Cornelius Vanderbilt's life is truly an epic one. In length of activity, scope of action, and centrality to significant events, it looms larger than most others, at the very least. Unfortunately, his life and its impact have received little intensive study. The image of the Commodore that lingers in American memory is largely the creation of rumors reported as fact by the press, as well as tales told by outright fabulists, from his own time down to the present. I have found new information about every aspect of Vanderbilt's life (if only through sheer drudgery). Under the circumstances, I believe it is worthwhile to discuss previous biographies and the primary sources on which I have based my account. (This book was written before the 2008 financial crisis, and was not changed afterward.)
First, I should describe the method I have used to write this biography. I began by reading existing biographies and studies of the topics relevant to Vanderbilt's life, and combed through their notes to compile an initial list of primary sources. I examined those sources, and searched archival catalogs and online digitized collections, including the Proquest historical newspaper database and archives of congressional documents. (I examined every article obtainable through a Proquest search for “Vanderbilt” between 1810 and 1879, among many other searches—and learned just how much property was for sale on Brooklyn's Vanderbilt Avenue.) I visited archives, made photocopies and took notes, and saved thousands of electronic files. I also scrolled through microfilm and sifted through manuscript collections to search far beyond the specific citations on my list. (I surveyed every issue of Railroad Gazette for Vanderbilt's lifetime in the original printed form, for example.) I then created databases of my own, with an entry for notes and quotes from each relevant source, and wrote the initial draft of each chapter largely from the primary sources. I then went through the secondary sources again and revised my manuscript, incorporating other historians' information and interpretations (when not already cited in the text).
Just as important as the discovery of sources, of course, is their interpretation. It is famously said that the past is a foreign country; unfortunately it is not always foreign enough. Nineteenth-century Americans spoke the same language as anyone who is now reading this sentence, but their vocabulary is deceptive in its familiarity. They imbued words with meanings that have long since disappeared, and they used expressions that, while familiar to historians, were built into a mental architecture that strikes the twenty-first-century mind as alien, even unsustainable. Terms such as “character,” “monopoly,” “competition,” “stock watering,” “par value,” “intrinsic value,” even “cash” must be understood in their original context, for they reflected a view of the world that is counterintuitive to us now and was constantly in dispute at the time. I have done my best to map this changing mental landscape over a rather long distance; authorities on any of the many periods covered here undoubtedly will find fault, and probably with cause. My motto is to research in terror, write with confidence, and publish with humility: terror, lest something escape me; confidence, lest the narrative seem weak and uncertain; and humility because some sources and interpretations, not to mention perfect literary grace, always lie beyond the grasp of any writer.
Finally, I submitted drafts of my manuscript to some very generous academic historians. They include Joyce Appleby Edward Countryman, Andrew Burstein, Robert E. May, Richard R. John, and Maury Klein. I owe them a great debt for correcting factual errors and misinterpretations, pointing out ideas I had not considered, and recommending further reading. But this book's failings are mine alone.
Cornelius Vanderbilt has not been well served by his biographers. Early writers based their works on—well, I don't know what. The newspapers freely embellished the rumors about Vanderbilt's life that came their way, as did the most influential account written before his death, by James Par-ton's Famous Americans of Recent Times (1867). This book is most useful as a description of how he was seen, not how he lived. Nine years after Vanderbilt's death, William A. Croffut published the lightweight volume The Vanderbilts and the Story of their Fortune (1886). This work has some value, for Croffut spoke to Charles F. Deems, William H. Vanderbilt's Staten Island field hands, and others for their firsthand accounts, but it is in no sense a scholarly work, and can best be used to give shading to accounts from solid sources.
The twentieth century brought only a small improvement. In 1927, novelist Arthur D. H. Smith published the heavily fictionalized Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of American Achievement, followed in 1941 by Wayne Andrews's Vanderbilt Legend: The Story of the Vanderbilt Family. Andrews offered endnotes, a rarity in books about Vanderbilt, though he based his work almost entirely on press accounts. As such, its main value is as a guide to newspaper stories about the Commodore.
In 1942 came the most important biography of Vanderbilt to date: Wheaton J. Lane's Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of the Steam Age. Lane, an authority on the history of transportation, adopted a serious approach to his subject, focusing overwhelmingly on his business career. He acquired access to business records and tracked down many examples of the relative handful of Vanderbilt's surviving letters. As a business historian, he wrote with none of the angry tone that emerged out of the populist and radical movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—perhaps best exemplified by Gustavus Myers's History of the Great American Fortunes (1910), and Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901(1934). Lane placed Vanderbilt's business operations in their contemporary context, and revealed much about his historical significance.
Important as it is, this book also suffers serious flaws. As of this writing, it is nearly seven decades old. A great deal of historical research and analysis has been conducted in the interim, rendering Lane's account obsolete. His narrative of Vanderbilt's career through 1848 is gravely incomplete, particularly with reference to his involvement with Daniel Drew and in New England's early railroads. His discussion of the Nicaragua years fails to identify the great divide that opened early on between Vanderbilt and Joseph L. White, or the true nature of the relationship between the steamship magnates and William Walker. His narrative of Vanderbilt's creation of the New York Central empire better stands the test of time, but it, too, is incomplete, missing much of the Commodore's patient diplomacy and the extent to which Horace F. Clark operated on his own at the end of his life.
