Book Review

What’s New? Hutton on Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America

Andrew Hartman A War for the Soul of AmericaIntroductory Note: Today we begin a six-part round table on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America (University of Chicago Press, 2015). The book was released one-year ago (4/14/15), but we are using the occasion of the upcoming paperback release (4/27/16) to analyze Hartman’s work. I’m the round table editor, but my review has appeared elsewhere so this forum is for others.

Our first review is from Bob Hutton, Senior Lecturer at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Hutton wrote Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South (University of Kentucky Press, 2013). After today reviews will appear, daily, from Vaneesa Cook, Peter Kuryla, Michelle Nickerson, and Amy Kittelstrom. I’ll say a little something about each on the day of their reviews. Hartman’s reply will appear on Saturday. Enjoy! – Tim Lacy

What’s New?

Although I’m not an intellectual historian I AM tasked with explaining the second half of the twentieth century to college students, most of whom are annoyed when I tell them that their millennial conceptions of left and right are of a relatively recent vintage and difficult to match up to William Jennings Bryan or Theodore Roosevelt, let alone Randolph Bourne or H.L. Mencken. The 1960s and 1970s, historians have asserted for a long time, are two decades to look to for a historical sea change in American history, although my students are chagrined that I insist on the importance of the disillusioned 70s when the sunny idealism of the 60s seems so much more enticing. In any case, our historiography of these decades is still very much under construction.

So, understanding the Culture Wars (arguably the onset of the political schema that my students DO picture and experience), is a formidable, important task. Twenty-first century students don’t always think of politics in the most prosaic sense of the word, mainly because their interest in politicians and statesmen is at low ebb. Instead they sense politics as something in the air, a concoction of changes in society and government brought about by subtle changes in the national and international zeitgeists. Perhaps the culture wars are over, but the subjects of the culture wars are alive and well on campus; students will quickly conjure opinions on LGBT rights or flag-burning while yawning at subjects of political import that don’t have the same ring, such as social security and taxation (much to my chagrin). And I suspect that this is because political expression is becoming more a medium of personal expression than a vehicle of statecraft, just as Christopher Lasch prognosticated a bit less than four decades ago.

With good reason, this tendency is traced back to the 1960s, although I’m not entirely sure that decade is the absolute starting point for culture wars OR an unprecedented turning point on the historical map. A handful of times I’ve tried to de-center this decade from my students’ historical imaginations, perhaps because I’m tired of reading the same whitewashed hagiography of MLK and Jim Morrison over and over again, but also because I’m skeptical about placing a particular mystique on an arbitrary set of ten years that, viewed from some lenses (especially transnational ones), was actually quite democratic, prosperous and stable.

Was the 1960s a truly sui generis decade? Or was it a culmination of political processes dating way back into the twentieth century? What of the 1920s’ conflict over “modernism,” a concept that was, ironically, more loosely-defined than post-modernism was two generations later? This was, of course, a decade in which the forces of the past were quite suddenly put at odds with the forces of the present, with the Scopes trial here in Tennessee being only the most obvious example. And just as the 60s were a flowering for the New Left, the 1920s served as a germinating decade for the Old Left which saw only its most public influence in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a decade in which the two parties and their differences were of minute distinction as the idealism of Progressivism faded just as the optimism of Cold War liberalism did so after 1965. Roderick Nash called it a nervous generation for reasons that are reminiscent of our own GenX image of the 1960s. For that matter, could it just as easily be the 1970s as Daniel Rodgers suggests in Age of Fracture? Suffice it to say that Joseph Epstein’s Rorschach test might not work as well on me as it would my students or my parents, and I wonder if this could open a dialogue on how GenXers fictively remember the 1960s and its fossils.

Although the rank-and-file of the New Left were indeed members of the most privileged middle class in world history, it’s also important to remember the connections their leadership had not only to the Old Left but also to backgrounds somewhat far afield from the manicured lawns watered by jet fuel from the military industrial complex. For instance, Carl Oglesby was a product of the Akron rubber industry with Deep South-born parents who had jumped in on the Great Migration during the Depression and a number of other SDS founders came from backgrounds not safely WASP and suburban and were in fact “red diaper babies.” Although popular figures like C. Wright Mills and Michael Harrington distinguished themselves drastically from their predecessors in the Old Left, there were others like Saul Alinsky who suggested that there remained a definite bridge between old and new. What 1960s conservatives snapped at was not just the policy suggestions and tactics of the New Left but also the decadence and defiance of its flashier cousin, the counterculture.

It’s also worth reexamining what the New Left and counterculture actually did in the 1960s other than emerge. Maybe I expect too much zeitgeist from Sunday night high-end television, but it’s hard not to think about Mad Men while reading this. Recently on television critics Kevin Craft and Alex Madison have openly struggled with a discomforting fact: that while the counter culture and the New Left had their time during the years of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, a large segment of middle America- particularly its capitalists- simply went about their business, especially since, unlike the New Deal, the Great Society did not interfere with their direct interests and, in fact, created for them new consumers. And in doing so they were able to utilize the artifice, if not the substance, of the counterculture, to commercial ends (spoiler alert!- this seems to have been the main, disconcerting message of the series finale). Is this is so new as you conclude at the very end? And, if so, when, if any, was the moment when the New Left had true political agency as opposed to cultural agency? My own conjecture would be it was not until the grudgingly slapped on those five-inch-wide polyester neckties and ran for public office in the 1970s–and even then they were no match for the Cold Warriors of the WWII generation.

