Liberal Pilgrim’s Progress

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


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.

Lakoff recounts the slow building of Lerner’s academic career: Having impressed his MA thesis adviser, Isaac Lippincott, as “the most capable graduate student I have had,” Lerner transferred to the Washington, DC-based PhD program of what is now the Brookings Institution, then boasting such faculty as Charles Beard, Carl Becker and Franz Boas. Again, Lerner proved so impressive that the school granted him a PhD solely “on the strength of the papers he had written.” One professor wrote that the general opinion of faculty and students at Brookings held Lerner to be “the most brilliant student” they’d seen.

If Lakoff overdocuments his subject’s academic excellence, it’s to compensate for the condescension Lerner’s later journalistic career invited. Indeed, he shows that Lerner could match credentials with Lippmann, who traded mightily on his onetime philosophy assistantship with Santayana at Harvard, then eschewed the academic career Lerner pursued. After receiving his PhD in 1927, Lerner quickly became the managing editor of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, then drew teaching offers from Sarah Lawrence, Harvard and Williams College, where he became the first Jew appointed to the faculty. From that point on, Lerner combined careers as professor and political journalist.

Lakoff starts to flesh out Lerner at this stage, converting him from walking CV to overachiever in both lust and work. Throughout Lerner’s professional life, Lakoff explains, this wiry, 5-foot-7-inch man with the broad face, flat nose and powerful pompadour felt unattractive. To compensate, he wooed “daughters of the conquerors”: beautiful, non-Jewish establishment women. After an unfaithful twelve-year first marriage to fellow Brookings student Anita Marburg, he left her (and three young daughters) to marry one of Anita’s Sarah Lawrence students, Edna Albers. Lakoff characterizes the resulting nearly fifty-year marriage as passionate and happy, while adding that even after remarriage and three sons, Lerner “remained intent upon sexual conquest and adventure.”

Over the sweep of his life, Lerner managed an affair with Elizabeth Taylor (she called him her “little professor”) and more flings than Lakoff can chronicle. Instead, the author seeks to establish a parallel between Lerner’s sexual energy and his prodigious capacity for academic and journalistic work. According to Lakoff, Lerner felt that “his erotic adventures and his efforts to gain literary celebrity were mutually reenforcing, as if the desire to court women and the desire to court readers arose from the same erotic impulse.”

Lerner’s intellectual career, unlike his sexual one, underwent principled evolution rather than madcap expansion. Building on his early admiration for Veblen, Lerner came to feel around 1930 that “collectivism was destined to replace individualism” in the United States. At the same time, watching the New Deal era unfold, he began to consider Roosevelt’s “level-headed American pragmatism” the best thing for both democracy and whatever part of capitalism was worth retaining.

The thirties saw Lerner build his two careers simultaneously, publishing articles in Ivy League law reviews and journals while also writing for the New York Herald Tribune, The Nation and The New Republic. During his year as a lecturer in Harvard’s government department, Lerner was introduced by Harold Laski, already a friend, to another future friend, Felix Frankfurter. Years later, according to Lakoff, Frankfurter would lobby the president of Brandeis to improve Lerner’s position and draw him away from the habits of mind that journalism “begets in its practitioners.”

For the most part, however, Frankfurter provided the sterling intellectual company that enabled Lerner to develop clear views on charged issues of the thirties: the New Deal, the Supreme Court’s so-called judicial restraint, Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme. Lerner’s primary view, expressed in an influential 1933 law review article, was that “the Constitution had been made into a weapon for the defense of economic inequality and used against all attempts to modify property rights for the sake of economic democracy.”

For almost fifty years, Lerner would continue to comment on the social issues of his time, both in short genres and in once-famous books such as It Is Later Than You Think (1938), a study of liberalism that popularized the title phrase. Like any biographer faced with a play-by-play of so prolonged an intellectual life, Lakoff struggles valiantly to capsulize Lerner’s views.

