U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Max Lerner Roundtable Part Three: The Middle Road and “The Figure in the Carpet”: Reading Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization

What follows, at long last, is our third and final installment of a roundtable celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization. For more context and astute analysis, I’d ask that readers go back to our first two entries by Professor Sanford Lakoff, “On Revisiting America as a Civilization,” and Professor Stephen Whitfield, “An Epitaph for Ambition.”  

Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization is an amazing accomplishment and a frustrating one at that. As both of our very accomplished readers of Lerner thus far, Sanford Lakoff and Stephen Whitfield have acknowledged, the book has been largely forgotten by intellectual historians. As they suggest, part of the problem has to do with its imposing size, nearly a thousand pages of text. The book might have found a broader readership had it been broken up into multiple volumes (a la Vernon Parrington—sort of) or maybe had undergone revision as a “briefer course” (a la William James’s “Jimmy” to the “James” two volume Principles of Psychology.)  Yet I would suggest that other reasons account for its lackluster place in American intellectual history, some deserved and others not. There are at least three interrelated factors. First, the book was largely without a central argument, by which I mean a mechanism or “hook” upon which to hang its analysis. While there was the concept of a “civilization” in its pages, it proved too expansive and elusive to ultimately hold the readers’ interest throughout. Second, the reasonableness and political centrism of the book lent it a certain hard-won wisdom, yet it lacked interpretive bite in places, despite its remarkable clarity and stunning erudition. Finally, while the book reflected any number of critical transformations that had occurred in American life at midcentury, it appeared in a nation arguably at the apogee of its global power. While Lerner was never self-congratulatory or smug about that, the America that appeared in its pages was never precisely an augury or cautionary tale. In Civilization, Lerner in the end was concerned with what was needed for American civilization to continue and how long and under what conditions it would continue.

Lerner tried to save the word “civilization” from its various abuses up to the time of his writing, whether the praiseworthy (marking sophistication or urbanity) or the condemnatory (an unfortunate rhetorical weapon against the presumably more primitive or barbaric). The term needed updating in light of the latest and best thinking about culture, psychology, and history, because “civilization as a concept must be extricated from emotional distortions and used objectively.”[1] Lerner was after something more essential, deeper and more “elusive” than rhetorical uses and abuses, an “inner civilization style” reflecting the fundamental rhythms of life in and among Americans (3). His vision was incredibly expansive, encompassing among other things physical landscapes, technology, social and political institutions, arts and letters, religious practice, beliefs and opinions, just to list some of the features of this “style” surveyed in the book.

America was a distinguishable whole. American civilization was derived from an array of influences, but it was nonetheless its own thing: “For good or ill, America is what it is—a culture in its own right, with many characteristic lines of power and meaning of its own, ranking with Greece and Rome and one of the great distinctive civilizations in history” (59). Not all that surprising for its time, America as a Civilization was an unapologetic form of critical exceptionalism. Lerner wanted to capture somehow what America meant as a lived phenomenon. He chose an interesting metaphor to get at this “civilization,” or the whole and its essential style: “the figure in the carpet.” One can assume Lerner meant little more by the metaphor than a certain way of seeing from the proper remove, like one eventually makes out a unified pattern in the complex weave of a rug. This makes sense. Lerner asked that the reader complete the whole book and then come back to the chapter on “The Idea of American Civilization,” presumably because the figure might reveal itself once one got a better sense of the many complex strands that made it up. It was a tall order.

Yet, maybe Lerner suggested something more tantalizingly elusive and even ironic. He borrowed the phrase from Henry James’ 1896 short story of the same name. Lerner never told the reader that, but one can safely assume he thought certain readers would be in on it. It’s also a delicious inside joke of sorts, because the James short story is about a critic who writes for a literary journal called “The Middle,” a tidy allusion in a book written by Max Lerner, a centrist journalist and critic. In “Figure,” Henry James tells the story of a critic’s preposterous, comic and ultimately vain attempt to learn the great, yet simple, fundamental secret of a great novelist’s work. Everyone who might tell him successively dies before he can discover the truth.[2] The careful reader of Lerner’s book wonders what to make of that coruscating irony.

