All travelers’ reports ought to be taken with skepticism, those of returned native travelers even more so. Last summer, after an absence of five years, I spent some time in the United States. My view of the current state of our country is partial in a number of senses. A New Yorker, an intellectual, Jewish, and of a congenitally critical disposition—a combination of attributes now on its way out—I had lengthened a year of study abroad to indefinite residence in Europe. I did so because, for a number of reasons, I preferred to live there. And when I came back, my contacts with America were limited. I remained in the East, my old friends were persons like myself in one or another respect, and a visiting lecturer at the Harvard summer school does not see the same things as a transcontinental hitchhiker. But there were ways in which these limits could be overcome. We had television, and enough money to go to the movies. And we did not spend every week-end with the intelligentsia on Cape Cod. Moreover, the academics and the intellectuals often behave like caricatures of their countrymen. A short look at the latter, plus long exposure to the former, and one can extrapolate to the general spiritual condition of the nation.

Travel may not be broadening, but it is altering: I returned with a different set of senses. Many of the things I noticed for the first time in America were, no doubt, there all along. Yet, when all is said, I am convinced that the place had changed. What follows is my view of those changes, and of the long-term problems they seem to represent.

Europeans who know the United States well have been coming back to the Old World, for the past two years or so, insisting that the American people have calmed down. This, of course, was before the shock of the Sputniks and the resultant outburst of self-recrimination. The later agitation gives us a chance, however, to understand the earlier calm. And it was calm, of a sort. When I landed at Boston airport last July, the Immigration inspector greeted the planeload, American and foreigner alike, with a grin. When I was leaving in 1952, his counterpart in New York had looked with suspicion upon the departing Americans, with hostility upon the foreigners. (My wife, who is not American, says that this new accession of good temper has not entirely penetrated the visa sections of our consulates abroad.) Tension did seem diminished last summer—even in traffic jams. And in casual conversations, people seemed less harassed, more generous. They were less inclined to people the world with enemies, real or imaginary.

How real was this apparent relaxation, and what was its cause? We know that juvenile crime and adult embezzlement, alcoholism, and neurosis, do not seem to be disappearing from the American scene. The average American, it is true, is not an embezzler, drinks with some restraint, and does not feel driven to seek psychological help. His children, meanwhile, stay out of court. But the tension in American society, if it bears down only on some, is certainly not without effect on nearly all. My guess is that what happened was the development of a new balance of tensions. They shifted away from politics into other spheres. And since the European visitors were keen to analyze political disturbances, most of them missed out on the shift. They simply pointed to its seeming result, the diminution of political excitement. But if I am right that tensions had shifted away from politics by the summer of 1957, how can I speak of national relaxation? The tension must have gone somewhere, to stick there.

There are a number of answers, none of them simple, and some of them possibly wrong. The first is that relaxation was, in good measure, a flight from tension. The new preoccupation with the private pleasures in America reflects not alone their attractions, but a revulsion from politics and the strains it induces. The second answer is that the relaxation itself was somewhat forced: people felt relaxed, but more important, they felt that they ought to feel relaxed. The third answer is that the perpetual American preoccupation with personal identity, by now a popular obsession instead of one confined to an intellectual elite, is so demanding that people had to relax—or explode. If these answers, or something like them, are correct, then the relaxation in America had a peculiar, historically unique quality. It wasn’t the relaxation of a people caught up in the ordered rhythms of a settled pattern of life. It was, rather, an appendage to an unsettled pattern, and it had a certain abandonment born of that unsettlement.



But did ordinary Americans feel a revulsion from politics—or was this simply the latest political attitude worn on the sleeves of the intellectuals? The most striking thing about the country that considers herself the world’s most thoroughgoing democracy is the political passivity of the populace, the absence of politics. I had the feeling of residing under an ancien régime, though one without clerics, censors, and magistrates to keep down opposition, because without opposition. Consent and affirmation fill the press, are found on every other page of serious and scholarly journals, envelop the classroom, and fall instinctively from the mouths of ordinary men and women.