In terms of construction, Lane's book is a narrowly conceived piece of business history, paying limited attention to Vanderbilt's personal life, and often none at all to the larger historical context, such as the political and cultural issues that have occupied so much space in these pages. It segments Vanderbilt's different ventures by chapter, so that the reader is left without an understanding of his career's intensity as he engaged in multiple operations—and battled multiple foes—simultaneously. Finally, it frustratingly offers no endnotes. Rather, it provides bibliographic summaries for each chapter in the backmatter. Numerous quotes appear throughout the narrative without a clue as to what source they came from. Even worse, it frequently relies on unsourced and unreliable accounts, uncritically reprinting anecdotes and dialogue from Parton, Croffut, and Henry Clews, as well as obituaries and other apocryphal sources. That said, it remains the touchstone for any study of Vanderbilt's life.
Since Lane's work, there has been only one adult biography dedicated to the Commodore alone (as opposed to accounts of the Vanderbilt family as a whole). It is Edward J. Renehan Jr.'s Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (New York: Basic Books, 2007). I had completed a draft of my own manuscript when this work appeared, and drew nothing from it; any similarities are entirely coincidental. I find Commodore to be a problematic work at best, based almost entirely on secondary sources, largely lacking annotation, and suffering numerous factual errors. I cannot verify many of the primary sources that Renehan does cite, and find that he mischaracterizes a number of those that I could locate.
Renehan writes that he discovered the privately held diaries of sleeping-car manufacturer Webster Wagner and Dr. Jared Linsly, Vanderbilt's personal physician. Renehan claims that Linsly's diary reveals that Vanderbilt contracted syphilis in 1839, began to suffer syphilitic dementia in 1868, and died of the disease. He further asserts, citing both these diaries, that William H. Vanderbilt used his father as a figurehead from 1868 on, treating the demented and uncomprehending Commodore as a puppet while William secretly ran his affairs.
I feel compelled to discount the validity of these diaries, and I find Renehan's assertions to be untenable. First, Renehan's claims are contradicted by an immense body of evidence, both medical and historical. There is no room here for a full discussion of the body of scientific knowledge of syphilis, but suffice it to say that Renehan's account conflicts with both recent medical literature and that written before effective treatment, when many patients were studied through the full life cycle of the disease. A doctor in 1839 would likely not have distinguished syphilis from gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases, so any diagnosis would have meant little. Even if Vanderbilt did contract syphilis, he never developed syphilitic dementia, or “general paresis,” to use the technical term (which only afflicted a small minority of syphilis victims). General paresis follows a well-documented course that is completely out of keeping with Vanderbilt's late-life history. Most important is the total lack of corroboration for Renehan's claims. Vanderbilt was a national celebrity, in the public eye on an almost daily basis; no observers noticed the distinctive abnormalities caused by general paresis, or even the loss of mental acuity. Both private and public records show him in full command of himself and his businesses, except as he chose to delegate to others. And William traveled to Europe more than once during his father's final decade, which he hardly would have done if he were secretly manipulating a demented father as his puppet.*
Second, Renehan has not allowed verification of his sources. I asked to examine his copy of the diaries, and offered to sign a written agreement to protect his right to first publication of any findings. He declined. When I asked the names of the owners, he refused to provide them. He claimed that he had promised each of them confidentiality an arrangement I had never heard of before with holders of historic papers. He promised to contact them for me, but told me they were all very old. I heard no more from him.
Claims based on unauthenticated papers cannot be considered information. The most basic scholarly standards require that sources be available for scrutiny and verification by independent parties before they can be accepted. Renehan has chosen to make that impossible.
Finally, Renehan's credibility has been impeached by subsequent developments. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to two felonies, a federal charge of transporting stolen property across state lines, and a New York State charge of third-degree grand larceny, and was sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison. These criminal convictions stemmed from the theft of letters written by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt from the Theodore Roosevelt Association, during the period when Renehan was acting director of the organization. According to press reports, state and federal authorities believe that he forged a document to establish his ownership of the stolen letters, sold three of them through an auction house for nearly $100,000, and came under suspicion when he attempted to sell a fourth. (See Newsday, March 22, 27, April 21, June 14, September 20, 2008.) Renehan explained his conduct by claiming that he suffered from untreated bipolar disorder during this period, saying that he felt “invulnerable and answerable to no one.” (See Providence Journal, May 29, 2008; also New York Sun, June 23, 2008.) Though his crimes do not pertain directly to Commodore, he committed them at the time he was writing that book. Together with the untenable nature of his claims for his sources, his insistence on keeping them secret, and his own description of his state of mind, this affair raises serious doubts about these purported diaries.
THIS BOOK RELIES ON numerous manuscript collections, many of which have never been cited in a Vanderbilt biography before. I will review only a few of the most significant, beginning with Part One of this book.
I am convinced that no history of American business in the first half of the nineteenth century (and perhaps the second half as well) that touches in any way on New York can be written without consulting the Old Records Division of the New York County Clerk's Office, 31 Chambers Street, 7th floor. It was central not only to my discovery of raw facts about Vanderbilt and his friends and allies, but also to the portrait I paint of America's emerging economic culture. I happened upon it by accident, and ended up spending many months conducting research there. I was helped by the highly professional archivists, Joseph Van Nostrand, Bruce Abrams, David Brantley Robert Soenarie, Eileen McAleavey, and Annette Joseph, who have in their care the four-hundred-year legal history of New York City. Since legal papers find their way to the Old Records Division willy-nilly, the historian works alongside citizens in search of certified copies of divorce decrees from a few years before, lawyers seeking filings from long-running lawsuits, and the occasional private investigator. The papers I examined showed the inner workings of many of Vanderbilt's operations, from his takeover of the Staten Island Ferry in 1838 to conversations with angry passengers who had been stranded in Nicaragua. More than that, they revealed a time when insider trading, noncompetition deals, and market-division agreements were not only legal but sometimes enforced by the courts. Not all the documents are so rich; many are simple lawsuits over unpaid promissory notes. But it is worth the effort to find the gems.