He recounts Lerner’s prominence as a spokesman for Popular Frontism before World War II and his activism in favor of early US involvement against fascism. (Lerner spent a day with Roosevelt at Hyde Park in 1941, talking philosophy and urging a tough stand toward Nazi Germany.) Lakoff shows Lerner becoming a “Walter Lippmann of the democratic Left” in the forties, suffering criticism for supporting our wartime alliance with the Soviet Union for too long (Walter Winchell referred to him as “Marx Lerner”), then suffering further criticism in the fifties for becoming a “centrist liberal,” backing pro-UN internationalism, collective security and containment.

Lakoff continues to hover closely as Lerner becomes “the spokesman for liberal New York opinion” in the sixties and seventies through his New York Post column. He examines Lerner’s attacks on the New Left and the hippie values that offended him, and he follows his man into the seventies, when Lerner began his celebration of “eros” with Hefner, whom he exalted as a great American “guilt killer” (“I teach him sex,” Lerner joked, “and he teaches me politics”). Steadfast to the end, Lakoff finally scrutinizes Lerner’s least attractive years, in the eighties, when the columnist became more routinely centrist, denounced political correctness, clung to an image of priapic virility and obsessed over illness and immortality.

Amid his subject’s almost suffocating avalanche of commentary, Lakoff rightly centers Lerner’s claim for enduring importance on his triumph, America as a Civilization. If, as various speakers suggested at a Manhattan tribute to Alfred Kazin last fall, that Jewish son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants invigorated the reading of American literature by thinking “with his whole body,” Lerner achieved something similar for US intellectual history. Lakoff accurately describes America as a Civilization as “a prodigious and extremely ambitious effort of synthesis, ranging over the country’s social history, natural setting, literary and popular culture, economics, and politics, as well as its national character and style–all in an effort to define what was unique about the country and to analyze the factors that accounted for its development.”

Lerner, writing in the Toynbee era, which saw America as a marginal nation-state, insisted that America was a new civilization, not a spinoff of European predecessors. He argued that American character comprised two key elements, thumbnailed by Lakoff as “self-reliance, coupled with endurance, friendliness, a democratic informality,” and “a sharp aggressiveness, coupled with an organizing capacity, a genius for technology, a sense of bigness and power.” Together, they’d fused into an American character that produced the “archetypical man of the West.” Against an ugly view of American imperialism driven by hegemonic capitalism, Lerner maintained that America practiced “the imperialism of attraction,” winning other people’s hearts and feet through the appeal of ideas and accomplishments.

As such a précis suggests, Lerner utterly unburdened himself in America as a Civilization of lingering radical impulses. He clearly decided, Lakoff writes, that “radicals could not compete with liberal reformers in concrete programs.” He became “Galbraithian” in that he “saw the managed economy of the affluent society as a reasonable approximation of the democratic collectivism he had earlier advocated.”

Ultimately keeping to Veblen’s evolutionary view of society, Lerner saw America as a civilization protected from Rome’s exhaustion by a central virtue: the “access” it provided to its elite structure, albeit often only after social battles. “In America as a Civilization,” writes Lakoff, Lerner “rejected as incomplete all the formulaic explanations of America’s success, such as the frontier, natural abundance, isolation, and ideology, both religious and secular. Instead, he argued that the key to understanding the civilization Americans had created is its special capacity for innovation and adaptation”–what he called “American dynamism.” In sidestepping hints of reductionism in the genre of American intellectual history–whether Charles Beard’s economic constitutionalism, Vernon Parrington’s eternal battle between democracy and elitism or Perry Miller’s elaboration of the Puritan mindset–Lerner teased out pragmatic veins in that genre and realigned it with American common sense.

