Book Review

Antimodernism as Counterculture

Daniel Wickberg on T. J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (1981)

Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace was published nearly 35 years ago. I stumbled across it in a Berkeley bookstore in the Fall of 1983—a callow 23—and as I stood reading in the aisle, found myself redirected to a way of thinking about history that has shaped the direction of my career and thinking ever since. It was, in my personal biography, a book like Hayden White’s Metahistory, R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, Warren Susman’s Culture as History, and Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll—works that helped me conceive of history as a form of cultural criticism, as an act of the moral imagination. It provided a way to synthesize a growing historicism—my sense of the peculiarity and foreignness of the past—with a sense that there were pressing cultural conditions of the present that could only be illuminated by seeing them as the product and extension of that past. History could reveal a set of lost alternatives, a world of otherness. The dominant strains of modern historiography had rejected the Nietzschean eternal recurrence, the cyclical history of classical republican theory, the swinging pendulum of reform and reaction, the idea that the past would return in the present; history, as a modern genre, insisted that conditions were particular, contingent, cumulative, unprecedented, unidirectional. And yet, an understanding of the past might provide us with the resources by which we could imagine our present—its cultural and social forms, its ethical dilemmas, its constitution of reality itself—as an alien might: particular and strange.

There was much that I did not know about this book and the intellectual lineage from which it sprung when I first read it. I had some vague notion of Christopher Lasch as the author of a best-selling screed of the late 1970s, The Culture of Narcissism, although I had not yet read it. I knew something of Freud and something of Marx, but I had never heard of Philip Rieff, nor of Daniel Bell, and had only the sketchiest idea of a group of Western Marxists identified as The Frankfurt School. I had come across the name no place of graceGramsci, and the concept of hegemony, in Roll, Jordan, Roll, but had little context for understanding the significance of either. I knew nothing of Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform (1954), which I would later come to see as the palimpsest for Lears’s text. In fact, I knew very little of American history, which I had mostly avoided studying in high school and college. And I had very little awareness of intellectual and cultural history as a subdiscipline, and so had no understanding of the crisis of the field in the 1970s, and its reorientation as defined in Higham and Conkin’s New Directions in American Intellectual History (1979), published just two years before No Place of Grace. But this book opened up that world to me, pushed me toward a kind of interdisciplinary study that I came to see as rooted in the American Studies tradition, and convinced me that a theoretically informed history could be the basis for understanding dissent as something that happens within the terms of a cultural system, rather than merely against culture.

Lears’s provided an ambitious synthesis of elements drawn from Freud, Nietzsche, Gramsci, and Weber in service of an argument about the ironic consequences of a dissenting and disaffected cultural elite, turning away from the comfortable platitudes of a bourgeois culture of progress and individualism only to reproduce its “evasive banality” (one of No Place of Grace’s favorite terms). Lears’s disparate characters—his arts and crafts cultists, medievalists, folklorists, Anglo-Catholics, neurasthenics, Buddhist dilettantes, primitivists, and advocates of military virtue— were, in his telling, united in their rejection of the “weightlessness” of late Victorian culture and its arid creed of progress. This was no organized “antimodern” movement or party, but a host of seekers, driven to find alternatives to a capitalist modernity in more authentic and holistic terms than those provided by the dominant voices of progress, material abundance, bureaucratic rationality, and didactic moralism that reigned triumphant in the transformative age of corporate capitalism. This was a history of a counter culture and its attempts to secure structures of meaningful experience and order in a world in which “all that is solid melts into air.” Instead of undermining capitalist modernity and its vision of the progressively liberated self, however, this counter culture affirmed the therapeutic values of self-fulfillment that helped to support an emergent consumer culture. Looking backward, Lears argued, antimodernists inadvertently pushed American culture further and further away from the forms of meaning and order they sought in the past.

The parallel with the moment of its writing was obvious, and not least because Lears frequently pointed out the parallel. Set in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the story Lears told was a parable of 1960s counter culture made into the New Age spiritualism, therapeutic self-help movements, and mass consumer marketing of alternative culture in the 1970s. Walter Kendrick, reviewing No Place of Grace in The Village Voice identified this parallel as the heart of the work, and its lesson a deeply disturbing one about the nature of dissent in modern culture. Counter-cultural dissent, Lears suggested, was not coopted by cultural elites and redirected into support for the existing order. Rather, as the critical theorists say, it was “always already” implicated in the troubling presumptions of modernity, and aided in the legitimation of those presumptions. “The radical dreams of the ‘60s became business as usual in the ‘70s,” wrote Kendrick, “and we, the dreamers thought our disillusionment was unique. Watching our militancy slouch into acquiescence, our self-discovery dwindle to self-help, and our swords get beaten into cokespoons, we imagined that this betrayal was ours alone.” What Lears showed was that this pattern of countercultural rebellion revealed an “abiding collusion between the dominant culture and the rebels against it, their unwitting collaboration on a blind headlong rush that no one controls, not even those who seem to be in charge of it.” [i] The idea that antimodern dissent contained within it the seed of the cultural dispositions it opposed, that there was no turning back from modernity, that history operated behind the backs and against the intentions of its agents: these were the lessons of the past for the present. Reading later works, such as Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool (1997) on advertising and the counter culture of the 1950s and 60s or Gail Bedermain’s Manliness and Civilization (1995), one sees the shadow of No Place of Grace. This idea of historical parallels within modernity runs like a thread through all of Lears’s work, particularly his most recent book, Rebirth of a Nation (2010), in which the militaristic interventionism of World War I is figured as a form of psychic regeneration, repeated again in recent advocacy for the Iraq War.

