Commentary Magazine

Dr. Coles among the Poor

It is a strange business, the sudden popular success of people who do intellectual work in America. Although decades may have gone into the making of their reputations, fame—the actual moment at which their names, so to speak, go public—seems to come on with great suddenness. All at once, as though by some hidden consensus, they are granted a sort of general public license as authorities: their names start to crop up on television talk shows, soon afterward they begin to appear more and more frequently in person—shyly at first, then with increasing confidence as they find themselves treated as headliners on all sides. The next thing one knows, there they are on the cover of Time or Newsweek (or both), having successfully negotiated that mysterious leap from the closed circle of their peers to national celebrity.

There is always a reason for this sudden elevation of an intellectual to prominence, and it usually has to do with more than mere professional achievement. In some cases, it is bound up directly, and in a fairly obvious way, with some issues of the moment—as in the case of James Baldwin and the civil-rights movement, or Kate Milett and Women’s Lib. In other cases—one thinks of Paul Goodman or Erik Erikson—what is involved is less tangible: a sudden change in public mood which overnight makes a fairly arcane or difficult body of work seem unexpectedly relevant. In every case, however, including that of the psychiatrist Robert Coles, the intellectual most recently to have traveled this road, the matter is worth studying for the insights it can offer into what is going on in the country at any given moment.

Though Coles, in a period of about ten years, has written thirteen books (four of them in collaboration) and no fewer than 350 magazine articles (according to Time’s recent cover story on him), it is not chiefly as a writer that he has become famous. While his prose may not be crippled by the psychiatric jargon of so many of his colleagues, neither is it particularly memorable either for stylistic felicity or for evidence of intellectual originality. Rather, the body of his work, at least in its more casual expression in magazine pieces, is largely remarkable for the appealing persona it projects. Reading Coles’s articles over the years (and there was a time when he seemed to be in every issue of every magazine one picked up), one gradually came to think of him as a kind of Ralph Nader of social psychiatry. Indeed, the two even look rather alike—both lean and open-faced, both slightly rumpled, as if to suggest that the day is too brief to give over any part of it to considerations of vanity. Both men seem to be airborne much of the time—off on missions of good work which will involve some championing of the underdog against his oppressors. Viewed from the middle distance—the vantage point of the television viewer or the magazine reader—both seem to represent the best America has to offer: youth, unbounded energy, unswinging seriousness, idealism shorn of the sour malice that so often has seemed to accompany it lately in America. Allowing the mind to skip off into fantastical political pastures, one could dally with the thought of Nader as President of the United States and Coles as his ideal Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Oblivious to fashion, Coles has remained doggedly interested in the same subject throughout his professional career: the migrant workers, children integrating public schools in the South, unemployed Appalachian whites, and impoverished urban and rural blacks who make up America’s lower class. For a brief period, in the early 1960’s, the country as a whole seemed to share Coles’s interest in this subject. Then a shift took place and the poor were suddenly shunted aside to make way for another cast of characters altogether: a mixed bag of angry people—including students, women, and homosexuals—who claimed an equal right to call themselves victims, not on grounds of material need, but for deprivation of another kind. Thus, the wretched of the earth, one might say, were displaced by the wretched of the psyche. The latters’ ease in capturing the spotlight is not particularly difficult to explain: as members of the middle class, and hence on the whole better educated, the wretched of the psyche have been far cleverer at getting the attention of the media. More original in their rhetoric and more outlandish in their exploits, they are simply, in the raw journalistic sense of the term, “better copy.”



Yet the new disaffection would probably never have come to dominate public attention had there not been a deep and genuine feeling of despondency about the possibility of doing anything at all to alleviate the misery of the truly wretched, the wretched of the earth. This despair has touched black and white, poor and well-to-do alike, as the multitude of economic, educational, and cultural programs launched amid great fanfare in the early 1960’s have appeared to fall short of really spectacular achievement—the only kind of achievement that would have satisfied the expectations raised. All the rhetoric, publicity, political pressure, and calls to militance have seemed to result in not much more than a mess of ethnic pottage, scant reassurance in the face of serious material deprivation, while whatever concrete gains have been made in income distribution and in patterns of housing and employment have either been ignored or dismissed as tokenism.

No doubt, there is a certain emotional comfort to be had in believing, as some profess to do, that the entire issue is reducible to the fact of a deeply ingrained racism in American whites—though to grant that premise is to assert that there is nothing to do but sit back and await the apocalypse. But what if the problem is of a different order entirely? What if we have failed to do anything substantial about our enormous range of social problems—poverty, the schools, the cities, and all the rest of it—not because we don’t want to, but because, beyond a certain point, we simply don’t know how to? Small wonder, in the face of this likelihood, that the country should turn its attention, with a sense of relief, even, to the wretched of the psyche, people whose troubles by comparison seem positively benign.