So pervasive is the atmosphere, so unconscious is assent, that 18th-century philosophers coming upon this—their supposed creation—would suspect a trick. Their vision of a harmonious society, its members working tirelessly for themselves and yet unfailingly serving the general welfare, is just what Americans think of their polity. But the vision was intended as much to combat the acerbities of the ancien régime as to foretell the future. The philosophers, indeed, might distrust their local guides, even if they were professors of political science. Societies without major political conflicts are unknown and are unlikely, at this point in history, to be invented.

Yet the interval between 1952 and 1957 seemed to have driven at least one kind of controversy further underground in the United States. Public opinion—an omnibus term, with lots of route—was still occasionally swept by waves of uneasiness and doubt. But the recurrent search for scapegoats was not a substitute for the allocation of political responsibility. Rival pressure groups do not constitute political alternatives. Politics without ideology, we have been told, is the only safe politics. But the U.S. looked like a country without either ideology or politics.

Curiously, a certain kind of ideological sterility seemed to account for this situation. I had the impression that the common-sense political notions of ordinary people and the obtuse cerebrations of academics were, alike, incapable of clarifying what was really happening. It was not just that reality was too complex; it’s always complex. But surprisingly few of the values people brought to political reality were realizable. Hardly any of the images they had referred to political facts. And the main reason for these discrepancies was peculiar: everybody identified so thoroughly with the country that nobody could step back and look at it. Critics of America, domestic and foreign, make much of the allegedly reactionary components of the country’s political beliefs—they invoke the supposed spiritual inanities and horrors of a walled-in small town. Little of that was visible last summer. Instead, I encountered a nation so committed to the present that it had lost touch with the past and the future, human beings so disdainful of provincialism that they insisted that they were at the center of the world. Everything was up to date, so up to date that some small-town backwardness would have been welcome.

The central article of faith in America, at the moment of my visit, was that it was a society the problems of which were exclusively technical, matters of detail. The existence of political conflicts of the sort other countries know, the confrontation of irreconcilable values and interests embodied in parties and groups struggling for power, were simply denied. In fact, what is unique about America is not the absence of political conflicts but the peculiar forms they take. And those forms have a double fatality. They are baffling and troublesome enough to drive political concerns out of popular consciousness, and they are opaque and remote enough not to be missed.

Ideological difficulty begins when people are aware of a disparity between their conceptions and the world, a disparity ineradicable from human political experience. This is what makes people look anew at reality, and it can lead to a new attempt to master it. The absence of conspicuous ideological difficulty in America last summer was the worst difficulty of all. Convinced, or afraid to doubt, that they were masters of the situation, the American people were mastered by it. The recent announcements, therefore, of the death of political ideologies in America seem to me to have been premature: the worst kind of ideology, the unexamined sort, lives on.



Let us consider the problem of the cities and the new suburbia. A good deal of the literature on the suburbs glosses over the obvious fact: their development emphasizes a principle of social segregation in the United States. (Characteristically, the literature has told us how people are moving up into them—but not about those who are left behind, nor very much about the class divisions within them.) The resultant complex of problems—schools, taxes, and all the rest—are not simply matters of local interest. They are in every sense political, since the issue is not alone the extent but the direction of public expenditure. Meanwhile, the United States is beginning to develop a system of class-bound schools, whether private or public. Yet the entire situation seems unutterable; it cannot be discussed for what it is. For the United States is supposed to be a classless society, where this sort of thing does not happen. But a society which closes its eyes to ideological conflict is not a society without such conflict.

The Negro problem entails similar difficulties. It is too violent, literally, to be dismissed in the same way as the problem of the suburbs. But it seems as much a matter of national embarrassment as of national concern. There are lots of people concerned, of course: the Negroes themselves, the Southern whites, the politicians, and those who worry about such things. But when the television screens brought Little Rock into millions of living rooms, I sensed a detached reaction—as if it were an interesting tug of war between Faubus and “the” government. German passivity as the Nazis took anti-Jewish measures reflected considerable popular anti-Semitism. Nothing so blatant was apparent in this case, although we should be deceiving ourselves if we supposed that the Southern Negroes can rely on the active sympathy of their fellow citizens in the North, especially with Negro and Puerto Rican neighbors crowded into slums not too far away.

