curti has noted that “the conditions of colonial society demanded [the] active participation of intellectuals in the common affairs of life,” such that a “faith in the desirability and feasibility of applying knowledge to political action survived into the early years of the Republic,” indeed, “at no time in our later history were intellectual training and action so happily united in our political leadership as in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth”. M. Curti, ‘Intellectuals and the Founding Fathers,’ The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), p. 28 and p. 31. See Chapter 1 above too. 20 Also, the American intelletual may have a sense of a common past far different from that of, say, Wittgenstein in relation to Austrian Vienna, or Russell in relation to England. 21 G. Borradori, The American Philosopher, pp. 120-1. Cavell understands intellectuals in the European sense of public figures engaged in intellectual pursuits who speak upon national issues with legitimate authority. 22 Ibid., p. 123. In America one stands against traditions: “The truth is that the American myth is not to have models,” p. 123. 23 Ibid., p. 126. 24 A. Kazin, New York Jew (London: 1978), p. 198. 25 See, for some intersting work on the ‘genteel’ tradition, G. Santayana, The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy (Berkley: 1911), E. Sedgwick III, ‘The American Genteel Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century,’ American Studies, 25 Spring (1984), J. Tomsich, A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age (Stanford: 1971). 26 See M. Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill: 1989). Many intellectuals drew upon the thinkers mentioned above, yet often, like Herbert Croly, hoped to locate themselves more solidly at the centre of the political and social life as experts: H. Croly, The Promise of American Life (Cambridge, Mass.: 1965), I. Dorreboom, ‘The Challenge of Our Time’: Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne and the Making of Modern America (Amsterdam: 1991). While ‘modernism’ proper was a latter phenomenon, this period saw a mixture of anti-modernist, avant-garde and ‘bohemian’ movements. A new spirit of freedom and permissiveness appeared to prefigure a world in which constraints had been banished; see L. A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 18901930 (Westport, Connecticut: 1981). 27 E. Abrahams, The Lyrical Left: R. Bourne and the Origins of Cultural Radicalism in America (Charlottesville: 1986), C. N. Blake, Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, V Wyck Brooks, W an aldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill and London: 1990), R. Bourne, The Radical Will: Randolphe Bourne (Selected Writings, 1911-1918) (New York: 1977), B. Clayton, Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne (Baton Rouge and London: 1984). 28 See E. Abrahams, The Lyrical Left, M. Dodge, Movers and Shakers (New York: 1936), W. I. Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde (London: 1977). 29 I am emphasising its syncretic character not to imply a broadly cohesive movement so much as to suggest that there was a strong sense at the time that different dimensions of human life were related in ways that had been hitherto underplayed. 30 D. J. Singal, ‘Towards A Definition of American Modernism,’ American Quarterly, 39: Spring (1987) , p. 12. 31 See the special edition of the American Quarterly concerned with modernism, in spring 1987. 32 D. J. Singal, ‘Towards A Definition of American Modernism,’ p. 14. 33 F. W. McDarrah, Greenwich Village (New York: 1963), also see A. Churchill, The Improper Bohemians (New York: 1959), S. Edmiston and L. D. Cirino, ed., Literary New York: A History and Guide (Boston: 1976), L. A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out, L. Fishbein, Rebels in Bohemia (Chapel Hill: 1982), A. Parry, Garrets and Pretenders (New York: 1933), A. F. Wertheim, The New York Little Renaissance (New York: 1973).
34 E. A. Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd,’ The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings: Poems, Tales, Essays and
Reviews, ed. by David Galloway, (Harmondsworth: 1986), pp. 179-188. 35 Their optimism regarding the power of energy, will and knowledge would have to face up to the corruption of the American republic under the pressures of large-scale industrial interests and Tammany Hall. 36 V. W. Brooks, America’s coming-of-age (New York: 1915). 37 Forces of incorporation within the academy were becoming increasingly insistent, if not oppressive, as Bender has made clear in his study of intellectuals in New York City. Of course, dissenting movements also flourished, based around radical and avant-garde magazines, such as The Seven Arts and The Masses. However, Charles Beard was driven away from Columbia, to form the New School for Social Research, in an attempt to resist external pressure. T. Bender, New York Intellect (Baltimore: 1987). 38 D. W. Noble, The Paradox of Progressive Thought (Minneapolis: 1958); The Progressive Mind (Chicago: 1970), R. H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: 1967); see also D. Ross, ‘The Liberal and Republican Traditions,’ New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. by John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, (Baltimore and London: 1979), pp. 116-131. Bourne also bitterly attacked the ‘Americanising’ policies of the progressives in his significant article ‘Trans-national America,’ The Radical Will: Randolphe Bourne (Selected Writings, 19111918) (New York: 1977). The organicism of the progressives was at odds with his individualistic commitments; the latter revival in Bourne’s reputation during the 1960s reflects the iconoclasm that this individualism often prompted. 39 Their publicists were often, as one finds with Lippmann and Croly, eager to adopt a generalist stance, which nevertheless seemed to be in search of the safety of professional authority. As the modern state deepened in complexity during the first half of this century, and its role in economic and social affairs extended, the resolution of organisational, political and social problems by a professional class of intellectuals became a poweful alternative model to Dewey’s hope for a publicly oriented philosophy.Thus, social scientists were often happiest following the progressive lead, seeing themselves as ‘doctors’ to an organic social body, reducing problems about ‘how to live’ to quantifiable and routinised problems to do with social organisation. D. Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (Cambridge: 1991), M. C. Smith, Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate Over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918-1941 (Durham and London: 1994). 40 Podhoretz contrasts the ‘dominant’ position in the ’thirties with that of the New York Intellectuals: “[The]combination of a commitment to left-wing anti-Stalinism and a commitment to avant-gardism became a family trait. To be sure, one or two writers in America outside the family (the name of Edmund Wilson comes to mind) were similarly marked off, but not many more than one or two. The great majority of American literary people in the ’thirties were Stalinist in their political sympathies as well as “middlebrow” in their literary tastes (that is, uneasy with or downright hostile to the modernist movement and much happier with the naturalistic tradition as represented most powerfully at that moment by Theodore Dreiser).” N. Podhoretz, Making It (London: 1968), p. 114. 41 Ibid., pp. 116-7 42 Ibid., pp. 83-4. 43 Ibid., p. 112. 44 See J. Gilbert, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America (New York: 1968), R. Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (New York: 1973), J. P. Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York: 1992). 45 A. Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties (London: 1966), p. 12. 46 See I. Howe, A Margin of Hope: an intellectual autobiography (San Diego: 1982), A. Kazin, A Walker in the City (London: 1952), A. Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties, E. Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: an historical study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno (Berkeley: 1982), R. Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance (Cambridge: 1994). 47 The anti-Stalinists were a very small minority at this time. 48 As is made clear, to pick an example, in M. Dickstein, Double Agent: The Critic and Society (New York and Oxford: 1992). 49 See J. Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, for a useful discussion of the fears of democracy within European modernism. It was hardly the case that the New York Intellectuals endorsed democracy; however, they did come to see that the pluralism that appeared to be bound up with American democratic thought— its liberalism, so to speak—was a powerful incentive to rethink their feelings about democracy. It is far too easy, as this thesis hopes to demonstrate, to assume that democracy is a straightforward good even in the best of circumstances. 50 As will be shown in chapter 5 below: pluralism seemed to threaten the basis upon which intellectual life could continue. 51 See the third section of this chapter. 52 See P. Conrad, Imagining America. 53 Cited in G. McCann, Cary Grant: A Class Apart (London: 1996), p. 166. 54 B. Rosenberg and E. Goldstein, ed., Creators and Disturbers: Reminiscences by Jewish Intellectuals of New York (New York: 1982), pp. 362-3. 55 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 125. 56 R. B. Fowler, Believing Skeptics, p. 3. 57 R. Crossman, ed., The God That Failed (New York: 1952). 58 R. Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: 1952).
59 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 89. 60 R. Pells, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s (Middletown,
Conn.: 1989), p. 187. 61 See D. Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960) and R. Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought I (London: 1965). 62 J. Higham, ‘The Place of Beliefs in Modern Culture,’ New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. by John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, (Baltimore and London: 1979), pp. xi-xii. See, also, D. Bell, ‘National Character Revisited: A Proposal for Renegotiating the Concept,’ The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960-1980, (New York: 1980), pp. 167-183. 63 J. Higham, ‘The Place of Beliefs in Modern Culture,’ p. 164. 64 See Q. Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the history of ideas,’ History and Theory, 8 (1969) 3-53; ‘Hermeneutics and the Role of History,’ New Literary History, 7 (1975-6) 287-306 and J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N. J.: 1975). 65 R. Pells, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age, p. 149. 66 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 88. 67 N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, p. 172. 68 On the symposium see R. Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, pp. 393-398. 69 W. Phillips and P. Rhav, ‘Our Country and Our Culture: a symposium,’ Partisan Review, 19: 3-5 (1952), p. 282. 70 W. Phillips and P. Rhav, ‘Our Country and Our Culture,’ p. 284. 71 A. Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (New York: 1942). 72 W. Phillips and P. Rhav, ‘Our Country and Our Culture,’ p. 294 73 N. Podhoretz, Making It, pp. 80-88. 74 W. Phillips and P. Rhav, ‘Our Country and Our Culture,’ p. 296. 75 [My italics], ibid., p. 285. 76 Andrew Ross emphasises their demonisation of ‘mid-cult’ and their anxieties over politics as they make a ‘critical crossing’: N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, A. Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: 1989). 77 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 123. 78 Ibid., pp. 122-3. 79 R. Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, p. 135. 80 On the McCarthyite period, see in particular D. Caute, The Fellow-Travellers: Intellectual Friends of Communism (London: 1988), D. Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: 1978), and R. Pells, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age. 81 R. B. Fowler, Believing Skeptics, p. 216. 82 See N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, pp. 102-116, and L. Trilling, The Middle of the Journey (New York: 1947). 83 Leslie Fiedler’s and Robert Warshow’s search for ‘signs’ of guilt and betrayal in the letters of the Rosenbergs is indicative of a deeper malaise that failed to sustain much of a sense of proportion in the face of a fear of contamination. See L. Fiedler, ‘Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs,’ The End of Innocence: Essays on Culture and Politics, (Boston: 1955), and R. Warshow, ‘The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible,’ The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre & Other Aspects of Popular Culture, (New York: 1962); also see ‘Reading the Rosenberg Letters’ in A. Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: 1989), pp. 15-41. 84 N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, pp. xi-xv. 85 L. Coser, Men of Ideas (New York: 1977), E. Shils, The Intellectuals and the Powers, and his ‘Intellectuals and the Center of Society in the United States’. 86 I. Howe, ‘This Age of Conformity,’ Selected Writings: 1950-1990, (San Diego: 1990), p. 29. 87 Ibid., p. 30. 88 Ibid., p. 30-1. Many of his contempories vigorously refuted his slur upon their claims to independence: see, for a good discussion, A. Ross, No Respect. 89 I. Howe, ‘This Age of Conformity,’ p. 43. 90 Ibid., p. 47. 91 W. Phillips, ‘The Intellectuals’ Tradition,’ The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), p. 477. 92 Ibid., p. 479. He believes there is an underlying demotic, Westward, provincialism, to American intellectual life, caused by the lack of any coherent body or group of intellectuals. 93 Ibid., p. 482. 94 Ibid., pp. 486-7. 95 W. Barrett, ‘Writers in America,’ The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), p. 488. 96 Ibid., p. 489. 97 Ibid., p. 525. 98 Ibid., p. 527. 99 H. Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (Chicago: 1959). 100 These anxietes were more than matched by the fears of conservative figures such as Paul Viereck and William F. Buckley, Jr., who believed that the intelligentsia was betraying America through its failure to ‘make distinctions’. Where the liberals feared a lack of critical distance, the conservatives feared excessive critical distance; for the conservative thinkers, the intellectual classes were too readily open to the hypocrisy and
cant of reified commitments to ‘foreign’ powers. 101 D. Riesman, ‘The Spread of “Collegiate” Values,’ The Intellectuals: a Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), p. 506. 102 Ibid., p. 509. 103 S. Hook, ‘From Alienation to Critical Integrity,’ The Intellectuals: a Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), p. 531. 104 R. Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, p. 135. 105 Ibid., pp. 26-7. 106 Ibid., p. 27, and p. 28. 107 Where Lewis Coser in Men of Ideas emphasised the condition of being a thinker, with a certain detachment from the demands of practical life, and counterposed it to that of the men of action, Hofstadter considered the intellectual in terms of their conditions of life and their sense of their vocation. Intellectuals throw themselves at the pursuit of truth, he argues, yet they cannot escape the sociological context that determines who can undertake such a life, and how that life will be judged by others. On correlations, see T. Adorno, The Culture Industry: selected essays on mass culture (London: 1991), and M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays (London: 1981). On the dialectic between the two, and the notion of conscience as a bridge between thought and action, see V. Havel, ‘Politics and Conscience,’ Václav Havel, or, Living in Truth, ed. by Jan Vladislav, trans. by E. Kohák and R. Scruton (London: 1987), pp. . J. Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (New York: 1969) is highly influential statement of the position that intellectuals derive their power, cognitive and otherwise, from their detachment from the immediate necessities of action. 108 A. Kazin, New York Jew (London: 1978), p. 44. 109 I. Howe, ‘The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,’ p. 31. 110 Conversation with B. Rosenberg and E. Goldstein, ed., Creators and Disturbers: Reminiscences by Jewish Intellectuals of New York (New York: 1982), p. 282. 111 See N. Podhoretz, Making It. 112 See D. Bell, ‘The ‘Intelligentsia’ in American society,’ pp. 119-137. On the composition of this group, see A. Bloom, Prodigal Sons, pp. 3-8. 113 Cited G. McCann, Woody Allen (Cambridge: 1990), p. 21, see also pp. 9-42. 114 Witness Henry James’ feelings about this ‘terrible town,’ which he felt had been struck by a blight with its endless and impudent building—yet which he continued to care about. See H. James, The American Scene (Londong: 1987) 115 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 83. 116 A. Kazin, A Walker in the City, p. 18. 117 Their learning would always be marked by their relative lack of the dryness of the assured WASP tones of the American aristocracy. 118 A. Kazin, A Walker in the City, p. 27. 119 The value of New York’s anonymity for those who have a troubled relationship with tradition and with mainstream America can explain in part the Jewish feeling of nostaligia for New York, the feeling that this was a blessed place in a sense not too dissimilar to that which drove the zionist dream of a transformed Palestine. (America had already been associated with a New Jerusalem.) 120 See M. Dickstein, Double Agent. 121 B. Rosenberg and E. Goldstein, ed., Creators and Disturbers, p. 236 122 Kazin: “The voice that spoke in that prayer book seemed to come out of my very bowels. There was something grand and austere in it that confirmed everything I had felt in my bones about being a Jew: the fierce awareness of life to the depths, every day and in every hour: the commitment: the hunger.” A. Kazin, A Walker in the City, p. 97 123 Ibid., p. 93. 124 Ibid., p. 156. 125 I. Howe, World of Our Fathers (New York: 1983), p. 8. 126 Cited in ibid., p. 598. 127 B. Rosenberg and E. Goldstein, ed., Creators and Disturber, p. 195. 128 As Kazin put it: “Those writers of the Twenties, whose faces on book jackets were so “interesting,” picturesque and comfortable, somehow made books as if they had always lived in books; from childhood on there had been a protective membrane between them and the surly crowded streets; they had tidy lives, and so could afford to despair of the universe at large.” A. Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties, p. 50. 129 N. Podhoretz, Making It. 130 A. Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties, pp. 47-8 131 A. Kazin, New York Jew, pp. 44-5. 132 While these stories are Jewish stories, we should recognise that they are performative acts by Kazin and Howe, who both came to see themselves belatedly as New York Jews. 133 B. Rosenberg and E. Goldstein, ed., Creators and Disturbers, p. 284. 134 As Midge Decter put it: “The Jewish disease, I think, must have originated with the study of the Talmud. It is an affliction which makes it necessary to know absolutely everything, before you are allowed to say one word on any subject whatsoever. This particular disease flourishes in the lives of certain professional intellectuals and academics—not to say scholars. For some people it proved to be quite incurable. They could never write anything because somebody might come along and say, “Aha, but you didn’t read this” or
“Aha, you’re wrong!” And for them that is the worst possible fate. I associate this with Talmudic scholarship, thought it may come from somewhere else in the formation of the Jewish psyche. But it is true about Talmudic scholarship that you have to know everything before you can say the first word.” B. Rosenberg and E. Goldstein, ed., Creators and Disturbers, p. 354-5. 135 Ibid., p. 236. 136 Ibid., p. 373. 137 I. Howe, ‘The New York Intellectuals,’ p. 261. Howe thought that the New York intellectuals emerged as a group just at a time at which they were able to escape their fathers’ and mothers’ identification with ghetto life: they became cosmopolitans, who only later learnt to discover themselves as Jews once again. 138 Ibid., p. 262. 139 I. Howe, ‘The New York Intellectuals,’ p. 262. 140 A. Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties, pp. 156-7. 141 Ibid., pp. 158-9. 142 B. Rosenberg and E. Goldstein, ed., Creators and Disturbers, p. 196. 143 For Arendt’s comment, see C. Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (London: 1993), p. 425.
