Christopher Lasch Essay - Critical Essays

Lasch, Christopher

Introduction

Christopher Lasch 1932–1994

American social critic, historian, essayist, and professor.

The following entry presents an overview of Lasch's career through 1995.

A historian and social critic, Lasch was a controversial and often misunderstood theorist of contemporary American culture. Speaking from a position generally sympathetic to the intellectual left, he united political radicalism and social conservatism in his disturbing but thought-provoking analyses of American society, which he viewed as increasingly bureaucratic, consumption-oriented, and politically driven by a "new," elite economic class. His works—including The New Radicalism in America (1965), The Culture of Narcissism (1977), and The True and Only Heaven (1991)—examine how late nineteenth-century capitalism, progressivism, and the consequent social problems of that era evolved during the twentieth century, and demonstrate how traditional institutions and values have been dismantled and replaced by confusion and despair. Although his thought generated strong disagreement as often as high approbation from both rightist and leftist critics, most agree that Lasch brought a fresh perspective to the debate about the American cultural crisis at the end of the twentieth century. Jean Bethke Elshtain has observed: "Christopher Lasch was a man of grace who found much of late modernity graceless; a man of wit who found much of our politics witless; a man of purpose who lamented our culture's frenetic purposelessness; a man of hope who saw in boundless optimism a deep despair."

Biographical Information

Lasch was born June 1, 1932, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Robert and Zora Lasch, a journalist and philosophy professor, respectively. Little is known about his childhood and adolescence until his entrance into Harvard University in 1950, where he was novelist John Updike's roommate. Lasch received a B.A. degree in history in 1954, after which he enrolled at Columbia University for postgraduate studies, earning his master's degree in 1955 and a Ph.D. degree in 1961. While he pursued his doctoral studies, he taught history at Williams College, Columbia, and Roosevelt University and published a number of essays on historical trends in American culture and politics. As a history professor during the 1960s, first at the University of Iowa and later at Northwestern University, Lasch wrote The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (1962), The New Radicalism in America, and The Agony of the American Left (1969). In 1970 Lasch accepted an appointment as professor of history at the University of Rochester, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Following the publication of The World of Nations (1973) and Haven in a Heartless World (1977), Lasch gained national attention with the best-selling The Culture of Narcissism, which received an American Book Award in current interest in 1980. That year, he delivered the Freud Lectures at University College in London. Lasch wrote three more books—The Minimal Self (1984), The True and Only Heaven, and the posthumously published Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995)—before he died of cancer on February 14, 1994.

Major Works

The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution, based in part on Lasch's doctoral dissertation, argues that a blind faith in progress obscured the distressing effects of the communist revolution in Russia in 1917 and suggests that similar consequences await the unrestrained optimism found in modern American liberalism. The New Radicalism in America identifies in a series of biographical sketches the early twentieth-century foundations of a socially aware radicalism, tracing its development through mid-century as a force for social and political reform that ultimately produced the American welfare state. These themes emerge again in Haven in a Heartless World, which suggests that the industrial revolution produced ideological justifications for state interference in private, family life. The Agony of the American Left, comprising five essays on populism, socialism, black power, and students' rights, describes how post-World War I radicalism had co-opted progressive ideology, which has diluted radicalism's political influence. The World of Nations, divided into "The Limits of Liberal Reform," "Alternatives to Liberalism," and "The So-Called Post-Industrial Society," contains eighteen essays and book reviews published between 1958 and 1972. Lasch turned from considered aspects of modern society to focus on the modern individual in his next book. The Culture of Narcissism examines contemporary narcissism, a personality structure characterized by self-absorption and a stern superego, and analyzes historical and cultural patterns to account for its widespread emergence during the latter half of the twentieth century. The Minimal Self, a sequel to The Culture of Narcissism, clarifies argumentative points made in the previous book by analyzing the ethic of "survivalism" and radical feminism. Returning to criticism of liberalism, The True and Only Heaven rejects the modern ideology of progress in favor of petty-bourgeois values and an acceptance of limits without despair, or "hope." The Revolt of the Elites discusses the differences between populism and contemporary "communitarianism" in terms of changes in late twentieth-century capitalism.

Critical Reception

Elshtain has remarked that Lasch "was better at putting the questions than at providing the answers," and most critical commentary on his works has made similar conclusions. As a radical historian in his early career, "his trenchant analysis of modern liberal and radical ideology made Lasch a darling of the New Left," observed Steven Watts. The critical reception of Lasch's social criticism since 1975, however, has been marked by contention and controversy, mainly since his "commentary has defied confident ideological categorization," according to Watts. Watts also has noted that Lasch's "social criticism has raised as many angry rebuttals from ostensible allies on the Left as from evident targets on the Right…. Misunderstood more than any other contemporary critic, he has been praised and condemned for all the wrong reasons." Rightist critics generally have endorsed Lasch's writing for upholding traditional values, while leftist critics have accused him of betraying the liberal cause. Some commentators have faulted Lasch's books for lacking humor and assuming a tone of self-righteousness; others have responded to his treatment of gender issues and the cultural meaning of feminine with cries of "authoritarian" and "hallucinatory." Economists also have noticed the vagueness of Lasch's agenda for a return to small-scale production in the face of global competition, questioning its practicality. But Watts has concluded: "The fact that [Lasch] has mystified and infuriated so many only supports the suspicion that he must be on to something."

