You are on page 1of 3

David Riesman, Thoughtful Pragmatist.

Por: Gitlin, Todd, Chronicle of Higher


Education, 00095982, 5/24/2002, Vol. 48, Fascculo 37


THE CHIEF VALUE that David Riesman, who just died at age 92, affirmed in his
1950 landmark study of American character, The Lonely Crowd, was autonomy --
neither glad-handing membership in an "other-directed" crowd, nor back-glancing
retreat to an asceticism of the "inner-directed" fathers of the past, but a
commitment to pursue one's own way.
In person, Riesman was nothing if not autonomous -- which meant, along the way,
impolitic (though polite) and unpredictable (though deliberate). I met him in the fall
of 1960, when he was a Harvard professor and I was a lowly sophomore. He was
famous, but you wouldn't have known it. His demeanor matched his prose:
accessible yet a bit awkward, as if he were faintly embarrassed to have an
audience, let alone a following. He was didactic but modest, not haughty, no snob.
He combined Philadelphia's German-Jewish and Quaker traditions, from which he
had descended.
A faculty adviser to the Harvard-Radcliffe peace group Tocsin, he readily opened
his door for lengthy conversations with undergraduate activists. Distinct agendas
were not required -- he seemed to like schmoozing. Even more remarkable, he lent
his station wagon so that groups of us could drive to Vermont to campaign for a
pacifist congressman, William Meyer, who was up for re-election. (He was
clobbered.) Without populism or condescension, Riesman was unafraid to be
countercyclical -- ambling, perhaps, to a flutist, not a drummer -- yet I don't think he
reveled in contrariness as such. Whether it came to foreign policy or domestic
reconstruction, he was deeply pragmatic. He wanted results.
By the time I got to know him, he had moved on from The Lonely Crowd and did
not seem to be looking for another Big Idea. He was not one of those self-
enamored great men. I don't think I ever heard him refer to the book that had made
him famous, to "inner" or "other direction." His political conviction was never
formulaic, either. He believed in lobbying and did not sneer at ordinary Americans -
- yet he was also open to utopians, affectionate toward radical pacifists and other
oddballs, inviting the likes of Paul Goodman, Buckminster Fuller, and Marshall
McLuhan to speak to his classes. He was a feminist before feminism was
reinvented.
THE CORE of his beliefs in his most heavily activist phase, the late 1950s and
early '60s, was that nuclear weapons were wicked and unspeakably dangerous,
and that intellectuals should apply themselves practically to getting rid of them. In
those years, he presided over the Committee (later Council) of Correspondence, a
loose-linked network of academics brought together by their urgent concern over
nuclear weapons and a cold war barely kept cold. Their dissents diverged in many
respects, but the atmosphere was congenial, ecumenical. (The ferocious politics of
the Vietnam era had not yet crystallized.) From his office, Riesman published the
committee's journal, which rambled along with a pleasing modesty, running a
political range from modest arms controllers debating the intricacies of a nuclear
test ban, to the unilateral initiatives promoted by the psychologist Charles Osgood,
to the fervent disarmament politics of Howard Zinn, among others. Riesman led off
each issue ruminating on American politics in his characteristically chatty, social-
psychologically astute way.
With I.F. Stone and Harold Taylor, president of Sarah Lawrence College, he signed
a fund-raising letter for Students for a Democratic Society in 1963. Yet he was no
radical democrat, no socialist, not really a left-winger at all. He argued with C.
Wright Mills (who was fond of him) about whether big voting blocs or "veto groups"
were important (Riesman) or amounted to no more than "middle levels of power"
(Mills).
Years later, Riesman told me that he had spent several months traveling around
the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and had come home deeply skeptical. Not for him
the gullibility of revolutionary tourism: Stalinism was not a future that worked, not
even close. The Old Left dismayed him. Once, I told him that Tocsin was pursuing
the support of Cyrus Eaton, an industrialist who financed the Pugwash East-West
meetings of American and Russian scientists devoted to reducing nuclear
arsenals. Riesman wrote me sharply (in one of many dashed-off letters, as if e-
mail had already been invented) that he disapproved mightily of Eaton, who had
refused to intervene when someone (I forget who) was "ruthlessly detained" by the