5—The New York Intellectuals and Mass Culture
The Institut für Sozialforschung and Marxist Cultural Criticism
The present mass reactions … are only separated from consciousness by a thin veil. … The position is comparable to that of ideology, which objective praxis is beginning to replace with lies. This would require a modification of the thesis that spontaneity was being ousted by the blind acceptance of whatever is being forced on you. Even the belief that nowadays people behave like insects, transforming themselves into mere centres of obedience, is still just part of the façade. … For people to be transformed into insects they require as much energy as might well suffice to transform them into human beings. Theodor Adorno1
Culture begets a dissatisfaction which is of the highest possible value in stemming the common tide of men’s thoughts in a wealthy and industrial community, and which saves the future, as one may hope, from being vulgarised, even if it cannot save the present. Matthew Arnold2
This chapter will examine the feeling that there was a problem with culture in modern ‘mass’ societies, and the idea that this problem could be partly resolved by means of what Theodor Adorno has called ‘redemptive criticism’. Redemptive criticism was conceived by Adorno as a form of criticism which aimed to explore the need for progress by examining past suffering alongside conflicts within present culture, without depending upon a dogmatic vision of the means by which progress could be achieved. It is the contention of this chapter that such a criticism became increasingly valuable to the New York Intellectuals, who were, much like Adorno, attempting to develop an anti-Stalinist yet left-wing cultural and political position. The New Yorkers passionately believed that culture could politically elevate the individual, particularly in the context of democracy. Yet the rise of mass culture seemed to point to the marginalisation of the very culture democracy needed. Consequently, the nature of American mass culture became a core issue for intellectuals, and their disagreements over its properties were as much a register of differing political hopes as of sociological perceptions.
Adorno was one of the Austrian and German theorists gathered around and within the Institut für Sozialforschung, a member of what is often called the ‘Frankfurt School’.3 The Institut was of considerable importance in the development of early to midtwentieth century intellectual responses to ‘mass culture’. Beyond its native Germany, it was most influential in America, mainly because it moved there for 16 years in 1934 following the Nazi’s rise to power, initially to Morningside Drive in New York, and later, after 1941, to Santa Monica.4 Key figures within the New York Intellectual group, such as Dwight Macdonald, David Riesman, Bernard Rosenberg and Daniel Bell, were clearly influenced in their reading of mass culture and authoritarianism by the work of the Institut.5 (Macdonald popularised its thinking through his journal Politics.)6 While this work was often scathingly critical of American culture, it would be wrong to read it as anti-American, as Adorno made clear in the preface to Prisms.7 As émigré scholars, the members of the Institut felt relief in finding in America a place to work in safety. They were highly anxious, however, with regard to their capacity to work in a society that was so obviously different from the Europe they had left behind, and they maintained (at least until the outbreak of the Second World War) their view of themselves as exiles, rather than as immigrants.8 Adorno and Horkheimer developed, particularly during their time in America, an analysis of mass culture that articulated their anxieties concerning fundamentalism and ‘openness’. Adorno felt that the centralised and ‘industrial’ qualities of culture in America were imperilling the capacity of individuals to question conventions. Social memory could be wiped out by a form of amnesia caused by standardised products and decontextualised consumption. When he argued, in the quotation placed at the head of this section, that the products of the culture industry could lead people to “turn themselves into insects,” he wanted to emphasise that the energy required to achieve this acquiescence was a perversion of the desire for ‘something better’ which underwrote the whole human power of culture in the first place.9 (Arnold clearly grasped the importance of this ‘promise of happiness’ lodged in all culture.) Resistance to conformity was rendered perverse by the dissipation of critical intelligence in the face of amnesia, yet the
hope that things could be different remained alive. Adorno intimately understood the paradox within Samuel Beckett’s concluding words to The Unnameable: “… I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”10 Going on was not an act of moral will or courage, so much as a compulsive act, bound up with one’s bodily needs—hope could not be extinguished, just as hope by its very nature was transcendent. Yet hope could become more or less ghostly or solid, active or passive. Adorno and Horkheimer coined the term ‘culture industry’ in The Dialectic of Enlightenment.11 They wished to assert that the popularity of its products did not reflect a genuinely ‘popular’ culture, but reflected, rather, a division of labour between producers and consumers, in relation to which it was possible for the producers of culture to impose standardised and mass-produced goods upon the consumers of culture. The culture industry reflected the extension of commodification into the realm of culture, and the development of new means of mass production.12 It marked the destruction, they felt, of genuine ‘popular culture,’ which they believed grew out of local life and was organically bound up with everyday events.13 Mass production generated standardisation and a culture that found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between ‘pseudoindividuality’ and ‘individuality’: it alienated its audience without them knowing. Adorno and Horkheimer were able to observe the studio system in Hollywood during its heyday, and they recognised how the variation of the make-up of cultural products was carefully monitored, so as to endlessly allow publicity men and women to proclaim the ‘new,’ even when nothing genuinely new could be found.14 Hollywood seemed to thrive upon an overheated blurring of the distinction between myth and reality, or expectations and actual achievements. Adorno and Horkheimer thereby believed that the products of the culture industry were woefully unable to provide suitable reflections of the social, political and economic problems facing Americans. However, they were painfully aware that one could not dictate the form that culture ought to take; they opposed the didactic approach to culture so common amongst Marxists during the thirties.15 They thought that the attempt to be didactic would reduce culture to propaganda, and render thought
dogmatic. They were critics, essayists, and polemicists, who believed that the task of the critical intellectual was best served through a resolute and provocative attack upon common complacencies, rather than through the provision of answers ‘at any cost’.16 They believed that mass culture could all too easily be approached from positions of either dogmatic rejection or endorsement, such that they hoped to stand in the middle, in a dialectic that was ‘at a standstill’—provoking their readers into a critical reevaluation of the standards and values of capitalist civilisation.17 They grounded their critique of the culture industry within the notion that it could not deliver what it proposed to deliver: it offered the simulacrum or image of pleasure or fulfilment, without being able to offer ‘real’ fulfilment.18 Marcuse’s distinction between ‘false’ and ‘true’ needs—between needs that are necessary, such as a need for food, possibly sex, sleep, and warmth, and those that are ‘false,’ such as those associated with the consumption of the products of the culture industry—reflected this feeling that modern culture could distract its consumers from their ‘real’ interests.19 The industry promised happiness, yet it remained necessarily unable to fulfil this promise, since universal happiness implied ‘unimaginable,’ radical and qualitative changes in social, political and economic life. Consumers would be accommodated to capitalism by the very pleasure they derived from its products. This pleasure was, however, ambiguous: it always left the door open to further rounds of cultural criticism, and it always jarred horribly with reality, in such a way that reality itself could suffer by comparison.20 Marcuse described capitalist culture as ‘euphoria in unhappiness’: available satisfactions always fell short of what agents would choose, yet agents had to ‘make do’. Adorno and Horkheimer hoped to show that the dream that things could be radically different was inescapably part of all cultural experiences, such that there always a possible basis for redemption within the very heart of mechanical mass culture.21 The most perceptive movie critics concurred: as America’s ‘Dream Factory,’ Hollywood possessed a disruptive yet disclosive power.22 The work of Adorno, Horkheimer, Lowenthal and others at the Institut examined the quality of culture in a capitalist age and the values that were deployed to organise,
understand, and interpret that culture. They attempted to address questions about the ends of collective social life by stressing a similar self-reliance to that of Emerson: one had to take one’s destiny into one’s own hands. The danger posed by the ‘culture industry’ was precisely its potential corrosion of this self-reliance. The division of labour could become dangerously disempowering on a cognitive and evaluative level, with capitalist culture entrusting problems of collective choice to irrational and alienating ‘mechanisms’ which could only serve to treat people as if they were a ‘herd of dumb animals’.23 As Dwight Macdonald put it: When one hears a questionnaire-sociologist talk about how he will “set up” an investigation, one feels he regards people as a herd of dumb animals, as mere congeries of conditioned reflexes, his calculation being which reflex will be stimulated by which question. At the same time, of necessity, he sees the statistical majority as the great Reality, the secret of life he is trying to find out; like the kitsch Lords, he is wholly without values, willing to accept any idiocy if it is held be many people. The aristocrat and the democrat both criticize and argue with popular taste, the one with hostility, the other in friendship, for both attitudes proceeded from a set of values.24 The aristocrat and the democratic, each committed to their own set of values, are able to offer critical visions, while under capitalist assumptions the equality of all consumers to judge with authority in a cultural market can offer no corresponding critical vision.25 Adorno and Horkheimer hoped to construct a new sense of self-determiantion to match the critical visions of the democrat and aristocrat. It was tautologously obvious to them that criticism required evaluations of relative value, and they chose to evaluate culture in accordance with its capacity to foster an openness of spirit, or, in other words, its adequacy at the same moment to the dimensions of reality and an idealised realm of happiness. They felt that such a criticism could leave its mark, since they believed that culture thrived upon this profound intimacy between reality and myth: its human significance was rooted in its capacity, as Arnold wrote, to “beget a dissatisfaction which is of the highest possible value in stemming the common tide of men’s thoughts”. These ideas can be better understood if one recognises that the work of the Institut was largely an attempt to face up to the receding horizon of revolution. These writers could see no replacement for the ‘proletariat’ as subject of a universal history, and they certainly did not believe that intellectuals could take up such a role, as Adorno made
clear to would-be revolutionary students in the sixties.26 Rather, they were driven by their resistance to Stalinist Marxism and their ambivalence towards modern (capitalist) civilisation, in a similar way to the New York Intellectuals. In such a context their prime interest was with maintaining contact with the hope for a new and better world—the notion, as it was put in a dialogue between Adorno and Ernst Bloch, that ‘something’s missing’.27 They understood that ‘utopian’ thinking responded to the suffering existing in everyday life, and they feared that the ‘positivism’ of the culture industry would, as Macdonald argued, strip mass culture of its capacity to lend meaning to suffering and hope, by turning it into little more than a cynical calculation over “which reflex will be stimulated by which question”.28 They believed that a ‘provocative’ or ‘rhetorical’ form of critical practice was needed to combat this market vision of the masses (bringing to mind the Emersonian tradition in America).29 By championing that which was culturally difficult, marginal or obscured, they hoped to develop a ‘redemptive criticism’ which would bring to the surface the hopes and fears which were repressed within mainstream culture. They felt that this was largely a matter of bringing existing cultural life to a higher level of awareness about its own nature and problems.30 In other words, for Adorno and Horkheimer the present was increasingly devouring the past and future, and the powers of both the past and the future had to be brought to bear upon it. They polemically counterpoised the energies of memory and hope to the resignation they perceived throughout mass culture. Marx’s startling vision of history in The Eighteenth Brumaire, where the ghostly, unredeemed remains of the past haunt the present, suggested that the redemption of the past was a condition for progress in the present, since otherwise the past would return as farce, in an inversion of the ‘cunning of reason’ acknowledged by Kant and Hegel.31 In understanding the importance of this idea to Adorno and Horkheimer, one has to place their thinking within a Jewish as much as a Marxist context. Adorno in particular maintained that the terrible catastrophe of the Holocaust could only be redeemed through silence, precisely because its horror transcended the imaginative and rational powers of human intellect.32 All one could do was learn to remember the past.
The search for redemption through remembrance seemed, however, to be endangered by the nature of mass culture. For instance, we have seen that Tocqueville perceived an ‘incessant motion’ within American democracy. Like Marx, who in The Communist Manifesto examined capitalism as if it were an engine devouring human relations, turning ‘all that is solid into air,’ Tocqueville understood modern life to be increasingly beset by change and the annihilation of tradition. For Tocqueville this brought the danger of a thinning of social memory. The very importance of the intellectual, for Tocqueville and Marx, was related to this condition: intellectuals could make sense of change, and help bring into being the possibility of rational collective action. Intellectuals could deepen the power and articulacy of collective traditions, and they could help these traditions make a difference in the life of a nation or culture, by drawing upon collective memories, or a collective sense of place. Fortunately, it was precisely this aspect of the intellectual’s vocation which, as we have seen, seemed peculiarly important in America, where there existed a powerful sense of what made America great and what defined America, yet where this sense needed to be disciplined, deepened and reworked if democratic hopes were in fact going to be redeemable.
The New York Intellectuals and American Mass Culture
The Lords of kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or maintain their class rule … Folk art was the people’s own institution, their private little garden walled off from the great formal park of their masters’ High Culture. But Mass Culture breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of political domination. Dwight Macdonald33
There can be no doubt that the mass media present a major threat to man’s autonomy. To know that they might also contain some small seeds of freedom only makes a bad situation nearly desperate. No art form, no body of knowledge, no system of ethics is strong enough to withstand vulgarization. A kind of cultural alchemy transforms them all into the same soft currency. Never before have the sacred and the profane, the genuine and the specious, the exalted and the debased, been so thoroughly mixed that they are all but indistinguishable. Bernard Rosenberg34
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the theory of mass culture has been durably associated with a fear of spreading ‘philistinism’ or ‘barbarism’. It became intellectually important to grasp the cultural significance of the rise of modern industrial and urban societies. The image of ‘bread and circuses’ was one such response.35 ‘Panem et circenses’ derived originally from Juvenal’s tenth satire: as Patrick Brantlinger has argued, “Juvenal suggests that the Roman Republic has given way to the Empire because the fickle populace has abandoned its political responsibilities for doles of food and the lures of the racetrack and the arena”.36 Brantlinger notes the impact of a ‘negative classicism,’ employed to bolster an apocalyptic and teleological perspective which derives mythic legitimation by reference to the history of the Roman Republic.37 This negative classicism was combined for many intellectuals with a variation upon Matthew Arnold’s fear that the spread of mass culture would lead to the spread of barbarism and philistinism.38 The idea that modern civilisation was becoming decadent was most
clearly expressed in the work of Nietzsche, Toynbee, Ortega Y Gasset, and Spengler: [These thinkers] believe that high culture is today besieged by ‘the masses,’ bent on the ‘vulgarisation and proletarianisation’ of ‘the arts and sciences’. The masses represent ‘the new barbarism,’ which has ‘arisen within modern civilisation rather than being an invasion from without’.39 The most influential symbol of the masses amongst these writers was that of a ‘swarm,’ herd, or crowd.40 The humanity and individuality of the members of the crowd or herd were stripped away exposing a fear on the part of the observer, of the unconscious, the sensuous and the uncontrolled. José Ortega Y Gasset’s works on the dehumanisation of art and the revolt of the masses, expressed a fear for the ‘intellectual’ in a world which threatened to be levelled, equalised and massified; comparisons with Eliot’s Notes towards a Definition of Culture and F. R. Leavis’ Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture, show the general breadth of assent these considerations commanded.41 In particular Ortega Y Gasset’s book The Revolt of the Masses was a touchstone and guiding formulation of these ideas: exploring what Nietzsche called the ‘Last Man’. As Saul Bellow expressed it: The modern revolution has created for the average man, for the great social conglomerate to which he now belongs, a state of mind radically opposite to the old … The unqualified individual, “equal in law,” belongs to the sovereign mass. Examining the collective assumptions of this sovereign mass Ortega reaches the conclusion that, although the world remains in certain respects civilized, its inhabitants are barbarians. In Ortega’s view barbarism is defined by the absence of norms. … [Ortega’s mass man] expects that there will be air to breathe, sunlight. He also expects elevators to go up, buses to arrive. … So in Ortega’s mass society the plebeians have conquered, and they do not concern themselves with civilization as such but only with the wealth and conveniences provided by mechanisation.42 The existence of authority or the recognition of its legitimate claims expressed within and through tradition was, within the thinking of these critics of mass culture, central to civilisation. In an age and within a nation which had apparently lost its feelings for its traditions—which was “unhappily in love” as Wittgenstein put it—the intellectual would have to submit to a superhuman degree of discipline, as a steely hero resisting, to the last, the onslaught of barbarian invaders at the city gates. The intellectual’s work would become a cipher to his world, produced not for his or her time, but for the future. The writings on mass culture of figures such as Gasset, Leavis, Arnold, Eliot, and Nietzsche foreshadowed those of the New York Intellectuals. In 1957, Bernard Rosenberg, a sociologist allied with the New Yorkers, and David Manning White,
published a comprehensive collection entitled Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, which was hugely influential, and which made clear the issues and positions which the New York Intellectuals considered particularly important. Rosenberg, in his introductory ‘Mass Culture in America,’ paralleled the arguments of the Institut, when he argued that the central problems with mass culture revolved around its suggestion that the world was understandable and remediable: Ernest van den Haag has suggested that there are two assumptions underlying all mass culture: (1) everything is understandable, and (2) everything is remediable. We might add a corollary to the first assumption: “Everything had better be made understandable.” The more arcane a subject the less effort it should require for easy absorption. If education and cultivation are gradual, progressive, orderly processes, then popular education is its opposite. For what makes mass culture so tantalizing is the implication of effortlessness.43 The idea of discrimination—of poise and discernment—was central to the New York Intellectuals’ understanding of the intellectuals’ condition. The New Yorkers thus felt deeply concerned by the idea that mass culture would implacably destroy America’s depth of mind and focus.44 Dwight Macdonald maintained that: There are theoretical reasons why Mass Culture is not and can never be any good. I take it as axiomatic that culture can only be produced by and for human beings. But in so far as people are organized (more strictly, disorganized) as masses, they lose their human identity and quality. For the masses are in historical time what a crowd is in space: a large quantity of people unable to express themselves as human beings because they are related to one another neither as individuals nor as members of communities—indeed, they are not related to each other at all, but only to something distant, abstract, nonhuman: a football game or bargain sale in the case of a crowd, a system of industrial production, a part or a State in the case of the masses.45 Mass culture thereby weakened the individual and damaged the very traditions of selfreliance which were supposed to redeem America. As Macdonald put it: “There is slowly emerging a tepid, flaccid Middlebrow Culture that threatens to engulf everything in its spreading ooze”.46 As we saw in the previous chapter, many of the New York Intellectuals, much like their Village-based predecessors, feared that the spread of this ‘ooze’ would alienate them further from America. Saul Bellow has argued that the spread of middlebrow culture in America threatened to isolate the ‘serious’ writer: If you are in a trade that depends on your ability to obtain and hold attention, distraction is the hostile condition (massive and world-wide) that you are called upon to overcome.
