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Social critic Christopher Lasch’s enduring influence

October 21, 2016
students and teacher around a tableChristopher Lasch in a seminar room in the 1980s

Vox editor Ezra Klein recently asked Hillary Clinton in an interview to name three books that have influenced how she thinks about policy that everyone should read. Clinton’s reply included the work of Christopher Lasch, who was a historian at the University of Rochester for nearly a quarter of a century.

Having Lasch come up in such conversations is not unusual, says Jeff Ludwig ’15 (PhD), whose dissertation serves as a biography of Lasch and his early career. Ludwig, who’s now the Director of Education at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, says Lasch gets quoted often during election cycles but assuming how he would critique contemporary culture or politics is “tricky” business.

Jeff Ludwig

Jeff Ludwig ’15 (PhD), director of education at the Seward House Museum. (University photo / Dani Picard)

 

Q: Who was Christopher Lasch?

Ludwig: Christopher Lasch was one of the preeminent American historians and social critics of the mid and late 20th century. He was a professor of history at the University of Rochester from 1970 until his death at age 61 in 1994.

Lasch wrote a number of highly influential and cited books on a number of issues—his interests were wide ranging. He was a public intellectual, meaning much of his work were commentaries on current affairs. Lasch always tried to engage with the widest possible audience.

As he described his role in an interview with Casey Blake ’87 (PhD): “A social critic tries to catch the general drift of the times, to show how a particular incident or policy or a distinctive configuration of sentiments holds up a mirror to society.” I think that Lasch did that exceptionally well, which explains his deep resonance 22 years after his death.

Q: Can you talk about Lasch and the University?

Ludwig: Before coming to Rochester at age 38, Lasch was job-hopping. He kept moving to better positions, never spent more than three or four years at any given university. He was at Williams College, Roosevelt University in Chicago, the University of Iowa, Northwestern, it looked like he was on the fast track to get to the top of the Ivies by his 40th birthday. Then he moved to Rochester in 1970 and never left. There was something about Rochester that clicked for him.

He came to Rochester at a time when Eugene Genovese and Herbert Gutman, the great historians of slavery and labor, were in the department. They had visions of building a strong department of scholars and students who were interested in social criticism. They subscribed to the idea that history could do real work in the world, be meaningful and engaged with the broadest public audience, and ultimately improve democracy.

But, sadly, all of that unraveled pretty early on in the midst of personality conflicts and feuding. Despite the setback and disappointment, there was still something about Rochester that appealed to Lasch, and to his family.

He had four children who seemed to be very happy here, which meant a great deal to him. So, he put aside his ambitions of being the best professor in the best department in the world, and decided to plant roots, just like he would write about— seeking a community of lasting bonds, forming attachments to specific people and specific places instead of to universal abstractions. And so he did.

Eventually, Lasch would reshape the department. He put Rochester on the map for different reasons than it was looking like it might have in the early 70s—as an epicenter for new radical scholarship and a crusading sort of history. Instead, Rochester became a really respectable university for graduate studies for cultural history and for more subdued history as social criticism.

Lasch attracted all sorts of interesting graduate students like labor historian Leon Fink ’71, ’77 (PhD), and intellectual historians Casey Blake and Kevin Mattson ’94 (PhD). He was a famously dedicated presence in the classroom; when he returned graded papers, each of his students received a mini-essay from him in response to their work. There are some really moving accounts of him by his students in the Lasch Papers.

Q: Did Lasch have an iconic book or article?

Ludwig: His iconic work is a book that came out in 1979, The Culture of Narcissism. Although most historians, scholars, and intellectuals were well aware of who he was—he had published a number of important books and articles for nearly two decades by that point—this book made him a household name. The book, very famously, got bound up with President Carter’s “crisis of confidence” or “national malaise” speech, parts of which were taken from The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch, in fact, was invited to the White House to meet with Carter. The book and its author were even featured in a glossy spread in People magazine, which helped boost his readership. It’s a really difficult book, though, not nearly as easily digested as its popularity would suggest. He was surprised that it became a bestseller.

