Remembering Christopher Lasch
September 1994By Robert Coles
I first met Christopher Lasch in the middle 1960s. My wife, Jane, and I had returned from the South after seven years of work there, studying school desegregation, working with the sit-in movement. We had met a young historian, William R. Taylor, whose book Cavalier and Yankee had helped us understand the cultural differences that informed our nation's North and South long before the onset of the civil rights struggle we had been witnessing; and Bill, in turn, introduced us to one of his closest colleagues, whom I remember immediately asking to be addressed as Kit -- a friendly yet serious-minded, gracious yet relaxed and informal young man, even then struggling to connect his progressive politics to an intensely moral sensibility, nurtured in the middle class of the Midwest. I remember, now, a (then) surprising question put to me by Kit Lasch: "What is happening to the Negro family?" I wasn't sure what he meant -- all of us in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s were gauging things through resort to political analysis: inroads on segregationist power, advances in social legislation locally and nationally. For us, the Negro family was bound to become stronger as soon as the Negro had the same rights, everywhere, as his neighbors, and, too, as soon as poor folks the country over were protected by laws from the consequences of joblessness, of social marginality. Not that Kit was wont to disagree, back at that time, or ever after. He was always on the side of hurt, weakened people, always ready to argue on their behalf. But for a few memorable moments, thirty years ago, I was privy to a prescient mind at work -- I was told this, tentatively yet with obvious concern and conviction: "When Negroes have won the victories in the wars they are now fighting, they will be in the same trouble a lot of us have to face." I recall discussing that observation -- claiming it to be a privileged, academic worry, easy to offer in a comfortable parlor. I worried that implicitly we were expressing an all too familiar disdain on the part of intellectuals for working-class life. Yet, Kit was anything but a snobbish professor -- he was speaking earnestly, passionately, and with evident alarm about what, even then, he saw happening: a decline in the persuasiveness of various religious and cultural norms, with serious consequences for the family life of our nation.
In the years that followed, many of us, be we black or white, through Kit's work, would be prodded to ask about the fate of family life in this country. I remember, in the 1970s, his gradual emergence as an important and singular social observer and cultural critic, his comments grounded in an astute, accomplished historian's sensibility. His book The Culture of Narcissism, of course, was a culminating experience for him, for his readers -- a powerful, unafraid look at dozens of dreary assumptions and habits the rest of us all too readily took for granted, or lacked the courage to confront and hold up to explicit disapproval, lest we be considered old-fashioned or puritanical or, God forbid, reactionary. Here was Kit, no friend of big business, of corporate management (indeed, a strenuous ally of those working to change America, give more economic and political strength to its poor, its so-called working-class people), worrying out loud, boldly and bluntly, about our moral decline well before an evangelical "moral majority" would be doing so in its way. Here was Kit taking on the notion of value-free social science, not to mention the dismal appropriation of psychology by a consumerist, materialistic society -- hey, I count, and what's in it for me, and what crosses my mind and impels my body ought be attended to relentlessly, turned into the be-all and end-all, a reigning interest in no fashion curbed by ethical and social constraints (let alone those religious and spiritual). Here was Kit, put differently, trying to reprove, like Jeremiah and Isaiah of old, a society increasingly smitten with self-absorption and self-gratification -- even as he had no wish to embrace the political Right, which has its own kind of egoism to uphold: the word "self" that adjectivally gets turned into "selfish."
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