… I propose to examine a common phenomenon, an affliction from which no one can be immune and which obviously originates in the endless crises of this century. Distraction is the barrier through which a writer must force his way. Distraction is a term, for the ordeal of getting people to attend to what is essential—to what writers, speakers, teachers, journalists, or advertisers believe to be essential.47 Bellow believed that this condition could be understood as a ‘dispersion of themes,’ which the writer could overcome by opening up ‘another world’. He declared that “with us, the art sinks into the great, soft, permissive bosom of basically indifferent and deadly free societies: and so good-bye”.48 Bellow was lamenting the vanishing intellectual; like Russell Jacoby, who argued that America had seen its last generation of intellectuals, he was responding to the apparent spread of distracted alienation.49 The condition of being unable to make discriminations reflected the greatly increased quantity of information with which mass culture daily faced one. As things got more confusing and indeterminate the condition of self hood, which Bellow saw the writer working on and for, became increasingly inexact. One could not speak to a distinct audience, and one could not talk to a general public, except through an increasingly constricted everyday language which undermines one’s intentions. Bellow believed that art had to go on in the midst of chaos, and that the intellectual needed to recognise the “impossibility of arriving at a synthesis that can satisfy modern demands”. He stated: “To be an intellectual in the United States sometimes means to be immured in a private life in which one thinks, but thinks with some humiliating sense of how little thought can accomplish”.50 One can take this to be the condition that art can temporarily relieve for Bellow, through its capacity to “arrest attention in the midst of distraction”.51 It is important to remember that Bellow thought that American life itself contained the building-blocks out of which writing could ‘arrest attention’. Thus, although he embraced the view that American mass culture isolated the creative or serious writer, he also believed that such a writer could rise to the challenge of using such isolation. Isolation appeared to be becoming a more complex problem for intellectuals during the 1950s, as we saw in chapter 4, as they began developing more varied and engaged relationships with America. A problem which seemed particularly important
at the time was that of social conformity, which threatened to deepen their isolation. The most influential sociological examination of conformity during the 1950s was David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, written in collaboration with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney.52 Riesman concentrated, in a manner concomitant with Adorno’s critique of mass culture, upon the threatening attenuation of individuality (as opposed to individualism) attendant upon the rise of mass culture.53 His major thesis was “that the conformity of earlier generations of Americans of the type I term ‘inner-directed’ is mainly assured by their internalization of adult authority”: The middle-class urban American of today, the ‘other-directed,’ is, by contrast, in a characterological sense more the product of his peers—that is, in sociological terms, his ‘peer-groups,’ the other kids in school or on the block. In Adult life he continues to respond to these peers, not only with overt conformity, as do people in all times and places, but also in a deeper sense, in the very quality of his feeling. Yet, paradoxically, he remains a lonely member of the crowd because he never comes really close to the others or to himself.54 Riesman drew directly upon the work of certain members of the Institut in developing his arguments, including Erich Fromm and Leo Lowenthal. Lowenthal’s distinction between an “age of production” and an “age of consumption” served to orientate Riesman’s distinction between inner- and outer-directed characters.55 Inner-directed characters formed as a response to the breakdown of ‘traditional’ behavioural conformity after the Renaissance and Reformation, Riesman argued; individuals now had to live “socially without strict and self-evident tradition-direction”.56 They were able to do this through their possession of a ‘psychological gyroscope’ which could balance the claims of alternative traditions through the possession of implanted and implacable ‘life-goals’. Outer-directed characters appeared to reflect Tocqueville’s image of the American as “shallower, freer with his money, friendlier, more uncertain of himself and his values, more demanding of approval than the European”.57 However, Riesman stressed that “the middle-class American today is decisively different from those Americans of Tocqueville’s writings who strike us as so contemporary”.58 He argued: What is common to all other-directeds is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual—either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media. This source is of course “internalized” in the sense that dependence on it for guidance in life is implanted early. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance:
it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life.59 Riesman felt that the danger of a reduction of politics to consumption was associated with the rise of outer-directed characters, in line with an insatiable need for approval. As Trilling put it, a personality rises “whose whole being is attuned to catch the signals sent out by the consensus of his fellows and by the institutional agencies of the culture, to the extent that he is scarcely a self at all, but, rather, a reiterated impersonation”.60 This was related to the danger of a confusion between reality and pseudo-reality that Tocqueville warned against, and that Boorstin was soon to re-emphasise. For instance, Riesman described the condition of his students with a quietly withering tone: They want social security, not great achievements. They want approval, not fame. They are not eager for talents that might bring them into conflict; whereas the inner-directed young person tended to push himself to the limit of his talents and beyond. Few of them suffer, like youth in the earlier age, because they are “twenty, and so little accomplished.” Whereas the inner-directed middle-class boy often had to learn after twenty to adjust, to surrender his adolescent dreams and accept a burgher’s modest lot, the other-directed boy never had such dreams.61 These students—unlike, perhaps, the students soon to be identified by Trilling as members of an ‘adversarial culture,’ who readily grasped the conflicts between their dreams and a world they did not make—are sunk within coerced cooperativeness.62 They considered themselves ‘powerless,’ and power as something wielded by others: “some big chief must be doing this to them, they feel. They do not see that, to a great extent, it is they themselves who are doing it, through their own character. The chiefs have lost the power, but the followers have not gained it”.63 Riesman argued that politics thus becomes merely an object of consumption, since “the other-directed man’s inability to know what he wants, while being preoccupied with what he likes … applies to politics as well as to other spheres in life”. Indeed, The mass media cater to these confusions of the other-directed man. The radio and the newsreel particularly, but also much of the press, cover politics in the very form and fashion in which they cover sports and entertainment news. It is a commonplace that they announce a world crisis and a new toothpaste with similar breathless voice. … This shapelessness of attention is a corollary of the other-directed audience’s ability to shift from one sphere to another without making clear differentiations between the values of one sphere and those of another.64 Adorno’s emphasis upon the importance of social memory, of constructive visions or
myths concerning a nation’s hopes and ambitions thus found support. In Riesman’s work, the ‘other-directed’ personality had no vision of the future, and no grasp on the past, since the power of the peer group sank its members into an eternal present. A culture upon which other-directed personalities had left a dominant mark threatened to be a culture without serious traditions, and without a serious sense of its own fate. It was a culture without history. William H. Whyte, Jr., a journalist with Luce’s Fortune, developed a similar argument to that of Riesman in The Organisation Man. Whyte also emphasised the rise of the ‘peer-group’ as a force in American society. Whyte argued that ‘organization men’ “are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions”.65 He saw a ‘social ethic’ forming that “rationalizes the organization’s demands for fealty and gives those who offer it wholeheartedly a sense of dedication in doing so—in extremis, you might say, it converts what would seem in other times a bill of no rights into a restatement of individualism.”66 Whyte was not attempting to undermine this ‘ethic’ by writing a jeremiad against conformity or mass society—just as Riesman hoped that he wouldn’t be read as praising inner-direction as against outer-direction. He was, however, trying to speak of “individualism within organisation life,” producing a ‘survivor’s guide,’ so to speak. As he argued it: “We do need to know how to co-operate with the Organization but, more than ever, so do we need to know how to resist it.”67 Thus, Whyte shows his readers “How to Cheat on Personality Tests”.68 Whyte and Riesman defended the value of what the latter called ‘autonomy’. This brought their work into a creative relationship with the thinking of many of the New York Intellectuals. For Riesman, ‘autonomy’ was a feature that could be found nestling, for instance, in the crevices of ‘play’ and leisure. While mass culture destroyed earlier values of craftsmanship, it also made possible a new openness, a new form of actual but unrecognised judgmental competence: The other-directed man seems often to feel that he is making a judgement only when he is making a conscious effort to ‘make a judgement’. He may thus gloss over the
competence he has in those residual areas of his leisure life where he is accepting object and fantasies directly and naturally, without continuous checking by the criteria of the taste-makers. He may, for instance, be a good judge of science fiction and not know it, or a good judge of public statuary and not know it. He may be blaming himself for lapses from “realism” and not know he deserves credit for retaining his ability to have good daydreams. … It is safe to predict that the most important developments in our leisure life in the next few decades will be influenced by the growing impact of this unrecognized virtuosity in taste.69 Thus for Riesman, as much as for Adorno, activities that were often within commercial civilisation dismissed as useless and ephemeral, could act as powerful sources of ‘autonomy’ and ‘resistance’. Conformity placed a premium upon the very profusion of individuality which it necessarily failed to comprehend or incorporate.70 Riesman felt ambivalent concerning the hard-line attack upon mass culture orchestrated from Macdonald’s camp. There was a group, however, containing figures such as David Manning White, Gilbert Seldes, Sidney Hook and Edward Shils, which more directly opposed Macdonald’s position.71 White, for instance, responded to Rosenberg’s criticisms in Mass Culture by maintaining that modern American mass culture was no worse, and in many ways much better, than previous popular cultures. He felt that mass culture was being blamed for problems for which it was not responsible. He argued that the rise of totalitarianism, for instance, could not be directly linked to mass culture, and felt that mass culture could support a more pluralist national culture: As educational television networks develop throughout the states there will be few communities in America where the audiences do not have their choice any evening between Berle and Bach, Godfrey or Goya, the $64,000 Question or a discussion of Thucydides’ historical method.72 Edward Shils expansion of White’s arguments was influential amongst the New York Intellectuals. His essay “Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on the Criticism of Mass Culture,” a response to Rosenberg and White’s Mass Culture, attacked the feeling that “the silliness of television, the childishness of the comic strips, the triviality of the press, the meanness of the luridly bound paperbacks are now taken as signs that Western humanity has turned off the road which for a time seemed to lead into the broad sunlit uplands of a discriminating appreciation and is rushing into the swamps of vulgarity”.73 Shils set himself up against the ‘clerisy’ tradition, and argued strongly against such Marxists, socialists and ex-Marxists as Hoggart, Adorno, Lowenthal, Howe, Rosenberg,
and Macdonald. Shils maintained that the Marxists’ economic criticism of capitalism “has been transformed into a moral and cultural criticism of large-scale industrial society”.74 This criticism began to attack the working class, who were supposed to be the proletarian heroes of a new age: That section of the population from which they expected heroic action on behalf of great, far-distant goals has turned out to be interested in wasting its time in self-indulgent and foolish pleasures. Instead of reading Shakespeare, Goethe, and Tolstoi, it reads comic books, sensational newspapers, and magazines which concentrate on illicit sexual activity and crimes of violence.75 Shils, however, believed that modern mass culture needed to be understood in relation to the widespread increase in popular participation in political and cultural life which had followed from the rise of modern democracy and ‘mass society’. As he put it: “What is specific to modern “mass society,” with all its conflicts, is the establishment of consensually legitimate institutions within which much of this conflict takes place and which impose limits on this conflict”.76 What had gone before was, he felt, no better: … the major error of the analysts of popular culture, however, is their belief that it has succeeded to something which was intrinsically worthy, that man has sunk into a hitherto unknown mire because of it, and that this is a necessary prelude to the further degradation, and perhaps ultimate extinction of high culture.77 Just as the New York Intellectuals more generally were accommodating themselves to the virtues of American democracy, Shils was accommodating himself to the achievements of American civilisation. Where the New Yorkers found it difficult to embrace the whole of America, while they still saw themselves as ‘doubly’ alienated as Jews and Intellectuals in a supposedly anti-intellectual culture, Shils felt less uncomfortable, for he could point to the steady improvements and changes which modern technology and society had made possible. For Shils the rise of mass society ultimately gave to ordinary men and women more fulfilling, and morally and politically more significant, lives.78 Shils, indeed, maintained that “the root of the trouble lies not in mass culture but in the intellectuals themselves”.79 As he put it: “Intellectuals are not required to read comic strips and then to blame others for doing so. They can skip the first and accept the second as an inevitable manifestation of ‘the old Adam’”.80 He attacked the Marxist inspired critics of mass culture for their apparent hypocrisy, and questioned their motivations:
Naturally there are intellectuals who feel guilty for not acting up to the standards of cultural life which they know to be right. That is no reason why they should take it out on others who come from strata which only now, in the twentieth century, have for the first time in history the possibility of becoming full members of their society, of living a human life with some exercise of cultural taste and the means to acquire or to come into contact with the objects of their taste.81 Shils believed that “the first obligation of the intellectuals” was to “look after intellectual things,” in particular “the creation and reproduction and consumption of particular works of philosophy, art, science, literature, or scholarship”. If all this was done “there will be nothing to fear” he felt “from the movement of culture in mass society”.82 The confidence Shils displayed with respect to mass society was refreshing, yet it masked an important underlying problem. The New York Intellectuals’ critique of mass culture was not necessarilly rooted in a valorisation of the past; the central idea was not that the past was better than the present, so much as that the past contained unredeemed hopes. The past was unfinished. The critique of mass culture developed by the Institut and figures such as Bellow, Riesman and Macdonald explored, amongst other things, the idea that America was ‘losing its way’ not so much in material terms, as in spiritual. The Jeffersonian materialism evident in certain conceptions of America’s past came under scrutiny: some were finding that higher standards of living did not necessarily make them ‘happier’. A more complex vision of collective life was thereby needed, which could articulate the feeling that ‘something’s missing’: not only was America not fully redeeming the power or reach of its ambitions, but also, those very ambitions were becoming more complex. At the same time, a way of thinking, which was greatly fostered by the cynicism of ‘manufactured’ culture, seemed to be developing which undermined the expression and development of traditions of public political life. Figures such as Bellow, Adorno, and Macdonald attacked in particular the pluralist adoption of an abstract ‘neutrality’. They felt that America needed democracy, not pluralism, and that these were very different visions. While few critics of mass culture possessed a deep enough intimacy with its products to enable them to enter into a critical cultural engagement with those products, this recognition that pluralism undermined both democracy and culture was very important. These objections to Shils’ confidence can
be best understood by examining how a systematic neutrality towards values could undermine a society’s sense of purpose and direction. In short, mass culture endangered the intellectual precisely because it threatened to isolate the intellectual from the life of society.
Neutrality and Cultural Criticism
In late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, a sociological viewpoint took hold which suggested that society was little more than a machine (or organism) with which to tinker. While early forms of sociology often exhibited a fine sense of the political and social dilemmas facing modern societies, alongside this delicacy one can find a mixture of progressivist, deterministic and functionalist approaches which imagined that sociology could exhaustively expose ‘real’ reasons for social change which had little to do with what people thought they were up to.83 These approaches wished to augment human power by discovering keys to the manipulation of social reality, rather than by transforming the ways in which people thought about social reality.84 It was hoped that routines could be established whereby the strain of maintaining stability would be borne by institutions or systems, rather than by the attempt to transform selfish or ignorant individuals into good citizens. Democracy would be thus domesticated into a market of consumers, and the content of collective life could be ignored. The agent’s understanding was thus implicitly decried. Where Marx emphasised the dialectical quality of the relationship between human consciousness and its conditions of existence, these ‘technocrats’ hoped to engineer new conditions of stability and growth directly.85 Marx envisaged an administration of things in the future; the technocrats envisaged such an administration in the present. Such an institutional resolution of political life functioned by alienating the individual’s responsibility for their fate onto a determining environment, which could, it was claimed, make the world less risky or capricious. The ‘social engineering’ model of progress, and its faith in élites and their cognitive prowess, represented an attempt to resolve the tension between the division of labour and the fact of democracy. By viewing social problems as technical problems, the need to try to intercede within democratic politics and culture could be by-passed, and indeed, democracy itself could be profoundly limited. Collective decision-making was bracketed as being politically—and prudently—more risky than the entrenchment of a suitably effective cognitive division of labour.