Lerner took the middle road to make sense of it all. He turned out to be eminently reasonable, at points wise and sometimes frustrating. He continuously warned the reader against taking too strong a position on either side of any opposition. His favorite metaphor for staking things out were opposing “poles” (as in magnetic poles). He also liked tropes taken from physics or biology. He took his binaries unresolved and in tension with one another. In terms of “People and Place”: “It is better to approach the Midwest without either idealizing it as the ‘heart of America’ or overreacting to it as a Chamber of Horrors of American middle-class Babbitry” (190). On capitalism and property: “I do not write of Big Property here as if it were always evil and monopolist, and of Small Property as if it were always good. Neither is necessarily true” (299). As for political parties: “What it seems is that American parties should be viewed not so much in terms of the grandeurs of statesmanship or the miseries of corrupt political machines, as for the moderating and mediating brokerage role which for better or worse both Presidents and machine bosses perform” (385). American thought: “Every generalization about American thought can be offset by a countergeneralization. Suppose you mention the lack of mystical thinkers: except for some of the early Puritan divines you will be on good ground, yet in Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, James, and Faulkner there is a remarkable power in the handling of symbolism” (718). His thinking was rarely dialectical, but instead left the poles where they were, unresolved, mapping the various complex tendencies in between as they leaned toward one end or the other, or until they found “an equilibrium between charged tensions,” depending upon the context (364). At one point he nearly gave up the ghost: “The observer is tempted to say (with Hamlet): ‘Look at this picture, and here this one’”(268). (Lerner also liked the word “tropism,” as in the natural tendency of plants to move toward the changing position of the sun.)

There were obviously some frustrating pitfalls along the middle road. While, as Stephen Whitfield sagely reminded us, it’s hardly fair to compare Max Lerner with Alexis Tocqueville, he was clearly the former’s model, so it’s worth trying to get at the heart of what differentiates the two. Tocqueville—that aristocratic liberal—surely reveled in tensions, (“less brilliance…and less misery” and so on) but the difference was that Civilization lacked a central mechanism or engine like the Frenchman’s democratic social state to resolve them. The pleasure in reading Democracy in America comes from following the intellectual turns and twists as Tocqueville motored through an explanation of this or that phenomenon. With Tocqueville at the wheel for example, we learn how democratic envy enforced conformity without need of a centralizing power, or why democratic people had a hankering for pantheism, and so on, almost ad infinitum. More often than not, Lerner opted for the complex perspective—a “gridiron” was another of his favorite usages—always and everywhere another example of a complex set of interrelations between two poles. This was so because Lerner, by his own admission, meant to cast his net wider than the concept of democracy while getting at something somehow more essential or fundamental. Only by working through the weave could we eventually get to the figure in the carpet, provided the reader ever really got there. (Again, after reading this book and thinking about the Henry James short story, I wonder the extent to which the joke was on us.)

America as a Civilization was larded with piquant observations and endless displays of erudition.[3] Lerner waded comfortably and confidently into pretty much any subject matter, trotting out, not uncritically, the then-latest in social criticism and research while making tidy, if unspectacular analogies taken from American literary classics. (See especially his section about titans of industrial capitalism (274-284).)  He tended to rely on a handful of “go-to” figures to finish off an analysis with anecdote or bon mot, usually Brooks and Henry Adams, George Santayana, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, sometimes supported by any number of European classics to top things off. As for big studies of “America,” Tocqueville merited the most frequent number of references, with James Bryce running a close second, probably followed by Harold Laski, most often for the purposes of taking issue with them. Intellectual historians of the United States could do worse than follow along or at least crib from this or that sparkling observation as part of an effort to dive deeper. The book is clearly worth reading.

But part of what made Alexis de Tocqueville’s aristocratic liberalism so compelling was the inner turmoil that produced it. The French Revolution had brought on waves of continuing unrest. The world of his parents had been unalterably changed in its wake. At least the milder example across the Atlantic might inspire some forlorn hope for the democratic experiment, even as it marched inevitably onward with the tide of history. It might inspire a “new political science…for a world altogether new.” In his own time and place, Lerner had to deal a different sort of transformation, one characterized by “Bigness” and the seemingly irreducible complexity that came with an “Emerging Amalgam.” As I read his book, it occurred to me that Lerner’s resort to complexity, his refusal of resolutions, probably amounted to an attempt to rescue the singular, choice-making individual in the “age of mastodons” (431). For that reason, in America as a Civilization Lerner could hardly resort to any grand philosophy of history to make out “the figure in the carpet.” It didn’t fit his time or place, with America at the height of its power rather than scrambling up from obscurity. Yet, the “religious terror” in Tocqueville’s soul, the very thing that has continued to draw readers in, was inspired by a grand philosophy of history. Maybe, like Henry James’ narrator, Lerner was just little too late, so the secret eluded him. One wonders if he knew it. Judging from “The Figure in the Carpet,” I suspect he did.

