Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch
By Eric Miller
(Eerdmans, 394 pp., $32)
In a moving tribute to Christopher Lasch written shortly after his death in 1994, Dale Vree, a Catholic convert and the editor of the New Oxford Review, wrote that “Calvinism was his true theological inspiration.” Lasch was certainly not one of the faithful. “Even before I took so rashly to writing about religion,” he once scribbled to himself, “it was an embarrassment to admit that I had none.” Yet despite his skepticism, the crucial idea associated with Calvinism since the sixteenth century—an insistence on the complete and utter depravity of the human race—fit Lasch’s increasingly dark vision of human purpose almost to perfection. “Calvinism (via Perry Miller) was my downfall,” he wrote to an inquiring Barbara Ehrenreich in an undated letter. “Or was it Luther’s commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, taught to me by Sidney Ahlstrom? Some ancestral throwback to some distant German past? Or just orneriness and perversity? I kept it under wraps for years, but it was bound to come out in the end.”
If Lasch’s peculiar form of secular Calvinism was a throwback to his family’s past, it must have been a distant one. Lasch was born to Robert and Zora Schaupp Lasch in Omaha, Nebraska in 1932. Although descended from Midwestern Lutherans on her father’s side, Zora “had not a spark of religious faith,” as she described herself in her unpublished autobiography. A feminist and a rebel, she was very much a product of the Roaring Twenties, Nebraska-style. After receiving her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, she returned to the state university in Lincoln but was denied permission to teach ethics because of her commitment to naturalism. She included among her acquaintances John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. The only thing she had in common with the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan was her home state.
Robert came from an even more agnostic background than his wife. His parents did not attend church, and although they enrolled their son briefly in Sunday school, before long, as Robert put it, “the pretense of piety was gratefully dropped.” He spent his life in the field of journalism and his politics in the service of the left. A Midwestern progressive committed to social justice at home and skeptical of the projection of American power abroad, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his antiwar editorials published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Robert outlived Kit, as his son would always be known. Doing so enabled him to communicate his displeasure toward Kit’s preoccupation with religious themes. “You must be back from your vacation by now,” he wrote him in 1990, “the biggest question of it being: ‘What in God’s name were you doing at a conference on theology?’” Robert found it difficult enough to accept Kit’s increasing cultural conservatism. The son’s interest in religious questions left the father baffled.
Kit Lasch died at the age of sixty-two, and so we will never know whether he would have eventually gone all the way and joined a church; chances are he was too much of an iconoclast for that. It hardly matters, though, for when it came to the form and content of the jeremiad, the prophetic tradition of reminding us ferociously of our fallen state, there was no greater master during his lifetime. It seems appropriate that the first full-length biography of this major critic of American society and American culture should be written by a historian who teaches at a Christian college—Geneva, near Pittsburgh—named after Calvin’s hometown. And Eric Miller’s fine book has been published by Eerdmans, a press founded by a Christian Reformed Church immigrant from Holland and located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the epicenter of Calvinist America. Compared with an era that produced Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, America in the past few decades, for all its God talk, has lacked major theologians capable of attracting a widespread readership. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and if religious truths can be discussed in the general culture and even make it into presidential speeches, one can hear these devout thinkers saying to themselves: does it really not matter that the person pronouncing them is without confessional commitments of his own?
Lasch was controversial when he lived, and he remains subject to strong and divided opinion long after his death. The fact that he combined a respect for Freud with a love of the Puritans is the least of it. He became a radical just as a new radicalism in America was about to be born, but he would always have an ambivalent relationship with the younger leftists who came after him. His populistic sensibilities became stronger over time, but so did his ties to the elite worlds of academia and opinion journalism. His appreciation for the common man was married to a disdain for mass culture. Lasch was a pioneer historian of the family, but feminists hated—that is not too strong a term—his nostalgia for the nuclear one. It is common to say, as Miller does in his biography, that Lasch simply did not fit into the traditional categories of left and right. But that is because Lasch really did not fit anywhere. He was a genuine American original.
So Lasch is owed his due and Miller is the right person to provide it. Although at times a bit heavy-handed in its insistence on the religious themes in Lasch’s work, Miller’s biography is as thorough as it is thoughtful. This is anything but a quickly written effort to explore the relationship between a thinker and his times. Miller has not only dug deeply, he has also pondered carefully. Lasch’s writings always fascinated me: I looked forward to each of his books, expecting to encounter a writer willing to discuss the most serious of themes in ways that resonated among large numbers of his fellow citizens—and a writer who would provoke me into flabbergasting disagreement in the process. I never met the man, but thanks to this book I now feel that I have. I could not be more grateful to Miller for facilitating the introduction.
