“None of you has ever seen a gentleman.”
—Charles Eliot Norton
“You have been writing,” the author’s alter ego tells him at the conclusion of this book, “about the decline not of the West but of the Anglo-American upper class.” As A Thread of Years makes plain, however, the two entities have been so closely entwined that, for a period of about two centuries anyway (roughly 1750 to 1955), the idea of the second could not be surgically removed from the fact of the first without fatal results for them both. And so Lukacs’s book, ostensibly a meditation on the decline of the ideal of the Anglo- Saxon gentleman, is actually an imaginative summation of the great themes of the author’s 18 previous ones: the end of the modern age, the passing of bourgeois civilization, historical consciousness (and unconsciousness), and the relationship between ideas and the people who hold them—and yes, the collapse of the West, the nearly complete “erosion of beliefs and of institutions and of manners and morals and habits that can no longer be restored.”
John Lukacs, who for years has insisted on his inability to produce a novel for the reason that he cannot invent a plot, has nevertheless written a novelistic work that by some stretch—not much—of contemporary critical standards might be called an experimental novel, though Lukacs himself suggests that his effort may represent an attempt at a new genre. (“Do not take this too seriously. My attempt is imperfect, and I have no interest in inventing new and startling forms.”) Each of the book’s 69 chapters, one for every year from 1901 to 1969, consists of a vignette emblematic of that year, followed by a debate about its uncertain meaning between the author and his other self, who frequently undertakes the role of challenger. (Lukacs suggests that, in these debates, the author represents his European self while the interlocutor is his American one; for me, the difference is more between John Lukacs in print and in private conversation.) These vignettes are impressionistic and entirely fictitious (the exception being “1938,” which describes Herbert Hoover attending an opulent luncheon given by Hermann Goering), having to do with private, rather than historical, figures.
A Thread of Years, like every good book, is an escape into truth. Lukacs begins it by quoting Huizinga on “historical sensation” or “historical contact”:
If it takes any form at all this remains composite and vague; a sense of streets, houses, fields as well as sounds, colors or people moving. . . . The historic sensation is not the sensation of living in the past again but of understanding the world, perhaps as one does with listening to music.
So effective is A Thread of Years at the sensate level, evoking even more than it says, that a second reading is useful fully to appreciate the thematic statement and development, both of them profound and inclusive, registering symptoms of “the sad decline of a civilization” across a broad range of human experience.
Theodore Dreiser to the contrary, the real American tragedy, Lukacs argues, is not the story of the country’s Clyde Griffithses but the trajectory of the American patrician class. By 1901 the British and American empires were the twin superpowers of their day, although the locus of power had already passed to the United States, where it continued to move still farther west.
The power of the Anglo-American world in 1901 was inseparable from the worldwide prestige of the originally English ideal of the gentleman. That ideal, transformed and qualified by specifically American conditions and ideas, existed in the United States, too, incarnated and represented by a minority of people whose influence still exceeded their numbers. For many reasons: because of some of the inadequacies latent within the ideal itself; because of the shortcomings of many of those who thought, or pretended, to represent it; and finally because of their waning self-confidence—the ideal faded. That this belongs within the history of this century may be the theme of this book.
If Lukacs really has created a new literary genre, the first thing to be said about it is that it is not especially kind to reviewers. In 69 impressionistic scenes whose cast of characters includes two gentlemen talking in the Philadelphia Club on the day President McKinley is shot (1901); an American, a Norwegian, and an Austrian hiking in the Carpathian Mountains (1908); three Hungarian-born Jews sitting in the Hotel Bristol in Vienna (1919); a young American couple buying an Italian automobile in Brescia (1924); three American Catholic priests in Munich to purchase a painting (1927); a youngish convert to the Catholic Church visiting her Quaker relatives in Philadelphia (1928); a second-generation immigrant pianist entertaining society people with Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers and Hart in private rooms in a grand hotel in New York (1929); an Anglo-Irish woman visiting old money in Aiken, South Carolina (1933); an English liberal historian lecturing at Bryn Mawr (1936); a Polish foreign policy scholar addressing the first public meeting of the United Nations Council of Philadelphia (1943); imprisoned French collaborationists hoping the Germans will return in time to save la France (1944); patrician, progressive Philadelphians having a dinner part)’ on the terrace outside their renovated house (1946); guests at a cocktail reception at the Spanish consulate in Philadelphia (1951); Hungarian refugees arriving in New Jersey on an Air Force plane (1956); a young Irish-American professor coming to believe that intellectualism is synonymous with liberalism (1962); a Philadelphia society girl moved to bohemian New York (1964); the board of directors of a Catholic college lunching at an Italian restaurant in North Philadelphia (1965); a New York stockbroker and his wife retired to their Maine island (1968); and a Philadelphia gentleman painter named “K.” (the “pseudo-protagonist” whose birth occurs at the beginning of this book and whose death marks the end of it), Lukacs covers a lot of territory, historically and geographically speaking.
