The Promise of American Lives:

Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly

[Page 3]

Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2003-2013, All Rights Reserved)

I. Introduction
II. Crolian Ends: Corrosive Individualism and Creative Individuality
III. Crolian Means: Artisanal Fulfillment and Heroic Exemplars
IV. Crolian Virtues: Independence
V. Crolian Virtues: Sociability
VI. Crolian Virtues: Vitality
VII. "Something of a Saint and Something of a Hero": Lincoln and Roosevelt
VIII. The Overlooked Promise of Croly's Promise

Crolian Means: Artisanal Fulfillment and Heroic Exemplars

Still, the question remains -- if the nation is not the gardener but instead the fertile soil, what then brings on this flowering of diverse democratic individuality? Croly's answer: aspiration itself. "The truth is that individuality cannot be dissociated from the pursuit of a disinterested object," he writes. "It is a moral and intellectual quality, and it must be realized by moral and intellectual means. A man achieves individual distinction, not by the enterprise and vigor with which he accumulates money, but by the zeal and the skill with which he pursues an exclusive interest --an interest usually, but not necessarily connected with his means of livelihood."20 Thus, concludes Croly, a person cultivates her own individuality by freely engaging in an aesthetic or occupational pursuit of her choosing, and the best form of government is one that offers a diversity of pursuits for such citizens to engage in.

In defining individuality thus, Croly acknowledges his intellectual debt to the writings of nineteenth century British cultural critics John Ruskin and William Morris, both of whom extolled "the insistence on the worker's right to joyful and useful labor" as the "moral core" of their public philosophies. As historian T.J. Jackson Lears argues in his seminal work No Place of Grace, both Ruskin's medievalist-centered appraisal of modern life and Morris's Socialist-leaning update of Ruskin's thesis emphasize the critical importance of artisanal creation to the happiness of the individual. Similarly, both lament the "degradation of work" as the primary flaw in the organization of modern economic life. According to Lears, these antimodern arguments of Ruskin and Morris influenced a generation of American intellectuals and progressives, who in "yearning to reintegrate selfhood by resurrecting the authentic experience of manual labor...looked hopefully toward the figure of the premodern artisan."21

Yet, Lears argues, the national predisposition toward progress caused American heirs of Ruskin and Morris, ranging from the wide-ranging thinkers of the Arts and Crafts Movement to the progressive founders of the Settlement Houses, to jettison the antimodernist component of their critiques and instead make peace with the emerging bureaucratic-industrial order. As American reformers "began unwittingly to accommodate themselves to the corporate system of organized capitalism," remarks Lears, "their focus began to shift from social justice to personal fulfillment." As proof, Lears cites Croly's progressive contemporary Jane Addams, who wrote in 1909 (the same year as Croly's Promise) that:
If a child goes into a sewing factory with a knowledge of the work she is doing in relation to the finished product, if she is informed concerning the material she is manipulating and the processes to which it is subjected; if she understands the design she is elaborating in its historic relation to art and decoration, her daily life is lifted from drudgery to one of self-conscious activity, and her pleasure and intelligence is registered in her product.22
As one can see, Addams has clearly recasted Ruskin and Morris's emphasis on joyful labor in such a way that it is now compatible with modern economic organization -- provided the proper worker education, even the menial drudgery detested by the British antimodernists can reinvigorate the soul. And, although Lears makes no mention of Croly in his discussion of this progressive reconfiguration of the artisanal impulse, his argument clearly holds for The Promise of American Life. While Croly, like Ruskin and Morris, values aesthetic striving above all else as the key to promoting individuality, he also suggests that this type of striving is readily compatible with --indeed, dependent on -- the economic and political institutions of modernity. For Croly, the only way to preserve the type of artisanal striving beloved by the antimodernists is to create a vast national structure with "innumerable special niches" for human development. This is clearly a prescription anathema to the original intentions of Ruskin or of Morris, whose "leading passion" was a self-proclaimed "hatred of modern civilization."23

Yet, it is important not to overstate the case. For, in defining the pursuits that allow individuality to flourish, Croly argues that they are "usually, but not necessarily connected with his means of livelihood" (my italics). In fact, the main source of Crolian individuality seems not to emanate from the rewarding labor of Ruskin and Morris at all, but rather through non-occupational self-cultivation and self-improvement. This aesthetic/intellectual striving toward self-betterment lies at the very heart of Croly's Promise, not only bearing much of its argumentative weight but also explaining its rhetorical strategies throughout. In the words of historian Charles Forcey, "what drove Croly...was a problem that lay at the very center of his [earlier] work on the Architectural Record -- the dilemma of the artist or intellectual in an industrial society...Ignored though it has been, Croly's vital concern for the intellectual in America goes far toward explaining both the origin and the essential meaning of The Promise of American Life."24