Some people are born to be writers, and Lasch was one of them. His parents made their living with words, and had many connections to famous writers: before she married Robert, Zora had lived with Willa Cather’s sister and found the famous novelist “rather patronizing, certainly not conducive to any warm regard on my part.” Kit Lasch, too, lived in proximity with literature: for three years he roomed at Harvard with John Updike, another chronicler of the American obsessions with sex, social class, ambition, and faith. Lasch would never be as good a literary critic as he was a social critic. “I think his stuff lacks perception and doesn’t go very deep,” he reported to his parents about Updike. “He is primarily a humorist. As he himself admits, he is probably a hack. At least he has more of a hack in him than a profound artist.” It was by no means obvious that a child of the populist Midwest would choose the most prestigious private university in the country for his education, but Lasch was too precocious for any Big Ten school. His mentors at Harvard were quick to discern his talent: Donald Meyer, his tutor there, compared discovering Lasch among his students to Leo Durocher learning that Willie Mays would be his center fielder.
Lasch went directly to Columbia University, the best department in American history at that time, to pursue his doctorate. Meyer’s role at Harvard was assumed at Columbia by William E. Leuchtenburg. But the real influence on Lasch would prove to be the man to whom he would so often be compared: Richard Hofstadter. For Lasch, Columbia was a tougher nut to crack: he failed his first attempt at his qualifying examinations for the doctorate. But his skills were recognized and before long he was on his way, teaching at Williams and completing with astonishing speed the dissertation that resulted in his first book, American Liberals and the Russian Revolution. Rejected by the University of Chicago Press, it was eventually published by Columbia in 1962. It printed 1,500 copies, and 807 were sold by 1964. The only royalty check that Lasch received for the book was for $23.73. But Lasch followed three years later with The New Radicalism in America, the breakthrough book that established him, while still in his thirties, as one of the most promising historians in the country.
Both books inaugurated his lifelong argument with liberalism. The dissertation relied heavily on George F. Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr to attack liberals for their naïve belief that men such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were somehow on the side of virtue; already in his early work one can see in Lasch the skepticism toward progress that would mark his later writings. The New Radicalism in America took a somewhat different tack, but sailed in the same direction. Here Lasch wrote brief biographical portraits of the leading intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Mabel Dodge Luhan, Lincoln Steffens, and Randolph Bourne. He chose them, he said, because they put culture and not politics at the center of their concerns. While Lasch found much to admire in them, he also worried that in cutting themselves off from their country they downplayed the intellect in favor of the latest crusade. It was a work of history, but Lasch brought it up to his own era with scathing comments about such figures as Norman Mailer and the liberals around the Kennedy White House. “You will be interested to know,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote Richard Rovere, “that a smart aleck kid named Christopher Lasch (son of Bob Lasch of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), exposes us both in a new book called The New Radicalism in America.” Unlike our age of Limbaugh, Lasch’s book appeared at a time when no one hated liberals more than leftists. Lasch, at that time, led the way.
As if to return to his Midwestern roots, Lasch’s first major teaching positions were at the University of Iowa and Northwestern. Eventually he settled at the University of Rochester, joining the faculty in 1970 and remaining there until his death. Miller, who is stronger on the intellectual trajectory of Lasch’s work than on the details of his personal life, explores in fascinating fashion his complex relationship with Eugene Genovese, who recruited Lasch to Rochester. Both men were the same age, and shared (at the time) the same Marxist politics, and would move eventually to the right. But in his temperament Genovese strongly resembled the Russian Marxists about whom Lasch had warned in his first book. Steely and suspicious whatever his political views, Genovese persuaded Lasch that the two of them could build an outstanding history department at Rochester together. It never worked out. The idea of running a department democratically was, in Genovese’s view, laughable. Supported by an administration that wanted no trouble, Genovese not only drove away some of Rochester’s stars, such as Herbert Gutman, he also froze Lasch’s salary during the terrible inflationary years of the mid-1970s—and this in spite of Lasch’s increasing fame. Meanwhile Lasch recruited top students, many of whom would go on to write well-received books of their own, and simply waited out Genovese, who eventually moved to Georgia.
