The Promise of American Lives:

Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly

[Page 5]

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 Virtues: Sociability

All that being said, in Croly's world, individuality is not defined by independence alone. For all his vaunted autonomy, Hamilton possessed one crucial flaw that irreparably tainted and impoverished his conception of nationalism - He "did not understand [his] fellow countrymen and sympathize with their purposes, and naturally [was] repaid with misunderstanding and suspicion." In contrast, despite harboring an individualist "conception of democracy [that] was meager, narrow, and self-contradictory," Thomas Jefferson still "possessed the one saving quality which Hamilton himself lacked...a sincere, indiscriminate, and unlimited faith in the American people."44 Thus, a Crolian democrat must be independent but not aloof -- individuality must be tempered with some modicum of democratic empathy.

In fact, for all of his problems with the hyper-individualistic, hyper-competitive pioneer of the nineteenth century, Croly nevertheless applauds this hail-fellow-well-met spirit of democratic companionship that arose in the Jeffersonian mind. "The successful pioneer Democrat was not a pleasant type in many respects," notes Croly:

but he was saved from many of the worst aspects of his limited experience and ideas by a certain innocence, generosity, and kindliness of spirit. With all his willful aggressiveness he was a companionable person who meant much better toward his fellows than he himself knew. We need to guard scrupulously against the under-valuation of the advance which the pioneers made toward a genuine social democracy. The freedom of intercourse and the consistency of feeling which they succeeded in attaining is an indispensable characteristic of a democratic society."45
Of course, Croly thinks these Jacksonian Democrats erred too far on the side of egalitarian empathy over independence -- and thus they "viewed with distrust and aversion the man with a special vocation and high standards of achievement" -- but it is important to note that he thinks well of Jeffersonian brotherhood.46

As before, Croly is not promoting this egalitarian empathy in a vacuum -- Many of his early progressive contemporaries were arguing along similar lines. McClay for one refers to this impulse as "social solidarity," a desire for self-transcendence and group cohesion that can be found throughout the turn-of-the century cultural milieu, from the socialist utopia of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and scientific logic of Charles Peirce to the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and settlement houses of Jane Addams.47 Similarly, other historians have argued that this period witnessed the birth of the idea of the "social self," as suggested by John Dewey's 1891 assertion that "the self, or individuality, is essentially social, being constituted not by isolated capacity, but by capacity acting in response to the needs of...a community of persons."48 As T.J. Jackson Lears puts it, "by the end of the nineteenth century, the self seemed neither independent, nor unified...but rather interdependent, discontinuous, [and] divided."49

To take just one example, this notion of the progressive "social self" is clearly evident in the writings of Jane Addams -- Indeed, as per usual, Addams seems to make a strikingly similar argument about the relationship between independence and solidarity as Croly when she writes, "It is so easy for the good and powerful to think that they can rise by following the dictates of conscience [and] by pursuing their own ideals, leaving those ideals unconnected with the consent of their fellow-men."50 In short, in the brave new world of the progressives, where even truths and selves are socially deliberated and socially constructed, this individual independence of Hamilton must be tempered with the democratic empathy of Jefferson in order to come to terms with the demands of the social self.

Clearly these Progressive notions of solidarity and the social self are at work in Croly's delineation of the Jeffersonian virtue of sociability and companionship. But, as with intellectual independence, Croly's discussion of sociability also speaks to the earliest concerns of American civic republicanism. As Gordon Wood notes in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the men and women of the revolutionary era turned to a very similar notion of a virtue of sociability to replace the austere martial virtue that bound together classical republics. After independence "American society would have to be tied together in new ways," writes Wood, and thus "a new modern virtue was associated with affability and sociability, with love and benevolence." Indeed, in the post-revolutionary republican moment, "promoting social affection [became] the object of the civilizing process...Mingling in drawing rooms, clubs, and coffeehouses -- partaking of the innumerable interchanges of the daily comings and goings of modern life -- created affection and fellow feeling" and worked as "the new republican adhesives."51 Thus, Croly's virtue of sociability not only helps in the formation of progressive social selves but also in binding selves to one another, as required in a republican polity.

Indeed, the equally prominent role of democratic sociability in Emersonian perfectionism suggests that these twin goals of progressive self-formation and republican polity-formation are one and the same, as each individual self is in turn made up of a community of selves united by reason and conversation.52 In Stanley Cavell's casting, the crux of Emersonian perfectionism is friendship and conversation, for "[a]s representative we are educations for one another." As such, conversation "becomes the perfectionist moment, where one begins showing how to manage individuation." In other words, conversing with a good friend (or a good text, or for that matter, a good moral exemplar) illuminates new paths that the self might take in its evolution toward a higher state. As Cavell puts it, "Emerson's turn is to make my partiality itself the sign and incentive of my siding against my attained perfection (or conformity), sidings which require the recognition of an other -- the acknowledgement of a relationship -- in which this sign is manifest." In sum, the point of social conversation "is not to win an argument...but to manifest for the other another way."53 As such, the virtue of sociability is crucial to the project of perfectionist self-creation, illustrating once again Croly's surprising compatibility with Emersonian perfectionism.54

