U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ribuffo, "President James A. Garfield Had a Great Personality" (Personality and the Self Panel, Part III)

Dear Readers: As a special holiday season treat, I give you one of the more interesting panels from our recent conference–“Personality and the Self in Twentieth-Century American Social Thought.”‘ See the first paper by Dave Varel here. The second paper by Dave Steigerwald is here. Below are the comments by Leo Ribuffo.

Leo P. Ribuffo, The George Washington University

In the generous spirit of S-USIH, this is less a comment in the AHA/OAH “gotcha” sense than some reflections on two interesting articles. My first reflection is that both of these essays deal with what might be called the self-absorbed era in the conceptualization of the self—and all deal primarily with middle class people or above in a rich world power during a relatively short span of time, the past 120 yrs or so. Accordingly, choosing a conception of the self was to an increasing degree voluntary, especially after the culturally normative “American Way of Life” of the Great Depression yielded to the looser notion of “life styles” in the 1960s and 1970s. This is the era, as David Varel stresses (following Warren Susman’s classic essay), when, amid visions of affluence, an ascetic emphasis on “character” yielded to a “culture of personality” befitting a “culture of consumption.”

Without totally discounting the now standard notion that the search for the self in some sense escalated during the modern era, whenever that began, let me suggest that it had a longer lineage, was not confined to rich “Western” countries, and often involved what William James called forced options. Consider the following hypothetical situations:

A speaker in 331 B. C. E. Persia. “Believe it or not, guys, Darius III just lost to Alexander the Great. We’ve got to decide how Hellenized we’re going to become.”

Fast forward to the Indian subcontinent in the seventh century C. E. “Hey, guys, there’s this new religion going around called Islam. It doesn’t have a caste system. Sounds pretty good to me.”

Fast forward again to the sixteenth century—to a place our history department colleagues call early modern Europe. “Hey buddy, does the wine in church turn into Christ’s blood or is it just a symbol? Decide fast; we’re piling the kindling around the stake.”

And across the ocean in Peru: “Look, guys, I know the Spanish conquerors have really powerful weapons and are trying to win our hearts and minds with paintings of the Apostles as Indians, but don’t we owe it to our Inca ancestors to join Tupac Amaru’s revolt?”

Even for the prosperous United States. (by world standards) choices about self were in play for more than a century before the era of self-absorption began in the late nineteenth century. We can see this behavior in many “keywords.” In addition to the ubiquitous “character,” we have for instance: republican virtue, honor, patriot, true woman, born again Christian, and manliness (preferably self-made). At the same time there were negative selves that should be avoided or (in the Darwinian worst cases) could not be avoided—undeserving poor, rebel, feeble minded, racial mongrel, and gook.

As Susman acknowledged, such notions did not disappear even as the “culture of personality” came to dominate the Zeitgeist. For instance, self-made manliness survived from Henry Clay through Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X and the Nixon White House, honor persisted from the Hamilton-Burr duel to Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, gook echoed from the Philippine War to the Vietnam War, and derision of the undeserving poor affected politics from Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal to Bill Clinton’s signing of welfare reform, so-called, in 1996.

Nor should we forget the enormous legacy of Romanticism with its cult of the hero, which popularized the self-absorbed search for the self long before this disposition became professionalized. Despite the countless gospel of success guides published by Russell Conwell, Edward Bok, Garfield, et al, what red blooded American boy would choose to clerk in that startup company Carnegie Steel instead of riding with General George Custer? At least until June 25, 1876.

And if we want a more complicated symbol (or modal personality if you prefer), although James Garfield wrote one of the classic tracts about achieving success through character, he did have a great personality even before there was a whole “culture of personality,” a fact confirmed by his phrenologist, by his rapid political rise, and by the three women madly in love with him during his early twenties.

David Steigerwald takes us from the early days of the professionalized search for the self to the 1970s. Steigerwald begins by bringing us back to the first heyday of guides to success, variously defined, in this world and the next, and nicely places this search in the context of a longer debate about free will and determinism.

Thus we return to the question that vexed scholars three decades ago in the heyday of the academic study of the gospel of success–such scholars as Susman, Donald Meyer, John Cawelti, Irwin Wylie, Richard Huber, and Lawrence Chenoweth –Is William James responsible for Norman Vincent Peale? This question is a lot of fun, along with its kin: Is Marx responsible for Stalin, is Rousseau responsible for Timothy Leary, and what would Jesus do? Steigerwald gets it right in this instance, writing that James with his “famous open-mindedness” would have found some merit in Charles Reich’s The Greening of America.

Yet Steigerwald leads us astray when he dismisses the medical side of nineteenth century positive thinking as “self-evidently unscientific.” These theories were considered science by many Americans just as much as eugenicist warnings against racial mongrelization and the homeopathic medicine preferred by President Garfield. So too, later on, with Abraham Maslow cultivating his peak experiences and Wilhelm Reich absorbing the intergalactic libido in his orgone box.

The issue of “agency” also needs a closer look (“deconstruction” if a trendier word makes readers feel smarter). As currently bandied about, agency means two related but separate questions. First, can “the people” in some sense think for themselves or are they just easily manipulated dimwits, a notion already on the rise in American social science before there was a Frankfurt School even in Frankfurt, as Edward Purcell showed in his brilliant book The Crisis of Democratic Theory. As Purcell also showed, this question influenced the interwar debate between behaviorists and humanists in the social sciences.