And yet, Lears performed the neat trick of not collapsing the past into the present, just at the moment when it seemed like such an act of cultural criticism would require that collapse. The antimodernists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not simply early versions of Timothy Leary, Werner Erhard, back-to-the-landers, and Eastern lifestyle gurus. That is, Lears effectively located their dissent, their craving for “reality,” within the specific conditions of Victorian bourgeois life: the forms of new middle class experience and its institutions; liberalizing Protestantism; the triumph of physical comfort; corporate capitalism and the moment of its turn to the ethics of a new consumer society. No Place of Grace provided a picture of the birth of twentieth-century consumer culture and its imagined lifeworlds, a story of “transformation,” as the subtitle says, rather than merely continuity and stasis. Here was Lears, looking back and looking forward; historian on the one hand, contemporary cultural critic on the other.

No Place of Grace was widely reviewed at its publication, both in scholarly journals, and in the broader press, and was generally hailed as an important work. The reviewers included some of the best known scholars of American Studies and intellectual history of the era: Ann Douglas, Mary Furner, Thomas Haskell, David Noble, and the critical anthropologist George Marcus, among them, all of whom identified it as a significant and groundbreaking work. More critical and dismissive was Kenneth Lynn’s New York Times Book Review evisceration, which identified No Place of Grace with the cutting edge of what Lynn called “anti-American Studies.” “Assembling and assessing evidence, however, does not really interest Mr. Lears in his guise as a social and cultural historian,” said Lynn; “theorizing in a void is his preferred activity.”[ii] Lynn’s notion that 1950s-style American Studies was not a critical discipline but was concerned with “the vitality of our civilization,” would come as a surprise to anyone who had actually read Henry Nash Smith or Leo Marx. The idea that references to Freud and Gramsci, and a critical rather than optimistic tone and outlook, made the book “anti-American” speaks to a moment in neoconservative thought at the beginning of the Reagan era, and an attempt to reinvent American Studies as a flag-waving discipline in its mid-century inception. “Pity the poor 1960s; its repeal is well under way,” Daniel Rodgers wrote in response to what he called Lynn’s “mean-spirited review.”[iii]

And yet, in retrospect, what is striking is the continuity between the versions of American Studies that Lears represents and those of his predecessors, especially in contrast to the reigning paradigms of American Studies in the decades since No Place of Grace. In the last 25 years of American Studies, the kind of concern with intellectual history and the history of cultural elites represented by Lears, has been sidelined. Lynn could hardly disparage Lears for his obsession with “race, class, and gender,” as a generation of conservatives have done in their attacks on the left academy, because Lears’s obsessions were not those. In fact, this was a book decidedly out of step with the dominant social history of its era—it saw power from the top down, rather than the bottom up; it looked to the educated and privileged elites of society, rather than the marginalized and oppressed; it stressed not the self-interested agency of historical actors, but the unconscious desires of those moved by forces that used them for larger systemic ends; its object was not “class, culture, and community in an industrial town,” as so many monographs of the era proclaimed, but the absence of community among the alienated and disaffected selves of a Northeastern bourgeoisie . The marginalization of race and gender, if not class, in Lears’s analysis is remarkable, in part because these terms were in the process of becoming the central analytical categories of an emergent cultural history. To think through a generation of scholarship on race and gender, and to apply it to various forms of antimodernism and primitivism, is to see the book No Place of Grace might have been, although at the risk of driving it away from its characteristic concerns.

The virtues and vices of Lears’s book are, I think, inseparable. The bloated and occasionally self-important prose style, with its complaints about cant, evasive banality, progressive bromides and flatulent pieties, for instance, appears as a necessary feature of the broad-ranging and synthetic critical vision Lears offers. The theoretical apparatus, which seeks to join Freud to Gramsci, unconscious motivation to cultural legitimation and power, is invoked repeatedly in awkward formulations and assertions, although, contra Lynn, never too far from empirical description. Lears does, however, often end up simply asserting and telling the reader, rather than showing and demonstrating. Lears’s later books have abandoned this explicit scaffolding, and have simply tried to tell their stories in terms of cultural process and meaning, but one suspects that Lears built a kind of mechanism for his first book, and was loathe to abandon it. Perhaps he purged that need with his publication, in 1985, of an oft-cited AHR article on the concept of cultural hegemony.[iv] The strength of his argument rested as much on its theoretical components as on the story he had to tell, but the reader (at least this one) is inclined to find those theoretical components to be mechanical and overbearing. The self-importance of the text and its occasionally ostentatious display of wide-reading and erudition mark it as the work of a young author, eager to make his mark.    The attempt to root cultural transformation in unconscious motivation and biographical detail shaped the analysis, but often left a gaping distance between collective form and individual motivation. The ambitions of the book were large—its achievements necessarily fell short. Everything that was wrong with No Place of Grace was what attracted me to it in the first place; it was a youthful author’s book, and I was a young reader.

