Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch

Born in Omaha in 1932, the year Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, Christopher Lasch graduated from Harvard in 1954, during the Eisenhower era’s mood of anxious complacency, and from there went directly to Columbia to do graduate work in history. Lasch’s career as a historian began as it would end forty years later with his death, with a search for the moral resources for the next New Deal. Lasch rejected the liberal history of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—whose legitimation of the cold war he disliked, and whose view of the permanence of the New Deal’s achievements he found naïve. He learned much of modern social science as well as European political and social thought, and took psychoanalysis and theology seriously. He became one of the nation’s most prominent intellectuals, but he increasingly doubted the capacity of his colleagues to guide their fellow citizens. His first book, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution, a critique of liberalism’s early capitulation to imperialism, sold a few hundred copies when it appeared in 1962. His next book was published three years later. Called The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type, it depicted intellectuals’ sometimes unintended subservience to power, and it made him famous. Lasch regarded his success in part as a burden, and throughout his life he would insist on the importance of his ties to family, friends, colleagues and students.

His parents were Midwestern progressives. His mother, Zora, was a university teacher, social worker and persistent feminist; his father, Robert, was a prominent newspaper editor and commentator at the Chicago Sun and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Lasches were determinedly secular, and read American history as it had been written by Charles and Mary Beard and the progressive historians—the struggle of a resolutely enlightened people against the lies and malevolence of the wealthy and powerful. The social legislation of the New Deal years confirmed Zora and Robert’s belief that American history proceeded in a straight line, its occasional jaggedness entirely the result of temporary accidents that could be remedied by right-thinking people like themselves. They were immensely proud of their son, an only child, but when he became fascinated with history’s temporary accidents they grew anxious that he would abandon familial convictions. Lasch remained in close and loving touch with his parents throughout his life, but he discarded their intellectual and political pieties as he grew older. He had considered a literary career and experimented with short stories and a novel. His historical writing, at once sparse, even parsimonious, in narrative yet rich in analogies, asides and metaphors, was intended for the educated public and those historians not shackled to disciplinary conventions. He distinguished historical background from political foreground, he was a master of argumentative clarity and he possessed unusual cultural sensitivity. His literary style and intellectual demeanor were of a sort that has become rare.

Given the large changes in Lasch’s thoughts and the wide range of his intellectual and personal friendships in our divided public culture, Eric Miller deserves thanks for having brought a spiritually difficult career to life so sympathetically. Hope in a Scattering Time is meticulous in its workmanship, lucid in exposition and honest about the biographer’s assumptions. Miller regrets that Lasch, unlike him, did not recover the Protestant beliefs of his forefathers in suitably modern forms. Imagine a book on Lasch written by Michael Wreszin, the admiring biographer of Dwight Macdonald, or by the historian Jackson Lears. They would not have scolded Lasch for failing to attend church. Miller is tactful, sometimes too much so; for instance, he tiptoes past Lasch’s frequently sardonic responses to contemporaries. When upbraiding the intellectuals who took CIA money when it was disbursed by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Lasch wrote, “We have heard a great deal about the ‘credibility gap’ that is supposed to have been created by the Johnson administration,” with its double-speak about Vietnam, “but what about the credibility of our most eminent intellectuals?” The sheer chaos and craziness of our national existence is present in Miller’s narrative but somewhat faintly, like a blaring radio murmuring on the other side of a thick wall. Lasch encountered many different intellectual and political milieus during his life, about which one would have welcomed a bit more color and detail (Miller does not mention his period on the board of Partisan Review). Miller succeeds splendidly in his essential task, however, tracing the development of Lasch’s thought as it became ever more complex.

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