So much for the New Left, what about the New Right which is never singularly identified in this book? The reformed Trotskyites who became neoconservatives served as gadflies for Cold War culture for readers of Commentary and the viewers of Firing Line, but what about the readers of National Review and the viewers of whatever it was Barry Goldwater watched on tv? What of the suburban warriors whose exposure to Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Bell was far behind that of Reader’s Digest and Paul Harvey (the radio personality, not the historian of American religion)? When the culture wars were given names by Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan at the end of the Cold War the influence of the Sunbelt-driven New Right was a more palpable presence than Allan Bloom or Jacques Barzun. And it was a clash of cultures that arguably traces back to a period seemingly far afield from the 1960s but at the same time quite near. The self-inflicted attacks of McCarthyism among the WWII generation constituted their own clash of supposedly oppositional cultures. When a young senator named Richard Nixon attacked Alger Hiss for disloyalty to the US he was also expressing a middle America disgust for the elitism of the Eastern Establishment. The ensuing conflict brought about what sec. of state Dean Acheson called a “revolt of the primitives,” a culture war style verbal swipe if I’ve heard one. It was becoming clear by the Democratic congressional landslide of 1954 that there was developing a disjunction between Americans along lines that were not similar to the traditional class boundaries recognized during the days of the Lochner court. The 1950s was not only a decade defined by conformity but it was really the decade in which conformity was recognized as a danger. It was also the bravest phase of the civil rights movement in the South since black southerners had to challenge the boundaries of white supremacy with negligible support from the federal government or the white public. Much of what we trace back to the Summer of Love or the Port Huron Statement could also be traced back to Edward R. Murrow’s interview of Joe McCarthy or Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.”

The irony of the culture wars is that they can only take place when the polity and the electorate is otherwise enjoying a time of economic and governmental consensus, just as was the case in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. What about Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism which describes an impulse much older than the 1960s, going back at least as far as the revanchist fundamentalism of Billy Sunday, and stretching forward no further than 1960 to sneer at the orgiastic blatherings of Jack Kerouac? Was this not a salvo in a war of cultures, and one fired off from the liberal center rather than those disenchanted with the Old Left either at Columbia University or Port Huron, Michigan? It seems that a disparity of cultures was recognized even by those who clung to the dream of a vital center and I have to wonder if Arthur Schlesinger’s declaration was not so much an empirical observation as it was a finger stuck in a dam that he and Hofstadter already saw leaking years before Betty Friedan got out from behind her ironing board.

Lastly I’d like to compare the intro with the conclusion, namely the twin appearances of economic politics that were heretofore shrouded by prayer in school and the Enola Gay. Who do you engage aside from Thomas Frank? You conclude that, echoing Schaumpeter and other economists, that capitalism is a greater social disruption than cultural revolution AND that culture wars have been replaced by an attack on culture itself via neoliberal austerity.

If I understand this conclusion it seems to suggest that austerity ended the culture wars and all that distracted Frank’s potential populists will melt into the air as they are denied the possibility of a humanities education for now and forever more. Could it be that Frank believed this was the plan all along? If all it takes to end the culture wars is to renew interest-based politics on an economic plane, perhaps this concurs with Frank’s larger point after all. In any case, I don’t think his assessment of rural rubes distracted by misplaced NEA grants is quite as damning as you seem to, but rather a bit of hyperbole based upon frustration AND an inflated picture of Kansas’s populist moment (after all, this was the state that produced Alf Landon a mere three decades after the end of the agrarian revolt). I could elaborate on my own critique of Thomas Frank, but I think we’d probably rather talk about the 1960s for now.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The self-inflicted attacks of McCarthyism among the WWII generation constituted their own clash of supposedly oppositional cultures. When a young senator named Richard Nixon attacked Alger Hiss for disloyalty to the US he was also expressing a middle America disgust for the elitism of the Eastern Establishment. The ensuing conflict brought about what sec. of state Dean Acheson called a “revolt of the primitives,” a culture war style verbal swipe if I’ve heard one.

    This is a perceptive point, I think. One could see McCarthyism as having touched off, or contributed to, a sort of culture war.

    I’ve been reading, rather desultorily, Perlstein’s Before the Storm (still got a ways to go in it), and darn if he doesn’t make the mid and late 50s sound something like a roiling cauldron of conflict, including ‘cultural’.

    • p.s. of course McCarthy did have his intellectual defenders, e.g. Buckley and the National Review crowd and some of their mentors. Still, it was a case of the Eastern Establishment internationalists (including a dedicated Cold Warrior like Acheson) vs. political and to some extent ‘geographical’ adversaries.

Comments are closed.