“Self, self, has half filled Hell.”
—Scottish Proverb

James Lincoln Collier is the descendant of well-to-do New Englanders, mill-owners “who lived in a grand house on a hill, overlooking a row of . . . the cottages of the- workers [they] . . . employed.” Nevertheless, his new book—which could as well be called The Rise of the Techno-Industrial Megastate in America—is in many respects a restatement, from a different perspective, of the case against modern, nontraditional society made by a group of disaffected Southern agrarians back in 1930: a profoundly reactionary book with a liberal coda added on. Its thesis is nothing less than the basic and complete unworkability, in human terms, of the mass industrial society that has engorged America since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

The Puritanism of 17th-century America began to dissipate almost at once, Mr. Collier tells us, and by the beginning of the 18th century it was scarcely more than a memory. In the Enlightenment, as in the first decades of the 19th century, standards of sexual morality were lax, extramarital and premarital sex having become common; dancing and drinking were favorite pastimes; and church attendance was low. Then in the third decade of the 1800’s, “Victorianism” asserted itself in reaction to what Collier calls the “18th-Century Debauch” by its insistence upon the ideals of gentility and of the family, by the temperance and antismoking crusade, by the attempt to regulate sexual activity and to enforce “morality” in the arts, and by the rediscovery of religious fervor. Victorianism, while it became a fetish of the rising middle class, was by no means restricted to it but was adopted as well by “the farmers and artisans who still, through most of the 19th century, made up the largest chunk of American society.” Victorianism, in its essence, was a program of self-control, of self-discipline.

Much has been said of the Victorians as hypocrites who invented and imposed a system of social morality that exactly suited their interests, in particular their material ones. Collier allows some truth in this view, but contends that, “however large the gap between the Victorian ideal and Victorian behavior, these people, as a society, set for themselves goals of social concern, charity, self-control, a decent regard for the welfare of others, a willingness to protect the weak. They may have failed, but at least they were trying.” The Victorian Era lasted approximately from 1830 until 1910. Mr. Collier’s question is: “How in the course of about the sixty years from 1910 to 1970 did a morality that seemed fixed and permanent get stood on its head? . . . how did the United States turn from a social code in which self-restraint was a cardinal virtue to one in which self-gratification is a central idea, indeed ideal?” For James Collier, the answers are industry, technology, immigration, and the “giant industrial cities” to which these gave rise, turning the United States “topsyturvy” in the process.

Around 1830, industrialization began to divide urban Americans into two distinct classes, working and nonworking, or what we today call blue- and white-collar. By 1850 or so, the new middle class was perhaps 50 percent Old Stock American and 50 percent immigrant. It was the working class immigrants, however, who created the sea change in American society, especially those coming from non-Anglo-Saxon countries after the Civil War. Few among these huddled masses were sympathetic to Victorianism: “less optimistic and more hedonistic” than the native Americans, they wished to live “expressively” and their idea of “success” differed sharply from that of the prevailing culture. They enjoyed drinking, dancing, and romancing, and their standards in regard to these activities were considerably looser than those of the Victorians above them. They were uninterested, moreover, in such niceties as punctuality and cleanliness.

For the first time in American—probably in world—history, the cities were overrun with young people (roughly half of them refugees from the American hinterland) who had neither family nor neighborhood nor community in the traditional sense, and therefore no perceived responsibility to any but themselves; cut away from the past and with no feeling for an improbable future, they rapidly grew accustomed to living in and for the present. Industrial work, unlike farm work, creates a radical distinction between work and play, and the institutionalization of vice (the tenderloin, the dance hall, the saloon) proceeded apace. The Victorians, in alarm, reacted by the temperance movement, “purity reform,” and that fasces of social and political reform known as “Progressivism,” attempting to control through law what they could not influence by example. But by 1912 the game was up, and following World War I the middle class, in Collier’s phrase, “was simply seduced” by essentially working-class and foreign moral codes that seemed more relevant than Victorianism to a new generation of Americans. “It was inevitable,” Collier writes, “that the city became the battleground where the war against Victorianism was fought: for in the end, the city itself was the enemy. And the victor was the self”

