U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Max Lerner Roundtable Part Two: An Epitaph for Ambition: Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization

Today marks the second entry in our series commemorating the 60th anniversary of Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization. Today we have a contribution from a friend of the blog, Stephen J. Whitfield. Readers of the blog are no doubt familiar with his work, which includes, among many other things, A Critical American: The Politics of Dwight Macdonald (Archon), A Death in the Delta: the Story of Emmett Till (Free Press), The Culture of the Cold War (Hopkins), and In Search of American Jewish Culture (University Press of New England). For many years, Whitfield has been Max Richter Chair of American Civilization at Brandeis. Enjoy, everyone.

By Stephen J. Whitfield

In the mid-twentieth century, when publishers aimed to attract serious readers, a journalist who was also planted in academe became the go-to guy to clarify and to contextualize the great works of Western thought.  In 1937, for example, when the fate of capitalism seemed to hang in the balance, Max Lerner (1902-1992) supplied the introduction to the Modern Library Giant edition of The Wealth of Nations.  Three years later, when the Modern Library also needed someone to introduce Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses, Lerner was picked.  In 1943, when the same publisher needed an introduction for Aristotle’s Politics (in the famous Benjamin Jowett translation), who should get the assignment but Max Lerner?  For Bantam Books he provided the introduction to Essential Works of John Stuart Mill in 1961.  His forte was American intellectual history as well.  In 1943, when the Modern Library got the inspired idea to present The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes, who had died only eight years earlier, Lerner assumed the task of editing the jurist’s great speeches and opinions.  Also in 1943, when Louis Filler authored a biography of Randolph Bourne, no extra credit for guessing who supplied the introduction.  Planning to release The Portable Veblen five years later, staffers at the Viking Press must have exclaimed: let’s get Max Lerner to edit the volume.  He complied.

Whether writing for The Nation or for the short-lived newspaper PM, whether producing about seven thousand syndicated columns for the New York Post, whether lecturing or teaching, Lerner must have seemed ubiquitous; and the authority with which he endowed canonical works of ideas at mid-century seemed to secure for him a permanent niche in American thought.  In 1934 Carl L. Becker had recognized his young friend’s potential and hailed his “extraordinarily keen and profound intelligence, besides having a great fund of general knowledge in history, literature, and political philosophy. . . His main interest is in the history of ideas, especially political and social.”[1]  The promise that Lerner exuded, in which acuity of insight was matched with formidable erudition, was fulfilled in 1957, when America as a Civilization appeared to widespread acclaim.  Clocking in at slightly over a thousand pages (with the paperback edition split into two volumes), the book scooped up praise from figures as diverse as Samuel Eliot Morison, Reinhold Niebuhr and Pitirim Sorokin.  A portion of the manuscript that Lerner sent to Archibald MacLeish left him “depressed by the breadth and depth of your scholarship.  What right have you to be so good a scholar?”[2]

America as a Civilization also represents a summa of American Studies, which had been born at Harvard exactly two decades earlier as History of American Civilization.  Though the American Quarterly, the journal of the American Studies Association, did not bother to review America as a Civilization, it exemplifies the interdisciplinary character of the field, which from its origins was committed to surmounting if not smashing the barriers that separate academic departments.  Believing that “a civilization is more than the sum of its parts,” Lerner sought “to grasp . . . the pattern and inner meaning of contemporary civilization and its relation to the world of today.”  The attempt to update Tocqueville was therefore undisguised.  The year that Democracy in America came back into print was 1945, which is when Lerner started his own book.  At Brandeis University, where he lectured on American Civilization in a course required of all undergraduates, they were provided every year with mimeographed drafts of what became America as a Civilization.[3]

America as a Civilization was researched and written at a moment of supreme national confidence, and is itself an index of the postwar perihelion.  In the pride and fluency that Lerner’s book exuded, in the scale of its ambition, America as a Civilization fit the expansive mood of the era.  To be sure other mid-century authors had earlier tried to reckon with so successful and powerful a republic: Charles A. and Mary R. Beard in The American Spirit (1942), the Scotsman D. W. Brogan with The American Character (1944) and the Englishman Harold J. Laski with a volume whose very title paid homage to Tocqueville, The American Democracy (1948).  But the Beards limited themselves to tracing the genealogy of a single concept of “civilization”; Brogan’s modest volume consisted of three essays; and Laski, who happened to be a close friend of Lerner’s, confined himself to a critique of the political system.  In reach they cannot compare to America as a Civilization, which should be recognized as not only the most comprehensive attempt to see the subject whole, but also as the last single volume to do so.  Such bravado has largely vanished.  The catholicity of Lerner’s curiosity and the range of his knowledge are quite astonishing.  America as a Civilization also exhibits shrewd and wise insights, and with much good sense.  Massive though it is, it does not read like a textbook.  Written with verve and elegance, America as a Civilization nevertheless lacks the mordant irony that Becker as well as Richard Hofstadter sprinkled onto their pages, nor did Lerner display the aptitude for presenting the breadth of curious details that Daniel J. Boorstin showed in his three-volume saga, The Americans.  The learning that is so evident in America as a Civilization is nevertheless kept fully under control (though without footnotes to back up the author’s claims).

