American Communitarians

September 1991By C.H. Ross

C.H. Ross, who writes from Nashville, is a lawyer. He begs the readers not to demand how any lawyer can dare complain about unclear prose.

Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford.  By Casey Nelson Blake. University of North Carolina Press. 301. $34.95.



Ask any of your countrymen, even an educated one, about the Young Americans, and chances are he will think you're talking about something you saw in a television ad. Ask some intellectual historians, and the answer will likely be sketchy. You may hear that Randolph Bourne was the most prominent opponent of World War I, or that Lewis Mumford wrote a number of books about urban and technological life. Van Wyck Brooks is most widely known for books castigating the Puritans -- rather unfortunately for his own reputation, since he knew little about them, and much of what he did "know" was not true. Waldo Frank, one of the most angelic prose stylists of our century, might as well have been named Waldo Blank, for all the attention he gets in our humanities departments nowadays. To some who do know about them, the group as a whole is overwhelmed by the image of Bourne stalking swiftly through the world of letters -- an arresting figure, with his appalling physical deformity and the full cape he often wore. He was in some ways a kind of James Dean of the intellect, with his brilliance seemingly enhanced by the very shortness of his life.

But these men were no mere exotics. They all devoted themselves to a struggle with a perennial problem in public philosophy -- the need to reconcile the growth and development of the individual with civic life and the common good. We are now indebted to Casey Nelson Blake for a penetrating and admirably researched study of this aspect of their thought.

They constituted a loosely affiliated group; they never thought of themselves as a school or movement, and were linked more by common sympathies and aspirations than by design. All of them sprang from the aftermath of the Victorian era -- that dull twilight of half-belief and rote when enough vestiges of Gemeinschaft remained to make a sense of loss possible. All time is transition by definition, but in some periods people become acutely conscious of the fact, whereupon this mere truism becomes riveting to them.

The formative period of the Young Americans was like that. Those who lived in it were conscious of having passed some great divides in politics and culture. The rise of the trusts and the great reaction of Progressivism, the emergence of America as an imperial power, the gradual fading of Civil War animosities, and (perhaps above all) the officially proclaimed "passing of the frontier" combined with a myriad of smaller revolutions to alert our ancestors to the fact that new ways of being an American were in the offing. In culture and literature they knew that the age of Matthew Arnold and William Dean Howells was gone; they were to learn that the age of Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis lay ahead. Old forms and manners persisted for a time, of course, but they were increasingly perceived as brittle, vapid, and without meaning. Just as Carlyle had written of the last days of the ancien regime as a time when "men were buck-ram masks," so Waldo Frank could look at his family and at the larger world and groan that it all "didn't make sense, this doom.... What I knew did not make sense.... Nothing real made sense."

This anomie, this sense of rootlessness, was a major feature of the intellectual life of the day. But it was not unresisted. The ideal of community was too powerful to be altogether submerged. The Young Americans knew that they could not have community as it had been, but that knowledge did not deter them from trying to reconstitute it after a distinctively American model. The key to their effort lay in the understanding that only through a vibrant civic and cultural life, lived in common with fellow citizens, could authentic personalities grow and reach their potential.

Their efforts were directed toward the larger community because they could not experience its benefits in microcosm. Their family lives were, for the most part, ghastly -- a fact which, in this book, provides the occasion for an unrewarding foray into the realm of psychoanalysis.

They spanned the century. Bourne was cut off in the midst of the youth he celebrated, a victim of the influenza pandemic of 1918, while Mumford attained the status of Good Gray Philosopher, dying just last year at 95.

Their specific concerns varied with the exigencies of the times. But some elements were constant. They were unshakably personalist and doggedly communitarian. They always retained the awareness that in society, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. In some quarters this earned them hostility. Although they were definitely on the left of the political spectrum, some orthodox liberals distrusted them because of their opposition to doctrinaire individualism. Waldo Frank received considerable abuse for writing a book about Spain in which he suggested, contrary to received liberal opinion, that the country was not a total loss.

Indeed, readers of this journal may be specially struck by the sympathy many of them showed for medieval Catholicism, which they took as a type of the cultural balance they sought. In one of Bourne's early essays, we find praise for the "organic cohesion" of the Church, a strong attraction to the image of the Church as the Mystical Body (an idea that had not yet reached its full development within the Church itself), and a definite approval of the Catholic emphasis on salvation of the person not just as an individual but as a member of "the glorious company of saints and apostles." Similar language can be found in Brooks, though for him the Church often served as a mere foil to accentuate the failures of Puritanism as he understood them. Frank, the most God-intoxicated among them, had a lifelong interest in mysticism and made its reconciliation with the active life one of his major projects.

None of these men actually became a Catholic; perhaps they (unlike some modern advocates of "communal Catholicism") had enough intellectual honesty to realize that Catholicism is a body of doctrine and not just a mood or temperament.

On the whole, Blake's book is a fine one, but it has a few irritating features. The author has a serious problem with the whole idea of leadership as applied to culture. He sniffs the approach of elitism in every tainted breeze -- and in more than a few untainted ones. Time and again, he dismisses certain aspects of his subjects' thought because they leave too much room for the emergence of some kind of authoritarianism. Indeed, authority is such a bogey to him that he considers the mere statement of any such objection crushing.

Also mildly distasteful is a certain vagrant hostility toward more modern communitarian writers, notably Robert Bellah. At one point, Bellah and the co-authors of Habits of the Heart are criticized for failing to acknowledge the Young Americans as their philosophical progenitors. But surely the problems they address are among the hardy perennials of cultural criticism. It is no great abuse for authors to speak to those problems without indulging in genealogy. In another place, Blake quotes, with approval, the dismissive judgment of a critic who says that Bellah's book, by denouncing the times, "implicitly announces its own impotence, escaping despair, if at all, only by gesturing weakly toward the future or the past." That is not even good nonsense. An accurate diagnostician is always of use, even if a remedy is not at his fingertips.

Another problem is stylistic. Much of Blake's book is written in the awful argot that serves (or rather disserves) "American Studies" as a lingua franca. At times the terminology used by its practitioners makes one think of Scaliger's celebrated crack about the Basques: "They are said to understand each other, but frankly I don't believe it."

But those who brave these difficulties will find themselves both challenged and rewarded. Scholars and others concerned with the vital balance between the individual and his culture will find this a book they cannot afford to neglect. Best of all, it will certainly cause many to seek out the writings of its subjects -- and for a book of this kind, that is always the highest praise.



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