Lasch, Robert Christopher

views updated

LASCH, Robert Christopher

(b. 1 June 1932 in Omaha, Nebraska; d. 14 February 1994 in Pittsford, New York), educator, historian, and social critic best known for his reevaluation of liberalism during the 1960s and for his subsequent contention that the absorption with self, which he called "narcissism," lay at the heart of contemporary American culture.

The son of Robert Lasch, a writer and columnist for the Omaha World Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Zora Schaupp, a part-time social worker with a Ph.D. in philosophy, Lasch was exposed early in his life to the midwestern progressivism that influenced his mature thought. While a student at Barrington High School in Barrington, Illinois, where he had moved with his parents and his sister in 1942, Lasch campaigned for Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president in 1948. Upon graduation from high school in 1950, Lasch declined a scholarship from the University of Chicago to attend Harvard, from which he received a B.A. degree in 1954. He then began graduate study in history at Columbia University, earning an M.A. degree in 1955, and a Ph.D. in 1961, after the completion of a doctoral dissertation under the direction of William E. Leuchtenburg.

On 30 June 1956 Lasch married Nell Commager, the daughter of the eminent historian Henry Steele Commager. The couple had four children. An instructor at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, between 1957 and 1959, Lasch became assistant professor of history at Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1960, before moving on to the University of Iowa, where he remained until 1966. That year Lasch was appointed professor of history at Northwestern University, but left in 1970 to take a position at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. Named Don Alonzo Watson Professor of History in 1979, Lasch became chairman of the department in 1985, an office that he held until his death. Lasch inaugurated his distinguished scholarly career in 1962, with the publication of The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution. Analyzing liberal attitudes toward the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Lasch condemned the often willful naïveté that permitted intellectuals to discount or ignore Soviet oppression and brutality and thereby convince themselves that the Communists had fashioned a heaven on earth. As Louis Menand has noted, however, Lasch directed his comments as much to the liberals of his own day. When Lasch described liberalism in America as a "messianic creed," Menand declared, "he was describing … not only the liberalism of 1919—of Woodrow Wilson and Walter Lippmann—but the liberalism of the Kennedy administration as well." Lasch continued his onslaught against liberalism in his next book, The New Radicalism in America, 1899–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type.

The New Radicalism, which appeared in 1965, confirmed Lasch's scholarly and critical reputation. A series of essays examining the lives, careers, and ideas of figures as diverse as the social reformer Jane Addams, the essayist and literary critic Randolph Bourne, the journalist and social reformer Lincoln Steffens, the promoter of art and social causes Mabel Dodge Luhan, and the novelist Norman Mailer, the New Radicalism, Lasch wrote, reveals "the estrangement of intellectuals" from social and political convention. Frequently troubled by unsatisfying personal relationships, intellectuals compensate by engaging in social, political, and moral reform. In interviews that he gave during the last months of his life, Lasch said that he at last had discovered the theme of The New Radicalism. The book was about intellectuals who want to be something other than intellectuals—"movers and shakers, or the power behind the throne, or revolutionaries, or Indians or members of some allegedly simple culture that enjoyed a direct, unmediated connection with nature."

Although the book did not bring Lasch the public acclaim that he would garner from later publications, The New Radicalism created a sensation in the history profession. In a letter to Lasch dated 5 July 1965, William Leuchtenburg wrote that The New Radicalism was a "brilliant … unconventional book, because it is based not on massing evidence but on thinking about history, an endeavor that had largely gone out of fashion." Richard Hofstader, another of Lasch's mentors at Columbia, agreed. "The steady flow of marginal insight, about the people you've chosen, the intellectual life as a vocation, and the development of our culture," he wrote to Lasch, explain why the book could be read with profit "by someone who happens not to agree with your central point, and why I think you will still find people reading it when you are an old man."

Lasch, of course, had his critics. In a caustic review, Arthur Mann, skeptical that Lasch could connect figures as different in time, circumstance, and personality as Jane Addams and Norman Mailer in an overarching interpretation of liberalism, pronounced The New Radicalism "flawless in its failure." Writing in the Partisan Review, Norman Birnbaum maintained that Lasch's analysis "of the source of the intellectuals' discontents is quite unconvincing. He is uncertain whether capitalism, industrialism or mass society is responsible for the intellectuals' plight, and these highly schematic terms are not used anywhere critically."

Liberal and radical thinkers leveled a more overtly political criticism against the book. William Phillips complained that Lasch included nothing about "the Socialists, the IWW [International Workers of the World], the Communists, … the civil rights movement, Marxism, the pacifists, the anarchists, [and] Students for a Democratic Society," while Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., reproved Lasch for disparaging intellectuals' attachment to the Kennedy administration. Lasch's friend, the radical historian and activist Staunton Lynd, objected that Lasch was compromising "the validity of radical action by exploring its psychic origins." In the midst of their long and increasingly acrimonious exchange of letters, Lasch told Lynd, "I continue to be disturbed by your willingness to exchange analysis for propaganda.… To you the radical tradition is sacred and must not be analyzed, except to murmur approvingly."

