The Corner

A Glimpse of a Vanishing American Character

Sometimes you run across something that justifies all the hand-wringing about the vapidity of Barack Obama, the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the inanity of cable news, the new college Jacobins, and the coarsening of the American character. Take, for example, this brief passage in Van Wyck Brooks’s The Flowering of New England (1936), on the “best Boston and Cambridge type”:

A clear, distinct mentality, a strong distaste for nonsense, steady composure, a calm and gentle demeanor, stability, good principles, intelligence, a habit of under-statement, a slow and cautious way of reasoning, contempt for extravagance, vanity and affectation, kindness of heart, purity, decorum, profound affections, filial and paternal.

Whether more fantasy than accurate, Brooks’s paean to the old time character was important not least in standing for an ideal. Bostonian he may have labeled it, but its deep strength, even its narrowness, was not restricted to a small bay in the Northeast. Who among the “shapers” of public opinion would today list those virtues? Steady composure and under-statement does not get one on Hardball or The O’Reilly Factor, nor does a slow and cautious way of reasoning fit the hyperactive world of Twitter and the Internet. Are there today any judges of character occupying a significant social role, and if so, do they themselves partake of the attributes noted above?

It is sometimes hard to step back from the incessant digital hammering of our senses, but our forefathers, not to mention our grandfathers would likely be appalled, even horrified by what is celebrated today as the American character. It makes one appreciate the appeal of searching for a return or an escape, something like the “Benedict Option“ argued by Rod Dreher. But that is unrealistic for the vast majority of us, who must endure an ever more brittle, brutal, anti-intellectual, and value-free society. It is hard to envision how bad it gets or where it ends, or what will be the tipping point where those of faith, manners, breeding, humility, and strength begin in a meaningful way to claw back their culture from those destroying it.

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