I just stumbled on a talk given by Wallace Stegner in 1980. It proved pretty good reading for this 4th of July.
Stegner opens by observing how Thoreau gave voice to “America’s stoutest self-confidence and most optimist expectations.”
He then reflects on more recent books like Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and the Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, remarking on their pessimism.
Stegner’s question: How did we get from Thoreau to Lasch?
Assuming that Thoreau spoke for his time, as he surely did, and that Christopher Lasch speaks for at least elements and aspects of his, how did we get from there to here in little more than a century? Have the sturdiness of the American character and the faith in America’s destiny that Thoreau took for granted been eroded entirely away? What happened to confidence, what happened to initiative and strenuousness and sobriety and responsibility, what happened to high purpose, what happened to hope?
Stegner scrutinizing the historical run-up to the American present. And there are some wonderful moments in this speech.
Because Europe has always dreamed westward, America, once realized, touches men’s minds like fulfilled prophecy. It has lain out there in the gray wastes of the Atlantic, not only a continent waiting to be discovery but a fable waiting to be agreed upon.
Stegner gets to one of the strengths and weaknesses of the experiment.
Admittedly there were all kinds of people in early America, as there are all kinds in our time – saints and criminals, dreamers and drudges, pushers and con men. But the new world did something similar to all of them. Of the most energetic ones it made ground-floor capitalists; out of nearly everyone it leached the last traces of servility. Cut off from control, ungoverned and virtually untaxed, people learned to resent the imposition of authority, even that which they had created for themselves. Dependent on their own strength and ingenuity in a strange land, they learned to dismiss tradition and old habit, or rather, simply forgot them.
Things end badly. Eventually Stegner embraces Lasch’s dystopic view, and the lecture descends into scolding contemporary culture as a place where “celebrity obscures distinction.”
Intellectuals often end up here. They believe that selfishness and greed rule the day. And this causes them to believe that the American experiment is corrupted and that confidence must be forsaken.
At its worst, this is a self indulgence from someone blessed with privilege (and, usually, tenure) and so protected from the hurly burly of the world. Well, worse still, it’s an act of vanity that says in effect “oh, why can’t the world be more like me?” By which the intellectual usually means, thoughtful, deep feeling, (and thoroughly protected from the hurly burly of the world). (Ironically, the Walking essay by Thoreau from which Stegner draws is shot through with this disdain for people who can not rise to the author’s fineness of thought and feeling.)
But at its best, the intellectual is declaring what all of us hope for: that we should hold ourselves accountable to something larger than ourselves, that we should make sacrifices for a larger good.
But there is a problem with allowing this thought to pitch us out of American confidence into the dystopic nonsense Lasch inflicted upon us. The fact of the matter is clear: America is a roaring experiment driven sometimes by self sacrifice (and God bless those who make this sacrifice) and the rest of the time by self interest. (The fable would never be agreed upon. It was to filled with people wishing variously, exerting themselves in all directions.)
This scares the pants off an intellectual. This America is so very messy, unthoughtful, and unformed by ideas. So coarse. So reckless. So unpredictable.
Precisely. If we are going to come to terms with America, we have to come to terms with this. With “messy,” “coarse,” and “unformed,” not as failings but as virtues. Indeed, I wonder if we shouldn’t treat these adjectives as our higher calling.
And the sacrifice asked of the intellectual? Hold your nose. The American experiment is not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be elegant. You don’t have to like it. But you are unwise to mistake it. Because without grappling with this truth, your confidence abandons you. And when your confidence goes, you write intemperate books like the Culture of Narcissism and encourage a moral panic that affects the rest of us.
And that’s when the republic is really in peril. When the people appointed to think for us cease thinking for themselves…and lose their nerve.
Stegner, Wallace. 1980. “The Twilight of Self-Reliance: Frontier Values and Contemporary America.”