Simultaneously, the Levittown disturbances made clear the specifically Northern pattern of racial conflict. The Northern Negro enjoys all the formal rights denied to his Southern brothers. Naturally he is not content with formal equality, but wants exactly what his white countrymen value: a plethora of consumer goods, a good home, and “advantages” for his children. The African intellectuals in Paris speak of “Negritude” as a cultural-political goal for their peoples, and the Anglicized African Negro elite studying or visiting in London have traditions at home to build upon. All this is meaningless to American Negroes. Leaving the slums, not because they are different but because they are so like other Americans, they incur the risk of collision with them. In any case, there is remarkably little that Northern whites can do, even if they sympathize with the aspirations of the Negroes. And the Northern situation seems almost as inaccessible to individual action. The political passivity of which I wrote seems forced upon even those who would like to be active. The very atmosphere renders participation difficult or useless. The institutional channels seem incredibly intricate, or simply blocked. Few would claim that there is a disposition to change this state of affairs. In fact, it suits most people fairly well and allows them to pursue their private pleasures. Yet the paradox is this: the private pleasures in America fuse imperceptibly with public ones.



For a time, after the war, it seemed that Americans were votaries of the familiar bitch goddess, success. However, this cult had been replaced by exercises less ascetic. Success, it seems, is not so important as it once was. One good reason for this is that most people, by their own standards, are successful—very much so. American sociologists often depict the populace as driven by an insatiable desire for esteem and prestige. This may be true of the sociologists: they are generally recruited from those pockets of society where old standards were recently still effective, the small-town, lower middle classes and the big-city immigrant groups. But most human beings are simple enough to believe that money will buy the things they want. And most Americans, by their own standards as well as by any others, have a good deal of money. They have indeed succeeded, in ways their fathers only dreamed of.

Given the highest standard of living in the world, the central American problem is how to enjoy it. William H. Whyte has read an impressive eulogy at the grave of the puritan ethic. David Riesman is uncertain whether to mourn it, but he agrees that it is dead. But each of these able observers of the current scene misses something: puritanism has left its enduring traces in the psychological life. It may have gone out of the economy, the self-reliant entrepreneur may have been replaced by the bureaucrat or the public relations man. Yet, at home, even these are puritans: they worry about the sorts of pleasures they have. They are not self-denying, but their riches are a standing challenge to find the right mode of enjoyment. The obsession with psychology is a result. It is a national exercise in self-definition—the new pilgrim progresses by recasting himself. The Europeans who once found innocence in America must today acknowledge that no more self-conscious people exists.

All of this accounts for the increasingly unashamed openness of the private life in America. Family and community seem to interpenetrate, the characters marching in and out of each other’s living rooms through picture windows. Distrusting their own intuitions, people rely on everybody else’s. The pursuit of success, then, has been replaced by the effort to create a public image of oneself. Perhaps this extreme dependence on external social relationships is, as Whyte insists, a consequence of life in large organizations. But it affects women and children, who do not work, at least as much as it does men. Standardized patterns of play, entertainment, and family life have preempted the field during the past years. Spontaneity, it seemed to me, was hard to find.

The search for self-identity and the demand that pleasure be meaningful are the traditional marks of higher culture. Is the general cultural level in America, then, rising? Certainly there has been great improvement over the past five years. Internal and external décor, the sophistication of television comics, the content of popular magazines—everything was visibly more refined, chic. But like the spread of the “natural look” in men’s clothing, from Madison Avenue to Main Street, these things do not necessarily indicate a changed basis of taste. They reflect, rather, the extended influence of certain prestige groups (and, of course, the successful search for new markets). A felt relationship to a higher culture is still difficult to find in America. The necessary discipline, and the education that could produce it, are missing.

