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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When Lasch arrived at Harvard in 1950, the university was taking final leave of genteel tradition and patrician snobbery. His roommates were John Updike and a future research physician, James Finkelstein. The latter, a person of strong social convictions, is unmentioned in the biography. (Finkelstein later counseled Lasch during his struggles with cancer.) Lasch chose to study history instead of political science, law or sociology, or to follow his muse into writing fiction. He did an undergraduate thesis on anti-imperial movements in modern American history. He read and thought about St. Augustine and the theologians, who were taught to undergraduates in the new General Education program.
Harvard in those years was seriously divided. The undergraduates and the graduates in the humanities explored the Western tradition, and even learned something about it. Young technocrats like McGeorge Bundy, Samuel Huntington and Henry Kissinger were already indentured to the cold war state apparatus, sponsored by Harvard’s senior professorial servants. Commuting to Washington was common. Lasch would later describe the Kennedy administration as a union of Cafe Society and Route 128 (the Boston corridor where Harvard and MIT professors tend to their private consulting ventures). His criticism of the technocratic deformation of democracy and the university came after his undergraduate years. Lasch publicly refused to attend the twenty-fifth reunion of his class, declaring Harvard to be deficient in the pursuit of the common good. Those at Harvard in the 1950s who had the same thoughts were remarkably discreet or, as I did as a graduate student, crafted circumlocutions to disguise their doubts.
Harvard was divided in another way. In crowded fields, few undergraduates had direct and continuous contact with the university’s better-known professors. Lasch was taught by a graduate student who was concluding a doctoral thesis for Schlesinger on American Protestantism and politics. Still, Lasch acquired some sense of scholarly rigor and critical distance. In the meritocracy that imperial Harvard had become, overt opposition to American empire was rare. Harvard gave Lasch just enough protected space to inquire into the American consensus rather than join it.
When he moved on to graduate study at Columbia, the New Deal historian William Leuchtenberg became his very supportive teacher. Lasch did not like the narrow professionalism of academic history and did not find New York appealing. Columbia at the time had striking figures who defied academic narrowness—Richard Hofstadter, C. Wright Mills, Lionel Trilling. Lasch clearly learned much from Hofstadter without having been close to him. He complained about the absence of community among the graduate students, but he did not attach himself to any of the groups outside the university (such as the newly formed journal Dissent) that might have welcomed him. He became tongue-tied during his doctoral oral examination and failed. For someone who went on to become one of his generation’s most influential historians, the failure surely expressed his ambivalence toward academic life.
Lasch returned to the charge, strenuously encouraged by family and by Leuchtenberg, and rapidly produced a thesis on American liberals and the Soviet Revolution. It avoided cold war clichés, concentrating on the liberals’ response to a world so different from their own. Even then, he had an irrepressible iconoclastic streak, a stubborn skepticism about dominant schemes of historical interpretation, a capacity for asking the questions no one else had quite posed. One of his earliest published articles was a critical sketch of George Kennan [see “The Historian as Diplomat,” November 24, 1962]. In general, Lasch argued that the nation’s intellectual and social legacy made American triumphalism in crude or sophisticated form inevitable: if we were a vanguard nation, went the triumphalist argument, then others were duty bound to accept our commands, poorly disguised as benign advice, and domestic dissenters could not be taken seriously because they had obviously missed the point. Still, Lasch said, intellectuals who kept criticism alive could save what small chance there was of a larger political change. In 1962 Partisan Review had published a symposium in which some contributors had expressed doubts about US foreign policy. There was a public opening to criticism.
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