East Germans.
Puckishly, he once proposed that the United States defeat Soviet Communism by
dropping nylons, not bombs. But he wasn't automatically enthusiastic about
capitalism as such. Communism was a gigantic mistake, but he still didn't believe
that any policy at all could be justified in the name of anti-Communism, or that
capitalists were automatically beacons of virtue. He was, in fact, much bemused by
American capitalists' rushing to strike deals with Khrushchev when the Soviet
leader visited the United States. Actually, I don't think the question of what was the
best of all possible economic systems interested him much. Stopping state
violence interested him far more.
HIS PRIME political conviction was a profound distaste for nationalism -- anyone's
nationalism (including that of his fellow Jews). Raison d'tat did not impress him at
all, nor did the professional caste that administered American foreign policy. He
had written one of the 20th century's best-selling books on American culture, a
book delicate in its appreciations of popular life and lore, yet he did not trust
popular causes, least of all when they led to organized violence.
Partly because he was allergic to popular passions, Riesman's politics were easy
to misunderstand. Unsurprisingly, after the early '60s, he grew impatient with the
student left. In the '70s and '80s, he retreated from active politics -- though when I
immersed myself once again in antinuclear politics, in the mid-'70s, I found that his
rightward drift coexisted with a stalwart opposition to the renewed arms race. He
could never have endorsed Reagan's politics as deliverance, nor could he feel
comfortable with any crusade. Indeed, he was profoundly conservative in a fashion
hard to find nowadays. Nothing neoabout it: He wished to conserve. Though
disaffected from liberal causes, he was averse to any radical hatred. His kind of
conservative was a Tocquevillean liberal with a populist sympathy, though without
any particular feeling for underdogs -- with the exception of the intellectual variety.
He wrote in agreeable tones, sometimes chatty, sometimes graceful, sometimes
colloquial, sober, and good-humored. He seemed to be incapable of (perhaps
superior to) insult. No romantic about "the people," no worshipper of their morals,
manners, or politics, he was always, affectionately, interested in popular language -
- I remember that in the mid-'70s, he was fascinated to hear of the California term
"laid back." His analyses of popular culture were somehow warm, even as he
disagreed with this or that moral, even as he worried about America's aesthetic and
intellectual stamina. Partly for that reason, The Lonely Crowd remains eminently
worth reading. Prophetic and casual, respectful of popular culture without imputing
to it any fantastic emancipations, refusing sneers, it resembles the man.
Riesman, for decades America's best-known sociologist, didn't hold a Ph.D. (He
started out as a lawyer.) He approved of rigor and scholarship but never made a
fetish of methodology. He valued range, energy, curiosity. He liked collaborations --
Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denny worked with him on The Lonely Crowd. Though
Riesman and Glazer conducted interviews, the book didn't draw on them much;
The Lonely Crowd, Riesman wrote, was "based on our experiences of living in
America -- the people we have met, the jobs we have held, the books we have
read, the movies we have seen, and the landscape." (Of course, only an observer
both curious and seasoned would have hazarded such a claim.) He believed that
every undergraduate should study a foreign language and a musical instrument,
the better to keep up the mental and sensory life.
He leaves no "school" -- although, or because, he was committed to intellectual
rigor and pedagogical sobriety. Each year he taught, he wrote an extended letter to
every student who took his undergraduate course on American society. As legions
can testify, he was a prolific correspondent. His letters frequently loped along for
pages, freely associating with his correspondent's interests. He could be
speculative, or delicate, or methodical in the lawyerly manner he was trained in, or
contrary, though not nasty. Well into his 80s, he wrote letters as elaborate as ever.
When his wife began to show symptoms of Alzheimer's, they left their house
across the street from Radcliffe Yard and moved into an assisted-living facility
outside Cambridge. Riesman kept reading, kept corresponding, kept faith with the
life of the mind and the citizen's mission.