Christopher Lasch Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."