Another essential collection, one that is already well known, is the Gibbons Family Papers at Drew University Madison, New Jersey. This collection includes the largest number of letters in Vanderbilt's own hand, many of which were not cited by Lane or subsequent writers. It also sheds light on the crumbling culture of deference, and the failure of Thomas Gibbons's son William to come to grips with the competitive culture that his father and Vanderbilt had contributed to so notably. This episode is also illuminated by the Livingston Family Papers at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS).
My exploration of Vanderbilt's move into Long Island Sound, and his consequent assumption of the presidency of the Stonington railroad, owes much to the Comstock Papers at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. But I relied in particular on the William D. Lewis Papers at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Lewis, an official of the Girard Bank of Philadelphia, was the trustee of the Stonington railroad, and often corresponded with its senior officers. It was a delight to read letters labeled “Burn This” or “Destroy Immediately”—a sign of the rare glimpse into the secret world of antebellum business afforded by these papers. They offer the most acute look at Vanderbilt in the 1830s and 1840s available (including a transcription of a conversation with him by the line's chief engineer), and illuminate the complex relationship between steamboat proprietors and early New England railroads.
In Part Two, covering Vanderbilt's Central America operations and Atlantic steamship line, I also drew heavily on the Old Records Division of the New York County Clerk's Office. I found invaluable the published correspondence of the State Department (as well as originals at the National Archives, College Park, Maryland) and the congressional reports that reprinted numerous primary sources related to the “transit question.” The William L. Marcy and John M. Clayton collections at the Library of Congress contain many important letters, not only from Vanderbilt but from Joseph L. White as well, a figure long overlooked in histories of this period. The Baring Brothers archive, on file in microfilm at the Library of Congress, was invaluable to my understanding of the fate of the Nicaragua canal project, and I am grateful to the ING corporation for granting me permission to view it. The archive of R. G. Dun & Co., Baker Library, Harvard Business School, proved equal to its great reputation. By looking up reports for many of Vanderbilt's businesses, relatives, allies, and enemies, I was able to develop a much fuller picture of both Vanderbilt and his contemporaries.
Two little-used sources in particular allowed me to write a substantially new account of the activities of Vanderbilt, Cornelius K. Garrison, and Charles Morgan during William Walker's rule of Nicaragua. First, the files of the Costa Rican Claims Convention, housed at the National Archives, College Park, contain eyewitness testimony about the final campaign that brought Walker down, as well as a copy of the lengthy deposition of Joseph N. Scott, taken from the lawsuit Murray v. Vanderbilt. Second, the papers of lawyer Isaiah Thornton Williams, NYPL, contain extensive depositions from the lawsuits that sprouted out of the collapse of the Nicaragua transit. These depositions contain everything from discussions of relative fuel costs of the transit routes to the nature of Garrison's and Vanderbilt's relationships with Walker. In addition, the papers of H. L. Bancroft, held by the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, include important documents, including William Walker's own deposition in one of the transit lawsuits and an invaluable interview with Lambert Wardell. The Williams Family Papers at Trinity College, Hartford, shed important new light on a long-disregarded side of Vanderbilt's personality, as he fondly corresponded, often in his own hand, with his daughter-in-law's family. Finally, the miscellaneous NYHS manuscripts relating to Vanderbilt add significant details.
For Part Three, various congressional reports reveal Vanderbilt's role in the Civil War, as do the Stanton Papers at the Library of Congress and the well-worn but still-essential Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. To follow Vanderbilt's career as he moved into railroads, the New York Central Railroad papers in the PennCentral Collection, NYPL, is irreplaceable. This collection includes the directors' minutes for all the railroads that would eventually make up the Vanderbilt system, as well as financial records that show Vanderbilt's personal support for his corporations' finances. (It also sheds light on Vanderbilt's early involvement in railroads, as the minutes of the Long Island Railroad illustrate how his control of steamboats naturally led to his entrance onto the boards of connecting railways.)
The reports and testimony published by the New York State Assembly and Senate comprise another oft-cited but critical source. These prove particularly important for understanding Vanderbilt's relationship with the New York Central when he was head of the Harlem and Hudson River railroads. So, too, are the papers of Erastus Corning, Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, New York. This rich collection builds an understanding of Vanderbilt as corporate diplomat. More than that, it includes many letters from John M. Davidson, a business partner of Corning's who played the stock market and mingled with such Tweed cronies as Judge Barnard, shedding abundant light on the dim world of Wall Street through 1870. Vanderbilt's notes to James H. Banker, NYHS, reveal his concern for secrecy when it came to the financial markets. The James F. Joy Papers, Detroit Public Library (with some copies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), also offer insight into Vanderbilt's role as railroad chief, and are suggestive of how other railroad officials differentiated between the management styles of the Commodore and his son William. The Joy papers (along with those of Frank Crawford Vanderbilt) are the only case in which I was forced to resort to paid research assistants. I regret being unable to travel to conduct the research myself, and accept that much of importance may have been missed.
