Land of Opportunities
The Next America: Prophecy and Faith.
by Lyman Bryson. Harper.
248 pp. $3.50.

 

This is an extraordinary book. It takes up the themes of current discourse about America—the growth of large-scale organization, the problem of “mass culture,” the supposed slump in leadership, the hue and cry over “values,” etc.—and examines them with a lovely freedom from panic and portentousness, a tough-minded patience, a skeptical yet charitable urbanity. It is a book of deceptive simplicity, for Mr. Bryson has a subtle mind but not a subtle style; moreover, since he is addressing a wide as well as a specialist-intellectual audience, he will appear to the latter at times to be needlessly repetitive and slow-paced. For instance, Mr. Bryson writes: “. . . we talk, probably too much, about ‘unity.’ Democracy has always been institutionalized conflict; it achieves its greatness in tensions. It can encompass any kind of struggle, short of physical violence, as long as all its citizens live by the basic rule of sportsmanship and accept the decisions arrived at by the agreed-on means of competition. And it works, by our definition, in the lives of persons, not in structures, or solidarities, or ideal institutions.”

As in the writing of John Dewey, whose views on many matters Mr. Bryson shares and develops, it is easy for the unwary to find platitude in such sentences, but it is more rewarding to find implications that are by no means commonly accepted—in this case, a theory of democracy which regards tension and competition, within individuals and among them, as salubrious; a theory which focuses on processes rather than results; a rare refusal to insist on “agreement on fundamentals” as essential to democratic living. Indeed, Mr. Bryson believes that to insist on ideological consensus as part of the price of cooperation is the sure way to wreck democracy: he is a staunch individualist, believing in conditional cooperation for concrete and limited goals, and hostile to charismatically induced commitments to organization, leader, or nation as such. In a brilliant passage he suggests that many who dutifully sacrifice a talent to a cause may do so out of “fear of testing the true strength of the talent. . . .”

Mr. Bryson is of course aware of the recent work in the social sciences which has tended to “dissolve” the individual, on the one hand, into his social conditionings as a child, and on the other, into his social roles as an adult, but he never makes the mistake of assuming that the individual, because he has his genesis in society and makes use of society to exist as a human being, is burdened on that account with an unredeemable mortgage to the past and to his fellows. He insists, as strongly as does Erich Fromm, on man’s being “for himself.”

He differs markedly, however, from most intellectuals, including Fromm, in the benignity and sanguinity of his evaluation of American work, leisure, and politics. For he is convinced that, with economic abundance virtually achieved, we have entered an era of distribution (as against production) in which the development of our cultural life becomes the opportunity and hence the task of the Americans. Thus he sees little chance for individual development in the great collectives, whether of business, labor, or government, that garner and divide the national take; instead he sees the cultural area— the arts and sciences of high and low degrees—as the new frontier. And even now, he argues, we Americans have made much more progress in the development of individual taste, talent, and sheer pleasure in multiplicity of choice on that frontier than we give ourselves credit for. He courageously defends public high schools, so facilely made scapegoats for all our social crudities, as the mediators of popular taste, for he believes the schools are doing remarkably well in their unprecedented job not only of diffusing cultural products but also of democratizing cultural productivity—he has the faith of Hughes Mearns in the possibilities of teaching individual self-expression in the arts. He offers us the vision, already partly realized, of a Next America that has turned over its economic and, save in the local community, its political routines to large organization without vain regret, and which has become the first society to make cultural inventiveness and participation both the right and duty of everyone.

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Mr. Bryson freely concedes that the taste of the liberated majority is and will be vulgar, like the beach at Coney Island. Vulgarity holds no lure for him; but neither does it appall him: he thinks that most men have always been vulgar (though their vulgarity was hidden under the conventions of hierarchically imposed taste), and that to disdain the vulgar is to disdain mankind. He looks for American greatness, not in empire or in the subtler imperialism of an elite culture protected (T. S. Eliot fashion) from the temptations of vulgarity, but in the quality of individual living, each to his own bent.

But he is wise enough to know that, if the choices of ordinary men are to be productive for them, they need to be challenged by the models offered by the lives and works of extraordinary men; hence he is concerned to show, contrary to what is often thought, that popular vulgarity and mechanically distributed cultural objects are not obstacles to the further development of high culture. He declares: “Our principle is that good things in music, like good things in drama, or literature, or anything else that depends on a quality of enjoyment, make their own case with the normal person. There must not be a taskmaster . . . bringing men and the arts together. Responsiveness is natural. . . .”