As Lasch tried, in the 1970s, to give structure to his reservations about liberalism, he assigned a prominent place to Freud as well as Marx. The latter provided an emphasis on the tensions between social classes that would always characterize Lasch’s writings, even when they took on their most conservative coloration. The former gave Lasch a reason for being sensitive to ulterior motives: if well-meaning liberals could become apologists for totalitarian tyranny, then the views of anyone could produce results quite different from those intended. It was all the rage to combine Marx and Freud during the 1960s and 1970s, and Lasch found himself reading philosophers from the Frankfurt School such as Adorno and Horkheimer, who were trying to do the same thing.
The insights that Lasch gleaned from both Marx and Freud helped to shape the arguments in the trilogy that would make him something of a household name: Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The Minimal Self (1984). “I’ve written something that is guaranteed to bore and possibly offend almost every class of reader,” Lasch wrote to his friend Gerald Graff about Haven in a Heartless World. His editor at Knopf, Ashbel Green, agreed with the boredom part: Knopf rejected the manuscript even though a book on the family from Lasch had been under contract. Finally accepted by Basic Books, it proved to be something of a publishing sensation. Praised by George Gilder in National Review as “shrewd and brilliant,” the book infuriated New Leftists and especially feminists.
Lasch’s purpose in this book was not to blame women for the collapse of the traditional family; he was still enough of a Marxist to point his finger at capitalism and its apologists for America’s high divorce rates and unhappy children. But he also left no doubt that in his view feminism was, if not the cause, then at least the symptom of family decline. Social critics thrive because so much is wrong with society that one can always find targets aplenty. The case against Lasch was not that his targets were innocent, but that his indictments were selective. Those to the left of Lasch asked: why blame people whose primary commitments were to greater equality and autonomy? But for Lasch, calling attention to the role of the advocates of personal liberation was precisely the point. As gloomy as Lasch’s analysis was, he seemed to take special pleasure in going after those whose views were shaped by the 1960s, and the latter had no trouble detecting his animus.
With The Culture of Narcissism, also rejected by Knopf, Lasch broke out of debates within academic circles to make his mark on national politics. Time and Newsweek wrote about it. People featured Lasch along with Olivia Newton-John. Within four months of publication, 45,000 copies were sold. Not nearly as much a work of intellectual history as his previous books, this book explored such concerns as aging, schooling, advertising, managerialism, and even sports, the last of which received a chapter of its own. (Lasch was not a funny man, but this chapter included what I regard as his best witticism: his definition of sport as “the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of activities utterly useless.”) This was the perfect book for its time. It was morbidly clever, brilliantly on target, idiosyncratically compelling. It deserved its status as a best seller and lifted (for a time) the prospects for all serious nonfiction writers to reach larger audiences. Allan Bloom, among others, would follow where Lasch had led.
The most historically significant readers of The Culture of Narcissism proved to be Jody Powell and Patrick Caddell, who were working in the Carter White House. Much has been written about Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech and Lasch’s role in it (including a recent book by Kevin Mattson, “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President”), and Miller’s treatment of the episode is somewhat disappointing. He faithfully records Lasch’s unhappiness with the speech. Although he could hardly help noticing how much Carter had borrowed from him, Lasch felt that “the ideas were torn out of context and came across as moral denunciations of selfishness,” and he fired off a seven-page memo to Caddell outlining his concerns. (In 1980, Lasch would vote for the hopeless campaign of Barry Commoner.) Miller takes Lasch’s side in all this, but it is not difficult to imagine hard-boiled political pros coming to the conclusion that Lasch, having made his contribution, was too unreliable and needed to be dumped. That’s how politics works. A chronicler of fads should know when his time has passed. Anyway, intellectuals, even “public intellectuals,” do not do their finest work for politicians.
It was certainly a boon for the republic of letters that any ambitions Lasch may have had for direct political influence were quashed. Miller correctly points out that Lasch was at his best when he wrote as a member in good standing of the intellectual class directing his fire against people very much like himself. I am not sure how much Americans in general benefited from Lasch’s secular sermons, but those who toil in the vineyard of ideas unquestionably did. The years in which Lasch’s trilogy appeared were accompanied by significant intellectual posturing in America: an irresponsible and jargon-filled form of postmodernism began to dominate the humanities, leaving a romantic and reckless neoconservatism to take over the White House. Agree or disagree with Lasch, he sustained a fierce integrity and love of argument at a time when all too much thinking was becoming calcified and doctrinaire. (He appeared often in these pages in those years.) The further removed from politics Lasch was, the richer were his thoughts. “Neither the Right nor the Left addresses the overwhelming question of our time, the question of limits,” he wrote in the London Daily Telegraph in 1986, adding that “the problems confronting us are cultural and spiritual rather than political.” In those few words Lasch outlined the course his intellectual trajectory would take in the remaining years of his life.