What about the bearers of a higher culture, the intellectuals? They have been relatively unaffected by the recent boom. It is true that they have profited from it. Paperback publishing, increases in university salaries, the ubiquitous and indispensable foundation fellowships, have made material life at least more tolerable for them. But the intellectual’s role in American society has hardly changed. The gulf between the intellectuals and the rest is as wide as it ever has been. If we consider what appears to have bridged it—the elevation of popular taste—it may even be wider. The consumer of cultural goods wants something to grace his after-hours, a refined and pleasurable mode of enjoying his leisure. But he is not committed to the criticism and refashioning of the values of his culture. His is a part-time occupation. His powers of discrimination may be acute, the more so for his amateur status, since he is unlikely to be academic in the worst sense of the term. But he does not have to bear the responsibility for deciding anew how the world really is, or how it ought to be. The intellectual, however, sees precisely that as his task. He measures his success or failure by his own accomplishments in it. The nearer he comes to the everyday world, the more remote he is likely to feel from it. Material rewards are irrelevant: his needs are spiritual.

Spiritual needs may agitate men even when the real obstacles to their satisfaction are very great. The intellectuals appear to have experienced the need to identify with America just when identification is difficult. Their insistence on their reconciliation with the country had something plaintive about it: their love remains unrequited. The intellectuals, when pressed, generally admitted that the problem of finding a deep relation to their country and its culture troubled them. But I have been writing in terms of a very old conception of the intellectual. How appropriate is it to the current American scene?



One of the most striking, and disheartening, changes I noticed was the decline in the numbers of the old-fashioned intelligentsia. The new intellectual is an academic specialist. He does not claim to see things whole: he usually won’t take responsibility for seeing a part of the whole in detail. He will only say that his “approach” has a certain value. Modesty is always a virtue, of course, and the new intellectual’s deference is to be preferred to the excesses of a Spengler or a Toynbee. But to a large extent it is an abdication of responsibility. The new-style American thinker can all too easily permit semi-literates and charlatans to fashion the minds of a generation. Having renounced the education of the public, he may even be abandoning it to some lunatic.

The reasons for the recent constriction of intellectual focus are many, and they include the fact that a broad view is as painful as it is difficult. But one obvious fact has not been given the attention it deserves—the intellectuals, more than ever before, are employed by the universities. American universities share many characteristics with European ones, but academic bureaucracy has been so perfected in the new world that the universities in Europe impress the American visitor as rather amateurish—clubs of a sort. (The one European university whose organization reminded me of home I found in East Berlin.) In these academic bureaucracies, careers are made in ways usually associated with the large business corporations, although the younger executives generally enjoy more humane treatment than the junior professors. At any rate, university administrators are interested in the standardization of academic production: this relieves them of the necessity of making decisions in qualitative terms. The large American university prizes “the good team man,” whose work fits the prevalent categories—and who shows the proper respect for the raiments of all the local emperors. It is irrelevant to say that genius would find this system uncomfortable. Genius is almost always uncomfortable, and anyhow it is very rare. What is disturbing is the fate of talent in the universities.

American higher education exhibits all the external characteristics of the Darwinian struggle for existence; but do the fittest survive? It is too easy for the committeeman and the manipulator, for the bright boy who can identify and elaborate the coming academic party line. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the intellectuals in the universities are hard put to it to develop their originality and depth. It is only surprising that they do so well. American academic work is very thorough. Yet it is thorough on a narrow front. Much “research” by itself doesn’t make for scholarship, since the latter demands a heightened and enlarged awareness of implications of the subject, while the former calls only for the narrowest concentration on it. Unfortunately, awareness is elusive; it doesn’t fit easily into academic budgets.



These difficulties are especially acute in my own field, the social sciences. There are plenty of able and devoted workers in these areas, but they seem to have become hunting grounds for the intellectual racketeer and his unwitting tool, the academic gadgetmaker. When the social scientist allows himself to diagnose the total condition of man, he frequently produces banalities. When he examines his own society, he produces crude apologetics. A good many social scientists in America can avoid these embarrassments: they are not interested in man or society, but in “method.” It was disconcerting to return to the U.S. and find that a journalist, William H. Whyte, had written one of the most penetrating analyses of American society in years. It was discouraging to learn that C. Wright Mills, who had written the other (and who years ago anticipated much of what Whyte had to say), is thought “unscientific” by his colleagues. A systematic critique of our society is being developed by a group of Hollywood writers and producers—like those who did Face in the Crowd. But some of the university social scientists have forgotten their dignity in the scramble for consultantships from Madison Avenue.

