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A Land Where Jollity and Gloom Still Contend

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000
One Nation, Two Cultures. By Gertrude Himmelfarb. Alfred A. Knopf. $23.00.

“The-May Pole of Merry Mount,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brooding tale about the opposition between Puritan rigor and sexual license, contains this striking sentence: “Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire.” In Merry Mount, “jollity” takes the form of sexual orgy, with participants garbed as animals and a phallic May Pole at the ceremony’s center. The resulting frenzies have more than a few touches of what we now associate with films directed by Federico Fellini. By contrast, the Puritan world, embodied in the stern, fun-busting Reverend Endicott, is defined by moral gravitas and a tragic sensibility. Genuine love, as the Lord and Lady of the May discover, is made of sterner stuff than long party weekends. Each is prepared to sacrifice for the other as Endicott deals out harsh punishments to their fellow Merry Mounters. In recognition of their un-Merry Mount-like commitment, they are spared, and leave the forest of endless revel without regret. What remains, however, in this complicated historical allegory is the abiding tension between the Puritan whipping post and the May pole, and the ways in which Hawthorne would play out similar vexations in The Scarlet Letter, his delicately balanced portrait of the best and worst in Puritan culture.

For those caught in the grip of Puritan ideology, life was a gloomy matter indeed—not only because worries about being “saved” became a recipe for neurosis, but also because mean-spiritedness thrived among those with systematically shriveled hearts. In this regard, Hawthorne makes no bones about his dislike for the self-righteous, inhumane crowd that heaped abuse on Hester. At the same time, however, he knew just how powerful—and, finally, how tragically serious—the Puritan ethos was. In the novel’s “Custom House” introduction, he shares his uneasy dreams about forbears who would have regarded “serious fiction” as an oxymoron, and Hawthorne himself as a mere idler; but he also finds himself giving them a measure of respect—especially as he casts a skeptical eye at Hester’s self-styled morality and the social isolation that creates it. If the New England Puritans were afflicted with pridefulness, so too was Hester Prynne. Small wonder, then, that Hawthorne declared himself a “citizen of somewhere else” or that his elaborate romances became a way to explore—and to sharply critique—the inner landscapes of both jollity and gloom.

Intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book, One Nation, Two Cultures, argues that, since the countercultural frenzy of the late 1960’s, we have been living in the midst of two increasingly competing cultures, the first prone to what Adam Smith (in The Wealth of Nations) calls the “vices of levity—luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth . . .”; while the second is committed to what she deems “the strict or austere system.” She might well have used Hawthorne’s sharply divided sense of American Puritanism as a way of framing her discussion, but whether by way of Adam Smith or Nathaniel Hawthorne what one gets to is a strong sense that America remains a place where jollity and gloom, levity and austerity still contend. Himmelfarb is hardly the first person to point these tensions out. Books and articles about the culture wars have become something of a cottage industry—so much so that I often feel everyone who lived through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s will eventually write a memoir about which side of the barricades they were on, and why.

Himmelfarb, however, has the double advantage of knowing history and knowing how to apply it. That she has been flying her culturally conservative colors for many years and through many distinguished books is true enough, but it is even truer that her “take” on contemporary culture is hardly a strictly partisan affair. She realizes, for example, that there is often a gap between formal positions and actual practice; and more important, that the two cultures she isolates—one grounded in traditional ideas of republican virtue, the other spawned by the countercultural revolution—are often more fluid than many pundits have so far admitted.

On some issues, and at certain moments, people find themselves sliding imperceptibly into the other’s camp. With the possible exception of the O. J. Simpson case, President Clinton’s impeachment troubles probably tell us more about our nation’s divided cultures than anything else. To their discredit, many card-carrying feminists gave Clinton a “pass,” one they would surely not extend to the likes of Senator Robert Packwood, much less to any corporate C.E.O. caught in similar circumstances. What mattered, of course, was the strong support President Clinton had given to feminist causes. Other sisters, I hasten to point out, broke ranks, insisting that adultery is, well, wrong, and that “sexual relations” is not a term available to self-serving, legalistic (re)definition. In short, the two cultures Himmelfarb investigates are not easily reducible to political cartoons. Moreover, she wisely reminds us that the term “culture wars” is simultaneously a metaphor and something of a misnomer: “Americans can justly pride themselves on surviving both the cultural revolution and the culture war without paroxysms of persecution or bloodshed, without, indeed, serious social strife.”

Does this then mean that previous books on American culture since the late 1960’s come to little more than a tempest in a teapot? Hardly, for what Himmelfarb means to point out is that the social-moral decay hastened by the usual suspects has now spawned a counter-counter revolution, one that takes an old-fashioned word like “virtue” seriously. Such people and the hard data Himmelfarb gathered suggest that they are a rapidly growing minority. They have had a bellyful of moral relativism and the insidious ways that it has undermined American values that were once (nearly) universally acknowledged. Take, for example, what results when civility and privacy gradually disappear:

How do we measure the decline of civility [Himmelfarb asks, in a book filled with number-crunching data], the loss of respect for privacy, the “repeal of reticence” (in Rochelle Gurstein’s memorable phrase) exhibited in all spheres of life—most conspicuously in television talk shows where participants proudly flaunt the most sordid details of their lives, but more insidiously, because seemingly high-minded, in the flood of confessional memoirs by writers exposing their own (or, worse, their spouse’s, or lover’s, or parent’s) flaws and disabilities? And how do we assess the relative weight of these gains and losses—the accession of freedom, candor, spontaneity, as against the decline of reserve, civility, decency?

