- Historic Sites
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
According to the legend, America is a nation devoted to pure action—a muscular, highly organized country, as little given to brooding introspection and as dedicated to physical activity as a professional football team. The simile may be a good one; we see to it, by elaborate mechanisms, that our colleges and universities provide an adequate, unfailing supply of skilled athletes and worry very little if the output of thinkers—physicists, let us say, or other eggheads—runs a trifle short of the potential demand. It may be that we live up to the legend a little too ardently.
Yet the legend itself is somewhat out of date. We are an introspective people, and we are becoming more so every day. The current revival of interest in American history is an indication of the fact.
There are a great many reasons for that revival, but one of the strongest, certainly, is an instinctive desire to make a correct appraisal of our present status. That status grows out of all of the yesterdays which are history’s especial concern, and it is obviously something we want to examine as closely as we can. What are we like, as a people? What sort of civilization have we finally built up here? What has become of us, at last, after all of these historic alarms and excursions? What does our society mean today, and where have we finally got to?
This, perhaps, is what we are really looking for, as we at last elevate history into something tolerably popular and familiar. The only trouble is that none of these plaintive questions can have a really satisfactory answer, because the simple truth is that we have not, so far, actually got anywhere yet—not anywhere that can serve as a place to pause and take a deep breath. History is a continuous process of change, and the change is still going on. We have not yet become something; we are still becoming. This bounteous year 1958 is no more the end of the journey than was 1861, or 1907, or any other year plucked at random from the calendar. New appraisals are all very well, but we Americans are still making our civilization, and what it will eventually look like is a secret.
So our introspection must be concerned chiefly with the attempt to get a line on that secret. We could hardly be better engaged, because even though we do not know just where we are going we are plainly going somewhere at a prodigious rate of speed, and unless we nourish a strong faith we are apt to wonder if the end of the journey may not be that steep place that leads down to the sea. To the examination of this secret Max Lerner applies himself diligently in a brooding, thoughtful new book aptly titled America as a Civilization .
America as a Civilization : Life and Thought in the United States Today , by Max Lerner. Simon and Schuster. 1,036 pp. $10.00
We believe that we have a national tradition, says Mr. Lerner, but it is impossible to generalize about it very successfully because it is compounded of many subtraditions. We are the product of four separate waves of migration—the original movement of the Indians from Asia, the later movement of people from England and western Europe, the forced movement of the Negroes from Africa, and finally—what Mr. Lerner calls “the polyglot ethnic strain”—the great wave of all peoples from the Mediterranean, from central and eastern Europe, from Asia and from Latin America, and from everywhere else. Perhaps the one factor in common with the greatest of these waves was the pervading notion of America as a land of promise, a place where men could find well-being and freedom. America, in short, was built on a promise, and although we have been bothered ever since about the degree to which that promise has been fulfilled, the significant thing as Mr. Lerner sees it is the fact that the promise itself has always persisted. This is our great “social myth”; it has always pulled us on, and it always will, bringing abundant disillusionment but bringing also recurring triumphs of advance and achievement.
Along with this dominant myth there is another fact which Mr. Lerner considers unique to America. Alone among nations, he remarks, America has a history which “is also the history of the three shaping forces of the modern Western world”—industrialism as a technology, capitalism as a way of organizing it, and democracy as a way of running both. From these comes an immense dynamic force which moves hand in hand with the great motif of promise. Whatever we are becoming, then, it seems to Mr. Lerner highly likely that future historians will look back on our American life and see in it “one of the memorable civilizations of history.”
All very well: and, specifically, how does this civilization seem to be taking shape? Mr. Lerner does not try to give any final, detailed answers; he simply looks about him, jots down some of the memorable images that are fastening themselves in our collective memories, and tries to arrive at a few very broad conclusions. Significantly, he finds that, even though we may be a less fluid people than we once were, we have not yet developed a single, well-defined “ruling class.” We have an upper class, to be sure, a wealthy class, perhaps even a dominant class, but we do retain social mobility and the base of economic power is continually shifting. Rigidity has not yet set in.
Are we, with all of this, losing the drive and the sense of adventure that once (as we believe, anyway) characterized America? We are still a dynamic society, but we are becoming very security-conscious. Are we torn by a clash between these two emotional states, with the old urge to make new beginnings conflicting with the urge to reach a safe spot where risks need not be taken? Possibly; for along with everything else Mr. Lerner concludes that “America is a happiness society even more than it is a freedom society or a power society.” In our Declaration of Independence we asserted that one of man’s inalienable rights is his right to pursue happiness, and we have been hard at the pursuit ever since, with varying degrees of success. Yet what else could come, in a land where the infinite promise of life is one of the traditional concepts? The pursuit of happiness is not a bad thing, once we understand just what happiness is and how it may best be attained.
We are no longer an isolated country, cut off from the rest of the world by broad oceans. Whether we like it or not, we are now one of the world’s two great powers, and what we are and do—whether we are at our best or our worst—touches the imagination of the rest of mankind in a way (as Mr. Lerner suggests) that only one other society, the Roman Empire, ever touched it. The parallel is disquieting, perhaps; for the Romans themselves lost their own imagination, they came to value things more than they valued ideas, and the end was darkness. Will that be our destiny as a civilization? This grim question lies at the end of all our introspection.
To this question Mr. Lerner does not pretend to have a final answer. Any thoughtful student of American life can see many reasons for bleak pessimism, and as a highly perceptive man Mr. Lerner sees them as clearly as anyone needs to. But he retains his optimism—largely, it would seem, because our society is still in this process of becoming. The great enemy of any civilization, he suggests, is “the enemy within,” which is simply rigidity. That has not yet come to us. We are still developing; our sources of creativeness have not gone dry. At the end of his long survey, Mr. Lerner is able to say, with Emerson: “We think our civilization is near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock crowing and the morning star.”