Q: What was Lasch’s argument in The Culture of Narcissism?

Ludwig: He looked closely at cultural changes sweeping through America in what he called “late capitalism.” Lasch examined a transformation of American selfhood and identity that, he thought, was being adversely transformed by the culture around it. As if the older foundations for defining selfhood were slipping away as Americans learned to embrace artifice, performance, and appearance over substance to survive in their economic order. Eventually the performance and the authentic blur past the point of distinction.

Though Lasch was a brilliant writer, it’s a very dense book, steeped in sociological theory. Ultimately, he diagnoses 1970s America as suffering from mass narcissism, self-involvement, bound up in the forces of an economic system, past its prime, and one quite exploitative, even soul-crushing, in its ability to strip the workforce of meaning and autonomy in their labor.

Q: So the book is a diagnosis. Does it offer a cure?

Ludwig: Sort of. It’s a criticism of Lasch that he was always identifying, as a critic, ailments and maladies and yet rarely offering solutions. You have to read between the lines. He was looking for alternatives to an American society in which both the left and right seem moribund.

What I think he was really pointing towards as an alternative, perhaps best articulated in his book The True and Only Heaven (1991) was what he called “counter progressive.” He believed that America was blindly taken with the idea of progress. That America was moving inexorably forward and always improving, that this present represented the best of all possible worlds. We had this optimism that we were on a linear path to better things and we didn’t really have to work to get there. It was a sort of ethos as driving force for consumer capitalism: More, more, more, bigger, bigger, bigger, better, better, better.

But Lasch was looking for something more local and rooted in place, which is why I think Rochester greatly appealed to him. Building small things, building from resources within the self that he thought had been eroded by big, consumer capitalism.

Q: Was this Populism?

Ludwig: Lasch outlines a form of populism that would start in small communities in his later books. He thought lower and middle-class people needed to take the country back from elites, but not with racist overtones, and certainly not with capitalist demagogues leading the way. Instead, with a petit-bourgeois radicalism more respectful towards democracy.

In the ‘60s, Lasch thought it would be sort of a socialist revolution, but he never wrote blueprints, like, “this is what a perfect world would look like.” What he was really interested in was pointing out, as a social critic, wrong turns, missteps, and problems.

Q: Do you wonder what Lasch would think of the current state of politics?

Ludwig: I met with Mrs. Nell Lasch, his widow, a couple of years ago and she said that she is often asked, “what do you think your husband would say about the X, Y, and Z that’s going on right now?” She always gives a version of this answer: “Kit [Lasch’s nickname] isn’t here to tell us and it’s tricky and dangerous to try to make assumptions based on what he wrote 20 or more years ago and fit it into modern debates.”

Lasch gets cited a lot during election cycles because much of what he had to say is still relevant—especially given the debate about the place of the privileged and of elites in American life. But, I always thought it striking that Nell said to me, “he’s not with us,” cautioning us against trying to find his voice in events that are well beyond his time by force-fitting him into modern debates. Even in his lifetime, people of all political persuasions—from radicals to far-right conservatives—could read into something from Lasch’s corpus of works that appealed to them. He’s been claimed by the left, right, and center, though in the end I think Lasch was advocating for a total paradigm shift away from these labels and the social order they buttressed.

Q: Lasch was a social critic over a span of forty years. Did his interests shift overtime?

Ludwig: That’s the thing that is tricky about Lasch. He never stayed on one topic for very long. His historiography shows that he was as interested in writing about race as he was about popular culture, and entertainment as much as sports. He was a celebrated writer for the New York Review of Books because they could hand him a subject and he would form an articulate, and often scathing and well thought out opinion of it. But that’s also why it took me 800 pages to just do volume one of his biography for my dissertation.

Jeff Ludwig’s dissertation is the first of a potential two volume biography of Lasch’s life, “Christopher Lasch: A Life Volume One: History as Social Criticism.”  Ludwig has published several articles on Lasch, and intends to co-edit a volume of Lasch’s under-published and unpublished work with Robert Westbrook, the Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at Rochester. 

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Category: Society & Culture