Liberal Pilgrim's Progress
Time magazine once diagnosed newspaper columnist, author, professor-at-large and Hugh Hefner sidekick Max Lerner (190292) as suffering from a "crush on America." Seven years after his death, Lerner's faint presence in repositories of print immortality suggests that the feeling in the other direction might have been characterized the same way, except the magic's gone.
Despite 6,000 columns for the New York Post, wide syndication in his prime and scores of trenchant articles for PM, The New Republic and this magazine (of which he was briefly political editor in 1938), Lerner gets no entry in Donald Paneth's Encyclopedia of American Journalism or many other reference works. Despite his fifteen books, including America as a Civilization (1957), a masterly 1,036-page study that Henry Steele Commager thought earned Lerner his "place alongside Tocqueville and Bryce," you'll find no article on Lerner in such standard sources as Eric Foner and John Garraty's The Reader's Companion to American History. (Here the entry on old rival Walter Lippmann adds insult to injury, calling Lippmann "unique among twentieth-century writers in combining a career as an editor and syndicated columnist with that of an intellectual.") Turn to "L" in the sixteenth edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and there's just one line from Lerner--Alan Jay Lerner.
Not a yield likely to make Lerner's champions break into a chorus of "My Fair Culture." Is Lerner's low profile just the routine post-mortem slump that lasts until the first acolyte turns biographer, critic or annotator? Did Lerner's autumnal frolicking at the Playboy mansion, Esalen and similar drive-throughs of California sexuality spike his chances for inclusion in the establishment pantheon? Or is Lerner's dimmed reputation du jour simply a cautionary tale for all intellectuals who succumb to the lure of slapdash journalistic commentary for big bucks--the Alsops of yesteryear, the Wills and Krauthammers of today? Lerner's current eclipse may simply indicate an inverse relationship between excessive ephemeral writing and sustained reputation.
One pleasure of Sanford Lakoff's Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land is that it makes a case for Lerner as a cultural thinker with no special pleading. Drawing on his personal familiarity with Lerner as he synthesizes Lerner's evolving thought, Lakoff, a onetime Lerner student and now a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, monitors his hybrid scholar/satyr from Minsk cradle to American grave. The accumulated detail is meant to protect Lerner--a romantic-poetry buff--from going the way of Ozymandias.
Lakoff slyly faces every literary biographer's toughest challenge--birth to early adulthood--by using an excerpt from Lerner's unpublished autobiography as Chapter One. Lerner's account of classic immigrant struggle--the twin siblings who didn't survive, the Ellis Island arrival at age 5, the humiliations of poverty as his gentle, autodidactic father moved from garment work to a milk-delivery business in Bayonne, New Jersey, and New Haven, Connecticut--goes a long way toward explaining his later outsized intellectual appetite.
More germane in assessing Lerner's importance is the evidence of his brilliance. Lakoff takes over as Lerner enters Yale in 1919, a scholarship student from a New Haven high school. Unlike many journalist/academics today who parlay media experience into teaching posts despite inferior academic credentials, Lerner began as an impressive scholar who gravitated toward the press by default. As an undergraduate, he won four prizes, three for scholarly achievement in English and German and one for the best essay on patriotism. Still, as he approached graduation, a favorite teacher delivered blunt news. "You ought to know that, as a Jew, you'll never get a teaching post in literature in any Ivy League college."
Stymied after graduation in 1923, Lerner went to Yale Law School, but stayed just a term before souring on the subject. Around that time Lerner read The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, whom he came to view as "the most considerable and creative mind America has yet produced." Fired up by the maverick economist's holistic belief that economics, psychology and the rest of life must be studied together, Lerner headed off to Washington University for a graduate fellowship in economics.