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September 2, 2007
David Warsh, Proprietor


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A Most Useful Citizen

At 95, Daniel Aaron is going strong.  He first appeared on the national stage in 1951 with Men of Good Hope: A Story of American Progressives, a portrait-gallery of eight middle-class reformers — Ralph Waldo Emerson,  Theodore Parker, Edward Bellamy, Henry George, Henry Demarest Lloyd, William Dean Howells, Thorstein Veblen, Brooks Adams (and their generally unreliable executor, Theodore Roosevelt) — that conveyed, as he described it, a vision of  “a serene and humane society where ‘costs’ would be calculated under a different accounting system and ‘success’ be weighed on a different set of scales.”  If a later generation of progressives — Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Ralph Nader, Betty Friedan, Jerome Wiesner — would shift the emphasis to other concerns, still Aaron’s survey was a dependable and durable guide to an apparently ineradicable tradition.  

Ten years later, in 1961, Aaron’s reputation was confirmed with Writers on the Left:  Episodes in American Literary Communism. He was a tough-minded, clear-headed reformer with strong anti-fascist credentials, who, though never a communist himself, nevertheless wrote with curiosity and sympathy (informed by dozens of interviews) about the controversies that had inflamed American communists since the 1920s. The net effect was to reduce them to a colorful sideshow, and to further deflate the reputation of the Communist-hunter-in-chief  Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who, in the early 1950s, as Aaron later wrote, had “hung over the United States like an enormous painted balloon.”   . 

In 1971, Harvard University hired Aaron away from Smith College, where he had taught for more than thirty years. In Cambridge he taught for another decade; surveyed American writers in the Civil War (The Unwritten War); extracted from the fifteen-million-word diary of the reclusive but energetic Arthur Inman (1895-1963) a remarkable portrayal of lost Boston; and played a key role in launching the publishing project known as the Library of America — the moderately-priced uniform editions of the best American writers that had been the long-time dream of his old friend Edmund Wilson.  Earlier this year Aaron published The Americanist, a kinetic and highly personal memoir of an age in which he and a few dozen other professors and intellectuals invented a new discipline of considerable depth, American studies, amid much social and political turmoil. (In 1943, he became the first student to earn a PhD in American Civilization from Harvard University.)  

But his memoir is not the reason for bringing up Aaron this Labor Day. Rather it is a little book that he edited, America in Crisis:  Fourteen Crucial Episodes in American History, which appeared in 1952.  During the winter of 1950-51 he taught a course at the then recently-established Bennington College called “The American Response to Crisis.” The Carnegie Corporation had funded the project as part of a program to identify the role of values in shaping American history. Aaron had been able to invite fourteen young historians to speak. They cannot have foreseen that, by the time the first class met, the United States would be involved in a bitter war in Korea. The lectures, with his introduction, were published the following year, by Knopf.  Half a century later, they provide a fascinating illustration of the power of asking a pentrating question at the right time. Wrote Aaron,

Until a few years ago, our deficiencies as a people seemed supremely unimportant and certainly quite removed from the question of national security. The opinion of the foreigner mattered very little.  We hated the ill-tempered Mrs. Trollope and were pleased by the friendly, if not uncritical, assessments of Lord Bryce, but we considered irrelevant all European evaluations of our society, whether hostile or flattering. In the spring of 1952, the opinion of the world cannot be shrugged away. We are beginning to recognize that our treatment of minorities, our ideas on civil rights, even the books we write, the music we compose, and the films we produce can help, as much as the size of our stockpiles, to determine our future relations with Europe and the East.