Some important collections also shed light on Vanderbilt's intimate world in the last period of his life. Frank Crawford Vanderbilt's letters, at the Detroit Public Library, and her diary, NYHS, paint a complex portrait of Vanderbilt as controlling, temperamental, and yet still loving. The many letters of Cornelius J. Vanderbilt and his wife, Ellen, to Horace Greeley, in the Greeley Papers, NYPL, illuminate the complicated relationship between the Commodore and his son. The Colt Family Papers, University of Rhode Island, contain the papers of George Terry, which include numerous letters from Cornelius J. Vanderbilt and legal documents related to his settlement with his brother William and his final bankruptcy. Numerous other collections, such as the Samuel J. Tilden Papers, NYPL, also offer occasional items that throw light on the Commodore as a man.
Finally, there is the abundant testimony of the Vanderbilt will case, much of it (but far from all) collected in scrapbooks and microfilm at NYPL. This is a treacherous source. Many of the witnesses and theories offered by the attorneys of Mary La Bau and Cornelius J. Vanderbilt were simply incredible. They claimed, for example, that William H. Vanderbilt hired someone to impersonate Corneil and engage in disreputable behavior. The notion is absurd, not because William was a saint, but because it was so unnecessary; and William proved willing to alter the will in the end. Unfortunately, the more outrageous claims of the testimony continue to color the imagination of writers who address the Commodore. So, too, do the self-serving assertions (and outright lies) told by Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull. I have found no evidence of Vanderbilt's business involvement with them (as opposed to medical or supernatural), except from the mouths of Woodhull and Claflin themselves. They were impressive individuals, no doubt—even admirable, as they brashly battled strictures on women. They were also veteran confidence artists who were pulling off the biggest con of their lives when they opened their “brokerage house,” which is not known to have conducted any business on Wall Street.
The testimony of magnetic healers and the declamations of Woodhull and Claflin need not be dismissed in their entirety (Vanderbilt did hire such healers, and he did have a friendship with the sisters, especially Claflin), but they need to be treated skeptically, with an insistence on more evidence. The image of the Commodore has been shaped by prejudice from the early years of his life—when he drew sneers for his claim to be a man of honor—to the present, when he is often dismissed as a brutal, uncharitable vulgarian. The prejudice is in itself interesting, but it is no substitute for investigation.
* General paresis is progressive, marked by wild behavioral aberrations and rapid loss of motor control. When untreated it leads to total paralysis and finally death within three or four years of its manifestation. Private letters, newspaper reports, and the directors' minutes of Vanderbilt's railroads show him to have been active, in character, and intelligent up to his final illness, often presiding at meetings where William H. Vanderbilt was not present. See Deborah Hay-den, Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 29–37, 54–9, 317–8; Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 9–13; Edward W. Hook III and Christina M. Marra, “Acquired Syphilis in Adults,” New England Journal of Medicine 326, no. 16 (April 16, 1992): 1060–9; Catherine M. Hutchinson and Edward W. Hook III, “Syphilis in Adults,” Medical Clinics of North America 74, no. 6 (November 1990): 1389–1454; Roger P. Simon, “Neurosyphilis,” Archives of Neurology 42, no. 6 (June 1985): 606–13; John H. Stokes, Modern Clinical Syphilology: Diagnosis, Treatment, Case Studies (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1926), 906–7; Loyd [sic] Thompson, Syphilis (Philadelphia: Lea & Febriger, 1916), 58–9; H. Houston Merritt, Raymond D. Adams, and Harry C. Solomon, Neurosyphilis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 3–4; D'Arcy Power and J. Keogh Murphy, eds., A System of Syphilis, vol. 4: Syphilis of the Nervous System (London: Oxford University Press, 1910), 259. For examples of William's travels to Europe, see Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1869, and the New York Times, July 4, 1872.
No picture of life can have any veracity that does not admit the odious facts.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fate.”
For over twenty-five years, the historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has rather specialized in anatomizing—exaggerating, some would say—certain odious facts about American culture. Already in 1965, in his widely admired book The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963, Professor Lasch deplored the “decline of the sense of community” in American society. Subtitled “The Intellectual as Social Type,” this collection of biographical vignettes was meant to register the “peculiarly fragmented character of modern society” by examining the life and work of social reformers and pontificators from Jane Addams and Randolf Bourne through Lincoln StefFens, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. It ended with a polemical chapter called “The Anti-intellectualism of the Intellectuals,” in which prominent writers and activists such as Sidney Hook, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Dwight Macdonald, and—speaking of odious facts about American culture—Norman Mailer were taken to task for failing to develop any politically effective criticism of American society.
As the Sixties devolved, so did the tenor of Professor Lasch’s complaints. In The Agony of the American Left (1969), he informed us that we now faced “an unprecedented crisis” wrought by capitalism, “giant corporations,” and other familiar villains. Co-opted by such nefarious forces, the American intellectual Left was in “agony” because it had become politically ineffective. He concluded that “It is clearer than ever that radicalism”—which he went on to identify with socialism—“is the only long-term hope for America.”
If Professor Lasch had become a champion of political radicalism, however, that is not to say that he succumbed to the ethos of the counterculture and its antinomian frivolities. On the contrary, by the late Seventies he had emerged as an articulate and vociferous left-wing critic of the Left. In Haven in a Heartless World (1977), his study of the family, he takes it for granted that capitalism “has outlived its usefulness.” But far from subscribing to the then current cliches advocating sexual revolution and the end of the family, he delivered a blistering attack on the hedonism and moral vacuousness of the “so-called counterculture"—described as “a mirror image of consumer capitalism"—and wound up, faute de mieux, endorsing traditional forms of authority, including the nuclear family.