However, the construction and institutionalisation of a suitably effective cognitive division of labour could not guarantee much. This was not simply because of the weaknesses of individual people, or the ineffectiveness of individual institutions: a more carefully responsive moral conception of the individual was necessary.86 This may be illustrated by looking at ‘social choice’ models, which postulate mechanisms by which social and political choices can be made reliably and automatically through some sort of ‘aggregate’ calculation. Rather than relying solely on the power of a God-figure directing society, these models hope that a combination of individual preference-input and careful design can take some of the cognitive pressure off élites, allowing the latter to wash their hands of responsibility towards their communities.87 It is assumed that all that is required for a functioning and sustainable polity is an adequate mechanism for reflecting given preferences; the whole process whereby preferences are formed is seen to be external to the matter of resolving conflicts. Questions of political value are answered by means of a market which is free from rational or external guidance. Extensive manipulation, given the imperfection of preference-markets and processes of preference-formation, is necessary, yet such a world-view makes it difficult to rationally and collectively manage such manipulation.88 Values are thereby experienced as if they are nothing more than private prejudices or tastes. So as to cut down on ontological profusion, individuals are seen as the final ontological reality, yet the content of their preferences or values and the process of preference or value formation and associated deliberation becomes opaque.89 Individuals are separated from each other, such that the importance of the substance of collective life and culture is reduced to a pattern of preferences. This mechanistic democracy of opinion is rather similar in form to that society of formal independence and actual conformity which Tocqueville so feared.90 To understand the political obligations and commitments which individuals have reason to form, however, requires a picture of the individual which is temporally and socially extensive enough to allow mutual interpretation and deliberation to occur, in order to give content to those obligations and commitments in the first place.91 An unencumbered self cannot be
persuaded, or cajoled, or called upon to offer his or her hard-won skills in the context of a real political life, as Lionel Trilling argued in Sincerity and Authenticity.92 The active acquisition of political skills which was so prized by Jefferson and his colleagues, would to the unencumbered self be merely one possible personal project, rather than a rational political duty. In this way collective social and political life would become disconnected from individual life: it would become a matter of fate rather than collective action.93 In America, the cultural and political success of an unencumbered model of the individual has been contested from the very beginnings of the Republic. Such a model has been seen to undermine the collective and personal values—largely those of mutual respect and dialogue—upon which democratic life depends.94 Any mutual process of political education and deliberation needs to be able to take hold within society if it is going to flourish. In a democracy, it needs to respond to the perceived interests and values of common people, and it needs to be able to be “arresting” and imaginatively vital. Different senses of history and place need to be related to common traditions and values, or new traditions and values need to be developed out of the remains of existing ones. This political and cultural process accords great significance to cultural criticism. Through cultural criticism the development of an imaginatively articulate sense of society can be supported. This is of some importance because, as John Dunn has argued, social imagination underpins society’s suppleness: Capitalist society constricts the social imaginations of its members and has come, over time, to articulate with immense theoretical power an entire conception of what it is to know or to have good reasons which renders this constriction of their social imaginations with chilling fidelity. They become the persons who they become because, increasingly, they cannot perceive what it is to be a member of a society of other persons. And because they cannot perceive themselves to be such they fashion themselves (and refashion their society) to make it less and less the case that members of a society is what they now truly are.95 The increasingly vague quality of ‘society’ within intellectual and popular imagination— such that society becomes invisible—appears to justify the view that individual life ought to conducted according to the dictates of personal yet increasingly inscrutable preferences which have no wider meaning. Once society is taken as an external fact, however, its disruptive power will be all the greater.
It is the collective neutrality before values underlying this external vantage point on society which the New York Intellectuals attacked by means of the idea of ‘redemptive’ cultural criticism. They believed that the intellectual had to reach out into society, pace Shils, so as to engage with its values and ideals, fears and hopes. They saw that political traditions, brought into life by means of collective memory and experience, depended increasingly upon mass culture for their reproduction. They consequently emphasised critical standards that supported the formation of an articulate, active and knowledgeable citizenry within a civilised national culture. These standards expressed their identification with America’s democratic and neo-pragmatic heritage. Yet many of these critics did not like what they found when they examined what they could of the reality of America’s mass culture.96 Macdonald, as we have seen, initially felt that mass culture could ‘never’ be good, and Bellow experienced a sensation of being isolated by mass vulgarity. The proximity of American mass culture threatened American intellectuals, and made them feel isolated, while at the same time it bound them to America. It is important in this connection to realise that American mass culture was peculiarly forceful and inescapable; where the intelligentsia in Europe could isolate itself to some degree from the culture of the working and middle classes, that of America had no such opportunity. Those intellectuals who were able to engage successfully with democratic and pragmatic ideals whilst remaining in touch with contemporary American reality can be characterised by the awkwardness of their situation. They were led to repudiate the compromises by which institutions seemed to formalise America’s heritage, and the conformity by which social life seemed to domesticate the subversiveness of the ideal of the self-reliant individual, such that they felt themselves to be necessarily marginal. They could not fully accommodate themselves to America. Yet the ideals they cherished drove them into a deeper and more complex engagement with American life: their democratic and practical involvement in common life alienated them from their more genteel or élitist colleagues. Their marginality enabled them to see with great clarity the conflicts in America between democracy and pluralism: their unorthodox commitments helped
them take these ideals seriously, yet also to feel their full disruptive force. The few critics who were able to engage with the products of American mass culture from the inside, figures such as Bellow and Warshow, thus came to exemplify the awkwardness of the ‘connected critic’ whilst at the same moment becoming peculiarly central figures in the New York Intellectuals’ encounter with America. This dissertation will thus now turn to an examination of Warshow’s life and work, so as to clarify the vital ambivalence of the connected critic.
(Footnotes) 1 T. Adorno, ‘Commodity Music Analysed,’ Quasi una Fantasia, (London: 1992), pp. 51-2 2 M. Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (New Haven: 1994), p. 36. 3 For a history of the Institut see M. Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Boston: 1973), E. Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: an historical study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno (Berkeley: 1982), R. Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance (Cambridge: 1994). 4 See L. A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences (New Haven and London: 1984), p. 93 and p. 96. 5 M. Jay, Permanent Exiles: essays on the intellectual migration from Germany to America (New York: 1986). See also D. Fleming and B. Bailyn, ed., The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960 (Cambridge, Mass.: 1969), Gross, ‘Adorno in Los Angeles: The Intellectual in Emigration,’ Humanities in Society, 1979: Fall (1979), A. Heilbut, Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America (New York: 1983), and L. A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America, especially pp. 85- 101. 6 See A. Bloom, Prodigal Sons, p. 129. 7 Where he noted that the author “could wish for nothing better than that the English version of Prisms might express something of the gratitude that he cherishes for England and the United States—the countries which enabled him to survive the era of persecution, and to which he has ever since felt himself deeply bonded,” in Prisms (Cambridge, Mass.: 1967), p. 8. 8 Lowenthal eventually wound up at the University of California at Berkley, and Marcuse at San Diego. Adorno himself felt far less comfortable with America, and returned to Germany in 1950. L. A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America, p. 95. While Adorno was tirelessly critical of the ‘quotational’ and pre-digested qualities of American mass culture, he was also profoundly grateful towards America and found many Americans to be far more warm and open-minded than his fellow émigrés. See ‘Adorno in America’ in M. Jay, Permanent Exiles, pp. 120-137. 9 Echoing Arnold in the second quotation a the head of this section. 10 S. Beckett, The Unnamable (London: 1975), p. 132. 11 T. Adorno, The Culture Industry: selected essays on mass culture (London: 1991), and T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: 1979). 12 See Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ Illuminations, (London: 1982), where the breakdown of traditional ‘auratic’ art-works—which were singular, sacred and awesome, mythic because of their singularity—into reproduced art is considered a possible route for democratisation within art, and throughout culture. 13 See R. Williams, The Country and the City (London: 1985), and F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (Cambridge: 1930), F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad (London: 1948); The Common Pursuit (London: 1952) for a certain pastoral stream within the the clerisy tradition. 14 Adorno and Horkheimer observed Hollywood both from their base in Santa Monica, and via the experiences of the émigré community, which included figures such as Eisler and Brecht. C.f. the development of the avant-garde upon a notion of the new that seemed endlessly satisfactory to commerce, reaching its apotheosis with Warhol’s relationship with money; c.f. also, with Harold Rosenberg—an American art-critic from the mid-century—who noted both the ‘tradition of the new,’ in modernity, and the ‘herd of independent minds,’ both paradoxical formulations. C.f. also the ‘star sytem’ and films like ‘A Star is Born,’ and ‘All About Eve’. On the ‘star system’ see R. Dyer, Stars (London: 1992), A. Walker, Stardom, The Hollywood Phenomenon (New York: 1970). For a short introduction to certain of these themes, see G. McCann, ‘Introduction,’ Composing for The Films, (London: 1994). 15 See T. Adorno, ‘Commitment,’ Aesthetics and Politics, ed. by Rodney Taylor, (London: 1988). 16 C.f. Sidney Hook’s defence of a politically motivated neo-pragmatism in ‘From Alienation to Critical Integrity’. 17 This was a tactic also followed by Robert Warshow in his film criticism, as we shall see in chapter 6. 18 Obviously, this raises difficult philosophical questions regarding the condition of ‘real’ interests. I think
a case can be made for being able to judge distinctions between differing degrees of appropriateness with regard to expressions of need or happiness on the part of others, which does not require a commitment to a strong epistemic position on the part of the judge or observer. C.f. Zygmunt Bauman’s concerns, which perhaps have tended to give too many hostages to a modish post-modernism: see Legislators and Interpreters— On Modernity, Post-Modernity and Intellectuals (Cambridge: 1987), and Modernity and Ambivalence (Cambridge: 1991). 19 See H. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston: 1964). 20 C.f. Podhoretz’s notion, discussed in chapter 6 below, that Warshow had a peculiarly strong sense of ‘experience’ as opposed to ‘truth’. 21 The culture industry was seen to be continually attempting to cover-up its inability to deliver the pleasures it traded upon. It built its own universe, cut-off from the pleasures, pains and struggles of the real world, which offered references to that real world but it never faced up to it. The thirties’ film Sullivan’s Travels suggested that Hollywood would serve the poor best if it stuck to ‘pure escapism,’ or the production of temporary pleasures, since it could not, through ‘social comment,’ transform the lives of the poor in a comparable manner. 22 See, for instance, the film criticism of James Agee, or Hortense Powdermaker’s anthropological examination of the Studio System, which was highly critical, yet which understood the power Hollywood possessed as a ‘Dream Factory’. See H. Powdermaker, ‘An Anthropologist Looks at the Movies,’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 254 (1947) 80-85. For a contemporary confirmation of the routinization of the studios, see C. Hitchens, ‘It Happened on Sunset,’ V anity Fair, April (1995) 99-106, where Billy Wilder recounted the stress on familiarity and formula. 23 See the discussion of ‘utilitarian’ and ‘technocratic’ modes of thought later in this chapter for a deeper discusssion of this problem. 24 D. Macdonald, ‘A Theory of Mass Culture,’ Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. by Bernard Rosenberg and D. Manning White, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1963), p. 70. 25 This putative respect for the individual obscures the existing and necessary cognitive inequalities born of a cognitive division of labour which give life to a critical vision. 26 See T. Adorno, ‘Resignation,’ The Culture Industry and H. Marcuse, ‘Interview with Brian Magee,’ Men of Ideas, ed. by Brian Magee, (New York: 1979). 27 E. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: 1988). 28 See K. Kumar, Utopia and Anti Utopia in Modern Times (Oxford: 1987). 29 This means that to properly confront their position, one has to engage with the problems of critical practice as an act of writing. Rhetoric, polemic and style here stand for far more than mere devices by the means of which the reader may be coerced; Adorno wrote in a manner designed to provoke an active, confusing, yet profound reading experience. T. Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form,’ Notes to Literature Vol 1, (New York: 1991) makes much of this abundantly clear, and ought to be read by those who wish to pass quick judgement on the ‘élitist’ work of the Institut. See also, T. Adorno, ‘An Open Letter to Rolf Hochhuth,’ Notes to Literature Vol 2, (New York: 1992), pp. 240-6. 30 C.f. F. R. Leavis; see F. Mulhearn, The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ (London: 1979). 31 K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: 1987). 32 See, for the best introduction to this idea, G. Steiner, Language and Silence (London: 1985). 33 D. Macdonald, ‘A Theory of Mass Culture,’ p. 60. 34 B. Rosenberg, ‘Mass Culture in America,’ Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. by Bernard Rosenberg and D. Manning White, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1963), p. 5. 35 E. Shils, ‘The Theory of Mass Society,’ Selected Essays by Edward Shils, (Chicago: 1970), pp. 15-36; ‘Mass Society and its Culture,’ The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays, (Chicago: 1972), P. Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay (Ithica and London: 1983). 36 P. Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses, p. 22. 37 C.f. the significance of Roman imperial history, and Greek athenian models in the nineteenth century imagination. We have Ulysses, not Odysses. See R. F. Betts, ‘The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialistic Thought of the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries,’ Victorian Studies, 15 (1971) 149-59 and J. R. Harrison, The Reactionaries (New York: 1966). 38 M. Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (New Haven: 1994), S. Collini, Arnold (Oxford: 1988), M. Cowling, ‘Oneand-a-half Cheers for Matthew Arnold,’ Culture and Anarchy, ed. by Samuel Lipman, (New Haven: 1994), G. Graff, ‘Arnold, Reason, and Common Culture,’ Culture and Anarchy, ed. by Samuel Lipman, (New Haven: 1994), and L. Trilling, Matthew Arnold (Oxford: 1982). 39 P. Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses, p. 21. Also, see B. Yack, The Longing for Total Revolution (Princeton: 1986) for a discussion of the idea of a ‘total revolution,’ which can be linked fruitfully with Adorno’s attacks on identity thinking, most clearly stated in his late work, T. Adorno, Negative Dialectic (London: 1990). 40 G. Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (London: 1896); see also S. Barrows, Distorting Mirrors: Visions of the Crowd in Late Nineteenth-Century France (New Haven: 1981), E. Canetti, Crowds and Power (Harmondsworth: 1984), S. Moscovici, The age of the crowd (Cambridge: 1985), R. A. Nye, The Origins of Crowd Psychology: Gustave Le Bon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic (London and Beverly Hills: 1975). 41 T. S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (London: 1948), J. O. Y. Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, and other essays on art, culture, and literature (Princeton, New Jersey: 1968) and F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (Cambridge: 1930).
42 S. Bellow, ‘Forward,’ The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega Y Gasset, (Notre Dame, Indiana: 1985), p. ix-x.