The True and Only Heaven, Lasch’s longest and most serious book, appeared in 1991, and addressed head-on the question of limits. The title was lifted from Hawthorne, and signified the extent to which Lasch had chosen to write in the spirit of Puritan New England. The book defies summation: Lasch took on so many thinkers from so many eras—the Scotsmen Adam Smith and Thomas Carlyle, the founders of this magazine, Dr. Spock, the anti-busing activist Louise Day Hicks—as to leave readers gasping at the sheer chutzpah of his ambition. But underlying it all was a deep transformation in Lasch’s own thinking. Marx and Freud were out, populism and Calvinism were in. And if the former combination led to the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich, the latter enabled Lasch to finally come to terms with Richard Hofstadter. “I’ve come to see Hofstadter as a latter-day version of H.L. Mencken endlessly belaboring the ‘booboisie,’” Lasch wrote to his former student (and now professor of history at Columbia) Casey Blake. It was a shrewd if cruel comment. Hofstadter was the quintessential New York intellectual, appreciative of modernity, skeptical of religion, in love with cosmopolis. Lasch, by now the anti-Hofstadter, turned all that on its head. For all their differences, populists and Calvinists were both suspicious of progress, which is why Lasch loved them both.
“It is almost impossible to read True and Only Heaven, especially at a fifteen-year remove from its publication,” Miller writes, “and not see in it a work of profound scholarship.” He is right. Those fifteen years have brought us, among other treasures, the blog; and while I appreciate the energy and the combativeness of today’s form of intellectual debate, turning back to Lasch’s magnum opus reminds one that progress in the way ideas are conveyed is just as much a mixed blessing as progress in the ideas that are conveyed. Who cannot love Lasch’s combination of learning, passion, stylistic flair, engagement with the largest of themes, and fearless hectoring? And at such length? I can think of no writer today who combines erudition with passion the way Lasch did.
In February 1992, thirteen months after The True and Only Heaven appeared, Lasch learned that he had cancer. Although he would continue to write (some books were published posthumously), his life’s work was done. Over a thirty-year span, he had published eight major books, any one of which would have constituted a significant achievement. It is fitting that he died much as he thought. “I despise the cowardly clinging to life, purely for the sake of life, that seems so deeply ingrained in the American temperament,” he told one of his doctors. Like Hume, who on philosophical grounds refused to be converted on his deathbed, Lasch was willing to apply his living insights to his dying days. The last word on his life should be left to his father. “You have a staggering record of accomplishment in a worthwhile calling” is how Robert said goodbye to his son. “You do not need a divinely fashioned grand design to justify your life.”
Eric Miller deals mostly with Lasch’s life. What about his legacy? On that question, we cannot let the religious thinkers who adopted him have the last word. Of Lasch’s verve and reach, there can be no doubt. Of his relevance to the years that followed, the matter remains open.
The issue that preoccupied his critics even when Lasch was in his prime was whether his anger led him to exaggerations that made his conclusions untrustworthy. The passage of time, I believe, validates those critics more than Lasch. Miller faithfully gives the criticisms. Mark Edmundson, for example, characterized The True and Only Heaven as “little more than a bitter screed against liberal yuppies, a highbrow version of what the popular press has been working at sporadically over the past decade.... The only passages that hum with any kind of life—even if it’s a rather repugnant life—are passages of denunciation in which Lasch chains himself up on the rock and derides the objects of his current rancor.” Such were the pyrotechnics that Lasch could provoke. Edmundson gives Lasch too little credit for his insights into intellectual history, but he is right about the tone. No matter what the subject, Lasch saw nothing but decline.