The controversies that The New Radicalism excited only enhanced its value for the generation of young scholars who came of age during the 1960s. Robert B. Westbrook confirmed its impact, acknowledging that "The New Radicalism was … the book that made Lasch a figure of commanding importance for the generation of historians that followed his." The New Radicalism, along with the essays that Lasch published in the New York Review of Books, provided guidance and insight to those struggling to make sense of that turbulent decade. In 1969 Lasch collected many of these influential pieces in The Agony of the American Left, in which he extended his critique of liberal and radical intellectuals. Chastising them for their misplaced emphasis on personal liberation and their superficial commitment to revolution, he observed that by the end of the 1960s many, perhaps most, liberal and radical intellectuals had realized their ambitions for advancement by making their peace with corporate capitalism and using the schools and other institutions to disseminate its materialistic ethos. They endeavored to make themselves important, Lasch asserted, by presuming to instruct ordinary men and women about how to live in the complex and bewildering world that the intellectuals themselves had helped create and sustain.

At a time of social and political upheaval and cultural experimentation, Lasch, though firmly entrenched on the Left, championed such exemplary bourgeois values as hard work, parental authority, and moral discipline. He steadfastly refused to acquiesce to the demands that came from various factions within the New Left to forsake marriage and the family, to escape the restrictions of traditional gender roles, to abdicate all moral responsibility, and to substitute instinct for intellect. Disenchanted with conservatism, Lasch nonetheless issued a wholesale indictment of the political and social thought of the 1960s.

Concern with the responsibilities and failures of intellectual elites past and present had dominated Lasch's writing for nearly a decade. By the 1970s he expanded the focus of his work in an effort to clarify how the malfeasance of intellectuals contributed to the disintegration of the family, the abandonment of community, the atomization of society, and the apathy toward public life, which he saw as the legacy of the 1960s. In his three most acclaimed, provocative, and controversial books, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (1977), The Culture of Narcissism: American Society in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), and The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984), Lasch investigated the social, political, moral, and psychic consequences that followed from a preoccupation with things and an absorption with self.

Intellectual elites allied with the forces of corporate capitalism, Lasch maintained in Haven in a Heartless World, had subverted the family. The widespread acceptance of easy divorce, single parenthood, and day care, which members of the elite celebrated as evidence of individualism, diversity, and liberation, were in reality indications of social disarray. In The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch continued his attack, assailing the emphasis on self-gratification. His thesis intrigued President Jimmy Carter, who in 1979 consulted Lasch on "America's crisis of confidence" before delivering the lamentable "malaise speech," in which the president complained that apathy and selfishness had eroded "the very heart and soul of our national will." Carter's political opponents changed that he was blaming the problems of his administration on the American people. The Minimal Self, a sequel of sorts to The Culture of Narcissism, represented Lasch's attempt not only to explicate previous arguments, but also to unmask and discredit the optimistic prophets of easy cultural salvation.

During the last decade of his life Lasch returned to a consideration of "the intellectual as a social type." In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), and the posthumously published Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), he censured liberals and radicals for their misguided faith in the inevitability of progress, detailed the erosion of the middle class, evaluated the antidemocratic implications of the global economy, and admonished elites for their revolt against the authenticity of ordinary life. With the assistance of his daughter Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, who is also a historian, Lasch devoted his final year to assembling a selection of essays on women and society, published in 1997 as Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism. Lasch died of renal cancer in 1994, and is buried in Pittsford, New York. Original, erudite, and courageous, Lasch diagnosed, but proposed few remedies for, the absurdity that he thought plagued modern life.

There is no biography of Lasch, but his papers are in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester. Interviews with Lasch include Casey Blake and Christopher Phelps, "History as Social Criticism: Conversations With Christopher Lasch," Journal of American History 80, no. 4 (Mar. 1994): 1,310–1,332; and Richard Wightman Fox, "An Interview with Christopher Lasch," Intellectual History Newsletter 16 (Sept. 1994). Essays on Lasch's life and thought include Louis Menand, "Man of the People," New York Review of Books (11 Apr. 1991); James Seaton, "The Gift of Christopher Lasch," First Things 45 (Aug.–Sept. 1994); Robert Coles, "Remembering Christopher Lasch," New Oxford Review (Sept. 1994); Jean Bethke Elshtain, "The Life and Work of Christopher Lasch: An American Story," Salmagundi (spring–summer 1995): 146–161, and "Limits and Hope: Christopher Lasch and Political Theory," Social Research 66 (summer 1999); Jackson Lears, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," New Republic (Oct. 1995); and Arthur A. Molitierno, "The Authentic Negative Voice of Democracy: Christopher Lasch's Last Will and Testament," Midwest Quarterly 41 (winter 2000): 129–144. Essential for understanding Lasch's influence on the history profession and social thought during the 1960s is Robert B. Westbrook, "Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism, and the Vocation of Intellectuals," Reviews in American History 23 (Mar. 1995): 176–191. Obituaries are in the New York Times (15 Feb. 1994), Washington Post (16 Feb. 1994), (London) Times (26 Feb. 1994), and New Republic (7 Mar. 1994).

Mark G. Malvasi