Bellow emphasised the relevance of Coleridge’s clerisy argument, since the clerisy are committing treason, and need their commitments to be forcefully restated. C.f. Ernst Gellner, in I. Maclean, A. Montefiore and P. Winch, ed., The Political Responsibility of Intellectuals (Cambridge: 1990). 43 B. Rosenberg, ‘Mass Culture in America,’ p. 5. 44 As Dwight Macdonald put it: “Mass Culture is very, very democratic: it absolutely refuses to discriminate against, or between, anything or anybody. All is grist to its mill, and all comes out finely ground indeed”. D. Macdonald, ‘A Theory of Mass Culture,’ p. 62. 45 Ibid., p. 69. See also D. Macdonald, ‘Masscult and Midcult, I,’ Partisan Review, 27: 2 (1960a) 203; ‘Masscult and Midcult, II,’ Partisan Review, 27: 4 (1960b) 589; and Against the American Grain (London: 1963). 46 D. Macdonald, ‘A Theory of Mass Culture,’ p. 64. 47 S. Bellow, It All Adds Up: from the dim past to the uncertain future, a non-fiction collection (London: 1994), p. 155. (Cf. Bellow’s interview in The Paris Review, S. Bellow, ‘Saul Bellow, interviewed by Gordon Lloyd Harper,’ Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, ed. by Alfred Kazin, (New York: 1967), pp. 175-196.) 48 S. Bellow, It All Adds Up. 49 R. Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: 1989). 50 S. Bellow, ‘Saul Bellow, interviewed by Gordon Lloyd Harper,’ p. 192 and p. 193. 51 Ibid., p. 190. 52 See also R. Denney, The Astonished Muse: Popular Culture in America (Chicago: 1957), D. Riesman, Faces in the Crowd: Individual Studies in Character and Politics (New Haven: 1952); Individualism Reconsidered, and other essays (Glencoe, Ill.: 1954); D. Riesman and R. Denney, ‘Leisure in an Industrial Civilization,’ Creating an Industrial Civilization: Report on the Corning Conference, ed. by Eugene Staley, (New York: 1952), D. Riesman and E. T. Riesman, ‘Movies and Audiences,’ American Quarterly, 4 (1952) 195-202. 53 The character of the ‘American’ was clearly, for Riesman, politically potent and scientifically corrigible. 54 D. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, pp. v-vvi. 55 See L. Lowenthal, Literature, Popular Culture and Society (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: 1961). 56 D. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, p. 15. 57 Ibid., p. 19. 58 Ibid., p. 20. 59 Ibid., p. 22. 60 L. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: 1972), p. 66. C.f. T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, where there is a notorious representation of the culture industry making use of individual desires, for freedom, for autonomy, self-reliance and indeed happiness, so as to both make money and reconcile consumers with a world where cultural life endlessly promises redemption but only delivers anticipation—see pp. 120-167, especially p. 139. 61 D. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, p. 281. 62 D. Trilling, ‘On the Steps of Low Library: Liberalism and the Revolution of the Young,’ Commentary, November (1968); ‘Lionel Trilling: A Jew at Columbia,’ Commentary, March (1979), L. Trilling, Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (New York: 1965a) 63 D. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, pp. 281-2. 64 Ibid., pp. 212-213. 65 W. H. Whyte, The Organisation Man (New York: 1956), p. 3. See also S. Wilson, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (New York: 1955). 66 W. H. Whyte, The Organisation Man, p. 6. 67 Ibid., p. 12. 68 Ibid., pp. 405-410, but also see pp. 171-201. 69 D. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, pp. 362-3. 70 As Leo Lowenthal argued, personal failure was ‘emblematic’ of Benjamin’s refusal to reify success: Benjamin’s work was provisional and incomplete, as is particualarly the case with the fabled Passagenarbeit. 71 See N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, G. Seldes, ‘The People and The Arts,’ Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1963), pp. 74-97, and, for example, Riesman’s relative defence of mass culture, in D. Riesman, Individualism Reconsidered, and other essays (Glencoe, Ill.: 1954), pp. 179-270. See also B. Yack, The Longing for Total Revolution (Princeton: 1986). 72 D. M. White, ‘Mass Culture in America: Another Point of View,’ Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. by Bernard Rosenberg and D. Manning White, (Glencoe, Illiniois: 1963), p. 19. One should observe the rigidity of White’s oppositions. 73 E. Shils, ‘Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on the Criticism of Mass Culture,’ The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays, (Chicago: 1972), p. 248. See also Lewis Coser’s response in L. Coser, ‘Daydreams, Nightmares, Professor Shils,’ Dissent, Summer (1958) . 74 E. Shils, ‘Daydreams and Nightmares,’ pp. 248-264, p. 250. 75 Ibid., p. 251. 76 E. Shils, ‘The Theory of Mass Society,’ Selected Essays by Edward Shils, p. 23. 77 E. Shils, ‘Daydreams and Nightmares,’ p. 261. 78 Yet what is it to be ‘realistic’ concerning improvements and trends? Accomodating oneself to changes, and recognising that they can be positive things, does not resolve questions to do with the tasks ahead. As Richard Hoggart put it: the question now was, what are we collectively going to do with literacy, now that we
the classic on the rise and fall of social Darwinism, R. Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: 1992), especially pp. 51-66, 143-169. More generally see: M. O. Furner, Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905 (Lexington: 1975), T. L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (Urbana, Ill.: 1977), D. Ross, ‘The Development of the Social Sciences,’ D. Ross, The Origins of American Social Science, M. C. Smith, Social Science in the Crucible, A. Wolfe, Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1989). 84 Sociology is thus conceived as a science that shows how to cause people to fulfil their natural, social, potentials. The radical and critical dimension to this, explored obviously by Marx, is matched by a tendency to see questions of conflict and disagreement as symptomatic of underlying ‘social’ causes, such that, as we shall see regarding Utilitarianism, the significances of lives as they are led by particular humans are ignored. 85 See W. E. Akin, Technocracy and the American Dream (Berkley: 1977), H. Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture. 86 That is, an entrenched hierarchy cannot respect others enough. 87 As Chistoper Lasch notable feared in his last book: C. Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites. 88 For a compelling introduction to problems concerning the relationships between politics and economics, see J. Dunn, ed., The Economic Limits to Modern Politics (Cambridge: 1990). 89 See A. Sen and B. Williams, ed., Utilitarianism and beyond (Cambridge: 1991). 90 Talking about people in an abstract and ‘impersonal’ manner is culturally popular, however, as it appears to be helpful in thinking about justice and rights, by exerting pressure upon individuals towards impartially considering collective choice problems. (Questions of neutrality are of huge significance in any attempt to consider either notions of justice and fairness, or a mutual political education for all citizens and their rulers.) Indeed, it is increasingly recognised that the communitarian attack on liberalism has often missed its mark by construing liberal individualism and its political consequences too unsympathetically. See, for instance, A. Gutmann, Democratic Education (Princeton, N. J.: 1987), W. Kymlicka, ‘Liberal Individualism and Liberal Neutrality,’ Communitarianism and Individualism, ed. by Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit, (Oxford: 1992), pp. 165-185. 91 See, for instance, Charles Taylor’s attacks on empiricist, utilitarian and social choice theory understandings of political rationality: for example, C. Taylor, ‘Atomism,’ Communitarianism and Individualism, ed. by Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit, (Oxford: 1992), pp. 29-50, and more generally the papers in C. Taylor, Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge: 1985). 92 Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ renders his thought experiment too thin for our present political needs, needs which depend fundamentally on our ability to contrive mutually educative lives rooted in the world as it is now. 93 Of course, a constricted notion of the individual also makes it difficult to understand how it is that we can communicate and socially interact with others; the arguments of Wittgenstein and Donald Davidson have suggested to many that the very possibility of understanding requires a public or external, rather than solipsist or internal, theory of language or meaning: languages have to be largely veridical. 94 For example, Bellah noted in the powerful influence of cost-benefit analysis upon American institutional attempts to negotiate confused preference sets, and explored the dissatisfactions of those who attempted to face political and moral questions using such analytic devices. R. Bellah, R. Madsen, W. M. Sullivan, A. Swidler and S. M. Tipton, The Good Society (New York: 1992), pp. 27-29. Cost-benefit analysis is popular because it is able to make the world appear tractable: in this its attractiveness works in a similar way to that of mass culture as Macdonald analysed it. 95 J. Dunn, ‘Political Obligation and Political Possibility,’ Political Obligation in its Historical Context, (Cambridge: 1980), p. 246. 96 As far as the Institut was concerned, Adorno was notoriously critical of American popular music and Jazz, and very suspicious of Hollywood. His dogmatism has been overstated, however. Although his tastes were certainly those of a German Jewish intellectual, he did understand that modern mass culture had the potential flexibility to produce valuable and articulate cultural objects; he doubted, however, its capacity to do this in a dependable manner. See T. Adorno, The Culture Industry.
79 E. Shils, ‘Daydreams and Nightmares,’ p. 263. 80 Ibid., p. 263. 81 Ibid., p. 264. See also P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: 198?). 82 E. Shils, ‘Mass Society and its Culture,’ p. 247. 83 A variety of sociologies can be traced which negotiated in different ways deterministic assumptions. See
have managed to get it? See R. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (Harmondsworth: 1990).
6—Robert Warshow and the ambivalence of the Cultural Critic
Robert Warshow and Cultural Criticism
“Haven’t you ever known anyone older who seemed to be everything you wanted to be?” says a character in a Dorothy Baker novel. I certainly have, several, and Warshow was one of them. As a type, he resembled one of my earlier heroes, Moses Hadas, in being a man who combined great coldness of mind with great warmth of heart. … and from each man … I learned the same lesson: that it was possible to achieve cultivation without losing touch with oneself, without doing violence to one’s true feelings, without becoming pompous, pretentious, affected, or false to the realities of one’s own experience—without, in short, becoming a facsimile WASP. Norman Podhoretz1
Warshow was born in 1918, and tragically died young in 1955 from a heart attack. Unusually for the New York Intellectuals, he came from a family that was relatively comfortably off, yet his home was still marked by the Depression.2 He went to university outside New York, unlike many of his contemporaries, and during the War was a civilian in the Army Signal Corps.3 He was thus spared the exaggerated sense of being an ‘outsider’ felt initially by Kazin, yet he was also denied the sense of easy attachment available to the ‘insider’. He wrote, from around 1946, for Partisan Review and the other organs of the New York group, and was, eventually, managing editor for Commentary.4 The day before he died, he was chosen to write for the New Yorker, which, although it had always been seen as far too ‘genteel’ by the Partisan Review crowd, was prestigious and important: he was on the verge of having ‘made it’.5 He concentrated his attention mainly on film, but also contributed to debates over anti-communism, and wider issues affecting Jewish culture and intellectual life.6 His style was marked early on by a degree of clear headedness. Trilling argues that Warshow exhibited the personal style of the provinces, a style of “avowed plainness, of an insistence, gravely and quietly made, upon actuality”: Some English writers have lately taken to comparing the intellectual temperament of the provinces with that of the metropolis, all to the advantage of the former. They
describe it as naturally inclined to seriousness, as stubborn in dissidence, rooted in the circumstantialities of family and class, undeceived by what in culture is merely chic and graceful. Warshow, for all his metropolitan origins, had something of the temperament of the provinces as thus described.7 This tension, between provincialism and metropolitan verve, underpinned Warshow’s ambiguous relationship to mass culture. Warshow exemplified, in his life and his writing, the uneasy condition of the intellectual in the face of mass culture. He was both drawn to it, and fearful of its power. (In an essay on horror comics, he quietly tries to retain his sense of revulsion, whilst recognising the power these comics could exert over his son.8) Trilling notes: Warshow speaks of his relation to the movies with an intelligent simplicity which derives from his never having repudiated the passion for the screen that he had felt in boyhood. In this he was like that other remarkable film critic of our time, who also died untimely, James Agee. There are great differences in the work of the two men, for Agee experienced the movies in an almost wholly unmediated way, while Warshow came to them with the questions of an avowed intellectual and a highly politicized intellectual at that. But the two men are at one in their unabashed response to the charm that the art had for them, not merely in special instances of high success but entirely, in all its range.9 Within a Marxist framework, mass culture represented—like religion—man’s alienated life, yet equally it was a tool through which transformation was possible. Mass culture displayed the endless power of society, yet seemed paltry in comparison with the achievements of classical high culture. It appeared to celebrate its own vulgarity, its own commonness—especially in the great democratic life of America, where to be uncommon was both desired and feared. Given this background of fear and attraction, Warshow tried to move beyond the forced populism or sterile evasiveness so common amongst his colleagues, as we noted in chapter 5. His responses to American film were unashamedly personal yet remarkably suggestive. Alexander Bloom characterised his main contribution: Robert Warshow tried to carve out a new middle ground, between highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities. He felt that the main cultural dynamic in postwar America was ‘the mass of the educated classes—the culture of the middle-brow’. This described the new synthesis of a popular culture which responded to and incorporated avant-garde notions.10 A key to understanding Warshow’s approach to criticism can be found in ‘The Legacy of the 30s’, from the December 1947 issue of Commentary, which was reprinted in his
posthumous collection, The Immediate Experience. Warshow argued that a ‘middlebrow’ culture was forming in America, which used the same techniques as those of mass culture: it was, in short, a mass culture of the educated classes. For Warshow, as for Macdonald, middlebrow culture threatened to reduce society’s capacity to discriminate between good and bad. He argued that middlebrow cultural hybrids possessed a builtin “fixed system of moral and political attitudes” which functioned as the cultural counterpart to Stalinism, “a kind of willing mortification of the self ”. The possibility of art providing “an enrichment of experience” was denied by a mass culture whose “chief function … is to relieve one of the necessity of experiencing one’s life directly”.11 Warshow saw Miller, for example, as a classic example of this vulgar middlebrow culture: ‘The Crucible’ was simple-minded, he argues, in its sentimental search for solidarity. Warshow’s criticism can be understood therefore as an attempt to show how important it was to “experience one’s life directly”. In this he was committed to the political and cultural neo-pragmatism of figures such as Hook, even though he did not think, as Hook came to do, that this implied adopting a pluralist cultural outlook. Warshow attacked the vulgarity of middlebrow culture partly because of its implicit claim to be ‘above’ ordinary mass culture. He understood that questions of value in culture could not be easily or routinely decided according to pre-formed opinions. The objects themselves needed to be experienced. In this, there are interesting parallels between Warshow’s work and that of Lionel Trilling, who attacked the dominance in America of a ‘liberal’ culture which he too felt too easily approximated a sort of wellmeaning Stalinism.12 Warshow and Trilling re-animated Emerson’s radical rejection of ‘convention’ and hoped to use a form of openness as a means of self-protection. For them both, the intellectual and the authentic citizen were required to ‘think on their feet’ so as to embrace the critical dimension of the pragmatic tradition. Podhoretz recognised the importance of this openness for Warshow when he wrote: Warshow was determined to guard the integrity of his feelings, whatever they might be, against the assaults of moral or cultural piety. He would not pretend to like what he had not taste for or to dislike what the pieties insisted he condemn; and if his experience belied an accepted ‘truth,’ it was the experience he held onto and the ‘truth’ that had to go. There are not many convinced atheists in the world, but Warshow was one of them,
and his unwavering reliance for knowledge on his own experience may perhaps have been made possible by his atheism: if there is nothing beyond human life, then there is nothing beyond experience, and to deny one’s own experience is the surest form of spiritual suicide. In any case, it was the principle of fidelity to his own experience, to his own tastes, to his own responses—together with a certain intellectual diffidence—which, Warshow told me, led him to write movie criticism. But it was movie criticism with a difference. … He is a man watching a movie and being affected by it like everyone else in the audience, even if he is also a man who loves Henry James. … [H]e found a kind of double-vision way of writing about the movies that resulted in essays of a beauty and a wealth of implication which scarcely have their equal in the whole of American literature.13 Warshow was unwilling to adopt the stance of the uninvolved critic standing beyond society. He recognised his own complicity. This sense of involvement brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s essay ‘Society and Cultural Criticism,’ in which an ‘immanent’ criticism was deployed to counteract the arrogant detachment and eventual totalitarianism of ‘transcendental’ (Stalinist) criticism.14 For Adorno, immanent criticism concentrated its energies upon the object at hand, and in particular the tensions between the claims that are inadvertently or directly made about the object and its values, and the properties it exhibited. It was a careful form of criticism, directed at the exposure of tensions and contradictions, and it was characterised by a desire for ‘adequacy’ or ‘wholeness’ which was uncomfortable about the ease of closure propagated by cultural and moral piety. For Warshow, too, it was important to recognise one’s capacity to actually enjoy the movies, to experience their captivating and demanding immediate experience. As Brookman argues: Warshow’s contributions to the mass-culture debate gathered in The Immediate Experience testify to the transformation he was attempting to effect within the debate, to move beyond the rigid categories of high and mass that were both crippling the debate and preventing the close analysis of mass-culture genres that he was beginning to write himself. His work is powerfully influenced by his distaste for the agit-prop aesthetics and popular front messages of the 1930s and his almost pathological loathing of the cultural legacy of the popular front as it manifested itself in the vague ahistorical dissent of such plays as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The import and influence of these ideological quarrels and perspectives will remain part of the process of analysis that ‘will not stand still,’ and willy-nilly involves students of this period in an art and politics debate.15 It was Warshow’s attempt, tentative though it was, to overcome the sociological distinction between high and low culture, whilst retaining a powerful interest in the inculcation of the ‘best’ cultural values, that underpinned his work. He argued, in The Immediate Experience, that:
The movies—and American movies in particular—stand at the centre of that unresolved problem of “popular culture” which has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism, intruding itself on all our efforts to understand the special qualities of our culture and to define our own relation to it.16 Warshow was convinced that the endemic and unavoidable quality of the ‘unresolved problem of “popular culture”’ had to be faced through a criticism that could “acknowledge its [popular culture’s] pervasive and disturbing power without ceasing to be aware of the superior claims of the higher arts, and yet without a bad conscience”.17 He felt that what he called sociological and aesthetic approaches to the movies often failed to establish such a criticism. As he noted, “[t]he sociological critic says to us, in effect: It is not I who goes to see the movies; it is the audience. The aesthetic critic says: It is not the movies I go to see; it is art”.18 Pauline Kael has written perceptively along similar lines: The ‘pure’ cinema enthusiast who doesn’t react to a film but feels he should, and so goes back to it over and over, is not responding as an individual but as a compulsive good pupil determined to appreciate what his cultural superiors say is “art.” Movies are on their way into academia when they’re turned into a matter of duty: a mistake in judgement isn’t fatal, but too much anxiety about judgement is. In this country, respect for High Culture is becoming a ritual.19 Kael was attacking the valorisation of ‘art’ cinema, and the splintering of the audience for the movies which was well underway by the 1960s. She noted the rise of a ‘technical’ approach amongst critically influential directors, which threatened to narrow the ambitions of the movie industry: “In movies, as in other art forms, if you are interested only in technique, the result is just about the same: if you have nothing to express it is very much like thinking you have so much to express that you don’t know how to express it”.20 As a consequence, movies would shift from being “the only art which everyone felt free to enjoy and have opinions about” to being “another object of academic study and ‘appreciation’” which is only an “object of excitement’ for “practitioners of the ‘art’”.21 Kael noted the great gulf that existed between those who were open to the movies, and those who seemed constitutionally unable to get the point: Our academic bureaucracy needs something alive to nourish it and movies still have a little blood which the academics can drain away. In the West several of the academic people I know who have least understanding of movies were suddenly interested by Laurance Alloway’s piece called “Critics in the Dark” in Encounter. By suggesting that movie criticism had never gotten into the right hands—i.e., theirs, and by indicating
