The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 14, 2015

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On Christopher Lasch
(MA 47:4, Fall 2005) - 07/15/08

Christopher enrolled at Harvard (where he roomed for at least two years with John Updike) in the fall of 1950 and emerged four years later with an A.B. in history and the Bowdoin Prize for his honors senior thesis. Columbia, with its renowned history department, was the next stop. Lasch entered in the fall of 1954 and finished his dissertation in 1961 under the direction of William Leuchtenburg. Richard Hofstadter, however, emerged as the faculty member who would exert the largest influence on Lasch, even though Lasch’s only formal association with him was as a research assistant one summer. As different as Lasch’s own version of American history and culture would become, Hofstadter remained one of those figures with whose ideas Lasch felt he had to grapple for the rest of his life.

While at Columbia, Lasch married Nell Commager, daughter of historian Henry Steele Commager. Before finishing his dissertation Lasch taught history at Williams College and Roosevelt University. After taking his doctorate, he secured an appointment as assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa. Just two years later, in 1963, he was made associate professor.

Until arriving at Iowa, Lasch had thought of himself as working within the liberal tradition. Besides Hofstadter, he was attracted to thinkers like Lionel Trilling, George Kennan, and Walter Lippmann. But the deepening freeze of the Cold War and Lasch’s Midwestern populist-progressive instincts ultimately made it impossible for him to accept what he saw as the hard-edged and seemingly hard-hearted anti-democratic elitism of the anticommunists’ “realist” foreign policy. It seems to have been while at Iowa that Lasch’s growing disillusionment with the liberal Cold Warriors led him to become interested in the burgeoning “Madison school” of diplomatic history then enjoying popularity in radical circles. The University of Wisconsin historian William Appleman Williams was especially influential on Lasch, not least because Williams led him to Marx.7

In 1966, Lasch moved to Northwestern University, where he was made full professor just five years after completing his doctorate. But his stay was brief. Eugene Genovese had just been tapped to turn around the aging and fractious history department at the University of Rochester. Deemed virtually unhireable by American universities because he had very publicly espoused the cause of the Vietcong, Genovese had been serving out his exile in Montreal. Now he was back, and he wanted, in Lasch’s words, “to shape a department that would be fairly explicitly committed to the enterprise of historically informed social criticism and at the same time not committed to any specific form of it.” Marxian critics were certainly welcome. Genovese soon convinced Lasch to come on board, and he arrived in the fall of 1970.8

Although already an accomplished scholar who was well known in leftist circles by the time he arrived at Rochester,9it was while there that Lasch published his best-known work. Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, which appeared in 1977, was widely noticed and marked the beginning of a more serious cleavage between the direction of Lasch’s work and what had become Left orthodoxy. The first of Lasch’s books to draw heavily on Freud and the Frankfurt School (Herbert Marcuse, T. W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and followers), it also attracted particularly stinging criticism from Lasch’s audience on the Left. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, brought out two years later, further demonstrated Lasch’s heterodox inclinations. A bestseller, it is the book with which his name has been most closely associated ever since.

Page 2 of 10
By This Author
Bozell, Brent

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