From the March/April, 2011 issue of Touchstone

Traveling Kit by John C. Chalberg

Traveling Kit

Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch
by Eric Miller
Eerdman’s, 2010
(394 pages, $32.00, hardcover)

reviewed by John C. Chalberg

Not all that long ago, a hopeful set of Midwestern parents sent their treasured son off to Harvard. The year was 1950, and Robert and Zora Lasch (he an editor, she an academic) were already anticipating the day when 18-year-old “Kit” would join their ranks of educated progressives. Nowhere near their parental radar screen was the slightest hint that their pride and joy would ever leave the straight and narrow path of secular progressivism.

Nonetheless, during his very first semester at Harvard, the youth who would become historian Christopher Lasch stunned his parents by becoming interested in, of all things, religion. Imagine that. Smack dab in the middle of the twentieth century there were parents who worried that their child would go off to Harvard and get religion!

What almost happened to the young Mr. Lasch might be less likely to happen at today’s Harvard. But it did almost happen—and at about the same time that William F. Buckley Jr. was publicly lamenting the loss of God at Yale.

A Man of Ideas

Almost? Yes, almost, and therein lies the tale that Eric Miller tells. A professor of American history at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Miller isn’t likely to supplant Joe Willie Namath as the town’s most famous citizen. Nor, for that matter, did his subject challenge “Broadway Joe’s” iconic status during a celebrated post-Harvard career that ended with his premature death from cancer in 1994.

But Christopher Lasch was a celebrity of sorts, albeit a celebrity intellectual and a reluctant one at that. Therein lies a tale that Miller, to his credit, has chosen not to tell. His is a rigorously intellectual biography of a highly inventive historian. Very much a man of his times, Lasch was first and always a man of ideas.

But whether as historian, would-be novelist, or citizen, Lasch was also a man of the left, a rigorously honest man of the left, but a man of the left nonetheless. As a young historian, he was tempted to bite into the apple of political activism. But he resisted—with more than a little help from the ideological excesses and silly antics of his brethren on the left. As a mature historian, he grew increasingly attracted to aspects of the right. But a full embrace was never to be, given the permanent devil in his life. That would be corporate America, not to mention the “wreckage” and “spiritual desolation” it left in its wake.

In the end, Kit Lasch thought of himself as a populist, no longer a left-wing populist and not exactly a right-wing populist, but a populist who maddened and frustrated his erstwhile friends on the left when he wasn’t confusing and tantalizing his potential friends on the right.

Through it all, this traditional family man (and son-in-law of famed historian Henry Steele Commager) was—and forever remained—a defender of the traditional family, not to mention an advocate for Burke’s “little platoons” in all their incarnations, including churches and churchgoers.

A Man of Disappointments

Along the way, he more than dabbled with two of the dangerously compelling “isms” of modern times, Marxism and Freudianism, even as he forever kept his distance from the “ism” that is feminism. In Miller’s deft telling, Lasch in his prime sought to bend and soften Marx and Freud, while using both to explain America’s plight to his fellow Americans.

The result was a cache of present-minded books that dwelt on America’s failings and Lasch’s disappointments. It seems that reformers, whether Teddy Roosevelt progressives or Cold War liberals, were never up to the tasks he set before them, while the typical American was little more than an alienated, distracted, and “self-flattering” narcissist. To complete this unholy trinity of Laschian disappointments, America’s “little platoons” were either retreating or disappearing—or both—before his ever-rueful gaze.

As creative as this frustrated novelist-turned-historian could be, his case against Cold War America was in many ways indistinguishable from the conventional orthodoxy of the left. Driven by consumerism at home and militarism abroad, Christopher Lasch’s America was a country very much in need of what Marx and Freud—or at least Marx and Freud as filtered through Lasch—had to offer.

The height of this filtering process was achieved with The Culture of Narcissism, a best-seller that made Lasch an instant celebrity and earned him a visit to Jimmy Carter’s White House. In fact, the word “malaise” was Lasch’s indirect contribution to Carter’s infamous, down-from-the-mountain-top 1979 “malaise” speech that did not actually contain that word.

Having enthusiastically voted for Carter (“the most intelligent politician to rise to national prominence in a long time”) in 1976, the disappointed Lasch became a Ted Kennedy man in 1980. When the Kennedy candidacy collapsed, he flirted with the “environmentalist” Barry Commoner before his fear of a Reagan presidency (and the “temporary fit of madness” it foretold) drew him back to the Democratic fold. To the end of his life, that fold remained comfortable enough for Christopher Lasch.

A Man of Hope

Something somewhat similar might be said about his relationship with religion. Here, the flirtation threatened at times to blossom into a genuine romance, but to the end he kept his distance from both organized religion and creedal belief. It was a distance that remained comfortable—or at least not uncomfortable—for the son of Robert and Zora Lasch.

There are moments in this book when Miller seems to be quietly urging his subject to keep on trying to narrow that distance. It’s as though he might have whispered, “C’mon in, Kit, the water (of faith) is fine. Besides, this is where your defense of the family, as well as your support for all things small and traditional, is really taking you. So cast off your own family’s tradition and join your new friends.”

But Lasch never managed to take the leap. Did Robert (who outlived his son) and Zora therefore worry for nothing? Not quite. Dale Vree, editor of the conservative Catholic monthly New Oxford Review, labeled an occasional contributor by the name of Christopher Lasch a “fellow traveler of Christianity.” Miller does not disagree. He also portrays an anguished Lasch caught between his professed judgment that what ailed America could only be  cured by a “full-scale restoration of Christian theology” and his long-held, parent-induced default position that such theology was “intellectually untenable.”

 According to Miller, Lasch also hesitated because this fellow traveler “never issued a full repudiation of Marx.” If only he had paid some attention to another European thinker, one with a shade more contact with America and a bit more to say about this country. That, of course, would be Alexis de Tocqueville.

But Miller gives us no indication that Lasch ever bothered to consult this fellow-worrier over the status and importance of “little platoons” in -American life. Nor does it seem that Lasch ever came to realize the truly powerful role that government has played in their decline and disappearance. For him, the devil that was corporate capitalism always seemed to trump all other potential mischief-makers.

Still, to the end of his days, Christopher Lasch remained “hopeful”—not optimistic, mind you, but hopeful. The distinction is at once important and not without religious overtones, however scattered the times might be. It is true that optimism and quiescence can go hand-in-hand, but Lasch was always too much a worrier and too engaged a citizen ever to be quiescent. That said, his hopefulness was rooted in something deeper. Miller concludes that his subject gradually acquired a “fundamental confidence” in what he called the “goodness of life,” as well as a sense that there was “some kind of underlying justice in the universe.”

Hmmm. Maybe Kit’s parents had had good reason to be worried—very, very worried—all along. 

John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota.

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