Book Review—Bullseye

In At the Center: American Thought and Culture in the Mid-Twentieth Century, Casey Nelson Blake, Daniel H. Borus, and Howard Brick try to get to the heart of the “Long 1950s.”

X-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • Casey Nelson Blake, Daniel H. Borus, and Howard Brick, At the Center: American Thought and Culture in the Mid-Twentieth Century

In At the Center: American Thought and Culture in the Mid-Twentieth Century, three prominent US intellectual historians join forces to explore “a midcentury disposition to think in terms of centers and wholes” (250). For Blake, Borus, and Brick, “what characterized most but surely not all of American thought and culture in the mid-twentieth century, from roughly 1948 through 1963, was a preoccupation with principles that lay ‘at the center’ of things” (2). Treating the era as a long 1950s, the authors do not contend that everyone in America locked themselves into the same narrow intellectual worldview, but rather that questions about centering guided (one might even say centered!) thought in the United States. These questions included:

What defined the essential character of ‘American culture’ as a whole? How could certain fundamental, crucial, and ‘permanent’ standards of human morality be rescued from the flux and the horrors of history? In what ways did a stable ‘self’ at the core of personality emerge through the human life cycle? What basic principles distinguish the scientific method, securing truth or validity from error, illusion, or myth? Which rights can all nations and cultures agree are universal? Are there key elements to democracy, to the integrity of society, to order in the world? (2).

For Blake, Borus, and Brick, Americans in the long 1950s hardly agreed about the answers, and many headed straight for the margins or noted the inevitable fragmentation of things, but unlike in the early decades of the twentieth century or after the ruptures of the 1960s, it was the framework of centrality that itself moved to the middle of thinking in mid-twentieth century American life.

At the Center might be understood as a prequel to Daniel Rodgers’ 2011 book Age of Fracture, which identified “thinning,” “disaggregation,” and increased “differentiation” as the key markers of recent American thought and culture since the 1970s. Rodgers devoted little attention to what preceded the time period on which he focused. Now we have a more detailed examination of the centers and wholes that broke apart to produce Rodgers’ splittings and splinterings. Over the course of eight chapters, Blake, Borus, and Brick explore the rise of American hegemony during and after World War II, as well as lingering isolationist tendencies in the country; the appearance of the “myth and symbol” school in American Studies, with its interest in capturing the totality of national character, and “culture personality studies” in anthropology, sociology, and other fields; the puzzling turn toward ahistorical analyses and antihistoricism, even among historians; the search for a holistic self in American thought and theory; new criteria for imagining citizenship and belonging in the United States; a reimagining of modernism as an “aesthetic of relations” and an effort to capture all of experience in the arts; and the reconfiguration of ideas about imperialism and decolonization as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s.

Their study is a rich feast of references and interpretations. Sometimes, alas, the core theme itself recedes to the background. The center cannot hold. We slip into details that do not clearly link back to the main argument of At the Center. But even then, what the book perhaps most of all suggests is that thinking “at the center” in the long 1950s was not only conservative and restrictive. It did not only produce the decade’s infamous conformity and consensus, now either maligned or nostalgized depending on one’s political perspective. Rather, to imagine and think through the world in broad sweeps provided a productive target for buried critiques of the homogenizing energies in American and global life. To place things “at the center” in the 1950s more often than not allowed thinkers to attack the very notion that such a universalism existed, or was a good thing.

This makes for a kind of reverse negative of Rodgers’ recent study of American thought and culture since the 1970s. Whereas Rodgers paradoxically used the concept of fracture to bind his analysis together, Blake, Borus, and Brick choose the idea of the center to show how American thought and culture between World War II and the Vietnam War repeatedly veered toward a curiosity about the parts and fragments, the elements that did not quite add up. Fracture provided coherence for Rodgers; the center enables Blake, Borus, and Brick to notice its repeated questioning, how it always verged on cracking up. These two different thematic orientations meet in the middle. Yet their opposing emphases matter. As intellectual historians, we can only work with tendencies amidst complexities, with directionalities and orientations amidst the messy, inchoate tempests of the past and the traces of how those at the time tried to navigate them. Rodgers tilts the story toward centrifugal forces; Blake, Borus, and Brick toward centripetal ones.

In the era of the long 1950s, according to At the Center, many wanted to capture what the literary scholar Perry Miller called “the innermost propulsion of the United States,” what sociologist C. Wright Mills termed the “salient characteristic of our time” (44, 97). Still others revived the writings of the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to try to capture the shared “habits of the heart” in the democratically diverse United States. The goal of grasping the overarching and coherent patterns and values of American society was paramount. Moreover, the very idea that one could or should pursue such an aim was acceptable. In the long 1950s, developing a unified theory of the “American mind” or “American civilization” was privileged. The presence of supposed universals became commonplace. Trying to get to the center centered the culture at the time. Yet, even then, as Blake, Borus, and Brick repeatedly show us, American thought and culture remained highly contested and disputed. The center became a bullseye that many at once prized and pointedly tried to pierce.