But the poor, of course, will not be so obliging as to go away; so even while the hope of actually doing something tangible to alleviate their condition has never been at a lower ebb, the need to make some gesture of concern for their existence, if only as a matter of conscience, seems to grow more burning every day. Is the recent overwhelming recognition that has been accorded the work of Robert Coles such a gesture? In part, it seems to be. Something about the fervor and the unanimity of critical response to the publication of his latest book, The South Goes North,1 suggests that some expiatory impulse is at work. Except for one grumbling review in the Times by a Women’s Liberationist, the praise for Coles has been unstinting. Time called him “the most influential living psychiatrist in the U.S.” Newsweek invoked no less a psychologist than Kafka himself by way of comparison. Kenneth Clark has commented that Coles’s presence in American life “keeps morality, decency, and justice alive.” Harry Caudill called his new book “the definitive work on America’s poor and powerless in the twentieth century.”

The work that has generated this extraordinary response, and the foundation on which Coles’s reputation rests, is an ongoing study of the American poor titled Children of Crisis. The three volumes thus far published (all by Atlantic-Little, Brown) already add up to more than 1,700 pages. The first, A Study of Courage and Fear,2 was published five years ago and is about the integration of Southern schools following upon the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision. The second, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers3 deals with the lives of these three groups in today’s South. The third volume, The South Goes North, is about the exodus of migrants, sharecroppers, and mountaineers from a land that will no longer support their survival even on a subsistence level into the cities of the North. Coles is apparently now at work on a fourth volume, tentatively titled Chicanos, Eskimos, and Indians, and additional ones may well follow, for he has described this present project as his “life’s work.”



Perhaps the most striking thing about Children of Crisis is how difficult it is to classify. Though Coles is by profession and training a child psychiatrist, his work does not at all seem to belong to the standard literature of psychiatry, notwithstanding the debt that Coles acknowledges in all three volumes to his mentors, Anna Freud and Erik Erikson. Coles does use the clinician’s method of extended in-depth interviews as the basis of the book, and he does, in dealing with children, make use of such standard techniques as having the children express their views about themselves and the world around them by means of drawings and paintings. But his interpretations of such material are for the most part intuitive and commonsensical—free of the usual psychiatric esoterica. Indeed, on the few occasions when Coles does employ such terms as paranoid, schizophrenic, or manic-depressive—terms so widely used by now that they can scarcely be called clinical—he does so in quotation marks, a kind of typographical signal of contempt for the inadequacy of such language to capture the range of human behavior. (In Volume I of Children of Crisis Coles does make one minor foray into an interpretation of behavior along traditional psychoanalytic lines. It has to do with a fat white woman in New Orleans who used to lie in wait for the Negro children who were integrating the school in her neighborhood so that she could scream threats at them; once she threatened to poison a little Negro girl. Coles links the woman’s hatred of Negroes to her passion for chocolates, the chocolates being the cause of her obesity and obesity the cause of the loneliness and frustration in her life. Ingenious—and utterly unconvincing! In his subsequent volumes Coles wisely stays clear of such capers.)



If Coles is not writing as a psychiatrist in Children of Crisis, exactly what did he have in mind as he spent the better part of a decade toting his tape-recorder into the hollows of Appalachia and the Florida cotton fields; along the path of migrant workers up the Atlantic coast and into the Black Belt of the South where sharecroppers and tenant farmers still fight the land and a vicious feudal agricultural system for survival? Primarily, he tells us, he has sought not to diagnose or to prescribe, but first of all to understand—to understand America’s most consistently humiliated people, not in their familiar aspect as “social problems,” but in the concretion of their day-to-day lives: in their joys, sorrows, hopes, and frustrations, in their thoughts no less than in their actions, in the jolts the world regularly sends their way and the techniques they have developed to cushion those jolts and wrest a measure of dignity and self-respect from a hostile or indifferent environment.

To study people as they really are—in their “innerness,” as Coles puts it—one must first chip away at the stereotypes in which they have been encased. This Coles often does remarkably well. Some of the most memorable incidents in the book are those in which, by the modest expedient of asking people questions about their own lives, he actually learns something altogether different from what he—and the reader—might have expected to hear. One thinks, for example, of the black boy from a solid, secure, and happy background who fared far worse in the crisis atmosphere of the early days of integration than a number of children from shakier homes; or of the white mother in New Orleans who allowed her four children to pioneer the integration of their school not—as it turns out—because of her principles, but because the alternative of having the children around the house all day seemed a fate worse even than race-mixing. Such findings—and they are strewn through the book—are of inestimable importance as a corrective to our usual ways of thinking about social problems. It is important and useful to be reminded, for example, that people—even in the tensest political situations—usually act more out of quotidian than ideological concerns. It is similarly important to have some of our more cherished pieties on the subject of child-rearing occasionally exploded.

Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a work of this magnitude on the principle of direct observation and the anti-stereotype impulse alone, though Coles tries very hard to do so. Few writers have been more chary than he of generalization, few more unwilling to discern overall patterns or to draw conclusions on the basis of extended observation. Lest his own or another’s preconceptions inadvertently be allowed to violate the integrity of his material, Coles reduces his presence in the work to the barest minimum, and presents his findings, as far as possible, in the words of his subjects. The result is a gigantic body of raw data (about two-thirds of the material is quotation) which in the end proves self-defeating. In the general din of talk, not only by the poor but by those who live and work among them—policemen, firemen, welfare workers, ministers, plantation owners, migrant crew leaders, and slum landlords—no single voice can really be heard. Observations which in another context would be arresting and memorable are drowned out by a flood of garrulousness which in the end proves infinitely fatiguing and the very opposite of illuminating.



