Commentary Magazine


A Surfeit of Honey, by Russell Lynes

American Typologies
A Surfeit of Honey
By Russell Lynes
Harper. 140 pp. $3.00
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We adore self-appointed scolds who tell us what shallow characters we are. Here is Mr. Lynes casting us as History’s Spoiled Children. We have it too good, he says. Luxury is sapping our moral fiber. The spirit that made us Great is gone from the land. America is Great, but Americans? Spineless mediocrities who prefer to avoid ulcers rather than bareknuckle their way up to Chairman of the Board. We would rather keep “our noses to the rhinestones” than dig for diamonds. Mr. Lynes’s is an ancestral voice prophesying doom. The shadow of declining Rome darkens the windshield of the 1957 Cadillac.

It’s the self-indulgent middle class, fretful, restless, whiney—the Miltown-chewing set—that gravels Mr. Lynes. His world is that of the backyard barbecue pit and he calls it America. No problems of segregated schools. No immigrants. No refugees. Not even anyone driving a 1949 Chevrolet.

Nor do the individuals who inhabit the ranch houses and split-levels resemble human beings. They aren’t wicked or virtuous, stupid or clever, vain or modest. They aren’t people at all but bundles of conditioned reflexes reacting automatically to cultural buzzers. They don’t buy things but “status symbols.” Books, paintings, hi-fi phonographs, mink coats, swimming pools, dishwashers are never acquired for the sake of comfort, pleasure, or convenience. If you burst in on a highbrow unexpectedly you’ll never catch him playing Bach. He only does that to impress company. A man never moves from a smaller to a larger house except to show off.

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Who are the disembodied abstractions—those “fantastic beings” that Tocqueville warned us would make us regret the world of reality—haunting the brains of social scientists and “social critics”? Among literally thousands of so-called types we have the Conformist, the Market Place Personality, the Clitoridean Woman, the Extrovert, the Unproductively Oriented, the Anal Narcissist, the Pyknic, the Moving Away From, the Other Directed—to say nothing of the Inner Confused crawling in and out of the various pigeonholes in search of “the real self.” Mr. Lynes helps out with the Part-Time Lady, the Mass-Produced Eccentric, and the Upper Bohemian. The less people are understood the more they are classified. There isn’t a typologist alive or dead who could predict how any of his phantoms would behave in any conceivable situation.

Typologies proliferate far more rapidly than verifiable laws of. human behavior. Generally speaking, the poorer a psychologist is in explanations, the more profuse he is in descriptions. Because it’s hard to squeeze a human being into a cramped generalization the typologist, who usually starts modestly with only a few types, is apt to subdivide and subdivide. William H. Sheldon, who began with about eight, wound up, if memory serves, with roughly eighty-six. Irving Howe is a type-user of enormous economy: Conformists and Non-Conformists. Such beautiful simplicity won’t last. Mr. Lynes, who divides snobs into many types, tells us nothing about snobbery. In A Surfeit of Honey he classifies individuals according to the “status symbols” they cherish, but says absolutely nothing about status anxiety.

Tocqueville, a “social critic” of no small reputation, didn’t come up with a single American “type,” but in 1840 he was not afraid to predict, among other things, that our poets would develop an obscurantist style surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery; that our historians would favor deterministic theories; that the rising capitalist class would become a brutal and harsh aristocracy but that it would be confined and controlled quickly. He even predicted—although he didn’t call it that—the development of status anxiety among our people. Mr. Lynes ventures to predict nothing; he says America is changing too fast to allow of any safe predictions.

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“There is a great deal to be said for the climate that a depression produces,” says Mr. Lynes, “a climate in many respects more productive than prosperity—more interesting, more lively, more thoughtful and even in a wry sort of way, more fun.” People had noble characters and real values. They were kind, considerate, compassionate, self-sufficient. They thought. A depression “is a dampener to frivolous ambition. It taxes the imagination . . . it produces ideas which are more than just notions. In a depression a bad idea is a luxury that cannot be afforded. . . .” Stalinism flourished during the depression. National Socialism came to power in Germany during the depression. Perhaps Mr. Lynes can name worse ideas.

“Put in its rudest terms, prosperity produces not only plenty but curiously empty values and a national uneasiness. . . .” he continues. People are frivolous, scatterbrained, selfish, rude, unthinking, corrupt, and tense. “Artists and architects, writers and musicians worry about hits and their spoonfuls of gravy rather than about their art.” But superiority is the stance of the disguised moralist. As Tocqueville observed, in a democracy authors often sound great—only humanity is small. Mr. Lynes trys to sell us a degenerate form of puritanism: austerity breeds virtue, luxury breeds vice.

In A Surfeit of Honey Mr. Lynes has also included what amounts to still another rewrite of “the famous article ‘Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow.’” Highbrows are Mr. Lynes’s special bête noire.

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