As readers of this magazine well know, America today is a land of many, many problems. Most immediately, there’s the constant procession of woes you’re likely to see on the evening news—crime, inflation, foreign entanglements, declining schools, business greed, government incompetence, discrimination, reverse discrimination. Stepping back a little to get a look at the big picture, we can see that the nation is in the grip of two apparently contradictory if equally unfortunate, trends.

On one hand, we’re coming increasingly under the dominance of large institutions that are depersonalized, don’t work, and promote caution and unimaginativeness. On the other, Americans are becoming more and more narcissistic, spending their increasing amounts of free time and money on an endless series of dubious self-improvement programs. As Thomas Massey points out elsewhere in this issue, these two developments—bureaucracy and self-absorption—are present in other countries even more than in our own, which is a frightening signal to us that things can get even worse here.

In order to prevent that from happening, it’s important to know how it is, exactly, that our nation can be turning both excessively impersonal and excessively personal at the same time—to be able to see our own times with the clarity that, thanks to historians, we can see the past. Of course, historians have an advantage over people who try to figure out the present, like journalists, which is that they begin already knowing how the story turned out. But they also, presumably, have an array of intellectual tools that most of us lack, which might make them better able than most of us to figure out what it all means.

So it’s hope-inspiring to see two respected academics come out with books that seek to tackle the present, through protean use of history, sociology, psychology, literary criticism, and social theory. Seldom are so many tools and so much learning brought to bear in the effort to understand our times as in two books published in 1977, Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man (Alfred A. Knopf) and Christopher Lasch’s Haven in a Heartless World (Basic Books).

Sennett is a sociologist, Lasch a historian, but neither of their books fits anyone category—both (especially Sennett’s) are instead ambitious attempts to bring together many lines of inquiry and much evidence from the past and the present in order to present a sweeping theory of the current malaise. The bulk of both books is fairly conventional history, but both begin and end with sections about life right now. Sennett’s book has to do with the increasing separation of “private” and “public” life, from the 18th century to the present; Lasch’s is about the fall of the family over the last century. Both see the rise and flowering of capitalism as the cause of the events they are describing. Both end with strong condemnations of society’s present narcissism. And both, alas, leave the reader only slightly less in the dark about the nature of the mess we’re in—much less so than the authors clearly hoped.

His Dense Web of Theory

Sennett’s book is the more complicated and broader of the two, and for that reason both the m0re admirable and the more confusing. Into his dense web of theory and evidence Sennett weaves and seeks to explain, among other things: the Dreyfus Affair, the housing crisis in Forest Hills, New York, the rise of rock music, the rise of the suburbs, trends in urban architecture, the sexual revolution, Balzac’s fiction, and the changing nature of the theater, 1750-1970.

Most people are more bashful than Sennett about trying to explain what it all means, and he must be given some credit for his boldness—in these cautious times, writers are usually too afraid of falling on their face to try what Sennett tries. As a result, however, Sennett does fall on his face fairly often. He is capable, for instance, of starting one paragraph with this clarion call for clear language: “The phrases ‘social values’ and ‘value systems’ are barbarisms that social sciences have inflicted Ion ordinary language”; and then beginning the very next paragraph with this sentence: “So a belief will be taken as an activation’ of the logical cognition of social life (ideology); this activation occurs outside the linguistic rules for coherence; the term ‘value’ is abandoned as unclear.”

Time and again the wondrous hopes raised by an insightful and promising paragraph will be dashed by the incomprehensible one that follows. Particularly when he makes his way up to the present day, The Fall of Public Man is valuable not as a logical argument but as a series of observations. The obvious self-confidence that let Sennett write a book like this also seems to have kept him at a distance from a strict editor. (The editor of record for The Fall of Public Man is Robert Gottleib of Knopf, widely reputed to be the most brilliant and sensitive editor in all of New York publishing. Which goes to show that part of being a big thinker is the right to have one’s writing untouched by even the best editorial hands. Another 1977 book, Edmund Wilson’s Letters on Literature and Politics [Farrar, Straus, and Giroux] contains rich evidence of this strange policy—Wilson is forever fulminating about editors and warning them in the strictest terms not to try changing his writing at all, while at the same time the happy editorial influence he has on the work of his friends is plain.)

Time in the Streets

“Public man,” in Sennett’s terms, does not especially mean people like Hubert Humphrey, or people who serve on their hometown charity boards, or people whose lives are chronicled in the pages of People magazine. A public man is someone who can spend a lot of time in the streets and other public places of a large city, dealing constantly with other people, without as a result feeling his privacy assaulted. He can do this because in public he’s playing a well-defined role, and so doesn’t have to worry about how his public behavior reflects on his identity or his personality. As Sennett puts it, “manners, conventions, and ritual gestures [are] the very stuff out of which public relations are formed.”