The 20th century is indeed the “Age of Entertainment” even more than it is the age of mass murder, and Mr. Collier is very good at showing how entertainment for the masses has been both a cause and a result of the creation of an American proletariat, beginning with vaudeville that developed from the minstrel and variety shows after the Civil War and which, by such techniques as concentrated ownership and the control of theater chains, made straight the way for the movie industry in the next century. Never, as James Collier correctly states, in the history of the world have so many people spent so much time being entertained as in America from the 1920’s on—a circumstance he claims to be directly responsible for the habit of detachment that has prevailed in this country for decades and that promises to create “a nation of loners” cut off from reality and from one another through their preoccupation with fantasy and simulacra. Mass entertainment too, in the form of both show business and sports, is the creature of the megalopolis, on which it is directly dependent for the infrastructure that delivers millions of warm bodies and paralyzed cerebra, on demand and on time, to movie palaces and sports coliseums across America. Even the popular music industry is a product of the giant industrial city where, in the last decades of the 19th century and the first ones of the 20th, immigrants and the sons of immigrants—none of whom had ever ventured across the Hudson River—fabricated the national preference for a kind of song never heard in America before (or anywhere else, for that matter): music that had no roots in American folk ballads and “expressive” lyrics that abandoned the notion of song as narrative and replaced it by the formula—standard since then—that is modern humanity’s equivalent of a bull elk’s bugle during the rut. (I had not known, by the way, that Irving Berlin was compelled by his weak musicianship to hire an assistant to help him harmonize his songs.) “For most,” Mr. Collier remarks sourly, “the response to the catastrophes of the 1930’s was to go to the movies.”

James Collier argues that the cultural divide across the postwar (World War II) years must be located around 1973 rather than in the early 60’s: “in the early 1970’s there was a swing politically to the right, the ending of post-war prosperity, and a dramatic upward surge in selfishness which very quickly became so gross as to effect a qualitative change in the nature of American life.” From here to the end of the book it is downhill all the way, even more for the author than for his unhappy country. To this point, we have been reading a work of history; now we find ourselves perusing a New York Times Magazine article. Collier, in his indignation at Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and the Me Decade, echoes John Kenneth Galbraith’s complaint of the 60’s that “we” are keeping too much wealth in the private sector and not putting enough into the public one. He calls for more money for schools, drug rehabilitation programs, and better police forces; less for ski weekends, pizza, and hunting weapons. He chastises government for failing to represent the interests of the community. Yet surely the burden of the preceding chapters is that America is no longer a community in any fair sense of the word. And if Americans are collectively a lot of dope and television addicts, alcoholics, fast food gluttons, adulterers, pornographers, wife-betrayers, and child-abusers, why should the government spend the money and the effort to bail them out of the rewards of their own self-indulgence? (Incidentally, does Mr. Collier truly believe that it is primarily affluent people, rather than indigent ones, who are guilty of selfishness? With the exception of the flocks of mental patients released from their psycho wards in response to suits brought by civil-rights activists, the majority of the sainted “homeless” are simply misfits, drunks, and crackheads—what even in the Great Depression were known as “bums” and “hobos.”)

The trouble is that James Lincoln Collier, like so many old-fashioned American liberals, is also a bit of a puritan. He deplores the fact that, “Today . . . alcohol is a norm in the lives of the majority” and credits the doughboys’ furlough in France—”a culture in which wine was served with meals, even breakfast in some cases; where brothels were legal and taken for granted”—with having further eroded Victorian morality. Yet France in 1917 was a civilized country no less than-the United States, and probably not more “selfish.” Hence the question: is Collier’s thesis regarding the rise of selfishness a variant of the old theory of American exceptionalism?

Is it the case, in other words, that wine-drinking, relaxed sexual mores, comparative laziness, and the temptations of urban life were intrinsically fatal to American society, but not to European ones? Is it a fact that tippling and fornication were controllable in the Calabria of the 19th century but not in the New York or Chicago of that time? One might argue that if Frenchmen, Italians, and Spaniards had drunk less wine and made less love, then France, Italy, and Spain might have shared in that transatlantic decency and sobriety that was Anglo-American Victorianism. On the other hand, sobriety and decency breed efficiency, which makes possible the great economic machine that creates the great cities that produce the spoiled, selfish, and detached loners of whom Mr. Collier complains.

The truth is that the selfishness that Collier deplores is not a peculiarly American problem but a necessary condition of the mass industrial state everywhere—in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America, even in Africa. Human society, it appears, is able to accommodate small laxities of behavior so long as a traditional framework continues to surround it: family, church, and community. Once that framework is removed, venialness and vice together with harmless enjoyment become dangerous compulsions, and pleasure itself an addiction. The modern way of living, it must be obvious, is not the human one. Why should we be shocked to find it producing something less than what we like to think of as human behavior? 


[The Rise of Selfishness in America, by James Lincoln Collier (New York: Oxford University Press) 320 pp., $24.95]