In rightly taking a stand against superficial critics of “mass culture” and in being aware of the enormous leaps recently made by millions in their musical interest and grasp, Mr. Bryson is on solid ground. But it seems to me he does not fully meet the kind of argument brought forward by many high-culture partisans who view with a jaundiced eye the speed of diffusion of good taste, for instance Clement Greenberg, in a Horizon (1947) article on American art and culture, or T. W. Adorno in his critiques of radio music. Adorno, no mere snob, thinks that a symphony over the air is inevitably distorted by fragmented and eroded context both in mass transmission and parlor reception. Greenberg insists (his argument is rather too complex for brief paraphrase) that a high art which must constantly face invasion from the middlebrow hordes who suffer from “culture-sickness” cannot prosper; it will lack a time of maturation; it will lack discriminating, unsentimental critics. But instead of going into detail concerning such relations, subtle and often covert, as exist between American high and middlebrow culture, Mr. Bryson is at pains to deal with a simpler historical problem and to show that previous cultural epochs where an elite culture confronted only a folk culture—epochs which now attract the fearful and nostalgic—have been glamorized and misunderstood: that, for instance, the peasants whose unerring taste and craftsmanship now seem so appealing were actually hamstrung in any inventiveness or flexibility, their supposed good taste ready to collapse at the first opportunity to acquire factory-made shoddiness. (He might have added that the European upper strata who look with horror on American taste are actually being forced by American power and wealth to confront the taste of their own exported lower strata—a taste that is perhaps refined just as often as made still more vulgar by the American experience.) While all this makes good sense and good reading, it does not add up to a sustained treatment of the role of the creative artist and thinker in a culture which confronts him with the historically novel danger of a suddenly proliferating audience of millions, at once tempting and fearsome. To take one instance, it does not deal quite searchingly enough with the very real problems of the novelist whose credit with a wide audience—perhaps from a book on the failure of the hero’s success —exposes him to contempt from the ingroup for whose opinions he most cares and from which he hopes to learn more about his craft.

Very likely, this expects too much of a book like The Next America, whose plurality of aims matches the cultural pluralism it espouses. Mr. Bryson is more satisfactory when he deals with the danger that schools of art, writing, drama, dance, and so on will tempt their pupils to seek careers rather than amateur enjoyment of their small and usually unsaleable talents. As a CBS executive, he is agonizingly aware of the way in which the media have driven out most provincial performance for profit: a few movie and network stars can entertain a whole nation, and no little-theater movement will do much to decentralize performance. No harm in that, Mr. Bryson believes, any more than in other forms of mass production, so long as the young are not gulled into equating paid performance with self-nourishing artistic activity; but he sees the commercial ambitions of the talent school as combining with parental and adolescent ambition to lead to enormous frustration. For the same developments which have made Americans culture-conscious in recent decades have pushed many young people into supposedly non-commercial careers in which the very notion of having a career is itself a disguised commercialism, and in which a talent is not felt as rewarding unless others reward it. Mr. Bryson hopes that, as Americans become increasingly bored with material success, they will begin to look to culture less as a possible career and more as a private resource, though one publicly facilitated by expenditures on libraries, museums, adult education, studios, and similar tools.

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Another reviewer, or this reviewer on another day, might select quite different themes from The Next America for comment—might, for instance, treat all the trenchant things Mr. Bryson has to say about philosophies of history (including the sharpest critiques of Toynbee’s ethics I have seen), or about world government, or about labor leaders. The book itself, like Mr. Bryson’s radio program, is an “Invitation to Learning.” Listeners to that program will be prepared for Mr. Bryson’s wit, generosity, and cultivation, but perhaps not for his sharpness and originality. If they compare that program with such analogues as the University of Chicago “Round Table of the Air,” they may find, as I do, some basis for faith in Mr. Bryson’s hopes for a culture-minded rather than a political-minded or work-minded America. The “Round Table” usually debates the great issues of politics: what shall we do about Indonesia, or inflation, or civil rights. By contrast, “Invitation to Learning” assumes, as does The Next America, that it is more interesting to discuss interpretation of literature and history, and that with good luck and good management we can afford to. The addicts of fanaticism and political partisanship have behind them a tradition of piety towards the politically crucial and important, whereas Mr. Bryson looks forward to an era of good feeling in which civilized men, with only a weather eye out for their political and economic freedom, will spend their passions and energies in learning and art, in genial talk and casual enjoyment, all to the greater glory of nobody but themselves. No historicist, he grants that that era may never come—he is fully aware of the threats from within and without—but in his quiet way he has furnished an admirable balance sheet of the gains and costs that living in this Next America would mean. I would be glad to settle for it, and in it.

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