There followed essays by  Perry Miller, on Jonathan Edwards and the wave of religious fundamentalism known as the Great Awakening; Richard Morris, on the 1786 tax revolt that was Shays’ Rebellion; Richard Shryock, on the Yellow Fever epidemics beginning in 1793 that nearly brought Philadelphia to its knees, but which provoked a revolution in public health instead; Louis Hartz, on the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina sought to repudiate a federally mandated tariff; Howard Mumford Jones, on Horace Mann’s crusade in the 1840s in Massachusetts for free public schools;   C. Vann Woodward, on John Brown’s attempt to foment a slave revolt with his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Included, too, were Henry David, on the bloody strike at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Mill in 1892; Richard Hofstadter, on the taking of the Philippine Islands from Spain in 1899 and the accompanying clamor over Manifest Destiny; Meyer Schapiro, on the exhibition of Post-Impressionist modern painting in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York, which provoked ex-president Theodore Roosevelt’s attack on “The Naked Man Going Downstairs”; Dexter Perkins, on President Woodrow Wilson’s failed tour in support of his League of Nations in 1919; Walton Hamilton, on the 1933 bank crisis and Franklin Roosevelt’s policy response; Ronald Sears, on the 1937 storms that created the Dust Bowl and launched an epic migration from Oklahoma to California;  Morris Janowitz, on the odd and quickly-suppressed  phenomenon of the Black Legion, a 1930s schism of the Ku Klux Klan in Ohio and southern Michigan (they dyed their robes black) which advocated fascist policies; and, Norman Holmes Pearson, on the shattering effect on American Communists of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact of 1939.

Fifty years later, it is a commonplace that American books, music and films have a extensive impact on the opinions of others around the world — to say nothing of American technologies, political institutions, monetary policies and intellectual property rules. Once again, the Unites States is involved in bitter war, this time in Iraq. Aaron’s assessment in 1952 is more to the point than ever:

To a nation hitherto self-contained and confident, the new responsibilities do not come easily.  We have never bothered to understand alien ideas (“isms” were something to fear or deride), and “selling America” had simply meant dispensing American largesse. We now see the extent of our involvement and the vulnerability of our talismans: natural resources and “know-how.”  We see that world problems are not merely American problems writ large, that it will take more than a little common sense and a few “man to man” talks with the Russians to solve them. Finally, we can appreciate the degree to which our strengths and weaknesses as a people have been conditioned by the American past, how we have been blessed and victimized by our history. Because of our wealth and isolation and our vast inland empire, because of the advantages we have enjoyed as a result of European rivalries, we did not develop some of the qualities and abilities we now so desperately need.

Perhaps it is time for another book of essays, by another generation of young and rising historians. The Cold War was just beginning when Aaron taught his course on the American response to decisive times. The United States weathered the challenged pretty well. But there were plenty of crises along the way, and their resolution (or lack thereof) might be explored for whatever light they could shed on these troubled times.

Indeed, stimulated by America in Crisis, I jotted down in a couple of hours the other day another fourteen crises in the half-century since 1951 that have particularly interested me:  the launch of Sputnik and the subsequent competition with the USSR; the challenges to religious and scientific authority posed during the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council and the publication of James Watson’s The Double Helix and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the 1967 race riots in the northern cities; the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” and the subsequent Watergate crisis; the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion;  the  “May Day” deregulation of Wall Street in 1975 and subsequent changes in corporate governance;  the productivity slowdown of the 1970s and various fiscal policy and technological responses to it; the inflation crisis and the appointment of Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in 1979; the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath; the revolution in labor market policies, from the abolition of baseball’s reserve clause to the 1981 air-controller’s strike; the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the years before and afterwards; the discovery of  the role of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemicals in ozone depletion and the 1987 Montreal Protocol which reduced them; the federal budget battles of the 1990s ending in the unsuccessful impeachment trial of President Clinton; and, of course, the tie-election of 2000 and subsequent events.

That list, in turn, sent me back to Aaron’s memoir, where I found these concluding words: “[I] find myself a citizen of two Americas. One of them is the country of Uncle Sam, an America, in the words of Herman Melville, ‘intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in the externals, but savage at heart.’ The other is its blessed double, home of heroes and clowns and the cheerful and welcoming democratic collective — ‘the place where I was born.’”

For all his schooling in Puritan doctrines of original sin and the ubiquity of evil, writes Aaron, it is the second America to which he feels “culturally and temperamentally attuned.”  And so do I.  But this Labor Day, more than most, it is useful to be reminded that we are dual citizens.

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