Public life as Sennett defines it flourished in London and Paris in the latter half of the 18th century. People spent a great deal of time in the streets and in public squares and parks. They spoke to strangers. There was a stable and particularized class system, and when they went out in public people dressed in a way that precisely indicated their station. People were “impersonal,” but they were secure and able to participate in an active urban social and political life. Their private lives were kept entirely separate.

A Society of Roles

Sennett uses the theater as a mirror of this world and of the world that has replaced it. In the 18th century, actors dressed in contemporary clothing, whether they were playing Julius Caesar or Tartuffe. Audiences were small, and sat close to the stage—even on the stage, in some cases. If an actor flubbed his lines, the audience would loudly boo; if he said them well, the audience would make him repeat them; and if he underwent some misfortune as the plot of the play twisted, the audience would start to cry out of sympathy. In this society of roles, the distinction between the stage and life was riot a vivid one: audiences saw actors as people like themselves, and they were no less afraid than actors are to express themselves in public.

With the passing decades and the rise of capitalism, people in cities began to feel much less certain of their identities, and somewhat shell-shocked as a result of the uncertainty. They began to dress drably, to find urban crowds oppressive, to relish the chance to retreat into the seclusion of the family or the neighborhood. The streets were no longer a stage and people no longer actors—so that the theater was now dramatically different from everyday life. Theaters became larger and audiences much more silent and respectful. What they had come to see was clearly a thing apart from their lives, and actors began as a result to dress in a historically accurate way and to rise to imperious star status.

Today, there is almost no public life in the 18th-century sense; people define themselves and others much more in terms of individual personalities than in terms of roles. As a result, privacy is important to us, and we find crowded cities oppressive. We expend great effort in trying to “be ourselves.” We engage in casual sex whose aim is self-fulfillment. In inter-personal dealings, we’re apt to be reserved most of the time, but exceedingly self-revelatory when we want to make contact with someone else. From our politicians, we demand above all open and admirable personalities; that accomplished, we don’t care much about specific positions. In our quest for intimacy, in other words, we lose a lot.

How does this preoccupation with personality and intimacy square with the increasing impersonality of our society? Sennett has an intriguing answer. In the old days, just as you had a firm social class, you also plied a well-defined trade—all that was part of the role that made it easy for you to go out in public. The large bureaucratic organizations that most people work in now, says Sennett, may provide their employees with an institutional identity, but they strip them of identity of another sort by forcing them to be jacks-of-all-trades, rather than artisans. Success in a bureaucracy depends on your ability to move with ease from job to job. Therefore promotions and raises are the product not of your skills so much as of your worth as a person. Which means that workers in bureaucracies, cis they’re preoccupied with success, are pre-occupied with their own personalities.

Good Old Impersonality

The solution Sennett proposes is a revival of the big cities and of good old “impersonal,” richly interactive urban life. He is wholly unsympathetic not only to suburbs but also to neighborhood groups, a return to small towns, anything that would attempt to make society more “personal,” because he sees that as counterproductive.

In a time when everybody else’s solutions involve making institutions smaller and more responsive to individuals, Sennett’s is an admirably original view, but it asks a lot of us. I found myself, reading The Fall of Public Man, resenting Sennett as I admired him. Even in these troubled times, not all of us are evil and not all of us march obediently to the drumbeat of Larger Social Forces, but Sennett doesn’t have much instinctive understanding of that. The extremes of self-absorption aside, isn’t it perfectly legitimate, even noble, to seek out the company of family and close friends, with whom contact seems to hold the promise of more riches than even the best public life could offer? Couldn’t Sennett be more sympathetic to what people want from life than to advise them to be as aggressively impersonal as possible?

Jumping that Hurdle

Lasch holds out the promise of jumping that hurdle—he supports the family, after all, and believes that there is such a thing as true love. He agrees with Sennett that the family grew in importance in response to the dislocations that accompanied the rise of capitalism—it was the “haven in a heartless world” of his title. But for a century, he says, it has been imperiled, by the very people who claim to be its chief defenders: psychologists, marriage counselors, doctors, ministers, teachers, social workers, and other members of the “helping professions.” These experts have done great harm to the family by appropriating many of its functions unto themselves; they have inflicted on family life a never-ending series of rules and theories, all of them based on something other than the love and discipline that are the family’s real glue.