projects, and by publishing in the prestigious Encounter, Alloway indicated large vistas of respectability for future film critics. Perhaps also they were drawn to his condescending approach to movies as a pop art. Many academics have always been puzzled that Agee could care so much about movies. Alloway, by taking the position that Agee’s caring was a maladjustment, re-established their safe, serene worlds in which if a man gets excited about an idea or an issue, they know there’s something the matter with him. It’s not much consolation, but I think the cinema the academics will be working over will be the cinema they deserve.22 Warshow’s response to such a dreadfully unimaginative academic rejection was to emphasise what he called the ‘fact’ of the movies. He argued: I think it may be said nevertheless that both these approaches, in their separate ways, have tended to slight the fundamental fact of the movies, a fact at once aesthetic and sociological but also something more. This is the actual, immediate experience of seeing and responding to the movies as most of us see them and respond to them. A critic may extend his frame of reference as far as it will bear extension, but it seems to me almost self-evident that he should start with the simple acknowledgement of his own relation to the object he criticised; at the centre of all truly successful criticism there is always a man reading a book, a man looking at a picture, a man watching a movie. Critics of the films, caught in the conflict between “high culture” and “popular culture,” have too often sought to evade this confrontation.23 Thomas R. Edwards has noted that Warshow made clear the division “between wanting to enjoy popular arts as they are, and wanting to remember that high art usually has richer and deeper effects”.24 Intellectuals often fail to sustain their varied commitments. They are often seduced by the pleasure of popular art. They harbour secret and guilty desires, wanting acceptance and recognition, wanting to find in popular life the signs of revolution or bacchanalian release. Thereby popular culture becomes little more than a projection, its limits ignored, its ideological character repressed, its complicity with power denied; or, alternatively, it can seem to be little more than ideology. Against this backdrop, Warshow’s emphasis on both the immediate experience of the movies, the sense of being drawn in, and the superior claims of high art, was emblematic of a need for a sense of connection in the aspiring critic of culture. Warshow was trying to bring together experiences which were usually kept apart, since he realised that much could be learnt by doing so. There are deep resonances between Warshow’s work and that of Michael Walzer. Writing in 1987, Walzer follows Warshow in arguing for a view of the critic that emphasises the importance of a tension between high cultural imperatives and
membership within a wider culture. He recognises that “criticism requires critical distance,” yet he goes on to ask: “It is not clear, though, how much distance critical distance is. Where do we have to stand to be social critics? The conventional view is that we have to stand outside the common circumstances of collective life.”25 He goes on to note, the notion of radical detachment has become confused with the distinction “between detachment and marginality”.26 Walzer stresses the value of marginality rather than radical detachment, because he feels that marginal characters who are ‘in’ but not wholly ‘of ’ their societies, are best suited to the task of criticising those societies. Walzer says: I want to suggest an alternative model, though I do not mean to banish the dispassionate stranger or the estranged native. They have their place in the critical story, but only alongside and in the shadow of someone quite different and more familiar: the local judge, the connected critic, who earns his authority, or fails to do so, by arguing with his fellows—who, angrily and insistently, sometimes at considerable personal risk (he can be a hero too), objects, protests, and remonstrates. This critic is one of us.27 In this argument, then, intellectuals, although marked perhaps by their marginality, or the peculiarity of their pursuits, are not best understood as a breed apart able to adopt the rarefied perspective of a god. In fact, they are just like everyone else. This is not primarily an epistemological point, so much as a recognition of the necessity of involvement and mutual education; intellectuals have to intercede, debate, argue, present and cajole.28 Norman Podhoretz has written about these critical ambitions with respect to what he called Elliot Cohen’s ‘Grand Design’ at Commentary: Beyond and behind the traditional Commentary insistence on clarity and concern for literary grace, however, lay Elliot Cohen’s Grand Design, his dream of arranging a marriage between the intellectuals (that is, the family) and American culture, and at the same time a reconciliation between them and the Jewish community.29 Podhoretz felt that Bellow’s effort to “write fiction out of the experience of big-city immigrant Jewish life,” an effort which helped the second generation of New York Intellectuals to “lay a serious claim to their identity as Americans and to their right to play a more than marginal role in the literary culture of the country,” was ultimately bound to Cohen’s ‘Grand Design’.30 Warshow was also trying to lay a claim as an American and as an intellectual, by the means of which he could intercede in America’s political and cultural life in a more honest manner than many of his colleagues.
Trilling, in his introduction to The Immediate Experience captured much of this with some delicacy. He argued: In the course of a review of a volume of E. B. White’s essays, Warshow remarks of the New Yorker that “it has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted to it.” This is, of course, a way of dealing with experience which is common enough. It marks much intellectual effort that is far more ambitious than the New Yorker’s. It was not Warshow’s way. Anyone who wants to press literally upon the sentence I have quoted can say that it isn’t possible for the critic to free himself from attitude, nor from the impulse to bring about in his readers the adoption of one attitude or another. But in the sense that Warshow was using the word, attitude means mere attitude, unearned attitude, eventually the attitude of dissociation from experience.31 This need to ‘earn’ attitudes brings to mind Adorno’s life-long search for a form of cultural criticism capable of following the contours of cultural significance in a manner at least marginally able to match the complexities of experience. Adorno struggled to free himself from an easy deployment of political slogans within his cultural criticism, yet he equally understood—as a connected critic—that to fully free his criticism from the taint of history would be to render it facile. Warshow, as Trilling recognised, struggled in a similar manner to negotiate the tensions between routine and imaginative response. Trilling noted: The categories of history and politics were essential to his thought, but he never, in his idea of himself as an intellectual, conceived of himself as being “on the stage of history,” as having a “role” assigned to him by the Zeitgeist. He thought and felt, so far as a man can, in propre persona. That is why he is remembered so vividly.32 This refusal to act “on the stage of history” was not an act of quiescence, as it may appear to be. Quiescence derives from the repression of a sense of the need for action, a certain turning away from hard choices.33 Warshow (and Adorno) was interested, rather, in subverting what he saw as a logic of compulsive involvement. He was undermining the notion that being political about culture implied reading culture according to given ‘political’ ends. The fundamentalism of such an orthodoxy was resisted by means of a careful refusal to collapse culture into politics or politics into culture. There is much to be learned from such a form of intellectual resistance, given that it has been common in subsequent years for the claims of ‘culture’ or ‘politics’ to be urgently and insistently pressed without due care being taken to respect the complexities of the relations between these two realms of life and discourse.34 In this, as in so much else, Warshow
displayed an exemplary caution.
American Intellectuals at the Movies
A doctor friend called me after he’d seen The Pink Panther to tell me I needn’t “bother” with that one, it was just slapstick. When I told him I’d already seen it and had a good time at it, he was irritated; he informed me that a movie should be more than a waste of time, it should be an exercise of taste that will enrich your life. Those looking for importance are too often contemptuous of the crude vitality of American films, though this crudity is not always offensive, and may represent the only way that energy and talent and inventiveness can find an outlet, can break through the planned standardization of mass entertainment. Pauline Kael35
Kael understands how the crude, trashy vitality of the movies could be lost on academic intellectuals. When intellectuals go to the movies, she notes, they find it difficult to experience the movies for what they are. They look for beauty, or adopt the distancing posture of the sociologist or anthropologist, and fail to appreciate that the movies are a popular art which can too easily lose its vigour through the impact of intellectual pretension and ‘artistic’ ambition. As she put it: If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.36 The good doctor who is unable to experience ‘The Pink Panther’ is also incapable of understanding Warshow’s ‘immediate experience’. Where the movies are seen solely as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, they become frightening and incomprehensible, and the movie-viewer seems to be involved in an evasive act. This sense of unease about movies was particularly powerful for those intellectuals who dreamt of a genteel democratic culture, since Hollywood seemed to offer, in its place, mere vulgarity and sensationalism. For writers such as Warshow, American movies, however, were flexible and complex. Hollywood, he believed, was capable of producing good movies. These movies could also articulate, either explicitly or implicitly, complex feelings of hope and fear in relation to the future of America. They could sustain a vital relationship with collective
culture—movies could examine what it meant to be an ‘American’.37 More importantly, the very nature of the movies, as Kael noted, ensured that alongside vulgarity and trash there could be a kind of art, and the expression of real and important sentiments.38 Those who took the time to really experience the movies came to see that they possessed an unsettling and deep power. This power can be explored in terms of the actor’s work, or the director’s or cinematographer’s contribution, or in terms of the scriptwriter’s skill, or the essentially collaborative nature of the industry: it is a very complex power. It is also, Kael argued, a peculiarly democratic power: the movies are “still where it happens, not for much longer perhaps, but the movies are still the art form that uses the material of our lives and the art form that we use”.39 It was common to understand the peculiar quality of the movies in terms of their dream-like status, their power to immerse the viewer in a totally new world. Movies were ‘make-believe’ and Hollywood, America’s ‘dream factory,’ attempted to explicitly articulate the hopes and desires of its audience, so as to provide an escape from the limits of normal life. It was consequently inevitable that many movies would turn to American ideals for inspiration. Hollywood’s depiction of an idealised America and an idealised vision of the American man and woman aided the development of a hugely important vernacular: the movies invaded people’s dreams; people learned how to hope according to the lessons of the movie-house. Intellectuals typically felt a deep sense of ambiguity with regard to this cultural power. While many of them were drawn to the movies, from their childhood on, as a means to relaxation or escape, the standards by which they felt they should critically appraise movies were far from clear. As we have seen Warshow and Kael argue, for many intellectuals going to the movies amounted to a suspension of their normal lives: they felt consequently a mixture of guilt and condescension, and approached the movies as if they were poor examples of literature, or political theory, or high art. Ultimately, however, the movies just were what they were: a new aesthetic medium and form of communication, which carried with it a particular system of production and consumption, and which had developed in a particular way. The crucial
point was that the movies enchanted their viewers. Their power was such that it could lead to obsessions and dreams, to a pathetic illusion of identity between observer and observed, to an overpowering sense of desire. Delmore Schwartz’s biographer has written of his possession of “an addictive passion [for the movies] that he struggled against all his life”: Fascinated by the “unself-consciousness” of Spencer Tracy and the solemn, orotund narration of the newsreel voice-over—which he compared to the Oracle at Delphi— Delmore found the orderly resolution of plot in movies consoling, for it assured him that life could be more comprehensible than his own experience. The cinema promised “appeasement of unrealized desires”; but it also provoked a sort of dread, and when he emerged from “the ghostly evening of the theatre,” it was only to find himself restored to the reality of an existence that offered few pleasures.40 Kazin has written of his efforts to keep his eyes closed as a boy, so as to prolong the delicious sense of anticipation whilst waiting for the Saturday movie to start, knowing that “a better world would take me in”: In the wonderful darkness of the movies there was nothing to remind me of Brownsville—nothing but the sudden alarm of a boy who, reminding himself at six o’clock that it was really time to get home, would in his haste let himself out by the great metal fire door in front. Then the gritty light on Bristol Street would break up the images on the screen with a meanness that made me shudder. I always feared that light for the same reason: it seemed to mock imagination. I could never finally leave the movies, while the light of Saturday afternoon still filled the streets, without feeling that sadness that Spinoza describes as coming after lust … But deep inside the darkness of the movies everything that was good in life, everything that spoke straight to the imagination, began in some instant dark fusion between the organ music from the pit and the cycles of terror that started up again each Saturday afternoon in the ‘episodes’.41 If there is a special intimacy in America, as Stanley Cavell has argued, between the ideal and the real, or the historical and the imaginary, this intimacy can surely be best found in America’s movies. That these movies possess an imaginary power which has a capacity to cause wonder, to engender a desire for redemption, even whilst they may demonstrate painfully banal or vulgar pretensions of their own, has long been remarked upon. (This imaginary power underlies American popular culture’s bewildering and challenging capacity to wrong-foot its intellectual critics.) David Thomson has expressed this wonderfully, when he wrote of his childhood fascination with American movies: Britain was hurt that the war had required America, just as it resented America’s lateness in coming and its shocking wealth in goods. There were clouds of disapproval of Americana above my head, bitter with the suggestion that American culture was materialistic, shallow, and vacant. I was warned off American comic books, chewing
gum, and movies, and grown-ups looked anxious when I talked about the films. As I understood their fears, they seemed to me mistaken. American movies were not material, but imaginary, fantastic, and expansive. The simple-mindedness of the stories did not impede the complex mingling of actuality and artifice. I guessed even then that the movies were doing the one thing my elders hoped for: educating me, enlarging me, making me wonder.42 The power of this sense of wonder—its spiritual quality—has marked many lives. Truffaut, for instance, has written about what he calls the ‘upward spiral’ of the movies: There exists in the very idea of cinematic spectacle, a promise of pleasure, an idea of exaltation that runs counter to the downward spiral of life that goes through infirmity and old age to death. I am using shorthand and, of course, oversimplifying: the spectacle moves upward, life downward. If we accept this vision, we will say that the spectacle, as opposed to journalism, has a mission to deceive, but that the greatest of those who create such spectacles do not resort to lies but instead get the public to accept their truth, all without breaking the law that the spectacle must represent the rising movement. Both their truth and their madness are accepted, for we must never forget that a artist imposes his madness on an audience less mad, or at least unaware of its madness. 43 Truffaut’s fascination with America was matched by the experiences of the first generation of film school directors in America itself. Martin Scorsese has argued recently that a central part of what drove the movies on was a spiritual quest. As he put it: I don’t really see a conflict between the Church and the movies, the sacred and the profane, obviously there are major differences, but I can also see great similarities between the Church and a movie house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience, and I believe there is a spirituality in films even if it is not one that can supplant faith. I find that over the years many films address themselves to the spiritual side of man’s nature, from Griffith’s film Intolerance, to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to Kubrick’s 2001, and so many more. It is as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious, they fulfil a spiritual need that people have, to share a common memory.44 Intellectuals have felt both drawn to and repelled from this need to ‘share a common memory’. Part of what Scorsese is interested in here is the existence of a common life and destiny, bounded by a common heritage; he is drawn to the power of movies to bring people together, or to give people a sense of what they are, or what they could be. The hope that the movies could help to generate a common heritage powerfully resonates with America’s democratic traditions. Even though the movies seemed to many intellectuals to be unredeemably vulgar, to figures such as Warshow, James Agee and Pauline Kael, they offered a powerful means by which the these ideals could be brought closer to fruition. The movies, they felt, helped make America a culturally richer and
more coherent place, and this was partly because the movies were ultimately the most intoxicating, exciting and democratic cultural form available. The popular condition of ‘distraction’ that Bellow felt plunged the serious writer into isolation met its greatest match in the movies. The sense of enlargement that Schwartz, Kazin, Scorsese, Truffaut and Thomson experienced under the influence of the movies excited the political ambitions of many observers. It was clear that, if the movies could be used as a means for distributing propaganda, or as a means for documenting and exploring contemporary reality, then a great power for influence would be created. Hollywood, however, did not follow either of these directions with much consistency.45 Instead, it chose to entertain: a choice which was justified in Preston Sturge’s Sullivan’s Travels, which showed a director coming to realise that movies were much better as entertainment than social criticism. Sullivan, who dreamt of changing the world, became increasingly convinced that happiness was a rare thing indeed, and that the movies could bring momentary happiness into lives which were otherwise blighted by unhappiness. However, even entertainment had to be about something, and it had to generate images and situations which would bring happiness, and towards such an end, the future and past of an ideal America offered ample and powerful material.46 It was the ways in which the movies transfigured American hopes, ideals and fears which Warshow attempted to explore through his criticism. He examined the values they expressed, and the psychological power possessed by these values. He was interested in the ways in which the movies were able to make sense of America. (Ultimately his criticism was also interested in the extent to which they redeemed or failed to redeem America.) He argued, for instance, that the generic figures who loomed so large in American movies—in particular ‘the gangster’ and ‘the Westerner’—enlarged and articulated tensions between the individual and society which were fundamental to such an ambitious and democratic nation.47 These heroes helped to show the problems that faced the dream of self-reliance, and the limits that threatened to cripple individual honesty, whilst at the same time further deepening the association between these and