But it must be admitted that the topic was simply too vast to permit a single scholar (short of genius) to produce a truly satisfying and compelling work.  Lerner cannot be blamed for failing to contain multitudes.  Consider, for instance, his acknowledgements, which highlight the help of Louis Hartz.  He hailed America as a Civilization as “an extraordinary piece of work,” especially so because “the complexity of American society” had become more wrenching than when Tocqueville and Bryce had visited in the nineteenth century, and because “scholarly specialization” had become so huge a challenge for any single author to meet.[4]  In 1955 Hartz had devoted himself to the history of political thought, and therefore could ride a thesis to the limit in The Liberal Tradition in America.  He addressed a single historical problem, a luxury that Lerner did not enjoy, and a certain sprawling quality was inevitable in America as a Civilization.

Unlike Hartz’s classic account, Lerner’s book reads like set pieces, which can be pondered independently of the rest of the volume.  “I can offer the reader no single talisman to the secret of American civilization,” he conceded.  Having covered as a journalist both the devastation of the Great Depression and the sudden consumerism of the postwar era, Lerner might have paid special attention to the institutions and ethos of capitalism.  Yet he warned that it “cannot be brandished as the single key either to American greatness or American infamy.”  Free enterprise “has been both overpraised and overindicted,” he asserted;[5]  and such judiciousness reveals a characteristic instinct to find the center and to step back from pushing too far in any one direction.  Observations consisting of on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that ensure that America as a Civilization is sound, but at the price of failing to sustain the reader’s interest.

Lerner’s generalizations tend not to be surprising, as though, in making judgments, he was wary of perpetrating the sin of audacity.  His literary opinions are rather conventional; fiction is usually cited because the realism of, say, Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Wolfe can be marshalled as sociological data.  Criticisms of the United States are sprinkled quite liberally through the book; though published during the Ike Age, America as a Civilization is not smug.  Even if its author is no iconoclast, he is nothing if not well-read; and he readily summons witnesses for the prosecution like Laski, who was a Marxist, allowing them to have their say.  But Lerner tends to finds their views overstated.  The rough edges are usually sanded away, in keeping with his 1943 objection to Bourne for being “alienated from the main sources of strength in American life, the people themselves . . . . He had never sufficiently surrendered himself to America to be able to take a major part in reshaping it.”[6]  (Bourne was 32 when he died.)

Thus, in keeping with his give-and-take approach to social criticism, Lerner was willing to refer to the nation’s international power as an “empire” and the impact exerted abroad as “imperialism.”  But the American version, the author asserted, “is the first on record to pour its resources into undeveloped areas and weak economies, exporting capital, technicians, and technical skills to them.”  He explained that “while the motive is self-interested, the consequences are unlike those of the colonial or ideological empires of the past.”  So criticisms are both acknowledged and rebutted, all in behalf of celebrating the triumph of a nation to which his parents, escaping Minsk under Tsarism, took him at the age of five.  “I believe in America” is the famous opening line of The Godfather (1972); Max Lerner would not have demurred.  After all, he wrote, “the Americans have had to govern a vast territorial expanse, hold together diverse ethnic and sectional and economic groups, and organize a rapidly mounting mass of wealth and power. . . That they have done it at all,” he added, “and still survived as a tolerably free society–is no mean achievement for their system of government.”[7]

America as a Civilization also marked the halfway point on Lerner’s own political trajectory from left to right.  (By the 1980s he had become a Reaganite.)[8]  The 1957 treatise is still strongly inflected with liberalism.  He was prescient on the difficulty of providing “a system of compulsory health insurance,” due to the “cult of private enterprise in medicine,” though only “warfare and teaching” are “more deeply affected with a public interest.”  Lerner also appreciated the ecological imperative: “The web between man and his environment is broken only at his peril.”[9]  But the tone is quite different from his first book, It is Later than You Think (1938, 1943), in which he championed “a militant collectivist democracy” to extend the New Deal.  His aim then was to demystify the “face of capitalist oligarchy . . . hidden by the democratic mask,” and lamented that the nation’s “real masters do not appear in the schoolbooks or even the college texts.”  Lerner insisted that “a freely functioning democracy would not tolerate the enormous concentration of corporate power in the midst of our economic anarchy.”[10]  As a champion of civil liberties, he stated that the most salient among them had become “’liberty of contract,’ which amounts in a capitalist context to the uninhibited liberty of exploiting labor.”  In 1938 he feared the intensification of “industrial terrorism and fascist preparation where” not even the Roosevelt administration “has thus been powerless to penetrate.”[11]