Principal Works

The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (history) 1962
The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (history) 1965
The Agony of the American Left (essays) 1969
The World of Nations (essays) 1973
Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (social criticism) 1977
The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (social criticism) 1977
The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (social criticism) 1984
The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (social criticism) 1991
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (social criticism) 1995

Criticism

Joseph Voelker (review date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: A review of The Minimal Self, in Southwestern Humanities Review, Spring, 1986, pp. 181-83.

[In the following review, Voelker compares the themes of The Minimal Self to those of The Culture of Narcissism, concluding that, while The Minimal Self "seems guilty of the same cultural shallowness it sees around it," the book has "occasional sharp observations."]

There is something meretricious in the title to Christopher Lasch's sequel to his often precise and powerful The Culture of Narcissism. A reader unacquainted with Lasch's work who comes across a book sub-titled "Psychic Survival in Troubled Times" is likely to mistake it for...

(The entire section is 1122 words.)

Godfrey Hodgson (review date 27 January 1991)

SOURCE: "Liberalism Takes a Licking," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 27, 1991, pp. 2, 11.

[In the highly positive review of The True and Only Heaven below, Hodgson discusses the book's critique of the ideology of progress and some strategies used by Lasch.]

From the New Deal until the 1970s, liberalism in all its variants was the public philosophy of the United States. And what brought together a whole coalition of interests, classes and temperaments under the banners of liberalism was a shared belief in the idea, indeed the ideology of progress.

Since the 1970s, with bewildering speed, liberalism has been rudely unseated from that...

(The entire section is 1272 words.)

Louis Menand (review date 11 April 1991)

SOURCE: "Man of the People," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, April, 11, 1991, pp. 39-44.

[In the following review, Menand surveys Lasch's critique of liberalism throughout his works, including The True and Only Heaven, and concludes that Lasch's insightful but sometimes limited cultural criticism neglects the influence of both literature and "the political doctrine of rights" on twentieth-century society.]

Christopher Lasch began his career as a historian and critic of American liberalism. His analysis of liberalism led him to an analysis of some of the alternatives to liberalism in American political thought and, eventually, to a long excursion...

(The entire section is 7810 words.)

Steven Watts (review date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Critic: Christopher Lasch's Struggle with Progressive America," in American Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 113-20.

[In the review below, Watts summarizes the themes of and the critical responses to Lasch's works from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, offering a general assessment of the weaknesses and strengths of his arguments.]

In the volatile cultural politics of late twentieth-century America, the only thing worse than an opponent is a traitor. In many ways, Christopher Lasch has acquired precisely that image. He began his career as a radical historian in the 1960s—one of his essays, for instance, appeared...

(The entire section is 3472 words.)

Jeffrey Isaac and Christopher Lasch (essay date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: "Modernity and Progress: An Exchange," in Salmagundi, Vol. 9, No. 3, Winter, 1992, pp. 82-116.

[Below, each writer separately explains the themes of The True and Only Heaven. In the first essay Isaac offers a point-by-point analysis of Lasch's social criticism in his book, concentrating on what he perceives as omissions and dismissals in Lasch's otherwise astute observations. In the second essay Lasch responds to specific criticisms of his book made by several reviewers, focusing especially on those by Isaac about Lasch's treatment of "the problem of democracy."]

I. On Christopher Lasch

Both the facts...

(The entire section is 10707 words.)

Robert B. Westbrook (essay date March 1995)

SOURCE: "Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism, and the Vocation of Intellectuals," in Reviews in American History, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, 1995, pp. 176-91.

[In the essay below, Westbrook examines the influence of The New Radicalism in America on the American intellectual community.]

The New Radicalism is really a brilliant book, a book of such importance that people will be talking about it as long as they are talking about 20th Century history. It is an unconventional book, because it is based not on massing evidence but on thinking about history, an endeavor that has largely gone out of fashion.

...

(The entire section is 6478 words.)

Jean Bethke Elshtain (essay date Spring-Summer 1995)

SOURCE: "The Life and Work of Christopher Lasch: An American Story," in Salmagundi, Nos. 106-107, Spring-Summer, 1995, pp. 146-61.

[Below, Elshtain, a personal friend of Lasch, relates Lasch's thought to his character, reminiscing about and illuminating Lasch's observations of contemporary American life.]

Christopher Lasch was my friend. That means I called him "Kit." When he died on Valentine's Day, 1994, the loss was a personal one enveloped by a patina of public concern. Who, I fretted sadly, will take his place? I found it hard to imagine a world without Kit's voice, a very particular voice, quintessentially American, rooted in the soil of this strange and...

(The entire section is 6345 words.)