America. Warshow argued that: The gangster is lonely and melancholy, and can give the impression of a profoundly worldly wisdom. He appeals most to adolescents with their impatience and their feeling of being outsiders, but more generally he appeals to that side of all of us which refuses to believe in the “normal” possibilities of happiness and achievement; the gangster is the “no” to that great American “yes” which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives.48 While: The Western hero, by contrast, is a figure of repose. He resembles the gangster in being lonely and to some degree melancholy. But his melancholy comes from the “simple” recognition that life is unavoidably serious, not from the disproportions of his own temperament. And his loneliness is organic, not imposed on him by his situation but belonging to him intimately and testifying to his completeness. The gangster must reject others violently or draw them violently to him.49 For Warshow, Westerners and gangsters were archetypes through which Americans came in time to examine their beliefs in happiness and the means of its achievement, and their understanding of justice and virtue. The gangster represented the terrible costs of achieving true individuality and personal success, yet also represented the ambiguous power of the desire to stand out from the crowd. The gangster was however caught in an implacable fight with society; the gangster would always meet his bloody fate, would always have to pay for his momentary pre-eminence. The Westerner on the other hand was a profoundly moral figure, driven by an imperative search for justice and an implacable need to uphold honour: he was the ‘last gentleman’.50 Indeed: The mature sense of limitation and unavoidable guilt is what gives the Westerner a “right” to his melancholy. It is true that the gangster’s story is also a tragedy—in certain formal ways more clearly a tragedy than the Westerner’s—but it is a romantic tragedy, based on a hero whose defeat springs with almost mechanical inevitability from the outrageous presumption of his demands: the gangster is bound to go on until he is killed.51 Warshow argued against the position that Westerns were largely concerned with violence and the boundaries of civilisation. He felt, rather, that they played a part in a process whereby a vernacular vision of an American hero could develop which dramatised the dilemmas facing the self-reliant individual. He noted the importance of …a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence. Watch a child with his toy guns and you will see: what most interests him is not (as we so much fear) the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man might look when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.…And he [the Westerner] has, after all, his own kind of relevance. He is there to remind us of the possibility of style in an
age which has put on itself the burden of pretending that style has no meaning, and, in the midst of our anxieties over the problem of violence, to suggest that even in killing or being killed we are not freed from the necessity of establishing satisfactory modes of behavior. Above all, the movies in which the Westerner plays out his role preserve for us the pleasures of a complete and self-contained drama—and one which still effortlessly crosses the boundaries which divide our culture—in a time when other, more consciously serious art forms are increasingly complex, uncertain, and ill-defined.52 Warshow noted that serious art had turned away from the idea of a ‘self-contained drama,’ towards ‘increasingly complex, uncertain and ill-defined’ forms. Yet Warshow felt that there was a loss in this shift. The Western ‘crosses boundaries’ in an otherwise divided culture: it functions as a form of collective enchantment or myth, that is part of the tissue, so to speak, of collective life. The value of the movies, according to Warshow, resided in their capacity to address the hopes and fears of common people: they could explore in a popular vernacular ideas about responsibility and duty, justice and blame, that are fundamental to the intellectual’s understanding of America’s strengths. The movies were thereby rooted in the given conflicts and prejudices of a time and place, whilst also being repositories of cultural imagination and knowledge which reproduced and deepened society’s hopes and ideals. Warshow’s film criticism was designed to show how it was that American movies came to resonate with the common ambitions and hopes of Americans. Yet it was also designed to bring this resonance into a more coherent form. Warshow demonstrated the role that criticism could assume: through criticism, discrete, ephemeral and apparently unrelated phenomena could be brought together, and hidden meanings could be made clearer. Warshow in particular hoped to show how the movies were becoming politically and intellectually significant, how Americans could no longer fail to think about and through them, yet how they could not be easily comprehended by America’s intellectuals.53 Warshow hoped to show that there existed in America a terrible conflict or split, much like that suggested by Cavell in chapter 4 above, whereby both intellectual and popular discourses felt uncomfortable with one another and thus became discrete and banal. His experience as a critic was deeply marked by his resistance to this split. His most significant contribution to our understanding of culture and politics in America was his recognition of the importance of overcoming this split, through a critical practice
that was broad-minded, open-ended and inclusive. The marginality of his life, however, demonstrates to us the difficulties which surrounded his acquisition of such a capacity, as we shall now see.
The Awkward Commitments of the Cultural Critic
Movies are our cheap and easy expression, the sullen art of displaced persons. Pauline Kael54
But if the act of writing cannot be controlled by the will, it can be controlled by that magical key of which I have already spoken. The key, I believe, is literally a key in that it is musical … : it is the tone of voice, the only tone of voice, in which this particular piece of writing will permit itself to be written. To find the tone is to unlock the floodgates. Norman Podhoretz55
Warshow’s early death has largely consigned his work to a subterranean position, where due to its poignantly incomplete nature it exerts a complex influence on many of those who happen to stumble upon it. Of course, his work was, both before and after his death, widely remarked upon amongst the New York Intellectuals themselves, as Trilling’s preface to The Immediate Experience makes clear. Podhoretz, who worked alongside Warshow at Commentary, felt that “at thirty-four [he was] already one of the best essayists in the English language and then, as now, one of the least appreciated”.56 Warshow was able to develop the sketches of a potent and open-ended approach to cultural criticism, which emphasised the irreducible and unavoidable incompleteness, or ambiguousness of the condition of the intellectual critic of mass culture. However, since his death, Warshow has largely been ignored, his influence consigned to the occasional academic article and a cursory mention in the now copious memoirs of his colleagues and their biographers. One thinker who has recognised, momentarily, the compelling nature of Warshow’s work is Stanley Cavell, who wrote in an appendix to The Pursuit of Happiness about his ‘unrecognised’ debt to Warshow. He stated how, after finishing The World Viewed, “I realised how much I was indebted to Robert Warshow’s The Immediate
Experience”.57 Cavell notes the connections between Robert Warshow and Walter Benjamin, seeing them both “locating film for investigation in relation to high culture on the one hand and to the experience of mass society on the other”.58 They both also recognise that while the movies are the ‘bastard child’ of art, the movies will transform the ‘household of art’ in time. Cavell argues that Warshow’s central problem is that of “regaining our experience in the world of mass culture,”59 and Cavell feels that Warshow’s value lies in his refusal to exempt himself from the possible ‘mass reactions’ to films, in his search for ‘a vocabulary’ with which to understand film as having revolutionary consequences for criticism and aesthetics, and in his attempt to ‘legitimise’ the movies.60 These are Cavell’s interests too. Cavell wishes to support a view of human relations (with the world and with one another) that is centred around the idea of ‘acknowledgement’.61 Stephen Mulhall has characterised certain features of Cavell’s approach thus: Cavell’s practice is an attempt to construct a viable set of conventions within which useful philosophical work can be done…these new conventions are established by articulating and elaborating what might seem at first to be essentially private and personal insights but which offer the hope of grounding a community (at least a community of two).…[T]he person engaged in constructing the new conventions can only do so by foregrounding himself or herself; lacking the support of existing impersonal convention, communication (and so the possibility of establishing new conventions) requires the articulation of inherently personal statements. And…acceptance of these statements as the possible ground for new conventions and so a new community is also an ineluctably personal matter: if no agreed-upon conventions can determine whether or not a new set of conventions counts as a mode of doing philosophy, each individual reader must rely solely upon the conviction (or lack of it) that Cavell’s prose, in all its idiosyncratic rigour, can elicit, and no such reader can rely upon any other reader’s agreement.62 In accordance with this argument, it is clear that Cavell understands that critical power is a personal matter, which cannot be routinely reproduced, either for the critic or the reader.63 Cognitive prowess and argumentative clarity do not, that is, achieve a victory over ignorance and confusion independently from rhetoric, since disagreements over ‘how to go on’ are far from trivial.64 Cavell has argued: That is, such works seek to split their audience into insiders and outsiders (and split each member of it); hence they create the particular unpleasantness of cults (at best as a specific against the particular unpleasantness of indifference or intellectual promiscuousness, combating partialness by partiality); hence demand for their sincere reception the shock of conversion. If I say that the basis of the present publication is that Wittgenstein’s thought is still to be received, I mean to suggest that his work, and of course not his alone, is essentially and always to be received, as thoughts must be that
would refuse professionalization.65 This endless openness, this condition of not being finished, is of some importance in attempting to understand the position of figures such as Warshow, Benjamin, Bellow, or Cavell himself. While Cavell concentrates on philosophical problems, and tries to work according to philosophical conventions, one can feel him endlessly resisting these conventions, which he refers to in terms of a process of ‘professionalization’. Cavell is an implacable critic of the cultic, which he fears is a consequence of professionalization. He is consequently a philosophical maverick, a figure who puzzles his contemporaries. Intellectual cultural critics such as Warshow and Benjamin found themselves in a similar position. Their attempts to use their personal experiences and perspectives to help see and understand conventions and make them plausible and possibly compelling to others, rendered their positions awkward. Warshow, for instance, moved between the perspective of the insider and that of the outsider—for instance, between the ‘immediate experience’ of the movies and the mediated effort of analysis and reflective judgement. His awkward position was rooted in the difficulties he faced bridging the gap between popular and intellectual traditions, which were peculiarly powerful in a society which considered itself democratic and pluralist. Cavell’s description, noted above in chapter 4, of Howard Hawks pretending he was a cowboy “in order to make himself comprehensible” to American universities, makes this painfully clear. In this connection it is interesting to note that Cavell is particularly drawn to writers whose work was fragmentary or allusive—to Emerson, Thoreau, Wittgenstein, Warshow, Benjamin. Warshow, for instance, left his readers with a largely blank project, which they could then attempt to fill in. Yet this potentially frustrating quality lends to his writing an allusive potential that is a source of its strength, (one might conclude that culture cannot be approached directly if one expects it to yield up its secrets). This allusiveness is connected to the peculiar qualities of the essay as form; as Adorno has put it, the essay is immoderate, exaggerated, unbalanced, yet profoundly powerful and supple, since it is not required to conform to some grand project, but can follow through strands of thought.66 Warshow understood the advantages of being an essayist. He wrote well
when he was turning round and round an object, inspecting it from all sides, trying to capture its ambiguities, as was demonstrated in his remarkable essays on the gangster and the Westerner. That Warshow’s writing worked best in this format was not simply a reflection of his own proclivities and skills, since it reflected also the dominance in his work of the idea of the critic as the generalist, the ‘public’ intellectual who attempts to intervene in collective life through an ongoing and interdisciplinary argument waged in the pages of small magazines and journals, books and pamphlets. The essay form lends itself to the development of an effective mixture of suppleness and directness, or of clarity and concreteness, and it directs the writer to attempt to intercede in his or her own voice with the reader.67 Its importance to cultural critics reflected their need to find a personal way of writing, to discover for themselves a relationship with an audience and a body of material. Cultural critics often came to feel that it was up to them to render collective dilemmas imaginatively compelling: to clarify the spiritual dimension, so to speak, of collective life. They knew that the cultural objects of their passion were poorly suited to the elaboration of political rationality, yet they understood that these cultural objects carried within them a spiritual significance which was politically consequential. They were thereby drawn fitfully into the politics of a society’s dreams about itself. They were concerned with the capacity possessed by these dreams to render society more civilized. The significance of this point can perhaps be driven home by examining the notions of ‘prudence’ and ‘trust’ as these have been developed by John Dunn, since he makes it clear that although political life is practically dependent upon the capacity agents possess to realistically judge possible outcomes of actions, political life is also dependent upon the quality of the collective political imagination possessed by a people. Trust is of great importance in human society because of the fact of imperfection. In particular, trust reflects the need for humans faced by a division of labour to get along with one another. Trustworthiness measures the capacity of institutions (and particular individuals) to sustain and register ‘authorativeness’: to acknowledge a (more or less) agreed basis for collective life. Such an understanding has to be epistemically respectable. It has to
be rooted in a realistic and urgent sense of what is really going on politically. In such a context, political theory can be construed as a collective project aimed at expanding what citizens can reasonably place their trust in. Dunn notes: In political theory it cannot be a valid result that what is collectively suicidal is individually rational … Political theory, accordingly, will resist with some tenacity being defined as the theory of what individuals seriatim can do about history (in each instance, virtually nothing) and focus instead on the question of what they might contrive to do about it together, partly at least in the hope that such considerations may in time exert some (epistemically respectable) pressure on their self-conceptions, on how they imagine themselves and their societies and on what they conceive to be of value to themselves. ‘For the limits of social imagination are what determine what men in the last instance can place their trust in. Men, as Locke said, live upon trust. And there is simply no conceptual truth in political theory more fundamental than the truth that men trust in what they can.’68 Dunn emphasises the importance of an epistemically respectable pressure within society towards conceptions of what individuals ‘might contrive to do about [history] together’. The responsibility of intellectuals in such an instance cannot be met by an intellectual culture that accepts delegation and intellectual specialisation too easily.69 Intellectual prudence resides, rather, in a commitment to a more mutual process of political education—to a process that is democratic. The mutuality of this process ought to not be hypostatised, however. The responsibilities of citizens for the qualities of their own governments cannot be construed as evenly distributed across society. Intellectuals have special responsibilities associated with their special cognitive position, yet their selfimages can obscure, in many cases, their understanding of this position.70 The need to develop an epistemically respectable pressure upon self-conceptions and social languages that is able to register collective responsibility for historical change thus requires a more robust understanding of specific intellectual responsibilities. Intellectuals are thus not to be allowed the security of thinking that they are they same as everyone else; they are responsible for the quality of their efforts to improve collective life, even though collective responsibility for ‘intellectual’ matters cannot be alienated onto them. Consequently, intellectuals are going to have to be hard on themselves. Dunn brings out some of the dilemmas such a position raises: Ideas of cognitive duty or even cognitive responsibility will figure not in its [political theory’s] moral appraisal of existing agents, as they exist or have existed in the past, but in its efforts to form politically more edifying agents for the future. Such a theory is
likely to be above all a theory of the significance of political education. (The commonest form for such theories to take is that of a theory of rational political socialisation. But a theory of rational political socialisation is perhaps overconfident in form on the prospective educational needs of the educators themselves. A more democratic conception might centre on a conception of a duty of mutual political education: not of promiscuous political didacticism but of the effort to foster, in ourselves as well as others, a clear understanding of what is politically at risk and what is politically of value (a matter of learning to listen better and more patiently as much as of learning to speak persuasively or electing to spend more of one’s own—and hence of others’—time on so doing)).71 Dunn’s notion of a prudent intellectualism is rooted in the recognition that we are all ultimately responsible for the sort of culture and world we live in: we must all attempt to understand as clearly as possible where we stand, what we value and what we can cause to happen. The process whereby these conceptions become collectively clearer is largely mutual and educative. As Dewey recognised, education stands at the basis of collective political life. For cultural critics, taking part in such a mutual educative process depends upon their capacity to enter fully into the half-formed lives of popular cultural traditions. Warshow understood that an imaginative and intellectual suppleness much like that politically prescribed by Hook was vital to allow the cultural critic to open up to culture as both an insider and an outsider. He understood the importance of what might be called one’s ‘largeness of spirit’—one’s sense of ‘proportion’—to the achievement of intellectual suppleness. By culturally finding one’s own voice, one could learn to be true to one’s experience, while being responsible to the dilemmas of one’s world, and one could thus learn a sense of proportion and a capacity for discrimination. Warshow found his voice by attempting to develop an intellectually generous film criticism, yet he died before he was able to fully exercise this voice. For those who have come after him, his example offers powerful hints and suggestions concerning the forms and qualities which may aid the development of cultural criticism. His example, however, does not offer models or solutions: he does not give us answers, so much as problems. His life must be placed in its proper setting—the prudent intellectual is fearful of ‘systems,’ ‘solutions,’ or ‘cults’ such that his or her work is timely and polemical. As Stanley Cavell wrote in his closing remarks in ‘Film and The University,’ there is a tendency for people to grasp at popular theories as “the only game in town”:
What this means may be true. It may also be an expression of sad acquiescence in the reign of cults. Some of its causes are obvious enough. One grows weary of oneself with only oneself for conversation; and one gets cranky as well as hoarse; and—who knows?—the others seem so sure, they may be right. But the worst is that isolation causes uncreativeness and parochialism more often than it makes for anything better. I do not have to claim that everything is possible in every period in order to plead this much for universities: that while they may suffer every failing of the institutions of which they partake they are unique among institutions in preserving the thought that nothing is the only game in town, or that if something is, then there are habitations outside the town where it is not. For that reason, before any other, they have, as they stand, if not my devotion, my loyalty.72 Cavell eloquently recognises the importance of intellectual community and membership. He understands the need to fight a ‘sad acquiescence in the reign of cults’. For modern intellectuals this is a point that is so important that it barely needs stressing. Mutuality (in acknowledgement) and self-reliance are core ideas that modern intellectuals encounter. Their capacity to avoid the sad acquiescence of resignation depends upon their capacity to achieve a balance in their professional lives between mutuality and self-reliance: between resignation and redemption. They need to achieve this balance upon the basis of a recognition that openness and self-reliance are not trivial or abstract qualities. They are qualities, rather, that need to be personally and practically achieved.