There are only a limited number of ways one can improve on Increase Mather, and by the end of his life Lasch had run out of them. Miller’s biography shows that Lasch never seemed to understand the effects of his own venom. It was not just that he felt misunderstood by Jimmy Carter. Lasch loved to attack, but he always seemed surprised that the objects of his attack fought back. In his own mind, he was the courageous teller of truths that no one wanted to hear; and so his critics must have been engaged in a prolonged effort at denial, at misreading him as a way to escape their responsibility for the damage that their own ideas had caused. “If you talk about the growing tensions that so often seem to characterize relations between men and women, it’s assumed that you want women to return to the kitchen,” Lasch complained to friends. But whether or not he wanted women confined to cooking, he clearly wanted to make it more difficult for them to divorce their husbands or to pay as much attention to their careers as to their children. Perhaps Lasch’s feminist critics sensed in Haven in a Heartless World the attitudes that Lasch would later express in a Harper’s forum. When asked how the Bill of Rights should be rewritten to account for the contemporary condition, he responded with a proposed article that included this: “No state shall pass laws authorizing divorce for any but the weightiest reasons. In the case of couples with children under the age of twenty-one, divorce is hereby forbidden.” Feminists, Lasch wrote to another friend, “willfully and maliciously distorted” his thinking. To me it seems that they understood his views pretty well.
From the vantage point of today, it is possible to detect an even more serious flaw in Lasch’s choice of targets. Lasch was engaged in an endless war against the leftism of the 1960s when the true enemy of American traditionalism would turn out to be the radical right—one of the persistent objects of Hofstadter’s attention—that came to power after his death. To be sure, Lasch was absolutely right in insisting upon the narcissistic strain in American culture. But what public figure today can possibly compete with Sarah Palin for the title of the most narcissistic personality of our times? (Lasch would no doubt respond by describing Palin’s prominence as an ironic consequence of feminism’s influence.) Compared to the catastrophic irresponsibility of Wall Street practices, or Republican nostalgia for the Confederacy, or the blatant unconstitutionality of much of the Bush and Cheney years, the harm done to the United States by left-wing elitists in the 1970s begins to pale. Lasch confused the counterculture with permanent revolution. The extremes that provoked him were quickly recognized, even by some of their protagonists, as overheated and dangerous, and the radicalism of the 1970s eventually receded or corrected itself. But the reactionary conservatism that we witness today, by contrast, will never learn to say it is sorry.
All of which leads to Lasch’s single most important miscalculation. From start to finish, his enemy was liberalism. What was implicit in his first books became explicit to the point of caricature in his later writings. The liberal order, he wrote in 1983, “should have collapsed a long time ago,” because it could not propose a “theory of the good society” and was therefore doomed to become “a politics of mass media.” Blaming liberals for Ronald Reagan was little different, or more plausible, than blaming feminists for family decline. Focused on the left in which he had grown up and come to political maturity, Lasch turned to populism in his final books just as conservatives discovered how to turn popular anger into a maelstrom of negativity. So it must be affirmed that against the ignorant conspiratorialism of today’s right, liberalism’s theory of the good society, however thin, looks downright robust. “His public invective in the mid-eighties against liberalism—which he certainly hoped was not resurgent—was as harsh as ever,” Miller points out. “He rarely gave either the political tradition or movement any sort of blessing.” Had Lasch been less misanthropic, he might have been more perceptive.
Miller identifies so strongly with his subject that he accepts Lasch’s judgment that he was crucified on a cross of misunderstanding. He finds Lasch’s critics smug and condescending. They treated him, Miller concludes, “as someone to keep at arm’s length—a quirky and dangerous fellow who at some point along the way had taken a frightening wrong turn.” The problem is that Lasch did take a wrong turn—and it was precisely the turn toward secular Calvinism that Miller praises. It is one thing to admire Jonathan Edwards and to lament the fact that we no longer take theology seriously—I myself love to assign Edwards to my students; but a historian, of all people, should have recognized that however valuable an appreciation of our depraved nature may have been in one era, it may cause significant injury in another. Yes, progressive history—the idea that each era is better than the one that precedes it—clearly fails to do justice to the sheer contingency of human life. But so does Lasch’s insistence that everything is for the worst in this worst of all possible worlds.
In the end even Miller, who is so admiring of Lasch, feels that something did not quite hold together in his worldview. “Lasch,” he concludes, needed “a more full, complete, rich tradition than ‘populism,’ one that extended well beyond the public political sphere to touch and form mind and heart.” But Lasch confounded his faithful admirers just as he did his leftist critics; he knew about the realm of God to which Miller alludes and did not want any part of it—at least for himself. The great diagnostician of our rootlessness never found his own roots. Lasch did not like modernity, but he was modernity’s child. We must be thankful that we live in a society sufficiently mobile, alienated, elitist, and skeptical to have produced such a man.
Alan Wolfe is writing a book about political evil.