It is interesting in passing to compare Croly's emphasis on sociability with the early thought of one of his younger New Republic colleagues, Randolph Bourne. As historian Casey Blake has demonstrated, Bourne, like Croly -- indeed, perhaps even more than Croly -- came to embrace "the ideal of friendship as the model for a radically transformed society" and tried to ground "democratic politics in an egalitarian republic of friendship." Hearkening to an early conception of perfectionist friendship -- the Aristotelian view that "true friendship grew out of a shared commitment to the common good" (related to yet distinct from the Emersonian view, where friendship is an expression of differentiation and disputed views on the common good) -- Bourne argued that "friendships founded on art and argument offered the individual both independence and intimacy, autonomous selfhood and communion with others." As Bourne himself put it, friends "are a true part of our widest self...we should hardly have a true self without them."55

Blake reads Bourne's theory of friendship "as a direct response to the cultivation of friendliness as a form of social affability that developed alongside the bureaucratic order of the modern corporate economy," and as such Bourne's views might first be read as a rebuke to Croly, the avatar of bureaucratic nationalism par excellence.56 However, I would argue that these two men's conceptions of solidarity and sociability have more in common than it would first appear. Although they disagree as to the root cause of impoverished notions of friendship -- Bourne blames bureaucracy while Croly faults the anti-intellectualism of the pioneer mind -- both men are inspired by an aesthetic critique of contemporary life to invoke friendship in its republican and perfectionist incarnations as the key to creating a "noble and civilized democracy." In this respect as in others, Croly's Promise presages the aesthetic and intellectual concerns that would inspire the later writings of Randolph Bourne and his fellow "Young Americans." And, although Bourne would later repudiate his theory of friendship (since it ultimately "threatened to sacrifice his ironic independence to the demands of the group"), the early overlap between Croly and Bourne on the subject recall the important intellectual similarities these two friends shared, similarities all too often obscured by their later break over World War I.57

Continue to Part VI: "Crolian Virtues: Vitality."

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

44. Croly, 42-43.
45. Croly, 62.
46. Croly, 64.
47. McClay, 90-91, 154-158.
48. James Livingston. Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York: Routledge, 2001), 76
49. Lears, 38.
50. Livingston, 70.
51. Gordon Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 213-218.
52. Hence Emerson's famous maxim from "Self-Reliance", "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds...With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." Or, as fellow democratic perfectionist Walt Whitman put it in "Song of Myself", "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
53. Indeed, one could argue that Croly embodied this perfectionist mode of debate -- opening intellectual doors for consideration rather than emphatically closing them -- to a fault. According to Charles Forcey, Croly's own social temperament -- "never raucous or strident, rarely angry," marked by a "strange impassivity" and an "omniscient calm" (what Wilfred McClay might call "disinterested") -- became known by some wags at the New Republic as acting "Crolier than thou." Forcey, 7.
54. Cavell, 30-32. Cavell has written quite extensively on the contours of perfectionist friendship and sociability, most notably in his book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. As the title suggests, Cavell holds the Emersonian readings of conversation and friendship discussed here to be central not only to the union of the perfectionist self in marriage but also to the American "pursuit of happiness" enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
55. Casey Nelson Blake. Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, & Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 68-69, 71.
56. Blake, 69.
57. Perhaps not surprisingly, one could argue that the substantive difference between Bourne and Croly's views of sociability may in fact be a reflection of their varying degrees of sociability. As Blake notes, Bourne came to reject his theory of friendship because he -- a social butterfly of sorts and the "catalyst of the long exchanges that took place among his friends" -- eventually found himself too concerned about maintaining others' good favor. "I find myself hopelessly dependent on my friends, and my environment," wrote Bourne, speculating that perhaps "[p]eople with that inner command of moods do not need friends so keenly as I do." In contrast, Croly was something of a recluse. "[T]he chief trait of his personality was its shyness," remarks Croly biographer David Levy. "Everyday social intercourse was difficult for him throughout his life and small talk was an ordeal." Yet, while "Croly's shyness approached the pathological," argues Charles Forcey, "he insisted on entertaining and made his home in New York the center of an active social life." Thus, while friendship represented a heady and possibly dangerous intoxicant for Bourne, it was a sober and deliberately applied virtue for Croly, who was never in any danger of losing his natural reticence in order to cultivate the goodwill of others. To my mind, the difference between these two views of friendship may possibly illustrate two steps in the evolution of the social self. As Blake notes, Bourne "seemed to suggest that the independence necessary to the life of irony was necessarily impossible because there existed no irreducible core of personality free of the pressures of group life." This idea of the completely socially constructed self evokes T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men," waiting to be filled, and is a difference in kind from Croly's earlier conception of socially influenced but still ultimately independent selves. Blake, 71. Levy, xiii. Forcey, 6,8.

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