Indeed, Croly himself might have been surprised at the neglect this individualist emphasis has received since 1909, given that he explicitly closes his work by invoking this need for individual striving. Quoting George Santayana's Reason in Society on the very last page of Promise, he argues that, "'If a noble and civilized democracy is to subsist, the common citizen must be something of a saint and something of a hero.'" According to Croly, the average citizen can accomplish this "not by growing to heroic proportions in his own person, but by the sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints." And "whether or not he will ever come to such imitation will depend upon the ability of his exceptional fellow-countrymen to offer him acceptable examples of heroism and saintliness."25 By closing his book thus, Croly illustrates the direction of his sympathies: Despite the much-heralded emphasis on nationalism throughout Promise of American Life, the central argument of Croly's tome --the motive force that spurs his progressive vision of the ideal polity -- rests primarily in the hands of exemplary individuals.26 Indeed, the only way that the "noble and civilized democracy" which Croly has spent the entire book articulating can come to pass is if America's citizens aspire and strive toward a heroic or saintly ideal.

In placing so much rhetorical weight upon the idea of heroism, Croly's Promise enters into a dialogue with a number of intriguing canons, and none so obvious as that of his early progressive contemporaries. Historians as diverse as James Higham, T.J. Jackson Lears, George Cotkin, and Gail Bederman have all noted the cultural veneration of the heroic ideal at the turn of the twentieth century. As Cotkin puts it in his study of William James' own embrace of this heroic ideal, the "discourse of heroism...enthused American culture after 1880" and had "transformed itself into a full-fledged revitalization movement" soon thereafter. Be it in Lew Wallace's Ben Hur, the dime novel adventures of Deadwood Dick, the sculling paintings of Thomas Eakins, the Muscular Christianity of Dwight Moody, the virile public image of Theodore Roosevelt, or the "capacity of the strenuous mood" idealized by William James, the discourse of heroism was omnipresent among the thinkers of Herbert Croly's generation, and as such Promise falls clearly within the cultural mainstream of its time.27

Yet Croly's use of heroic exemplars also speaks to longer-standing traditions in the American mind. For one, although it may at first seem counterintuitive given both Croly's contempt for Jeffersonian provincialism and his arguments in favor of political centralization, the emphasis on democratic improvement through heroic emulation place Promise squarely in the civic republican tradition. In the words of political scientist Michael Sandel, "the republican conception of freedom...requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires." And this type of formative politics is clearly at the center of Croly's tome. As Sandel notes, "repeatedly and explicitly, Croly wrote of the 'formative purpose' of democratic life. More than a scheme for majority rule or individual liberty or equal rights, [Croly's] democracy has as its highest purpose the moral and civic improvements of the people...the point of democracy [for Croly] was not to cater to people's desires but to elevate their character, broaden their sympathies, and enlarge their civic spirit."28 Moreover, since the earliest days of the American experiment, when Dr. Benjamin Rush first aspired to "convert citizens into republican machines" and Reverend Parson Weems penned the almost excessively-praiseworthy Life of Washington (as an illustration to young Americans of the moral virtue expected of her citizens), civic republicans have, like Croly, relied on heroic exemplars to make their formative case.29

In addition, Croly's central emphases on individuality and heroic imitation seem to locate The Promise of American Life in another American cultural tradition, one that has received much less attention from historians and political philosophers than has civic republicanism --that is, Emersonian perfectionism. In his book Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell argues that the writings of nineteenth-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson --particularly "Self-Reliance," "The American Scholar," and "Representative Men" --suggest the contours of a uniquely democratic philosophy of moral perfectionism, one applicable to all citizens rather than just to elites. And this Emersonian perfectionism, as articulated by Cavell, has at its heart the principle of democratic self-cultivation through heroic emulation, the very mechanism outlined by Croly in The Promise of American Life. "Perfectionism is the dimension of moral thought directed less to restraining the bad than to releasing the good," argues Cavell, and "if there is a perfectionism not only compatible with democracy but necessary to it, it lies not in excusing democracy for its inevitable failures, but in teaching how to respond to those failures and to one's compromise by them, otherwise than by excuse or withdrawal."30 In other words, in Cavell's reading of Emerson, it is only by cultivating ourselves enough to express our dissent with democracy that we express our consent to democracy. Only from a standpoint of true individuality, or (to use Emerson's word) self-reliance, "which [in Croly's words] is indispensable to the fullness and intensity of American life," can a democratic citizen criticize -- and thereby take part in -- the polity, thus achieving the "noble and civilized democracy" so desired by Croly.31

Paradoxically, in Cavell's reading of Emerson as in Croly, the instrument of this individual self-cultivation is imitation. Quoting Emerson's remark in "Self-Reliance" that "in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts come back to us with a certain alienated majesty," Cavell suggests that it is by absorption and emulation of other "higher" minds --what Croly might call "sincere imitation" -- that we discover our "further, next, unattained but attainable, self."32 Or, as Emerson himself similarly puts it in "Representative Men", "[o]ther men are lenses through which we read our own minds...But he must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation. I cannot tell what I would know; but I have observed there are persons who, in their character and actions, answer questions which I have not skill to put."33 With Cavell and Emerson as with Croly's argument in Promise, the path to achieving true individuality must involve the emulation of heroic exemplars, in order to show us the path to achieving our next, higher self.34

As we have now seen, Croly's emphasis on the importance of disinterested self-cultivation, along with his strategy of using "heroes and saints" as paradigms of individuality, place him not only in context of the artisanal antimodernism and heroic early progressivism of his day, but also within the broader American traditions of civic republicanism and Emersonian perfectionism. But now that we've ascertained that Croly is using historic exemplars to promote virtue and individuality in the citizenry, the question becomes thus: who are Croly's heroes, and what virtues do they embody? It is to these questions that we now turn.