The cultural politics of the text—facing a moment of declining radicalism in the counter culture at large, and a critical rejection of wide-ranging intellectual and cultural history within the academy—were perhaps its most attractive feature. Here was a book written from the Left that embraced the cultural conservatism that had been implicit in Marx’s critique of capitalist modernity all along, that held Henry Adams (of all figures!) as its hero, and that found resources for critique from a wide array of social thought that could not be narrowed to the tradition of the Left. “[T]he more thoughtful antimodernists remind us of what Left critics too often forget: in a society dedicated to economic development and ‘personal growth’ at the expense of larger loyalties, conservative values are too important to be left to pseudo-conservative apologists for capitalism,” Lears proclaimed. “In our time, the most profound radicalism is often the most profound conservatism.” (p. xx) In an historiographical world that now celebrates “transnationalism” and often seeks to remake the past into a version of today’s globalizing capitalism, perhaps these words are as salutary as they were then. Questions of placelessness and alienation in a world ever more “networked” and interconnected sit next to questions of selves ever more liberated and alone, and questions of a world opened up to unprecedented levels of economic exploitation and inequality. The historiographical tradition to which Lears belongs provides us with a vocabulary and a vision to counter the endless bureaucratic rationality of our world, even as it reminds us that those who seek to restore a lost past as an antidote to an alienated present may be agents of the very order they oppose.

Daniel Wickberg is Associate Professor of Historical Studies and the History of Ideas at the University of Texas at Dallas, and the immediate past president of the Society. His research interests center on conceptions of self and society from the eighteenth century danwickbergthrough the twentieth century, and he is currently writing a book entitled The Idea of Tradition in a Culture of Progress: Post World War II American Thought. His essays have appeared in the American Historical Review, Critical Inquiry, the Journal of American History, and Modern Intellectual History, among other venues.

[i] Walter Kendrick, “Discontent and Its Civilization,” Village Voice (October 28-Noember 3, 1981), p. 41.

[ii] Kenneth S. Lynn, “Looking Backward,” New York Times, Jan. 10, 1982, p. BR8.

[iii] Daniel T. Rodgers, “American Studies,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1982, p. BR30.

[iv] T.J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” American Historical Review 90.3 (June 1985): 567-593.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great review, Dan. This book meant a great deal to me, too, when I first read it at age 24 or 25. Lears as a whole was a big influence precisely because he wore his heart on his sleeve and let you know that he was wrestling with big questions that were intensely personal as well as academic.

    • Thanks Susan! We often don’t talk about the books that were formative for our thinking, and why, and one of the things that I like about the “classics” book review series that USIH is running is that it gives us a chance to do that.

  2. Dan – Very nice essay. A couple of things come to mind:

    A worthwhile historiographic project might be to study how Philip Rieff’s thesis of “the triumph of the therapeutic” came out of his early critique of psychoanalytic analogies from psyche to the social, and has been put to work in social criticism across the political spectrum, and in numerous disciplines, for 50 years now.

    Your essay brought back some personal history, except that, like Lears, I came to many of these concerns having lived through the sixties. For me, his description in Dissent in 2010 was apt –

    “As hopes for a New Left faded, my contemporaries and I became preoccupied with the failure of countercultural protest, the ease with which it became trivialized and reabsorbed into the mainstream of consumer culture. How did dominant groups defang dissent? How — apart from guns and money — did the ruling class rule? Graduate school was a good place to raise these questions during the 1970s. The air was full of rueful re-examinations, but also fresh possibilities.”

    Perhaps Gramsci’s notion of hegemony appealed as a way to figure both how rule worked and how left intellectuals might glimpse, or even become, agents of fresh possibilities. But here he blames left intellectuals for having “retreated into the academy,” as if, to appropriate Todd Gitlin’s old jab, historians had given up making history to remake the discipline instead.

    • Thanks Bill. I would very much like to read a work that looks at, if I might put it this way, the triumph of “the triumph of the therapeutic,” so if anyone’s looking for a project in recent American intellectual history, here’s one! I agree that Rieff has had a presence that is extensive but somehow understated throughout a range of cultural thought, deriving initially from the culture and personality school thinkers that were so much a part of mid-century social thought.

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