But by 1957, even as Lerner was acknowledging that “the advance of business power and values weakened the hold of the democratic idea,”[12]  he was repudiating a reflexive leftism.  Writing during the Great Depression, he had said oy; two decades later the aye affirmed his optimism about the country he wanted to explicate to itself.  Of course Lerner was hardly alone in crediting the basically benign purposes and policies of the United States.  America as a Civilization was published in the last decade when the American Dream seemed unambiguously available, a matter of steady and measured betterment, when the faith in economic growth came with no warnings about the uneven distribution of abundance, and when political, religious and ethnic conflicts were deemed to be manageable.  So hospitable was the big tent of Republican hegemony that, when Eisenhower sought re-election in 1956, those who cast ballots for him included Jack Kerouac and Martin Luther King, Jr.  To be sure, a few cracks in the consensus could be discerned.  Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was subjected to a trial for obscenity; Norman Mailer published “The White Negro”; and the Little Rock crisis proved that racial injustice could not remain neglected–all portents occurring in the year that America as a Civilization appeared.  Two years later, when a reprint house abridged George W. Pierson’s Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (1938), the “preoccupations” of Tocqueville’s traveling companion with “American women, the negroes, and the Indians have been subordinated.”  Such groups were “of lesser interest,” an editorial decision that following decade would start to correct.[13]

In rejecting the determinism that he associated with Marxism, Lerner would proclaim himself a “possibilist.”  (Ignoring Tocqueville’s conviction that where the America was, France and the rest of Europe would be, Lerner also called his great predecessor “a possibilist.”)[14]  The United States was different, according to America as a Civilization, because its destiny would be as threatened by the laws of decline as other societies had been.  To be sure the author did express the fear that “the greatest civil danger is that of the growth of an adventurist nationalist movement which would create a police state,” and he foresaw that the “great tests [of democratic vitality] are still to come.”[15]  But he challenged the premise of “every great system of European thought, from Marx to Toynbee, [which] saw America as at best an appendage of the larger ‘Western’ system which was at the mercy of its inner laws of disintegration and decay.”  The United States would beat the odds, Lerner believed, for it was “born out of straggling colonies,” but was then engaged in “filling out its continental expanse, sweeping away whatever obstructed it, girdling the seas with naval power, darkening the skies with air power, waxing in strength while other nations were waning, perhaps even because other nations were waning.”  After America as a Civilization was published, he debated Toynbee on the very “question of whether there is an American civilization-pattern distinct from that of Western Europe.”  Insisting that “America is not a European civilization,”[16]  America as a Civilization frequently contrasts the ways that other societies are organized.  “One of Max’s great achievements,” his former student Martin Peretz later noted, “was to persuade the intellectual class to look at America as itself and not simply as a derivative of Europe.”[17]  How fully the United States has evaded the trans-Atlantic influence is the sort of historical problem that invites the invocation of Tocqueville.

Oddly enough Lerner calls him “De Tocqueville,” though it’s corrected in a short monograph: Tocqueville and American Civilization.  Comparisons of the two writers are inevitable.  Accounting for the social cohesiveness of the new nation, Tocqueville had explained its political and legal structure in his first volume, and so does Lerner.  Tocqueville also included in Volume I a remarkable analysis of the status of the three races.  Though Lerner showed no such devotion to the subject, he fervently believed in racial equality and depicted Southern society as a caste system.  Both authors describe the mores and customs in their respective second volumes; Lerner’s is entitled “culture and personality,” taking advantage of the strides that anthropology had taken by the mid-century.  Like Tocqueville, Lerner depicted voluntary associations as the means by which “Americans avoid the excesses both of state worship and of complete individualism.”  (The danger of the former was surely implausible.)  Despite publication of his book in the same year that Senator Joseph R. McCarthy died, Lerner showed little alarm about the adverse consequences of conformism and the pursuit of political orthodoxy.  Instead he claimed that “the tyranny of the majority in American life has been overrated.”[18]

Yet comparisons to his intellectual ancestor are also unfair.  No student of America could hope to match Tocqueville, whose brilliance calls to mind what the Samuel L. Jackson character says in Pulp Fiction (1994) about not merely playing in another league, but playing an entirely different sport.  Note, for example, how each author captures the consequences of believing in equality of opportunity.  For Tocqueville the American keeps pursuing the main chance, “near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them,” and is tantalized until he dies.  Tocqueville exposes the pursuit of loneliness.[19]  For Lerner “the American remains restless until he has done his best to look for the place, the job, the environing physical setting, and social climate in which he wants to live out his life.”  Lerner thus tracks the quest for security and stability, but misses its haunting failures.  In the previous century Tocqueville fathomed the yearning for something yet more elusive, though that place will still be east of Eden and less than satisfying.  Tocqueville cuts deeper.  He had observed how much autonomy American women enjoyed, a claim that two generations of feminist historiography have undermined.  But Lerner also averred that women had achieved “equal rights” in the 1920s, and passages like the following are now bound to cause readers to wince: “America’s greatest work of art may well turn out to be the American woman, from sixteen to fifty . . . She is known the world over for her pertness, her spirit, and her looks, for the contours of her figure, the smartness of her clothes, and the vitality of her person.”[20]