Continue to Part IV: "Crolian Virtues: Independence."

Return to Part II: "Crolian Ends: Corrosive Individualism and Creative Individuality."

20. Croly, 410.
21. T.J. Jackson Lears. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 62-63, 61.
22. Lears, 79-80.
23. Lears, 62. In her own discussion of Croly's "disinterested individualism," historian Iris Dorreboom contends that Croly may have encountered the writings of Ruskin and Morris through one of his Harvard professors, Charles Eliot Norton, himself one of the leading lights of the American Arts and Crafts movement articulated by Lears. As she notes, "For Croly, as for Ruskin and Morris, the satisfaction of doing a good job was not only a way to self-satisfaction, but a way to restore a sense of community and moral responsibility." Iris Dorreboom. The Challenge of Our Time: Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, and the Making of Modern America (Atlanta: Rodopi B.V., 1991), 119.
24. Forcey, 22-23.
25. Croly, 454.
26. Of course, Croly's answer to this question leads us to another typically Crolian contradiction --how does one achieve individuality through "sincere imitation?" This important question will be dealt with later in the paper, in the discussion of Emersonian perfectionism.
27. George Cotkin. William James: Public Philosopher (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 95-99, 103. Obviously, this embrace of the heroic came about for different reasons and took several varying forms in the examples listed above, and some bear more relation to Croly's arguments than others. These similarities and differences will be discussed in further detail in the section to follow on Crolian virtues. For now, I want only to cite The Promise of American Life as another example of this wide-ranging embrace of heroism in the period between 1880-1910. Indeed, as we will see, this embrace of heroism is one of the features that date Croly as an "early" progressive out of sync with his contemporaries at the New Republic --only three years after Promise, Walter Weyl would declare that democracy had "put down the mighty ‘great man' who once obsessed history" and exalted instead the "unnamed multitude." Christopher Lasch. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 344.
28. Michael Sandel. Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 6, 129, 220. Historian Daniel Rodgers has argued that republicanism is one of the "most protean" concepts in current historical writing, a concept which by the 1980's "was everywhere and organizing everything, though perceptibly thinning out, like a nova entering its red giant phase." And indeed, the republican tradition also plays a large part in Lears' No Place of Grace, where it is used in the Pocockian sense, meaning that it is characterized as much by an obsessive fear of urban luxury, vice, and corruption as by a predisposition toward virtu. While there is much overlap in these various views of republicanism, I am using it here in the Sandelian sense, in which the urban-rural dichotomy and the conspiratorial mindset play much less of a role. Daniel Rodgers. "Republicanism: the Career of a Concept," The Journal of American History, June 1992, 11.
29. Yet, simply to place Croly's work within the republican formative tradition of the founders misses some of the striking ambition of his argument. For, as we shall see when we discuss the particular qualities embodied by his heroes and deserving of emulation, Croly is attempting a rather substantive recasting of American republican virtues, wherein the heroic pioneer beloved by the republicans of Jefferson's day becomes the enemy of true individuality.
30. Stanley Cavell. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 18.
31. Indeed, Cavell seems to echo Croly in his discussion of democratic consent. To Cavell, consent "asks me to make my society mine, one in which I am spoken for, where my voice may be raised in assessing the present state of society against a further or next state of society…In criticizing my society for its relative disadvantages I am in effect criticizing myself." Cavell's argument recalls Croly's earlier-mentioned contention that "the individual becomes a nation in miniature, but devoted to the loyal realization of a purpose peculiar to himself." Cavell, 27-28.
32. Cavell, 57. Cavell also contends that Friedrich Nietzsche is making the same Emersonian perfectionist argument in his essay "Schopenhauer as Educator." Although the essay seems to praise Arthur Schopenhauer, it is written in the style of --and indeed often paraphrases -- Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cavell takes this to mean that Nietzsche had once apprenticed himself to Schopenhauer, but had now "outgrown" him and thus could now appraise his work. But, by paraphrasing Emerson throughout the text without referring to him by name, Nietzsche tells us that he is still grappling with Emerson as the exemplar of his "next self." Cavell, 52-53.
33. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Representative Men" (1850).
34. To be sure, neither Emerson nor Croly was the first person to suggest that man is best educated by heroic example. Nevertheless, I believe the similarities between Croly's argument and Emersonian perfectionism, along with their common preoccupation with preserving and cultivating individuality in democracy, are strong enough to warrant as much attention as they have received here.

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