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Making Americans: An Essay on Individualism and Money.

How did it happen that, of all recent presidents, it was Ronald Reagan who sounded at times like Henry David Thoreau? "This government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of the way," Thoreau wrote in his famous essay Civil Disobedience. It could just as easily have been Reagan.

Yet they were utterly opposite in almost every way. Thoreau was writing in protest of the Mexican War, the kind of imperial skirmish that Reagan would have gloried in. He lived (more or less) in a hut, and wrote with dismay about the commercial culture that, a century later, Reagan shilled for as TV spokesman for G.E. "I think there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed . . . to life itself," Thoreau wrote, "than this incessant business." Reagan, by contrast, thought the market--business--was synonymous with life itself. Yet for all this, the two could sound so much the same.

The paradox has a pointed relevance for Democrats, as Bill Clinton takes office with an opportunity to change the party's gestalt for a generation. National Democrats foundered during the seventies and eighties in part because they lost touch with the language of American individualism--aspiration, enterprise and responsibility for one's lot. Reagan meanwhile turned these into poetry, even though his policies often promoted corporate rather than individual endeavor, and even though he often exempted the very rich from the rigors of the market. Now Clinton has begun to claim the language back, and it behooves Democrats to re-examine the roots of the individualist tradition, both to inform their policies and prepare themselves for the assaults that Republicans are already preparing for 1996.

I thought this book would help. It comes with a tantalizing subtitle, "An Essay on Individualism and Money," and a list of literary subjects that cranks anticipation into high gear. At last, we are going to get past the wearisome invocations of the "Greed Decade" and start to place this epoch --which Reagan hosted rather than invented--within the deeper currents of American thought and life.

The author, a retired Columbia professor, does touch upon these themes. But regrettably, his frame of reference is almost entirely literary, and his book falls into a genteel literary version of the trap that has bedeviled the liberal mind for decades. Recoiling from the individualism of the corporate capitalist, liberals tend to lose contact with a larger part of the American psyche: the urge toward individual enterprise, the dislike of regulation and bureaucracy, and the spiritual/religious drama of redemption and reform, all of which provide much of the subtext of America's political discourse.

To be sure, liberals generally do embrace the individualist ethos in such realms as sexual preference and artistic expression. (Anderson doesn't dwell on such subjects.) But neither gay rights nor Karen Finley's performance art helps bridge the gap to mainstream voters. This left a large realm of emotive discourse to be dominated by the Reagans in the name of financial gain, to the exclusion of the other directions in which it can be channeled.

That's the sad part. Individualism isn't something liberals need to fear. Social reformers like Martin Luther King and environmental prophets like John Muir drew from the great individualist tradition that Thoreau helped define. Ralph Nader could capture the imagination of mainstream America with a radically anti-corporate message because he was the plucky individual who took on General Motors. In other words, because he was so American.

Anderson starts out with a premise that is promising enough, if not especially original. The Industrial Revolution came at a time when America was socially still a blank slate. Europe had centuries of tradition and culture to serve as ballast against the new commercial juggernaut. But in Jacksonian America, there was little to restrain the market and the kind of man it created. Money increasingly defined both who you were and the way you related to others.

As America's folkways gave way to the factory, the railroad, and the surging forces of acquisition, protest writers had little to harken to by way of alternative tradition. So, beginning with Emerson and Thoreau, they harkened instead to themselves. They began, Anderson argues, a literary retreat into the private precincts of self-discovery and self-expression. This continued, in divergent ways, in such writers as Walt Whitman and John Dewey, on up through the Beats and the counterculture of the sixties.

The result, he suggests, is much as when a child, rebelling against a parent, turns out just like that parent. Instead of offering a real alternative to commercial man, these writers lapsed into "an individualism that apes the impersonality of what it opposes and attenuates our ties to human others." (As opposed to what other kind of "others," he doesn't say.) This is why Thoreau and Reagan could meet at the point on the circle at which they were furthest apart. "Both for those absorbed in the pursuit of money and for those with visionary claims for the self, the term |future' refers to acquisition--more profit or broader visionary claims."