Moreover the centrist and affirmative perspective of America as a Civilization leads it to distort what Tocqueville meant by democracy, and to obscure the emphasis upon equality–and more specifically equality of condition–as fundamental to the national experience.  Tocqueville had even considered calling his second volume L’Égalité en Amérique.[21]  By democracy he meant something more than an expansive sense of popular sovereignty; and the very notion of equality suggests something more radical than the ideal of liberty.  It can have conservative implications, like “liberty of contract”; Milton Friedman aptly summarized his own philosophy in Capitalism and Freedom (1962).  Tocqueville certainly had issues with equality; but he regarded it as ineluctable, its eventual triumph historically foreordained.  Because of it, he also gave the practice of democracy a political charge that America as a Civilization tends to muffle.

That book can nevertheless be admired as the most ambitious of all efforts to update the general observations of Tocqueville; and because Lerner’s book has spawned no imitators, he inadvertently inscribed a kind of epitaph for the sort of intellectual grandeur entailed in envisioning America as a gestalt.  His magnum opus proved to be barren of successors.  By contrast the reputation of Tocqueville grew so exponentially that in 1966 Harper & Row commissioned a new translation, by George Lawrence, of De la Démocratie en Amérique.  This became the first translation of the complete text since the era of the early republic, when Henry Reeve, a friend of the author, performed the indispensable task.  But whom should Harper & Row recruit to write the introduction?  From the standpoint of American intellectual history, the answer ought to be deemed overdetermined: Max Lerner.[22]

[1] Carl L. Becker to Guy Stanton Ford, January 13, 1934, in “What is the Good of History?”: Selected Letters of Carl L. Becker, 1900-1945, ed. Michael Kammen (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973), 198-99.

[2] Archibald MacLeish to Max Lerner, September 27, 1955, in Max Lerner Papers, Series I, Box 5, Folder 262, Manuscripts and Archives of Yale University.

[3] Max Lerner, America as a Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), I, I, ix.

[4] Lerner, America as a Civilization, I, ii; Louis Hartz to Max Lerner, November 15, 1955 and December 16, 1957, in Max Lerner Papers, Series I, Box 4, Folder 172, Manuscripts and Archives of Yale University.

[5] Lerner, America as a Civilization, I, 33, 71.

[6] Max Lerner in “Our Country and Our Culture,” Partisan Review, 19 (September-October, 1952), 582, 584, and “Introduction” to Louis Filler, Randolph Bourne (Washington, D. C.: American Council on Public Affairs, 1943), vi.

[7] Lerner, America as a Civilization, I, 360, and II, 887, 893.

[8] Sanford Lakoff, Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 252-58.

[9] Lerner, America as a Civilization, I, 113, 125-26.

[10] Max Lerner, It is Later than You Think (New York: Viking, 1943), 24, 89, 91.

[11] Lerner, Later than You Think, 118, 124.

[12] Lerner, America as a Civilization, I, 312.

[13] Dudley C. Lunt, ed., “Statement,” in George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Gloucester, Ma.: Peter Smith, 1969), ix.

[14] Lakoff, Max Lerner, 283; Max Lerner, Tocqueville and American Civilization (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 37.

[15] Lerner, America as a Civilization, II, 943, 948.

[16] Max Lerner, “Notes on Literature and American Civilization,” American Quarterly, 11, no. 2 (Summer 1959), 212; Lerner and Arnold J. Toynbee in Western World, 20 (December 1958), 34-39; Max Lerner, “Is America a Civilization?”, Shenandoah, 10 (Autumn 1958), 10-13, and America as a Civilization, II, 782, 882.

[17] Martin Peretz to Lawrence H. Fuchs, September 28, 1992; copy of letter in possession of author.

[18] Lerner, America as a Civilization, I, 400 and II, 634.

[19] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), II, 138-39.

[20] Lerner, America as a Civilization, I, 99, and II, 600, 604.

[21] Lerner, Tocqueville and American Civilization, 29.

[22] Lerner, Tocqueville and American Civilization, 107, 108.

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  1. Thanks so much for this enlightening review. I just finished reading both parts of Tocqueville’s classic last year, so the end of this retrospective resonated. And yes, that passage from Lerner on the achievement of American women made me wince. – TL

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