What Children of Crisis lacks is precisely an organizing sensibility that might have provided a center to the work as the sensibility of George Orwell did, for example, to The Road to Wigan Pier—and indeed, a comparison between these two authors, both of whom deal with the lives of people at the very bottom of society, is as irresistible as it is probably unfair. Orwell, with a minimum of direct quotation, conveyed in 118 pages a more vivid sense of the lives of the poor than Coles has in a work ten times as long. For all its obsession with detail, Children of Crisis is peculiarly thin in places where one would have expected it to be dense with particularity. It is not only that Coles is silent on such obviously pertinent matters as how much people earn for a day’s work in the fields, how much they spend for food, how large is the welfare check that comes once a week—matters that Orwell loved to compute down to the last halfpenny; he is also peculiarly inattentive in matters of personal detail. When he tells us, for example, that migrant workers spend the whole day from sunup to sunset stooped over in the fields and picking crops with only a sandwich and a bottle of soda pop for lunch, we learn exactly that—no more and no less. But Orwell would have reported what a middle-class back, a back like his own, accustomed to spending the day in an office chair, would feel like at the end of such a grueling day; he would have checked into the contents, and especially the smell, of that sandwich, and noted the thumb prints on the bread. He would, in other words, have become the migrant worker himself for an instant, as he became the haunting old woman in the Wigan slum, about whom he wrote: “One woman’s face stays by me, a worn skull-like face on which was a look of intolerable misery and degradation. I gathered that in that dreadful pigsty, struggling to keep her large brood of children clean, she felt as I should feel if I were coated all over with dung.”

It is inconceivable that Coles could have written such a sentence. To begin with, it would violate the sacred principle of nonintervention which is the hallmark of the tape-recorder method. More important, it would probably seem to him an impudent attempt to foist his own point of view, his own sensibility—above all, his own value system—upon his subjects. For in all the books which, like Coles’s, have won acclaim recently for their use of the documentary method—one thinks first and foremost of the late Oscar Lewis’s studies of Mexican and Puerto Rican families—a common assumption operates: that there is some special merit in having the poor speak out for themselves because what they have to say is more illuminating than what some middle-class observer could possibly bring to bear on the subject. This assumption is permeated, of course, by a kind of reverse cultural snobbism. If the anthropologist of the past was in perpetual danger of patronizing his subjects for their benighted condition—the dread sin of ethnocentrism—today’s observer is more likely to believe that his own culture is not only not better, but far worse than the one he is observing.

George Orwell could say valuable and important things about poverty and what it does to people out of his own strong and unabashed repugnance to it. Coles, on the other hand, is perpetually apologizing for his presumption in having intruded on the scene at all. If the dominant tone of The Road to Wigan Pier is anger, the dominant tone of Children of Crisis is ambivalence. Indeed, the two-sidedness of every subject Coles touches upon is perceived so incessantly, that it becomes a kind of tic in the prose. Thus, Coles will grant that many Negro families are headed by mothers, only to add that he has also come across “sturdy, tough, outspoken black fathers”; he finds himself intellectually opposed to the views of a certain radical organizer, only to discover a moment later an emotional sympathy with the man’s position; he notes that slum buildings are often terribly neglected, but that on the other hand some landlords try to keep to decent standards. And so it goes—for every rule, an exception; for every possibility, an alternate possibility.



There is a variety of understanding that surpasses understanding—a way of carrying moderation to excess. At one point in this work Coles remarks: “I emphasize the mind’s maneuvers, its tensions, hopes, fears, ambiguities.” But Coles more than emphasizes them—he demonstrates them in his own person. True, Children of Crisis offers much information about the poor in American society, but it is no less instructive as a portrait of the prototypical liberal who, by virtue of understanding everything, finally disqualifies himself from taking a position on anything.

In an odd way, the net effect of Coles’s work is to exonerate us all—though this was of course the last thing he had in mind when setting out on his vast enterprise. If such a good and decent man—and a psychiatrist at that—could spend ten years trying to “understand” his subject, and confess himself at the end no less bewildered and incompetent and helpless at the complexity of it all than he was at the beginning, can the rest of us possibly be expected to do any better? Small wonder, then, that the work of such a man, so perfectly mirroring the confusion and helplessness we all feel—and, in effect, granting us amnesty into the bargain—should become so famous in its time, and have attracted such fervid admiration. As Sainte-Beuve said: “Enthusiastic admirers are a little like accomplices: they worship themselves, with all their own qualities and defects, in their great representatives. Tell me who admires and loves you, and I will tell you who you are.”




1 Atlantic-Little, Brown, 687 pp., $12.50.

2 401 pp., $8.50.

3 653 pp., $12.50.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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