U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Long Mid-Century

I’ve been working on 1976 and the Bicentennial of the American Revolution this semester. Recently, I ran into this 1976 episode of PBS’s The Open Mind, featuring host Richard Heffner interviewing the psychologist Allan Fromme. It’s a fascinating reminder of the continuing presence of what I think of as mid-twentieth-century intellectual culture as the Age of Fracture and/or of Culture Wars (depending on how you look at it) was getting under way.

Heffner, an historian and professor of communications and public policy at Rutgers, invited Fromme to discuss the meaning of the Bicentennial largely in terms of individual psychology. Heffner seems to think that the individualism that he sees baked into the Founding has resulted in American individuals two hundred years later who are self-obsessed and alienated. Fromme is more of an optimist, repeatedly arguing that things are simply better for Americans today than they were then. Yes, he admits, there are some costs to modernity, but the benefits clearly outweigh those costs. We may be concerned overly much with the self. But life has improved, physically and psychologically. Heffner remains unconvinced.

Fromme, early in the show, presents Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as a representative figure of the past, bound both psychologically and socially by sexual repression. Fromme suggests that, over the past two hundred, and especially the last twenty, years, there’s been a great decline in guilt (“the great inhibitor”) in America, and that’s a good thing. “Because of this decline,” Fromme argues, “we get to face our difficulties and to express our difficulties very much more overtly than we did two-hundred years ago.”

Heffner is much less happy about the decline of guilt. Toward the end of the half hour, Heffner brings up Hester Prynne himself: “I wonder whether there wasn’t a function to the guilt.” “We need some inhibition,” laughs Fromme, “but I hate it to take the form of guilt.” “It worked,” Heffner responds.

Heffner suggests that Americans were mentally healthier in the past; Fromme counters that perhaps they were just deader to the world. “You mean what we’re doing today you call living?” challenges Heffner. “I think we’re living today very much more fully than ever before,” replies Fromme. We pay for this psychologically, says Fromme, but we get much more for it, too.

There are thus real disagreements between the two over the state of contemporary America and its relationship to the nation’s origins. But there are also real areas of agreement. When Fromme praises modern social legislation as one of the many factors that makes life in the 1970s simply better than life in the 1770s, Heffner concedes the point, but presses him on the question of psychological health, which both of them understand in post-Freudian terms. Though they disagree about the healthfulness of the great freedom and openness of American culture in the 1970s, neither harkens back to the past as a golden age to which we might return. Fromme sees the distant American past as similar, in many ways, but largely worse. Heffner seems to think that it was, in some important ways, better, but that it sowed the seeds of the problems of America in 1976.

Both very much talk in the language of what Mark Greif has recently called the Age of the Crisis of Man, which Greif sees as starting in the 1930s and ending in the early 1970s. “Cultures are many but man is one,” Fromme says, quoting an “old anthropological dictum.” Both host and guest assume human nature to be a universal. And differences of gender and race seem largely uninteresting to Heffner and Fromme. The Americans they discuss, despite talk of Hester Prynne, are generally presumed to be white men. Fromme lists “worrying about whether you’re going to be attacked by alien natives” as one of the significant stresses on the Americans of two centuries earlier that he is discussing.

The very idea of inviting a psychologist and therapist on a show to discuss history seems very mid-century to me. Historians, Fromme says at one point, haven’t until very recently, even asked questions about the psychology of the people in the past. They just weren’t interested in it, he suggests. Heffner, meanwhile, sees Fromme, as a practicing therapist and well-known psychologist, as a person whose expertise is useful in understanding the past and evaluating how we got to the present.

Both Heffner and Fromme were of an older generation. The host and historian was born in 1925; the therapist in 1916. But both, especially Heffner, were very much figures of their contemporary culture. Though Heffner had first become known for editing A Documentary History of the United States (1952) (which, in its ninth edition, is still in print), just four years later he began The Open Mind, the weekly talk show most of whose episodes he would host until his death just two years ago. The show began on New York’s NBC affiliate, though it eventually ended up on PBS, whose New York station, WNET, Heffner helped found as its first general manager. In 1974, just two years before the interview with Fromme, Heffner became the sixth chairman of the MPAA’s Classifications and Ratings Administration, that is, the person in charge of Hollywood’s ratings apparatus. He would eventually oversee major changes in movie ratings, including the introduction of the PG-13 and NC-17 ratings, in 1984 and 1990 respectively. In 1990, the LA Times declared that Heffner was “the least known most powerful person in Hollywood.” In other words, Heffner, while in many ways a figure of an earlier era, played a direct role in an issue – film ratings – that was very much a part of the culture wars.[1]

Historians are beginning, with good reason, to see the Seventies as a great watershed in American intellectual and cultural history, supplanting the Sixties, which, until recently, played this role. But Richard Heffner and Allan Fromme’s oddly old-fashioned discussion on The Open Mind is an interesting intellectual and cultural equivalent of what Ernst Bloch and other Marxist thinkers used to call the non-simultaneity of the simultaneous.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a great post; especially for a 1970s buff like myself! I am also a great fan of The Open Mind in general.

    I think a lot of these debates come down to, well “individual” temperament. I think left, right and center there are individuals who have an orientation towards a maximum of independence and conversely those who see this independence as alienating, selfish etc. and praise interdependence – like Michael Sandel or Robert Putnam. The debate you describe (and I was fortunate to be able to watch) is an early rehearsal of this continuing debate and in that sense is as much current as it is mid twentieth century. Individualism is also not necessarily conservative or RIght Libertarian as there are Left forms of individualism (think of George Kateb).

    This is what at times pained me about Rodgers’ Age of Fracture book because it struck me as a kind of New Deal liberal not getting the advantages of the newer world, that is, if you think there ARE advantages and that it isn’t just a toxic turn towards Thatcherism and neo-liberalism.

    This makes for interesting bedfellows. Christopher Shannon might have more in common with an older Marxist or New Deal liberal than an individualistic Leftist. (because of Catholic notions of community perhaps?) But again, I am an outsider to these discussions.

    • Thanks for the comment! In a sense, you’re making a historiographical point out of a historical point I was trying to make. The debate between Heffner and Fromme is certainly similar to culture war debates of later decades (with Heffner in the conservative rolel Fromme in the liberal one). Fromme likes the changes that have taken place in American life over the last two decades, Heffner doesn’t.

      But both the tone and the stakes of this debate seem profoundly different from those later culture war versions of it. There is much more epistemological common ground between these two than there tended to be between the two sides in the later culture wars. And Heffner’s cynicism about modernity seems much more thoroughgoing than I associate with the culture war right, which hoped for eventual triumph. Heffner doesn’t seem to think that the problems he sees can be easily solved. He sees them flowing out of the very founding values that he prefers. And he more or less suggests that the problem is that American culture is superannuated (he repeatedly returns to the fact that the culture is two-hundred years old as a kind of problem in and of itself).

  2. Thanks for your response which clarified things for me. I have to read Hartman’s book on the culture wars which also might help me get the difference about which you are speaking. I was in college in the late 80s and early 90s which seems the beginning of what you are discussing. Yet another example of why I love S – USIH so much. 🙂

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