Lakoff draws persuasive biographical conclusions from his assessment of America as a Civilization and its impact. Lerner, he writes, “must have known that defending liberal America would cost him the polemical niche he had carved out for himself,” that he’d be accused of having sold out. Though historians like Samuel Eliot Morison were “unstinting in their praise,” others complained that the book lacked edge. Lakoff himself, confirming that his allegiance to Lerner extends only so far, confesses his preference for the nervier views of his later teacher Louis Hartz about America’s “liberal tradition.” Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), argued that because Americans were spared feudalism and both absorbed and apotheosized a “Lockean ethos,” they grew inoculated against extremist ideologies–a judgment Lerner remained too skeptical to share.

Checkered responses, in any event, greeted Lerner’s career as a whole. In the course of it, as Lakoff reports, Lerner drew praise from figures as diverse as Noel Coward, I.F. Stone, Charlie Chaplin, Felix Frankfurter and Hannah Arendt. At the same time, Lakoff records harsh criticisms of Lerner by journalist Sydney Harris, who skewered his style, and Ramparts, which mocked his “Slow Lerner” politics.

Nonetheless, Lerner wrote his one great book “less for contemporaries than for the next generation,” his biographer contends. This recent reader would argue for its continued vitality precisely because it transcends the narrow explanatory habit of overprofessionalized American historians. Somewhat inadvertently, Lakoff rightly situates Lerner–in his one magisterial volume–as the author of the best pragmatist intellectual history of the United States: a narrative that insists twists of American history emerged from complex, textured problems in real life, not from a script driven by one powerful idea.

A consensus on the man, at any rate, seems more elusive. At times, Lerner comes off as a sexist exploiter of women and a braggart. Men, on the other hand, he gently mentored. During his academic years at Williams, and twenty-five postwar as a chaired professor of American studies at Brandeis, he nurtured such students as James MacGregor Burns and Martin Peretz, both of whom remained close to him. At Lerner’s memorial service, Peretz eulogized him as a “mixture of gaiety with gravitas, mischief with illumination.”

Lakoff ends urging us not to dismiss Lerner for his “eclecticism,” not to make him pay a price “for being a generalist,” even if Lerner himself “had a nagging sense that he had not done enough important work, having put too much into newspaper journalism and not enough into more enduring forms of writing.”

That he never became Isaiah Berlin is clear. Lerner’s own self-analysis helps explain why he suffers secondary status to Lippmann, whom he denounced in the thirties as a “reactionary” but saluted upon death for giving political columnists “a sense of our intellectual role.” Lippmann surely wrote a greater number of important books, Public Opinion and A Preface to Morals among them. His application of Freudian ideas to politics and intense focus on mass opinion in political theory offered original perspectives Lerner rarely matched.

Yet Lakoff’s biography, particularly the rich context it erects around the author of America as a Civilization, shows the gap in their reputations to be too great. Lerner’s candor and ethnic authenticity contrast favorably with Lippmann’s intellectual reticence, his infamous suppression of his Jewishness. Lerner’s willingness to cross swords with power over decades shines beside Lippmann’s lifelong campaign to be chief theoretician of the Establishment. Lerner’s empathetic support for collective security, a phrase he popularized, appeals more than Lippmann’s cold realism about America’s interests. Finally, Lerner’s version of American exceptionalism’s appeal, at the end of a century in which our cultural hold on other countries is doubted by none, makes more sense than Lippmann’s cosmopolitan allegiance to European models of explanation. If Lippmann remained the deeper philosophical thinker about liberal tradition, Lerner was the more authentic Americanist, confronting his country, like Kazin, with all organs working.

A 1963 New Yorker cartoon, published during the newspaper strike that closed every New York daily except the Post, captured Lerner’s plight on the sideline of culture. It showed a commuter car full of conservative businessmen, denied their usual fare, unhappily reading the Post. One grumbles, “Who is this Max Lerner?”

Lakoff confronts the contemporary version of that question and answers it forcefully: a thinker worth remembering as both case study and exemplar of rude truths. Another answer is: the author of America as a Civilization, the intellectual history Dewey might have written if, strange thought, he’d been Max Lerner.

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