[1] Max Lerner, America as a Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 55. Succeeding references to this book will appear in parentheses.

[2] See Henry James, “The Figure in the Carpet” online at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/645/645-h/645-h.htm In James’ story, a critic and narrator is charged with writing a review of a great novelist’s (Hugh Vereker’s) latest work. He gets the chance only because another critic (George Corvick) drops the assignment in his lap after being called out of town at the behest of a woman novelist (Gwendolyn Erme) who Corvick eventually marries. The narrator means to get at the essence of the Vereker’s oeuvre but fails. He gets a chance to meet the novelist, who tells him that’s he’s missed the point, and that there is indeed a “secret” or “trick” that explains all of his work. The story is about the narrator’s vain search to capture the “secret” or “the figure in the carpet.” Vereker has the secret, but won’t tell him. Corvick claims to have got the secret, and he tells Gwendolyn upon the occasion of their nuptials, but dies before he can tell the narrator. Gwendolyn won’t give up the secret for the narrator, and then she marries another man. In the meantime, Vereker dies. Then Gwendolyn, the last person with the secret, dies, and so the narrator pumps her widower for the secret. It turns out she never told him. The upshot is that everyone who could tell the secret of Vereker’s art refuses to and then dies before the narrator can learn it. It ends in schadenfreude, as the narrator takes some small pleasure in knowing that Gwendolyn’s second husband was never given the secret of Vereker either: “So abrupt an experience of her want of trust had now a disturbing effect on him; but I saw the immediate shock throb away little by little and then gather again into waves of wonder and curiosity—waves that promised, I could perfectly judge, to break in the end with the fury of my own highest tides.  I may say that to-day as victims of unappeased desire there isn’t a pin to choose between us.  The poor man’s state is almost my consolation; there are really moments when I feel it to be quite my revenge.”

[3]One example out of many is Lerner’s analysis of district attorneys and prosecutors in the American legal system: “[H]e [the prosecutor] has also a vast discretionary power which allows him to decide what indictments to present to the Grand Jury, what lesser pleas to accept, what cases to bring to trial. The impact of the market on American law is show in the bargaining process by which most of the business of a district attorney in the big cities is transacted: only one case out of fifteen in a city like New York is ever brought to trial, the rest being settled in pretrial negotiations through the D.A.’s office. This is a ‘marketing orientation’ with a vengeance” (435). Compare this observation with a review of some recent work on mass incarceration: David Cole, “The Truth about Our Prison Crisis,” New York Review of Books (22 June, 2017), 29-31.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an excellent analysis, Pete, that serves as an apt capstone to the effort to assess the fate of “America as a Civilization,” and to account for the oblivion into which Max Lerner’s book has sunk six decades after its publication. Your sense of the virtues of the book is, I believe, sound– and even more so your identification of the chief flaw. Books of that scale, length and erudition need a strong thesis, perhaps even an overstated one, to endure. My one rather minor disagreement is the label of “centrist” that you attach to Lerner. He would have preferred “liberal,” no doubt. His journalistic base was, after all, the New York Post when it was editorially liberal; and newspapers on the right, such as the Florida Times-Union, which I read growing up in Jacksonville, positioned Lerner as a ballast against the overwhelmingly conservative columnists elsewhere. Admittedly the conservative mood was dominant in 1957, and liberalism was on the defensive and temperate, which is why in retrospect there is something tepid and wary about Lerner’s politics in his book. But at the time I don’t think he would have been recognized as a “centrist.”

    • Thank you for that correction Steve. This is one of those instances where I probably extrapolated too much from the back and forth reasonableness of the book when Lerner clearly takes some positions, say, on civil rights and liberties in Civilization that surely qualified as liberal at the time. I really should and could have made much the same argument without identifying Lerner as a “centrist.”

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