With their teachers thus unable to present them with any clear and consistent intellectual goals, American students can’t do more than flounder. They see nothing very solid against which they can revolt. Nineteen hundred and fifty-two, when I last saw them at home, was not a year conspicuous in the universities for intellectual venture-someness. But in 1957 I looked back on it as a golden age of cultural ferment. The bright undergraduate of 1957 had little or no disinterestedness and he did not care for intellectual play. His very natural interest in grades and careers was not at fault. Even the student intellectuals, who disdained business (but were quite willing to enter the academic one), were concerned about the proper formulae, the line, the “approach.” Like their teachers, they worked hard. But hard intellectual work requires more than time and energy. It requires a recognition of the difficulty and complexity of problems, a certain humility before the achievements of the past.

The serious young American students have been influenced by the messianic pretensions of some of their elders: they think they can write intellectual history anew, and often don’t bother to learn it. And, despite their trips to Europe, they are surprisingly provincial. They are instinctive patriots, convinced of the general superiority of their country’s ways in a manner that would embarrass their counterparts in Europe. They carry on, veering (but not uncertainly) between self-assured solutions to timeless problems and the reverent repetition of their teachers’ dogmas. The only thing they seem to lack is the hesitation and freshness of youth itself. They act as if it were all laid out before them; perhaps it would disturb them to encounter experience directly, to make their way through the woods instead of keeping, in autos purchased new, to the highway.



I find that I have said nothing about my impressions of the Jewish community. There is little to say in COMMENTARY now, after Mrs. Rossman spoke her piece.1 But it is apparent that American Jewry feels at home in the country, in ways not so visible five years ago, the move to the suburbs being only the most superficial expression of its attitude. “Quirks” like excessive intellectualism may be dying out. Mrs. Rossman’s neighbor, whose only reaction to a lecture was to announce that a prayer from the heart was worth more than the serious analysis of Judaism itself, is not alone. Many of the younger generation feel this way, even if their sentiments are more high-toned. The Jewish intellectual, somewhat unkempt, intense, eager for knowledge and ostentatiously erudite, contentious and downright ill-mannered: this figure lives on only in memory, or in a few survivors of the 20’s and 30’s, their zeal not quite concealed by their striped ties and well-pressed tweed jackets. One interesting thing is that a number of cultivated and prosperous younger Jews have become patrons of the arts. Some, indeed, have gone into business in order to be able to afford the cultural artifacts which the professional intellectual cannot buy. (Clement Greenberg called this to my attention, and it was easy to verify.)

The most profound expression of the increasing Americanization of Jewry in the United States is the seeming ease with which it meets its historical situation. But is ease an appropriate response? It is difficult to believe that ugliness and violence have been so completely eliminated from American life (or so exclusively reserved for the Negroes) that minority communities can expect a future without major problems. The Jewish community seemed to have forgotten the difficulties of the winter of 1956, when Israel and the U.S. stood opposed, by the summer of 1957. The Jewish community’s self-satisfaction, however, only matched that of the rest of America.

Foresight is easy to claim, after the event, but last summer I felt that the visible lessening of tension in America was not necessarily a sign of maturity. The twin components of American puritanism (in uneasy balance in all but the heroic days of the Colonies and the young Republic): public moral earnestness and the compulsive regulation of the private life, had flown apart. The compulsive regulation was there, and so was the moral earnestness—and this not alone in Mr. Dulles. But the moral earnestness was turned outward, sloganized, and left to suitably cleared experts. The regulation of private life, of course, was also an affair for the experts—with the conspicuous difference that everyone was in the process of acquiring expertise. But the separation was pronounced. Perhaps it is a necessary consequence of the organization of societies as large and as complex as that of the United States. But then there is no point to pretending that the country is a democracy, 18th-century style.

In any event, the reaction to the Sputnik, and now the recession, show that the relaxation last summer was shallow. What isn’t earned, can’t be kept. It was a self-indulgent kind of relaxation, not the result of a strenuous effort to come to terms with the world. But the tranquilizer is no substitute for psychotherapy. A people with as many aspirations (and responsibilities) as the Americans can be expected, surely, to do better.



1 See “Judaism in Northrup,” by Evelyn N. Rossman, November 1957.

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