Lasch spends most of his book recounting in spiteful detail the procession of theories about the family that have been in vogue at one time or another in the past century. As Lasch, a better collection of hooey it would be hard to assemble. Also, he says, these theories tend to run in cycles, so that today’s ethic of “open marriage,” “non-binding commitment,” and so on, besides being abhorrent, is also a replay of the ethic of the 1920s. The story of 100 years of misguided experts is told with that knife-sharpening nastiness that careers in academia so often nurture in people.

‘A Never-Ending Search’

Like Sennett, Lasch has his moments, like this one: “As the world takes on a more and more menacing appearance, life becomes a never-ending search for health and well-being through exercise, dieting, drugs, spiritual regimens of various kinds, psychic self-help, and psychiatry. For those who have withdrawn interest from the outside world except insofar as it remains a source of gratification and frustration, the state of their own health becomes an all-absorbing concern.”

Two things mar Haven in a Heartless World. First, like The Fall of Public Man, it attempts to explain too much in its opening and closing sections, and as a result is too mere mortals diffuse and complicated to the point of occasional incomprehensibility. That’s the price of a large scope; what isn’t is Lasch’s tendency to be as unsubtle in attempting to describe human motivation as he is complex in his intellectual argument. The activities of the helping professionals that he condemns are portrayed as an elaborate plot hatched by boardroom plutocrats and carried out with extreme precision over the years. First, writes Lasch, “capitalists took production out of the household and collectivized it, under their own supervision, in the factory”; and most recently, the clever bastards have “extended their control over the worker’s private life as well, as… specialists began to supervise child-rearing, formerly the business of the family.” Thus did the bosses push their direction of us past the world of work, into our very homes.

To concoct a theory so new and containing so much truth as Lasch’s is admirable; to then try to shoehorn all of contemporary life neatly into it is not. Implying that all social workers, for example, are willing agents of the big corporations strains credulity. Most social workers in America are and have always been liberals, instinctively suspicious of businessmen; and most businessmen are equally suspicious of social workers. This is a failure of empathy, and it makes Lasch’s explanation of the present ring false, to businessmen and social workers alike. The gaping hole of human understanding that Lasch (and, less so, Sennett) leaves brings to mind a 1977 book that is astonishingly lacking in that flaw: John Sayles’ second novel, Union Dues (Atlantic-Little, Brown).

Sorrows and Dislocations

Union Dues is the story of a 17-year-old coal miner’s son from West Virginia, Hobie McNatt, who runs away to Boston in the fall of 1969, and his widowed father, Hunter, who takes off in search of him. Hunter and Hobie move through a world populated by miners, cops, drifters, hippies, radicals, rich kids, poor kids, and students—a world that contains most of the sorrows and dislocations Sennett and Lasch write about. What’s impressive about Sayles is that he can get inside the heads of such a broad range of people. His every character is presented thinking, talking, and acting in a way that seems exactly accurate. In complex situation after complex situation Sayles’ feel for each person’s position is exact.

For instance, in one scene an affluent couple from the Boston suburbs comes by the radical commune where Hobies living, to try to communicate with their daughter, who’s also there. This is a scene that’s been played in a dozen movies, and the temptation is to paint the parents as boorish, bumbling materialists. Sales doesn’t’t fall into this trap. Although he’s gone to some lengths earlier to explain convincingly why the daughter joined the commune, when the parents come on stage he understands their pain perfectly as well:

Theory and Empathy

“Mr. Ellenbogen sat by Hobie on a stack ofleaflets. ‘You don’t know,’ he said, almost to himself, ‘you have no idea, what it is to hear from someone you’ve held in your arms, from someone you love, that they want you out of their life. You’re not old enough. To have them talk to you like a stranger, like all of what you’ve lived together didn’t happen, that all the past is nothing to them. Like there’s no feeling left.’ He shook his head.”

The trouble with Union Dues as an explanation of our troubles is that in the end it leaves the reader thinking that life is tough and complicated and sad, but not being able to pinpoint why. Sayles is willing just to show, where Sennett and Lasch aren’t, but he’s completely unwilling to tell. As a result, Union Dues is as frustrating in its own way as The Fall of Public Man and Haven in a Heartless World: it is empathy without theory, as opposed to theory without empathy.

So despite some progress, we’re still left short of understanding what it all means in depersonalized, over-personalized America. To get the real explanation without having to wait 50 years for it, we need a Sennett or Lasch who is willing to go out and meet people and try to understand them the way Sayles obviously has, or a Sayles who will also hit the books and try to explain the forces behind the troubles he describes so well. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with attempts that, even at their best, fall slightly to either side of the target

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.