In his next book, The Culture of Narcissism (1979)—yet another in the long line of books that attempted to apply the “insights” of psychoanalysis to culture—Professor Lasch pushed his attack against the counterculture even harder. Although he was deeply indebted to such paradigmatically modish cultural radicals as Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, Professor Lasch here insisted that “Cultural radicalism has become so fashionable and so pernicious in the support it unwittingly provides for the status quo, that any criticism of contemporary society that hopes to get beneath the surface has to criticize, at the same time, much of what currently goes under the name of radicalism.” Naturally, such observations won him many critics, especially on the Left. In the pages of the humanities quarterly Salmagundi he responded to these critics, warning of “our impending economic and ecological crisis—the crisis of uninhibited capitalistic growth,” and summed up the rationale for what we might call his conservative radicalism:
A “conservative” respect for order and authority has now become an ingredient of any radical movement that seeks to transcend the progressive and socialist pieties of an earlier time. In mindlessly embracing a politics of “cultural revolution,” the American left has played into the hands of the corporations, which find it all too easy to exploit a radicalism that equates liberation with hedonistic self-indulgence and freedom from family ties.
Here we have quintessentially Laschian passages, full of ecological alarm and traditionalist sermonizing. Lamenting the disintegration of authority and the rise of hedonism, harshly criticizing the excesses of the Left, he still manages to place the blame for the blight on capitalism (“the corporations”). It’s the outmoded radical pieties, not radicalism itself, that must be transcended; contemporary society must still be criticized—radically criticized—but the resources provided by the Left have themselves been corrupted by the capitalist ethos.
While Professor Lasch’s maverick leftism and gloomy prognostications about American society lost him the imprimatur of certain segments of the Left, they nonetheless earned him a respected place in academia (he has taught for many years at the University of Rochester) and in the circle of writers and journalists centered around The New York Review of Books, where much of his work first appeared. The publication of The Culture of Narcissism added nationwide notoriety to his accomplishments. America was ready for a bit of moralistic comeuppance, and Professor Lasch was ready to provide it. Under headings such as “The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time” and “The Banality of Pseudo-Self-Awareness,” the book dissected the spiritual, psychological, and political landscape of contemporary American society.
The outlook was grim: “new forms of capitalist control” had invaded the American psyche, turning the population into helpless, sex-obsessed consumers. (“Consumers” had become one of the dirtiest words in Professor Lasch’s vocabulary.) Nor did Americans refrain from consuming the bad news. The Culture of Narcissism enjoyed an immense success, catapulting its author onto the bestseller lists and television talk shows. President Carter even incorporated some of its hectoring rhetoric into one of his speeches. He warned the American people that they were greedy and self-absorbed, that the time had come for self-discipline, belt-tightening, and a lower standard of living. The effect of such lectures became clear at the polls in 1980, when one witnessed an unarguable demonstration that narcissism had not completely extinguished the public’s instinct of self-preservation.
At least since The Agony of the American Left, Professor Lasch has looked to some version of populism as an alternative to the unending panoply of social, spiritual, and political ills he finds in contemporary society. His new book, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, continues this effort to rehabilitate populism by mounting an assault on the idea—what he would probably prefer to call the ideology—of progress. He takes his title from Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” which plays on Bunyan’s allegorical contrast between “Vanity Fair” and the “Celestial City.” Which is “the true and only heaven”? Like Hawthorne, Professor Lasch seems to prefer an ambiguous reply.
Convinced that “old political ideologies have exhausted their capacity to explain events or to inspire men and women to constructive action,” Professor Lasch attempts to exempt himself from this alleged stalemate by challenging certain inherited dichotomies: pessimism vs. optimism, community vs. the individual, and—preeminently—liberalism vs. conservatism. The title of the book’s introduction, “The Obsolescence of Left and Right,” may be said to epitomize this rhetorical gambit. In the course of eleven complex chapters, he takes us from a sketch of “the current mood” (identified as “a baffled sense of drift") to a consideration of the populist reaction against liberalism and its commitment to progress. “It is the darker voices especially that speak to us now,” he concludes, “because they help us to distinguish ‘optimism’ from hope and thus give us the courage to confront the mounting difficulties that threaten to overwhelm us.”
Beginning with eighteenth-century thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, Professor Lasch proceeds to examine how the often unspoken allegiance to the ideal of progress continues to inform contemporary political and social life in America. Scores of figures, intellectual movements, and political controversies—some major, some minor and half-forgotten—pass under his scrutiny. From Jonathan Edwards to the social critic and religious dilettante Orestes Brownson, Carlyle, Emerson, and William James, Professor Lasch canvasses British and American intellectual history (with occasional glances to France and Germany) for opinions about the idea of progress. Contemporary figures ranging from Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr to Martin Luther King, Jr. (one of the book’s heroes) round out the dramatis personae Calvinism, Puritanism, Syndicalism, Progressivism, Liberalism, Neo-conservatism: these and sundry other “ists” and “isms” are weighed and reckoned for their contribution, or their resistance, to the sway of progress, as are the civil-rights movement, the debate over abortion, and the controversy over busing in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s.