The cast of thinkers and artists who sought to identify the core of things yet ultimately criticize the orientation toward centers is long in At the Center. To be sure, there were those who, shaped by the mobilization for World War II, modified earlier radical positions of difference into more acceptable, unifying pro-American stances. Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead come to mind. Others, such as the historian of liberalism Louis Hartz, have been mischaracterized as condoning American consensus when in fact they highlighted its flaws. Numerous others—James Baldwin, Betty Friedan, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, CLR James, Richard Hofstadter, Ralph Ellison, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Goodman, Louis Kahn, DT Suzuki, Erik Erikson, the painter Jackson Pollack, and the Beat writers—rejected the worst aspects of the centrism of the times even as they strived to name it. And still others, such as the sociologist David Riesman, were misperceived as critics of postwar American norms when in fact they were inquisitive about the possibilities of new developments. In Riesman’s case, a transition from inner- to outer-directed personalities was not merely a loss; it magnetized new opportunities for modern sociality and cooperation in a mass culture. Cold War scientists idealized not only closed systems, but cybernetic possibilities. They embraced what historian Jamie Cohen-Cole names as “the open mind,” a “mode of reason ideally suited to curiosity, debate, moderation, and flexible adaptation to changing reality,” as Blake, Borus, and Brick describe it (224).

Meanwhile, radical thinkers and artists at places such as Black Mountain College, among them Bauhaus color theorist Josef Albers, sculptor Ruth Asawa, composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham, enacted various versions of an “aesthetic of relations” (189). They did so not to abandon the center, but rather to try to invigorate an awareness of the constituent elements of wholes whose parts were potentially linked, but not interchangeable. Theirs were attempts to center the “permeable boundaries between the body, self, and environment,” in the case of Asawa (193), or to express “the centricity within each event and its non-dependence on other events,” as Cage put it (198). They, and those like them, imagined various pathways to a holistic sense of the world. It might be through a “relational formalism” as with Albers and Asawa (192), or through aleatory contingency, as with Cage and Cunningham, but either way the goal was to achieve a perception of interconnectedness through emphasizing distributed authenticities within a setting or context. They sought not so much to fragment wholes into bits, but instead to hold it all together by embracing variegation and range without turning the world into an unconvincing singularity or mere chaos.

At the Center stretches broadly across ideas and culture at mid-century. It is an inclusive book, but this reader sometimes wished it engaged more deeply with the intellectual currents of more recent times. Can we glimpse the roots of critical race theory, feminist thinking, queer theory, diversity and equity studies, and other intellectual developments in the focus on naming the center and conveying the whole of things during the 1950s? Are there unperceived continuities as well as the more typically noticed ruptures between intellectual life then and now? While these contemporary modes of theorizing and thinking often lay stress on the parts, the marginalized, the oppressed, the understudied, they too seek to name essences. They wish to re-center people, phenomena, and ways of thinking. How much are they breaks from the intellectual frameworks of the long 1950s, as we usually portray them, and how much have they merely redirected the orientation that Blake, Borus, and Brick identify as significant during that era? How much, in short, is re-centering not an abandonment, but rather a legacy of seeking out what lies at the center?

Blake, Borus, and Brick might have probed these longest of tendencies stretching out of from the long 1950s with more scrutiny; nonetheless, their book aids us in following the wide swath of intellectual life during the twentieth-century. They conclude by noting that Americans shifted from thinking about the center of things to living “indefinitely, on edge” after the 1960s. Of course, the 1950s themselves were also more edgy than many assume too, as the authors help us to comprehend. Taken as a whole, however, which is something that seems appropriate for At the Center, the book allows us to imagine a tripartite periodizing of twentieth-century American intellectual history. There are plenty of exceptions and caveats, to be sure, but we might say that the first third of the century tended toward the anti-universalist particulars of Deweyian Pragmatism, multiplicity, and the immediacy of sensation and experience (think, for instance, of Louis Menand’s analysis in The Metaphysical Club or Borus’s Twentieth-Century Multiplicity or Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s study of the reception of Nietzsche in America or Richard Cándida Smith’s Mallarme’s Children: Symbolism and the Renewal of Experience). In the mid-twentieth century, Americans still lived edgily, perceiving rupture, doubt, and entropy all around them, but they longed to depict and occupy wholes and centers. After the 1960s, postmodernism arrived, and with it the necessity, even the willingness, to embrace contradictions (as Brick puts it in his study of American thought and culture in the 1960s) and pastiche (as in Frederic Jameson’s famous account). They had to navigate a world turned inside out (as James Livingston characterizes American culture in the 1990s) and make their way among unstable atomizations (as in Rodgers’ Age of Fracture).

One question now in US intellectual history might perhaps be where Americans will go next, in the twenty-first century, and how they will think about the places they wind up. Particularly as we move from a world dominated by those born in the 1950s, the baby boomers, to one presided over by millennials in the new millennium, this question—even twenty years in—remains central, but not yet at all answered.

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