(Footnotes) 1 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 148 2 A. Bloom, Prodigal Sons, p. 32. 3 Ibid., p. 41, and p. 135. 4 See C. Brookeman, American Culture and Society since the 1930s (London: 1984), pp. 59-76. 5 Kael was eventually to take a similaar post at the New Yorker. See N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 174. 6 For these debates, see in particular recent discussions of his response to Howe’s ‘This Age of Conformity,’ in A. Bloom, Prodigal Sons, pp. 280-1, N. Jumonville, Critical Crossings, pp. 77-9, and A. M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill and London: 1987). See also the discussion in A. Ross, No Respect. The New York Intellectuals formed a loose but cohesive group, which like that of the Frankfurt School was able to open up a possible interdisciplinary dialogue between largely like-minded thinkers. Warshow, like Adorno, attempted to retain his specific contributions alongside a full engagement with the ‘problems of the day’. 7 L. Trilling, ‘Introduction,’ The Immediate Experience, ed. by Robert Warshow, (New York: 1962), p. 12. 8 Reprinted in B. Rosenberg and D. M. White, ed., Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (Glencoe, Ill.: 1963). 9 L. Trilling, ‘Introduction,’ p. 19. 10 A. Bloom, Prodigal Sons, pp. 299-300. 11 C. Brookeman, American Culture and Society since the 1930s, p. 61. 12 See particularly L. Trilling, The Middle of the Journey (New York: 1947), R. Warshow, ‘The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible,’ The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre & Other Aspects of Popular Culture, (New York: 1962), and L. Trilling, The Liberal Imagination. 13 N. Podhoretz, Making It, pp. 150-151. 14 T. Adorno, ‘Society and Cultural Criticism,’ Prisms, (Cambridge, Mass.: 1967). 15 C. Brookeman, American Culture and Society since the 1930s, p. 66. 16 R. Warshow, The Immediate Experience, p. 23. 17 Ibid., pp. 23-4. 18 Ibid., p. 27. 19 P. Kael, ‘Zeitgeist and Poltergeist; Or, Are The Movies Going To Pieces?,’ I Lost It At The Movies: Film Writings 1954-1965, (New York and London: 1994), p. 24.
20 Ibid., p. 18. 21 Ibid., pp. 23-4. 22 Ibid., pp. 26-7. 23 R. Warshow, The Immediate Experience, pp. 25-6. 24 T. R. Edwards, ‘High Minds, Low Thoughts: Popular Culture and Intellectual Pastoral,’ Raritan, 1: 1 (1981)
p. 100. 25 M. Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: 1987), p. 36. 26 Ibid., p. 37. 27 Ibid., p. 39. 28 One is reminded of Said’s recent Reith lecture given for the BBC, where he passionately defended a version of the intellectual that implacably placed the intellectual against the grain of society, E. W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (London: 1994). 29 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 207. 30 Ibid., pp. 161-2. 31 R. Warshow, The Immediate Experience, p. 20. 32 Ibid., p. 21. 33 See J. Dunn, The Politics of Socialism: an essay in political theory (Cambridge: 1984). 34 I will not attempt here to define the distinctions between ‘politics’ and ‘culture’ for reasons that ought to be abundantly clear. 35 P. Kael, ‘Zeitgeist and Poltergeist,’ pp. 26-7. 36 P. Kael, ‘Trash, Art and the Movies,’ Going Steady, (London: 1970), p. 129. 37 The later films of Frank Capra, such as Its A Wonderful life!, are the most obvious example. 38 Note that, because movies are visually presented narratives, they cannot compete with, say, the psychological complexity of the ‘classical’ novel, yet they can compete with its capacity for emotional and personal resonance. William Goldman discusses compressing the novel into a screenplay be asking ‘what must we cling to?’ and goes on to explain how he cut and revised All the President’s Men while remaining true to its emotional core: W. Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (London: 1994), p. 324. 39 P. Kael, ‘Zeitgeist and Poltergeist,’ p. 25 40 J. Atlas, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (New York: 1977), p. 29. 41 A. Kazin, A Walker in the City, pp. 43-4. 42 D. Thomson, America in the dark (London: 1978), p. 22. 43 F. Truffaut, ‘What Do Critics Dream About,’ The Films in My Life, trans. by Leonard Mayhew (New York: 1994), p. 16. 44 M. Scorsese, A Private Memoir (Chanel 4: 1995) 45 There are many examples of Hollywood pandering cravenly to outside powers or the lowest common denominator of domestic opinion. There are also a few examples of Hollywood attempting to grapple with wider social, political and cultural issues. It is, of course, the case that Hollywood could hardly help reflecting upon America, as we are arguing here. 46 This (more or less) intrinsic transfigurative quality was supplemented by the social significance of the ‘Movies’. The Movies were the new American church, the new national ritual. Everyone was ‘movie mad’ and the movies represented a fundamental means by which American popular culture could be accounted for, and by which it was reproduced. Indeed, they transformed American popular culture in ways that are even now difficult to grasp. See, for a variety of early responses: M. Farber, ‘Movies Aren’t Movies Any More,’ Commentary, 13 (1952) 560-566, G. Gladstone, ‘Hollywood, Killer of the Dream,’ Dissent, 2 (1955) 166, R. Gundlach, ‘The Movies: Stereotypes or Realities?,’ Journal of Social Issues, 3 (1947) 26-32, L. A. Handel, Hollywood Looks at Its Audience (Urbana: 1950), A. Hauser, ‘Can Movies Be Profound?,’ Partisan Review, 15: 1 (1948) 60-73, R. A. Inglis, Freedom of the Movies (Chicago: 1947), L. Jacobs, The Rise of American Film (1939), J. H. Lawson, ‘Hollywood—Illusion and Reality,’ Hollywood Quarterly, 1 (1946), R. Manvell, The Film and Its Public (New York: 1955), A. Mayer, ‘Myths, Movies and Maturity,’ Saturday Review, 39 (1956) 7-8, J. P. Mayer, Sociology of Film (London: 1945), H. Powdermaker, ‘An Anthropologist Looks at the Movies,’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 254 (1947) 80-85, D. Riesman and E. T. Riesman, ‘Movies and Audiences,’ American Quarterly, 4 (1952) 195-202, L. C. Rosten, Hollywood (New York: 1941), R. Suckow, ‘Hollywood Gods and Goddesses,’ Harper’s, July, 1936, M. F. Thorpe, America at the Movies (New Haven: 1939), M. Wolfenstein and N. Leites, Movies: A Psychological Study (Glencoe: 1950). 47 R. Warshow, ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero,’ and ‘The Westerner,’ in The Immediate Experience, (New York: 1962). 48 R. Warshow, ‘The Westerner,’ p. 136. 49 Ibid., p. 137. 50 C.f. G. McCann, Cary Grant: A Class Apart (London: 1996). 51 R. Warshow, ‘The Westerner,’ p. 143. 52 Ibid., pp. 153-4. 53 On the level of content, as much as the level of cause and effect. 54 P. Kael, ‘Trash, Art and the Movies,’ p. 87. 55 N. Podhoretz, Making It, p. 140. 56 Ibid., p. 101. He received some belated recognition when his essay on the westerner was included in the Oxford Book of Essays by the ediot, John Gross.
57 S. Cavell, ‘Film in the University,’ Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, (Cambridge,
Mass.: 1981), p. 266. Of course, the status of unrecognised debts is itself interesting—for they suggest an influence that is initially absorbed without remark or philosophical disturbance, which only becomes recognisable after its significance becomes apparent by means of a further realisation that it has significance. 58 S. Cavell, ‘Film in the University,’ p. 266. 59 Cited in S. Cavell, ‘Film in the University,’ p. 267. 60 Ibid., p. 268. 61 See S. Mulhall, Stanley Cavell: Philosophy’s recounting of the ordinary (Oxford: 1994), pp. 77-181. 62 Ibid., p. xv. 63 Whose interest in Emerson revolves around the manner in which Emerson plunges the self into a pseudoHegelian dialogue of acknowledgement and development with its self and others. See S. Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, pp. 263-282. 64 Of course, it is important to note that Cavell is primarilly concerned with philosophical conventions, rather than ‘mundane’ or ‘everyday’ conventions, although for him philosophy is not something that only goes on within the confines of the universities. 65 Cited in S. Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, pp. xv-xvi. 66 See T. Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form,’ Notes to Literature Vol 1, (New York: 1991). 67 Making it have more in common with the movie than with the novel. 68 J. Dunn, ‘Political Obligation and Political Possibility,’ p. 278. 69 J. Dunn, ‘Reconceiving the Content and Character of Modern Political Community,’ Interpreting Political Responsibility, (Cambridge: 1990). 70 See J. Dunn, ‘Political Obligation and Political Possibility,’ p. 291. 71 Ibid., p. 279. 72 S. Cavell, ‘Film in the University,’ pp. 273-4.
The way some people talk about ‘value judgements’ you’d think that reaching a conclusion about a film, say, is no different from deciding what your favourite colour is. But anyone who’s read James Agee or Pauline Kael or Stanley Cavell will know just how much work goes into forming an intelligent judgement … The idea that it is simply a matter of articulating whatever your preferences happen to be, however arbitrarily arrived at, ignores the extent to which our selves are in a permanent state of flux, constantly adapting to this process of examination. To dismiss such judgements as ‘subjective’ is to neglect the appeal to shared standards, to something beyond ourselves, which is implicit in the whole exercise. Toby Young1
This thesis has explored how American intellectuals have thought about America. Its concern has been the shared values underlying America’s ‘errand into the future’. As Tocqueville so influentially described it, America proclaimed itself free from European traditions, and committed itself to the effort to combine liberty and freedom upon the basis of a radically extended individualism. Americans had to depend upon themselves, and find their own form of politics and culture. This imparted to the cultural and political life of America a strong degree of self-determination, or at least a desire to live deliberately which helped America to forge itself as a uniquely modern nation. This desire to live self-consciously, however, was costly. America has often seemed oddly contradictory: the most adult of nations, yet also the most childish, its citizens enamoured with self-reliance whilst displaying great social conformity; America was audacious yet glaringly imperfect. Writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville were all proud of America’s cultural and political ambitions, yet also anxiously critical of its pretensions. Although America’s freedom from history allowed a new sort of ambitiousness to thrive, an ambitiousness which was demanding and exciting, it also led to a deep ontological anxiety: What did it mean to be an American? A widespread faith in America’s destiny was thus confronted by an equally deep feeling that America’s significance derived not from its achievements, so much as from its capacity for pragmatism, its openness to experimentation. America’s greatness
always seemed to reside in the future: Americans were urged to strive towards individual and collective improvement rather than lapse into a boastful and complacent selfmythologisation. The pursuit of happiness and perfection was most assuredly a pursuit. The search for improvement and development could lead, indeed, to a movement against America itself. For instance, Emerson and Thoreau took America’s ideals seriously enough to feel awkward amongst those who unself-consciously placed their allegiance to the State above their allegiance to its avowed principles. For Emerson and Thoreau, democracy was an ideal for which one had to struggle throughout one’s life. It did not simply denote an achieved (or achievable) system of government, so much as a whole way of life. However, this democratic vision of selfhood and the future seemed to be perennially endangered by its reification.2 The problems the New York Intellectuals inherited were therefore troubling. Many of these intellectuals considered their role to be one of keeping alive the shared values according to which Americans professed to live. Yet they felt that these values were ambiguous and in need of change. America needed intellectuals who were able to recognise this ambiguity and who were able to disturb the processes of routinisation and institutionalisation by which the ideal of democratic selfreliance became domesticated. It has been a contention of this thesis that Robert Warshow exemplified such an intellectual position: he developed a critical practice which attempted to breathe life back into American ideals. He could do this because his position as an intellectual itself was ambiguous: he was able to resist the lure of what Cavell called ‘the scholar’. He understood that America’s ideals were unsettling because they made deep and troubling demands upon those who felt their power; he also realised that this meant that he had to resist the comfortable condition of ‘the scholar,’ for whom all big questions have been effectively resolved. Warshow’s feeling for America’s ideals required him to reject the American intellectuals’ usual accommodation of those ideals, whilst it also allowed him to see the potency of those ideals within American popular culture. Warshow loved Henry James as much as James Stewart. He attempted to bring together his necessarily complex attachments by developing a style of writing which had an affinity with the ‘redemptive
criticism’ of Theodor Adorno. He wrote subtle yet direct essays, which combined real feeling with intellectual complexity (or a certain coldness of intellect with a warmth of heart, as Podhoretz put it). As Warshow argued, the critic had to try to understand experience rather than prescribe “an attitude to be adopted towards it”: at the “centre of all truly successful criticism there is always a man reading a book, a man looking at a picture, a man watching a movie”. Warshow was trying to do justice to the manifold complexity of experience of culture. Just as with Adorno, he was driven by the need to see things from all sides. He attempted to show thereby how popular culture contained a concrete rather than abstract basis for a continued rejuvenation of American ideals. In line with Cohen’s ‘Grand Design’ at Commentary, Warshow tried to write for a broad audience in an unpatronising manner. He recognised, along with Trilling and Kazin amongst others, the centrality (if his writing was to find such an audience) of achieving an involved yet detached perspective, so that one would able to ‘make distinctions’ and acquire a broad and open-ended cultural literacy. He was working self-consciously within an Emersonian tradition which subverted the English clerisy’s valorisation of high culture by embracing the ideals of democratic openness and non-conformist self-reliance. This American tradition was always more concerned with shoring up the individual’s integrity and honesty thereby resisting hypostasis, than with the celebration of high culture. The dry formalism of the New Critics seemed to be an anathema to the New York Intellectuals; for the latter, the criticism of culture was always necessarily the criticism of society.3 Indeed, their criticism retained a vitality and political significance which eluded even the English tradition: where for Leavis modern civilisation was ultimately something that needed to be resisted, for the New Yorkers, modern life was ultimately liberating though perhaps somewhat daunting. The odd combination of political ambition and caution within their work came to characterise the thinking of figures such as Warshow. The ‘liberalism’ of Warshow and Trilling allowed them to recognise the importance of political life and its overbearing power to inflict harm, whilst at the same moment it enabled them to grasp the significance of a certain capacity to find solace and inspiration from within culture. Neither of these thinkers worshipped culture to
fill a void left by the slow disintegration of political hopes. For them, the political value of culture derived from the very fact that it could resist politics. Warshow and Trilling felt that an intelligent experience of culture could help one to live with modern politics: indeed, they believed that culture could give human form and significance to abstract political ideals and even to ugly political passions.
Popular culture in America may not be what the intellectuals want, but it does reflect America’s ‘errand into the future’ and offers a solid basis upon which intellectuals can decide whether they really are democrats after all. If something is to be made of this ‘errand’ at a time when it is difficult to speak of shared values at all, then intellectuals will have to move beyond the response of Kael’s good doctor, to an immediate experience of popular culture. They will have to find a way of redeeming America and themselves by deepening their own capacity to respond to, and in turn inform, common life. The intellectuals will finally have to go to the movies.
1 T. Young, ‘Man bites dogma: Why is The Modern Review so hated within cultural studies?,’ The Modern
Review, February-March, 1993 (1993) p. 26. 2 The political system, the ‘culture industry’ and the academies threatened to emasculate America’s ideals. See A. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1987), R. Hughes, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of American (New York: 1993), R. Jacoby, Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Cultural W Have Misled America (New ars York: 1994a); and his ‘The Myth of Multiculturalism,’ New Left Review, 208: November/December (1994b) 121-126. 3 See M. Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (New Haven: 1994).
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