In many ways, The True and Only Heaven is Professor Lasch’s most ambitious book to date; it is certainly his longest and most ostentatiously erudite. Unfortunately, it also reminds one of the old saying that it is often more difficult to write a short book than a long one. Professor Lasch has clearly labored hard on this book—but not, one feels, quite hard enough. Despite his impressive range of reference, what he has given us is more an agglomeration than a synthesis. He tends to proceed by accretion rather than argument, taking the reader down many, many historical and literary byways. However fascinating some of those byways may be in themselves, they do not always return the reader to the main road. Professor Lasch notes that his aim is less to recount a history than to reconstruct a “sensibility.” But no amount of sensibility can make up for the impression of untidy sprawl. It is a pity, too, that in place of footnotes Professor Lasch elected to supply a long “Bibliographical Essay” in which he cites and briefly discusses many of the works he consulted in his researches. This thirty-five-page addendum amounts to a twelfth chapter. While conceivably of interest to certain students, for anyone wishing to track down a reference or ascertain the context of a quotation it is less than helpful.
What Mark Twain would have called the weather of the book is established with a question on the first page of the preface: “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?” In case you misinterpreted this “massive evidence” and still thought that the idea of progress was worth salvaging, nearly six hundred pages follow by way of correction.
In some cases, however, it may be necessary to correct the correction. Consider the place that Emerson occupies in Professor Lasch’s narrative. In his bibliographical essay, Professor Lasch tells us that he used to think of Emerson as “a foolish optimist” but that he now regards him as “our most important writer.” Whatever one thinks of this reevaluation of Emerson, it should be noted that in this respect at least Professor Lasch is supporting something of a growth industry. Emerson has recently undergone a stunning rehabilitation in the academy. The indefatigable literary entrepreneur Harold Bloom, for example, holds that Emerson is America’s great strong poet, the fount whence all poetic good flows; the well-known Harvard philosopher and devotee of B movies Stanley Cavell insists that Emerson is a philosophical thinker on a par with Descartes. When one adds the moralizing and distinctly preachy quality of Emerson’s work, it is somehow not surprising that the prophet of Rochester discovered that the sage of Concord was “a nineteenth-century populist.”
The Emerson that Professor Lasch champions is not the glib transcendentalist of “Self-Reliance” and other early effusions but the “tougher” author of “Fate” and “Compensation.” Paraphrasing Emerson, Professor Lasch writes that “Sin is tax evasion—the attempt to escape the duty on desire.” “Duty on desire” is a phrase Professor Lasch reverts to more than once. Indeed, in some ways The True and Only Heaven may be seen as his metaphysical tax manual, which outlines the psychical, political, and environmental penalties that progress has made us subject to. Yet it is not clear that Emerson can be enlisted in this project without penalizing the historical record. Even though he became gloomier as he grew older, Emerson was never quite the critic of progress that Professor Lasch wishes him to be. Specializing in odious facts himself, Professor Lasch quotes with approval Emerson’s observation, from “Fate,” that “No picture of life can have any veracity that does not admit the odious facts.” Like many commonplaces, this pronouncement contains a good deal of truth. But later in this same essay Emerson insists that “Fate involves the melioration. No statement of the Universe can have any soundness which does not admit its ascending effort. The direction of the whole and of the parts is toward benefit, and in proportion to the health. Behind every individual closes organization; before him opens liberty,—the Better, the Best.” This typical bit of Emerson gush hardly qualifies him as an apostle of the Laschian creed.
The nature of that creed is summed up in the title Professor Lasch gives to the concluding section of his last chapter: “Populism against Progress.” Against the idea of progress he sets the “sense of limits,” described as both “the forbidden topic” and as the “unifying thread” of his book. (“Limits and hope,” he writes in his concluding pages: “these two words sum up the two lines of argument I have tried to weave together.”) Continuing the stern campaign of earlier books, Professor Lasch tells us that we now face an “impending age of limits.” If “progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom,” then he wishes to foster “an affirmation of life in the teeth of its limits.” What he wants is hope without optimism, modernity without technological hubris, stalwart citizens without greed and self-centeredness. “The progressive conception of history implied a society of supremely cultivated consumers,” he writes near the end of the book; “the populist conception, a whole world of heroes.”
Professor Lasch’s deliberately provocative thesis is that an escape from the sterility and spiritual torpor of modernity is to be found in the the working-class sensibility of the petty-bourgeois: in “its moral realism, its understanding that everything has its price, its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress.” To be sure, Professor Lasch acknowledges the familiar failings and weaknesses of his favored class—its tendency to indulge in provincialism, racism, nativism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and other distinctly illiberal prejudices. But he argues that “liberals have lost sight of what is valuable in lower-middle-class culture in the eagerness to condemn what is objectionable.”
In this he is no doubt correct. Nevertheless, one may wonder whether the virtues with which he dowers the lower-middle class really belong to them exclusively. Consider the catalogue he offers: “habits of responsibility associated with property ownership; the self-forgetfulness that comes with immersion in some all-absorbing piece of work; the danger that material comforts will extinguish a more demanding ideal of the good life; the dependence of happiness on the recognition that humans are not made for happiness.” Furthermore, he tells us, lower-middle-class culture is
organized around the family, church, and neighborhood. It values the community’s continuity more highly than individual advancement, solidarity more highly than social mobility. Conventional ideals of success play a less important part in lower-middle-class life than the maintenance of existing ways. Parents want their children to get ahead, but they also want them to respect their elders, resist the temptation to lie and cheat, willingly shoulder the responsibilities that fall to them, and bear adversity with fortitude.