Second, even if “the people” can think for themselves, do they have enough power–agency–to change the Zeitgeist let alone the social order? In the broad sweep of things, my sense is that people do think for themselves when they are moved to think, but that they tend to limit their thoughts and feelings to what seems possible. Hence most educated women went along with the feminine mystique in the 1950s, there is no socialism in the United States, and only a minority of Incas joined Tupac Amaru’s revolt.

Steigerwald sees two great eras of agency affirmation, and both seem to coincide with periods of major social change and political flux. The odd exception is the 1930s, and here Steigerwald’s Google search may have led him astray. Guides to success flourished during the Great Depression, none more so than Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. If there was a drop off in references to free will, perhaps this was because a critical mass of “the people” temporarily had both the will and the freedom to change things significantly (by American standards).

Varel takes us forward to Henry Murray, a self-described William Jamesian and one of the creators of “humanistic psychology”–as Murray called the field as early as 1930–along with Gordon Allport, Carl Rogers, John Dollard, and Abraham Maslow.

While agreeing that we need more than an “internalist” examination of Murray’s ideas, I am skeptical of Varel’s main choice of social-intellectual context. From Richard Hofstadter through Christopher Lasch to Jackson Lears, historians have noted the importance of personal crises about the meaning of life for modern thinkers, crises summed up in the key word “weightlessness.”

Murray doesn’t fit very well. As a youth he stuttered, felt rejected by his mother, and suffered from sexual repression but he is a long way from being a Jamesian “sick soul” and a modal personality for an age of “weightlessness.” Until his early twenties, Murray’s main crisis seems to have been guilt about his role in a rebellion against his Harvard crew coach that may have resulted in a loss to Yale. As we used to say in working class New Jersey before I encountered the psychiatric mode of denigration, the young Murray was a rich spoiled jerk.

In his early thirties Murray did suffer what he called a “profound affectional crisis” that involved immersion in Romantic literature, enthusiasm for Carl Jung, and lust for Christiana Morgan. Except perhaps for the Jungian infatuation, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor would have understood ninety years earlier.

This affectional crisis did influence Murray’s work, including his senior authorship of Explorations in Personality, but so too did a broad assortment of ideas. Although Varel can only sketch the early years, we do need to appreciate what a juicy life Murray lived. By his early forties his circle included Alfred North Whitehead, Lewis Mumford, Conrad Aiken, Eugene O’Neill, Archibald MacLeish, Joseph Schumpeter, and Paul Robeson.

Varel neatly summarizes Explorations in Personality but we should appreciate, too, what an incredible mish mash the book is, a combination of empiricism, insight, jargon, empathy, and elite insularity. For instance, Murray in effect regrets that his Catholic subjects, adhering to their church’s “rationalized fantasy system,” are “blissfully” less neurotic than their Protestant and Jewish counterparts. Certainly Murray’s work had the potential to nudge psychology in various directions. The TAT became a tool for sorting out corporate executives, as William Whyte satirized in The Organization Man. Murray personally influenced Talcott Parsons as well as Kenneth Keniston and Erik Erikson.

If we are looking for sweeping contexts, we might say that both Explorations in Personality and Murray himself in the late 1930s illustrate tenacious American optimism. According to Murray at that time, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents exuded “black despair.”

Since Murray lived well into his nineties, he can be used as a symbol or modal personality for many intellectual trends. After the United States entered World War II he discovered evil, informed the world of its existence in his writings, and administered TATs for the Office of Strategic Services–“great fun.” Murray testified for the defense at the second Alger Hiss trial, diagnosed Whittaker Chambers as a “psychopathic personality” on the basis of his writings, and took pride in coming off better on the witness stand than Cornell psychiatrist Carl Binger. Joining in the post-World War II disenchantment with “the people” this rich spoiled jerk complained that soldiers, students, and his own research assistants were becoming uppity. Ever adaptable in self-absorption, however, Murray enjoyed an acid trip with Timothy Leary.

As we move into the 1960s and 1970s, Steigerwald sees the denouement of the descent from Jamesian giants to Maslovian pygmies. Although guides to success variously defined still proliferate in all sorts of media, the late 1970s marked the end of a phase in the discussion of the self. It had been a triumphant phase marked by psychological interpretations in venues as significant as George Kennan’s Cold War tract “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education, and Justice Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion in Roe v Wade.

Maslow, Reich, and others criticized by Steigerwald, a good Laschian, have never been my cup of chamomile tea, and I have been trying all of my professional life to bury the phrase “paranoid style in American politics.” But as a Susmanite I have always had a soft spot for the gentler positive thinkers. Many people would be better off listening to Maslow than listening to Prozac. And with the resurgence of “economic man,” construed with a stunted conception of rationality that would surprise Adam Smith, I am softening further. Come the revolution, perhaps we could sentence the authors of Freakonomics and the policy wonks at the American Enterprise Institute to a few weeks in a hot tub with Charlie Reich.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. No other place to post this, so I’ll post it here — would you guys be kind enough to copy / transfer the facebook discussion thread RE: Jackson Lears’s piece on Obama to this blog? I read your FB group, but am not a member — I think a lot of people would be interested in the conversation.

  2. Hmmm. I just looked at the thread again and saw that someone has already suggested this. Lauren moved a FB discussion thread to this blog in her post “Where are all the women?” Could you do the same? I copied/pasted the FB post and sent it to a friend earlier today, and the hyperlinks were embedded in the copy/paste. Don’t know how they would work in Blogger though.

    Anyway, that’s a very lively conversation there, and it would be great if there were a way to make it accessible to this blog’s audience. (And, of course, then I could throw in my two cents without having to join your FB group. 😉

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