Or take the grief that surrounds people thought to be judgmental— about virtually anything. Using the J-word makes for problems that the ubiquitous word “whatever . . .” studiously avoids. Why so? Because folks labeled as “judgmental” (I can easily envision a scarlet-J slapped onto their chests) have committed a crime for which there is no redress in the court of public opinion. Many of them believe in the Ten Commandments and wince when God’s words are watered down, made more user-friendly, if you will, into “The Ten Suggestions.” Such people are regarded as arrogant, and often as members of the fanatical, fundamentalist Christian Right.

Himmelfarb, however, makes it clear that these much-ballyhooed fears are largely imaginary. Our nation, she argues, is currently undergoing a Fourth Awakening, one reflected in the sharp rise of children attending religious day schools and the ways in which outmoded notions such as the work ethic and personal responsibility seem to be making a comeback. Even more impressive, the renewed interest in virtue cuts across the usual dividing lines of politics, religious affiliation, or the standard litany of race, class, and gender. What binds serious Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and Moslems together is a sense that the word of God matters, whether one finds it in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran. Others, not especially prone to religious identifications, have their own ways of finding a place at the table, usually on a case-be-case basis. By contrast, what interests politicians who shamelessly blather on about “family values” is, of course, votes.

People who take their soul’s condition and our nation’s moral health seriously represent a danger to the dominant, largely amoral culture. Such folks are likely to call too many unquestioned beliefs into question. Small wonder, then, that they must be made to suffer the slings and arrows packed into a term such as “Neo-Puritanism” or that they are regularly reminded that this is a country where I’m OK, you’re OK, and everybody else, no matter what they do, turn out to be OK too. Our culture seemingly excuses everything—everything, that is, except smoking and eating red meat. Asked to write about slavery in the ante-bellum South or about genocide in Nazi Germany, some students would rather waffle than use the judgmental word “Evil.” And this tendency, I fear, has come to dominate much of the discussion that academics foist upon each other. The result is an increase of cynicism in one culture and a sharp rise in faith-based folks in the other,

In short, to say even a few kind words on behalf of civility, traditional families, the work ethic, or a sense of personal responsibility puts one on a collision course with those who have put their faith in the softer, feel-good enterprises that, taken together, make up our therapeutic age. Thus we are currently awash in snake oil—everything from New Age crystals and other equally dubious exercises in religion on the cheap to esteem-raising television shows such as Oprah. Add generous doses of pornography and violence—in television shows, Hollywood films, and now on the internet—and the result is a society that has had its capacity for shock substantially deadened.

A few years ago Philip Roth observed that the essential difference between East European writers and their American counterparts is that the American writer can say anything he or she wishes, but that nobody pays attention, while for the East European writer, nothing is permitted, and therefore, everything he or she does write is taken very seriously. Our two cultures are in something of the same situation, with many, on both sides of the cultural aisle, pecking away briskly (and without prohibition), even as their words are roundly ignored. One Nation, Two Cultures deserves a better fate, not only because its polemical arguments are tempered by scholarly restraint, but also because it is engagingly written. No doubt some will write Himmelfarb off as a pinchface (she is, after all, a conservative about matters such as welfare or affirmative action), but she is not above breaking ranks with doctrinaire conservatives when the occasion calls for it. Most of all, perhaps, she is a clear writer at a time when most of our cultural commentary is either unreadable or very badly muddled.

A final word about intellectual scaffolding. Himmelfarb takes hers from the Victorian world she has written about in previous books such as Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991) or The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995). Indeed, some critics will surely point out that her latest book is so much same old, same old. By contrast, I chose to launch my review with an allusion to Hawthorne, partly because I wanted to ground Himmelfarb’s arguments in our native grain, but also because I think that Puritanism (or what my friends on the hard Left prefer to call Neo-Puritanism) is alive and well—not only in toy stores with large sections devoted to “education toys” but also in the way that European journalists took a special delight in feigning shock during the Clinton-Lewinsky flap, and then accusing us of a sexually unsophisticated Puritanism. Granted, some Americans loudly insisted that personal misconduct, even if conducted in the Oval Office itself, has nothing whatever to do with the business of government. So long as the stock market hummed away, God—for these folks—was in His heaven (where He belonged) and all was right in the world. Many others disagreed, and some of them even used the “character” word. No doubt much of this was partisan politics of the predictable sort, but what Himmelfarb’s book highlights are the deeper, more important differences that continue to divide our nation.

One Nation, Two Cultures ends with bursts of optimism about the future and even with a few modest bits of advice about how a measure of reconciliation might be achieved; but historians, as Himmelfarb herself points out, are notably unreliable when they don the robes of prophecy. Far better to see her book as a more complicated, more historically grounded way of seeing what has happened in the aftermath of a cultural revolution that changed, and then divided, American sensibilities more radically than any hippie marching on Washington, D.C. could have imagined.


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