But are any of these good things solely or even notably characteristic of the lower-middle class? Are not most of them part of an inventory of virtues to which the middle and even the upper classes would subscribe? Surely Professor Lasch is here practicing very bad history. In praising “a more demanding ideal of the good life” than material abundance, or in affirming that happiness depends on a recognition that man is not “made for happiness,” he is articulating ethical themes that have been with us at least since the Greeks. There is no reason to believe that they are the special property of the petty-bourgeois. While Professor Lasch is no Marxist—he even castigates one radical writer for having “left the land of the living for a visit to the Marxist mortuary”—he nonetheless continues to exhibit habits of thought characteristic of Marxist analysis. If the proletariat as hero of world history is absent, the lower-middle class steps in as a modest surrogate. Professor Lasch presents himself as a staunch critic of nostalgia, but one fears that something very like nostalgia is at work in his celebration of “lower-middle-class” virtues.
Nostalgia, or the bitterness that nostalgia breeds, may also be at work in the smattering of family history that Professor Lasch includes. In one extraordinary passage, he confides that “it was only gradually that it became clear to me that none of my own children, having been raised not for upward mobility but for honest work, could reasonably hope for any conventional kind of success.” Is this because “honest work” gets one nowhere in a world committed to the idea of progress? Professor Lasch doesn't say. But he does give us a glimpse of life (whether real or imagined) in the Lasch household: “a house full of people; a crowded table ranging across generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoons; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activites mixing children and adults —that was our idea of a well-ordered household.” Chestnuts, that is to say, roasting on an open fire?
If Professor Lasch is right, the problem of achieving success through honest work is not confined to his own progeny. Reflecting on changes in the nature of work in recent society, he writes that “At every level of American society, it was becoming harder and harder for people to find work that self-respecting men and women could throw themselves into with enthusiasm.” How is one to respond to this? No doubt many people, self-respecting and otherwise, are un-enthusiastic about their work. But so what? Haven't they always been? Is Professor Lasch really suggesting that things are worse now than in days gone by? I'm afraid that he is.
To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light. This perspective reveals the unwhole-someness, not to put it more strongly, of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of “making it”; our addictive dependence on drugs, “entertainment,” and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our soverign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and familial ties; our preference for “non-binding commitments”; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we “impose” our morality on others and thus invite others to “impose” their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged…
And on and on, ending with “our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.” Once again, there is a lot to agree with here. But are these failings as all-encompassing as Professor Lasch suggests? Perhaps, on the contrary, to see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in its best possible light, since after all raising children is a commitment to the future deeply at odds with the excesses and failings of our “culture of narcissism.”
Among the questions that Professor Lasch’s discussion raises is whether these vices are due, as he puts it, to “a remarkably tenacious belief in progress.” Wouldn't it be more plausible to say that they represent a failure to live up to the idea of progress, an idea that had hitherto helped preserve us from the moral chaos he deplores? As with so much of Professor Lasch’s recent work, the often astute individual observations made in this book do not support the categorical indictment he attempts to make.
Nor do they support the uncomfortably categorical rhetoric he tends to employ: society is now unraveling; “the earth’s ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces”; “a growing proletariat faces a grim future.” While such locutions may be simply part of a rhetorical style, the frequency and vehemence with which Professor Lasch resorts to hyperbole imbues his analysis with an apocalyptic quality. Typical is this list from The Minimal Self (1984), Professor Lasch’s sequel to The Culture of Narcissism: “the growing opposition to the nuclear arms race, the growing awareness of ecology, the growing criticism of consumerism and high technology, criticism of the ‘masculine’ psychology of conquest and competitive enterprise hold out the best hope for the future.”
As these and numerous other passages from Professor Lasch’s oeuvre suggest, he has been suffering from a bad case of eco-angst for some time. Nothing in The True and Only Heaven suggests that the symptoms are abating. The allegedly disastrous environmental consequences of economic growth emerge as a major leitmotif: “In view of the present rate of population growth, the attempt to export a Western standard of living to the rest of the world, even if it was economically feasible,... would amount to a recipe for environmental disaster.” Near the end of the book, Professor Lasch writes that
The belated discovery that the earth’s ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces deals the final blow to the belief in progress. A more equitable distribution of wealth, it is now clear, requires at the same time a drastic reduction in the standard of living enjoyed by the rich nations and the privileged classes. Western nations can no longer hold up their standard of living and the enlightened, critical, and progressive culture that is entangled with it as an example for the rest of the world.
There are several things one could say about these observations. First, whatever the real threat posed to the environment by capitalist industry and patterns of consumption, it is notable that the West, and especially the United States, has dealt far more effectively with environmental hazards than other less “capitalistic” countries. If you’re in doubt about this, just sample the water or the air in any Eastern European country, any Third World country, or in Japan. In this sense, the problem is not too much but too little progress. Second, given the distasteful self-infatuation that many environmentalists display, it seems odd that this sterling instance of “cultural radicalism” has escaped the charge of narcissism. Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that Professor Lasch’s worry is anything but new. We were told long ago that “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”
The natural inequality of the two powers . . . forms the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. . . . No fancied equality, no agrarian revolutions in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which, should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; ... if the premises are just, the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.
This of course is from Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, the first edition of which was published in 1798. I mention the edition because though Malthus started out as what we may now have to call a Laschian, he had wisdom enough to see that his dire prognostications were overstated. While never a Panglossian figure, by the time he published the second edition of his infamous essay, Malthus affirmed his faith in the possibility of “gradual and progressive improvement in human society”—he affirmed, that is to say, his faith in the possibility of progress. Subsequent advances in technology and food production have shown that Malthus’s original worries were as wildly exaggerated as Professor Lasch’s.