Anderson has certainly struck a fertile theme. It could help explain, for example, a peculiar feature of left-wing publications like the Village Voice--the way their self-absorbed politics of libido embrace the raw Id of the commercial culture they purport to oppose. It could also explain how the sixties and the eighties were mainly different sides of the same coin. rather than different coins. Sixties-types-turned-Reaganites such as P. J. O'Rourke make a big deal about crossing over from their former ways. But actually, they've stayed pretty much where they were. It was Reagan, not Carter or Mondale, who brought the blissed-out romanticism of the sixties--the lobotomized Thoreau--into presidential discourse. Reagan's economics were the do-your-own-thing hedonism of the drug culture transferred to the financial realm. The O'Rourkes who supported him didn't switch their ideology. They just traded pot for royalty checks.

Occasionally, Anderson generates a little literary steam in such directions. At one point, for example, he discusses why Moby Dick didn't get the recognition it deserved until after World War II. Melville was writing for people "disengaged (like Ishmael) from engrossing social ties," he says, and it was not until the post-war diaspora that this rootless quality became a common experience in American life. That thought could start a major drumroll. But soon Anderson is back to his syllabus of texts. He writes with a muted elegance, a reluctance to join battle with--or even explore--anything on the current scene. That gives a lay reader an exasperating sense of wading through a crate of cotton. Those who aren't up on Bartleby the Scrivener and the work of Henry James may find themselves lost.

The result is ironic. Preaching a literature of social engagement, Anderson disengages from the life and controversies that his readers actually experience. A book published in 1992 that purports to explore "individualism and money" in American life that barely mentions such names as Milken, Reagan, Gilder, or Kemp? That leaves off the story with the controversy over a reading by Beat poets at Columbia in the fifties?

Anderson's annoyance with the Beats seems to be the animus of Making Americans. They affected him the way the New Left affected his more political contemporaries such as Irving Kristol, though Anderson's grudge is less personal and vindictive. He pines for the days when the Partisan Review crowd--Lionel Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger, etc.--wrought out a literary "middle ground" between the individual and society. His patron saint is Hawthorne, who recoiled from the transcendentalists and sought identity and destiny in the firmer earth of family and community ties.

Fair enough. But Anderson is foggy and academic where he needs to be current and specific. There has been a "waning of the intellectual's faith in the possibilities of discourse," he laments. Yet when I go to the newsstand I see an awful lot of discourse. Somebody seems to have faith in it. Because Anderson doesn't deal with that, I don't know what he means.

Anderson's heart is clearly in the right place, though, and it's not his fault the publisher tried to pitch the book to a wider audience than it actually addresses. There is no disputing, moreover, a solipsistic side to the American individualist tradition. But that's not all there is, and liberals in particular often need to be reminded of this. The conviction lies deep in the American soul that individuals are responsible in some degree for their lot, and are not just creatures or victims of social forces; that there should be a connection between individual effort and reward, and that social betterment begins with individual virtue and concern rather than brainy proposals from the policy schools.

These are "traditional values" that Democrats can recapture, as Clinton has begun to do. Some of the very writers Anderson disparages can be instructive in this regard. Anderson presents Emerson and Thoreau, for example, as apostles of self-absorbed hermitry, seeking a "solitary, total, and guiltless possession of the world." Certainly that strand exists. But neither Emerson nor Thoreau actually lived that way, and I doubt that many of their contemporary devotees live that way, either. Social import is found not just in texts, after all, but also in what people make of them. In Concord, Massachusetts, where Emerson and Thoreau both lived, Thoreau buffs recently organized to defeat a proposed office park development near Walden Pond. The path from Civil Disobedience doesn't have to lead to Reagan.

Thoreau the individualist, who strived to lead a life of principle, has provided a great continuing impetus for social justice as well. Gandhi was a great admirer, as was Martin Luther King. During the sit-in movement in Nashville, at the peak of the civil rights movement, a mimeographed memo circulated among the demonstrators that ended with the sentence, "Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King." This is hardly a hermetic or Reaganesque lineage, nor the worst we could seek to revive in America today.
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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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