This is part of it: the naivete and sterility of Progressivism; Owen Wister and the American cowpuncher as the Last Cavalier; the attempted rapprochement of the English and the American peoples in a period in which America was no longer an Anglo-Saxon country; the reluctance of many of the imperial English to be rulers of the world; the importance of the discovery of radium and uranium as changing elements; the difficulty Americans have in differentiating what they believe from what they think they believe; how America changed its Catholic immigrants (and the Church too, to some extent) rather than being changed by them; why “all immigrants lie” to themselves and to Americans about their reasons for coming to America; how America is really older than Europe (practical, non-intellectual Americans have been largely unable to comprehend modernist Europe, its political movements as well as its cultural ones); how the standardization of culture produces caricature as well as conformity; how humanistic civilization has given way to scientistic culture; the rise of the liberal intellectual class and the modern intellectual; how Progressivist and Populist America was open to the “celluloid dreamworld of the movies,” and how Hollywood came to symbolize the rise and decline of the American Century; the split-mindedness that allows Americans to change their ideas without changing themselves; the replacement of aristocratic diplomacy by the bureaucratic kind; the fading of the English masculine ideal; an instance of what Flannery O’Connor called “an action of grace,” poignantly described; the yearning of second-generation immigrants for urbane American elegance; the puerility of modern American men; the unwillingness of Americans to think about, let alone argue, “controversial” topics and their willingness to accept anything, in time; the neo-medievalism of the American mind in the 1950’s; the tendency of Americans to mistake ideas for principles; a new kind of intellectual dishonesty, pervading all of contemporary life in America; the “strange atrophy” of the American will; and the barbarization of life in the United States.
It sounds like a fair question to ask, “What do all these subjects have in common anyway, and what have they to do with the decline of the Anglo-Saxon gentleman?” The answer is, “Everything,” as Lukacs so compellingly and deftly reveals. The ideal of the gentleman, after all, is not a matter of snobbery, nor is it a trivial and superficial one confined appropriately to Town and Country and the old Vanity Fair. If for 200 years the English-Americans were “the most respected and admired men in the world,” gentlemanliness was for much, much longer almost as basic a component of English civilization as Christianity, one of the two main sources of the ideal—the other being chivalry, itself a paganized offshoot of Christendom originating in the 12th century in southern France. For much of English history the gentlemanly ideal was as essential to English civilization as the egalitarian one is to contemporary culture in England and America—which is why Lukacs identifies popular sovereignty, together with science (scientism, really), as foremost among its destroyers. The idea of the Anglo- Saxon gentleman is radical to our civilization, the sap that had lifted the basic nutritional elements through the trunk and dispersed it to the twigs at the ends of the branches. Cut oft the flow and the entire tree is affected. In fact, it dies.
Lukacs sees a failure of will—nerve is perhaps a better word—in the catastrophe. It is an interesting question, however, to what extent the Anglo-American ideal contained the seeds of its own destruction—meaning, I suppose, how extensive were its weaknesses and how much of it was, indeed, illusory. An ideal ceaselessly subjected to continued refinement, perhaps, in time resulted in idealism that conduced, in turn, to a weakening of the basic racial metal. On the other hand, the Anglo-American gentleman enjoyed, as Lukacs, observes, “a good run.” Nothing human lasts forever; while history (like uranium and radium) is a changing element.
The values-and-virtues crowd, which is always warning us that we must cast our vote for them and give them money to forefend the destruction of America, are Chicken Littles with bits and pieces of blue sky hanging around their necks. H.L. Mencken, back in the 20’s, predicted that the United States would “blowup” in a hundred years. Lukacs thinks the living body became a walking corpse sometime before 1969, just two-thirds of the way into the century that began so bravely for the Anglo-Americans, who felt they held it with so strong a grip that it could not be wrested from them. Today their descendants are living beneath the rubble, witness to something greater even than the New World Disorder envisioned by Paul Kennedy and Robert Kaplan: a preview, can it be, of hell itself?
People—old-line conservatives, usually—who think this way are constantly reprimanded for their “pessimism,” their “lack of faith” in America and in the future of humanity. Indeed, hope is a virtue. But the belief that history will not have a “happy” ending (except perhaps in the sense that Titanic does: somebody has to get the last girl) is a matter of faith, not of blasphemy. And so, A Thread of Years ends on a note of thanksgiving—of simple, gentlemanly Christian faith.
It’s all over for this work, for this book, and probably for most of the world that I (and you, my alter ego) cherish and stick to, but God is infinitely good, since it is He and not Voltaire who allows and even prods us to cultivate our garden. And what a beautiful afternoon it is! . . . Look at the color of the water. And at Stephanie’s yellow and blue flowers. That heap of pots there is her job, but there are my heads of asparagus appearing and the raspberries are coming out. Let’s try to coax her out of the kitchen and busy ourselves there. What a beautiful afternoon this is!
(Why does that passage sound like a description of an idyllic English afternoon in the late summer of 1914?)
[A Thread of Years, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 481 pp., $30.00]