The fact that “progress” comes in many flavors brings us to a more general objection to Professor Lasch’s indictment. The callously blind optimism of a Dr. Pangloss is very different from the utopianism of a Marxist revolutionary marching under the banner of “necessary” progress, which in turn is very different from a simple faith in the future. It is one of the oddities of this book devoted to the idea of progress that it is supremely fuzzy about the idea of progress itself. Sometimes Professor Lasch seems to be concerned mostly with the psychological ramifications of the idea of progress, sometimes with its ethical implications. Most often, perhaps, he criticizes the commitment to progress conceived of as long-term economic growth. “The idea of progress,” he writes, “owes its appeal not to its millennial vision of the future but to the seemingly more realistic expectation that the expansion of productive forces can continue indefinitely.”
While Professor Lasch allows that capitalism cannot “be made to carry the whole indictment of modern culture,” he also insists that it cannot be “absolved.” “Capitalism itself,” we read in one typical passage, “promotes an ethic of hedonism and health and thus undermines the 'traditional values' of thrift and self-denial.” In other words, he gives us the usual caricature of capitalism, capitalism stripped of its achievements and recast by ecological sloganeering. Refusing to acknowledge that the expectation of indefinitely expanding productive forces is more than “seemingly” realistic, Professor Lasch distorts the historical record. Yes, there have been and will continue to be setbacks, excesses, cruelties, and inequalities in capitalist societies. Yet because the alternative to capitalism in the modern world is not authenticity but poverty, only a disaffected populist (or some other Utopian) would dream of dismantling or curtailing the productive forces of capitalism.
Professor Lasch’s attack on capitalism provides another instance of Marxist habits of thought outlasting a commitment to the dogma. While he persists in attributing almost demonic power to capitalism, the truth is that capitalism is primarily an engine for creating wealth, not, à la Marx, an ideology designed to oppress and corrupt the unsuspecting. Indeed, it happens that capitalism is the most dazzlingly productive engine of wealth ever devised. This is not to deny that nations living under capitalism tend to have the problems Professor Lasch anatomizes. But it is to suggest that these problems should be blamed not on an economic system but on the human actors who work within it. In my view, Professor Lasch is right to criticize the “conservative” application of “market strategies” and “laissez-faire” thinking to aspects of life outside the sphere of economics; such thinking does indeed act as a solvent on many traditional values. Nevertheless, the triumph of crass materialism—for that is what we are talking about—is a product not of an abstraction called “capitalism” but of the decisions and actions of individual human beings.
There are moments when Professor Lasch seems to recognize that the catastrophes he enumerates derive from something other than capitalism. He notes that to a large extent the ethos of capitalism is itself the product of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and he suggests that in this sense the problem is not capitalism per se but the “sense of unlimited power conferred by science—the intoxicating prospect of man’s conquest of the natural world.” Given the theme of “limits,” it is a pity he didn't say more about the Promethean temptation inherent in technology: the illusion that every human quandary is susceptible to calculation and technological intervention. Here is the real problem with which progress faces us: learning to say “yes” to science and technology without sacrificing our humanity. Disparaging the idea of progress tout court is not a responsible solution. As Robert Nisbet has argued in his History of the Idea of Progress (1980), “no single idea has been more important than . . . the idea of progress in Western civilization.” While acknowledging that it has been enlisted in bad causes as well as good, Nisbet maintains that “In its oldest and broadest meaning the idea has been associated far more often with good than with evil.” (He also observes, wisely, that “there is no moral value that is not susceptible to corrupt use.”)
It is instructive to contrast Nisbet’s understanding of the idea of progress with Professor Lasch’s. For Professor Lasch, adherence to the idea of progress seems tantamount to endorsing sterile rationalism, aggressive secularism, materialism, and a selfish commitment to reckless economic growth. Nisbet, on the other hand, lists “five major premises” that have traditionally characterized the idea from the Greeks to our day:
belief in the value of the past; conviction of the nobility, even superiority, of Western civilization; acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth; faith in reason .. .; and, finally, belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of life on this earth.
In other words, Nisbet takes a view of progress almost diametrically opposed to that described in The True and Only Heaven. Which rings truer? Which better accounts for the achievements of our culture? Which offers more hope for the future?
Professor Lasch takes great pains to encourage us to abandon both pessimism and optimism for the more modest virtue of hope. There is much to recommend this. In any robust sense of the word, optimism involves turning a blind eye to the “odious facts” of the world around us just as pessimism involves a monstrous ingratitude in the face of the unearned blessings we receive. Both involve a culpable distortion of reality. Yet it is not clear whether Professor Lasch has himself overcome the temptations of pessimism. Moral passion is doubtless his greatest asset. It may also be his greatest liability. Addicted to what the historian Herbert Butterfield described as “the luxury and pleasing sensuousness of moral indignation,” he is never less than earnest. But he is seldom more than interesting. He raises important—indeed, central—questions, discusses them articulately, yet often fails to persuade. Perhaps this is because his diagnoses are so sweeping and historically one-sided. Perhaps it is because, having discarded one left-wing view after the next, he nevertheless continues to find himself unable to abandon the central left-wing habit of defining himself in opposition to establishment culture. In any event, his attack on progress represents not a triumph of hope but an unusually dour form of populist pessimism.
- The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, by Christopher Lasch; Norton, 591 pages, $25. Go back to the text.