Monday, July 04, 2011

Fischer on American Culture

From The Claremont Review of Books of Claude S. Fischer's "Made in America":

As this summary implies, Fischer has very little use for narratives of decline or nostalgia about the past. He frequently enjoins the reader to be careful in distinguishing actual cultural change from changes in the ways intellectuals talk about culture, a skepticism that seems to me entirely prudent and well-justified. But neither is he a Pollyanna for whom everything is steadily getting better in every way, and the only ones doing the complaining are the toad-like "enemies of the future." He acknowledges the possibility of profoundly ironic results arising even out of the most straightforward and incontestable of improvements, such as the progress made in rendering our lives more predictable and less precarious.

To make this last point vivid, he cites the example of Abraham Lincoln, "the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere" in early 1865—and yet a man who had lost his grandfather (killed by Indians), lost his mother when he was ten, lost his older sister when 19, lost his special friend Ann Rutledge to typhoid, buried two of his four sons before they were 12, and a third at 18—not to mention having an emotionally unstable wife, suffering from depression himself, and coming to a violent end. Lincoln's entire life was enveloped in a sense of fragility and danger that we would find almost inconceivable today. And yet, Fischer acknowledges, our much greater security today has not translated into an equivalent loss of anxiety. As he observes, it may be that "reducing the mundane risks of life made the remaining risks or emerging ones more fearsome."

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