CULTURE JANUARY 6, 2011
by Jason W. Stevens
Harvard University Press, 448 pp., $34.50
In his memoir, A Margin of Hope, Irving Howe wrote self-critically about the distance between Boston and New York, between America’s seventeenth-century origins and its modernist twentieth century. With his fellow New York intellectuals in mind, Howe confessed to a failure “to consider the possibility that the tradition of New England Puritanism could yield significant weights of experience.” Why, for example, “were the New York critics indifferent to or ignorant of Perry Miller’s version of American literary history?” A Harvard professor and latter-day Bostonian, Miller was a great scholar of Puritan New England. Yet Miller went unread in New York because, as Howe speculates, “there were barriers of taste … between the New York writers and the native tradition.”
Jason Stevens has now removed these barriers in his new book, in which he addresses the New York intellectuals, their Protestant contemporaries, and the native tradition. Stevens has brought New York to Boston and Boston to New York, merging multiple weights of experience. In the process, he has written a brilliant and original work of scholarship.
God-Fearing and Free falls within the grand tradition of American studies. It is a robustly ambitious effort to explain American culture or “the American character,” as Stevens puts it. His study recalls Perry Miller’s magisterial essay collection, Errand into the Wilderness (1956), as well as Ann Douglas’s all-encompassing volumes, The Feminization of American Culture (1977) and Terrible Honesty (1995). Stevens follows Miller in noting an “American propensity to conduct cultural life through religious symbols.” He follows Miller and Douglas in his intuition that American culture has been “raised on conservative Protestantism.” American traditions and American rebellions, American arguments and American dreams, are plants growing on Calvinist soil, America’s native ground.
Stevens applies this ancient premise to the cold war, and with startling creativity. His organizing principle is the motif of innocence or, more precisely, the loss of innocence, the story of Adam’s fall from grace as told and retold in American idioms. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, innocence made an unexpected inroad into American culture by means of theological modernism, a Protestant venture optimistic about man’s goodness and about the goodness of social or civic action. This affirmation of innocence was not destined to survive the 1930s.
In his analysis of innocence lost, Stevens charts the convergence of two trends. One was the de-radicalization of Marxist intellectuals, whose innocence vanished in the 1930s—one of Howe’s master themes in A Margin of Hope. The other trend was a widening counter-argument to the core assumptions of theological modernism. A mid-century bitterness, the cumulative product of a great depression and two world wars, encouraged both trends, exposing the innate depravity of politics and people. Properly interpreted, of course, this was a depravity that could improve the American polity: cold war intellectuals felt the need to speak the truth of human nature to the political powers that be. The patron saint of the first trend was Reinhold Niebuhr, a socialist turned cold warrior, while Billy Graham ministered to the second trend. Niebuhr and Graham publically explicated evil and sin, finding receptive audiences and serving similar cold war masters. “The effects of Niebuhr’s and Graham’s positions were coterminous,” Stevens argues, the careers of Graham and Niebuhr “torn halves of the same flag.”
In Stevens’s telling, Niebuhr and Graham and their many acolytes did not achieve virtue by promoting sin and guilt. Ceaseless talk of Christian pessimism actually bloodied their hands, implicating them in certain crimes of American policy abroad and distancing them from the moral drama of segregation and desegregation at home. To prove this claim, Stevens devotes a chapter to James Baldwin, against whose writings Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History “should stand revealed as itself a terribly innocent document.” In such innocence lies considerable guilt.
Stevens elegantly praises “Jesus’s provocation [of Baldwin] … to put an end to ending our innocence.” Yet this is precisely what failed to happen in the 1960s, when the New Left broke with the Old, waging a generational dispute in moral terms borrowed from “the imagery of youth and age, light and shade, Eden and post-Eden.” Innocence had been vanquished only to be desired once again, as radicals in the 1960s struggled “to escape the guilt of their fathers, the guilt of the Cold War itself.” Stevens distills this argument into a single splendid insight:
In a sense, the counter-culture believed that much of America had indeed lost its innocence, for childhood could be recovered only outside of the corrupted society, in the precultural phases of human development … or among romantic Others, such as the Indian, and in romanticized spaces, such as the pastoral, the road, the ethnic ghetto, or inner space.
By stepping to the side of political economy, of right and left classically construed, Stevens has found a new angle of historical vision. His alertness to religious symbols and to the Christian resonance of modern American prose—one is tempted to say of modern American life—lends his book an uncommon profundity. Stevens never treats religion as a dry analogue to secularism. Instead, he illustrates an unending, enlivening dialogue between the secular and the religious in American culture, by looking deeply into important American texts.
In addition to its sweep and its reckoning with the Protestant tradition, God-Fearing and Free illustrates one other classic attribute of American studies. This is a tendency toward normative-political judgment. Here the canonical work is C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), a book that exposed the shallow historical roots of segregation, thereby helping the Civil Rights Movement to challenge the status quo; it was read and admired by Martin Luther King, Jr. Woodward’s softly worded book launched decades of scholarship, often not so softly worded, given to lament, criticism, and advocacy; and to the allure of political influence. Stevens’s monograph is more general than Woodward’s in its normative energies. Ours is a troubled present, it tells us. There is “our present climate of cultural warfare,” “our present crises,” and “our contemporary hermaneutics of mistrust.” At best we can recover “the legacy of postwar meditation on modernism,” but for Stevens the past is more a cautionary tale than a repository of admirable examples.
The present is where Stevens goes slightly astray. He regrets “the fitful lurch of Jewish intellectuals toward neoconservatism.” And Billy Graham’s evangelical followers helped to populate the Christian Right, which is another cause for authorial regret. Stevens’s “we” is horrified by American conservatism: “what kind of opposition are we retrieving when Weekly Standard contributor David Brooks can favorably invoke Niebuhr in a retrospective on the theologian written to bolster the case for the Iraq War?” For Stevens, it is a purely rhetorical question.
Empire can be averted when the cold war baggage is finally dropped and political freedom detached from the fear of God. Published in the Obama era, God-Fearing and Free was clearly written in the Bush era, a corrective to the lessons George W. Bush had drawn from the cold war: “we do not need any more urging to ward off our national innocence, accept our responsibility, and face hard, tragic facts,” Stevens writes in conclusion, “especially when this same logic has been mobilized in recent times to support American imperialism in the Middle East.”
This advice is unearned by Stevens’s scholarship. His impressionistic narrative—built upon the close reading of literature, film, and theology—does not expose a coherent logic, not to mention a political logic, that links the foreign policy of the 1950s with the Second Gulf War. Nor is the loss of innocence particularly essential to American conservatism, even if the motif has been essential for some American conservatives. William F. Buckley, Jr., was far more interested in power and sophistication than in innocence, lost or found, and the same can be said for such second-generation neoconservatives such as William Kristol.
In this sense, Irving Howe was right to mention barriers of taste, the enemy of any large thesis statement. The American character (without barriers) is probably non-existent: Lionel Trilling’s reflections on Keats and Wordsworth are a world away from film noir and a world away from Billy Graham’s sermons; Protestant, Catholic, and Jew may all be Americans, yet their respective Americas are not necessarily the same, nor are they beholden to the same cultural myths; Boston is not equivalent to New York. But these are minor criticisms of a major work. God-Fearing and Free is an important book that sheds new and unexpected light on the familiar postwar landscape.
Michael Kimmage is an associate professor of history at Catholic University. His first book, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, was published in 2009.