Commentary Magazine

The Cart and the Horse, by Louis Kronenberger

The Liberal Target

The Cart and the Horse.
by Louis Kronenberger.
Knopf. 212 pp. $4.95.

Drama critic, critic of literature generally, and 18th-century scholar (he is the author, for example, of the fine biography, Marlborough's Duchess), Louis Kronenberger has long been known for a style and attitude reminiscent of the 18th century—for neatly balanced and elegantly epigrammatic sentences, for urbanity, and for a humorously tolerant worldliness. Now as he approaches sixty, he surveys with dismay the course of American culture since the 1920's—even giving vent to the personal crotchets appropriate, as he himself says, to a man of his years. Indeed, the whole of The Cart and the Horse might be called by the title of one of its chapters—“Reflections and Complaints of Late Middle Age.” For the book is more interesting for what it tells us about Mr. Kronenberger than what it tells us about the age. Not that Mr. Kronenberger's observations about the age are untrue. They are (or have until recently been) true enough. But they have also been the standard observations of literary intellectuals since World War II. It is a little late in the day to be reading still another diatribe against TV and Madison Avenue, justified though it may be. It is because I so thoroughly agreed with Mr. Kronenberger's observations that I found them boring.

Mr. Kronenberger exploits the paradox which has been central to the criticism of American culture since World War II—the paradox that takes off from the simple division of the 1920's between, on the one hand, the Philistine, Coolidge-Republican, small-town businessmen, the Babbitts; and on the other, the arty, cosmopolitan, politically progressive elite who gravitated to Greenwich Village and the Left Bank of Paris. Since World War II, however, this simple division between Main Street and MacDougal Alley has been dissolved. Babbitt has now got a college education. He subscribes to book clubs, reads quality paperbacks, and buys the best hi-fi records. He is no longer dragged to Europe by his womenfolk, but goes willingly. For Babbitt is now governed by more sophisticated status symbols. He has become—to use a favorite stereotype of the last two decades—the man in the gray flannel suit. And even more miraculously, he has become a liberal who believes in American responsibility abroad, in the alliance at home of intelligence with government and business for the social welfare of all Americans.

The paradox, then, is this—that the condition for which the liberals of the 20's and 30's fought has finally been realized and has only served to raise new problems. It was the postwar sense of this situation—the sense that the time had come, now that everyone was liberal, for liberalism to turn a critical eye upon itself—that gave us the very interesting and sophisticated critical literature of the 40's and 50's: a literature ranging from Peter Viereck's caricature of the new Babbitt shortly after the war to Jacques Barzun's recent House of Intellect, and which reached its climax with Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination and David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd. Mr. Kronenberger follows this line of criticism when, in his first chapter, he puts the horse before the cart by blaming the faults of our mass culture not upon the Philistines and reactionaries but upon the enlightened elite, “the taste-makers and pace-setters,” who with all the right ideas have still gone wrong.


Why then do I object? I object because Mr. Kronenberger, after starting with the promising statement that the trouble with American life “is its way of jumbling values,” proceeds to jumble them himself. He attacks the age because its enlightened elite follows the fashions in status symbols and in taste, and because its Madison Avenue Babbitts fight hard to get ahead in the world. But when have upper-class people not followed fashion, and when have people within sight of the top not struggled to get there? It is not always clear whether Mr. Kronenberger is writing against the age or against the eternal sinfulness of man.

Thus, he makes the just observation that whereas the businessmen of yesteryear professed a conservative, dog-eat-dog philosophy appropriate to their pursuit of gain, today's careerists profess a liberal, altruistic philosophy at odds with their ruthless careerism, and too often use their commitment to the right political causes as a substitute for personal ethics. However, since Mr. Kronenberger sees that yesterday's Babbitt was an entrepreneur, whereas today's is likely to be a salaried executive, he ought also to have seen that liberalism is not at all inappropriate to employees of corporations so large as to be semi-public in nature and not very different in atmosphere from the universities, foundations, and even government itself. For the political philosophy we nowadays call liberalism is that which recognizes the inevitably semi-public, if not public, nature of the gigantic enterprises of modern times.

As for the dog-eat-dog philosophy, that was openly professed for only a very short time; and in any case people have for the last thousand years managed to pursue their personal advantage against a quite antithetical background of Christianity and the chivalric code of honor. The intrigues of Madison Avenue are, I am sure, mild compared to the intrigues of the Christian courts of Europe. An age can nevertheless be judged by the quality of its ideals, even if practice must inevitably fall short of the ideal and the really good, like the really original, person must at any time be a rarity.

This brings me back to my main objection to Mr. Kronenberger's book—that it comes at least five years too late. In its blithe assumption that all Americans are liberal, it belongs to the 50's rather than the 60's. For the civil rights issue has once again given liberalism a clear cause and visible enemies against which to define itself. And Goldwater's nomination has exposed as a dangerous illusion the idea that all Americans are liberal. When the chips are down, as they will be in November, one becomes grateful for everyone who subscribes, however superficially, to the right ideals.

One would expect from Mr. Kronenberger the 18th-century hard-headedness to accept the world as inevitably complex and inadequate and go on from there. Instead, he is nostalgic. He is nostalgic for the literary world of the 20's, which had, indeed, more dash than the businesslike, institutionalized literary world of today. He is nostalgic for vanished simplicities—for the stultifying small-town life he and his friends fought against in the 20's but which was, as he now sees, at least different from city life; for the Babbitts who had not yet confused things by infiltrating the ranks of the cultivated; for the interesting clash in the lives of yesterday's writers between money and high standards—a conflict that has been replaced by a situation in which writers can make money out of quite first-rate work through paperbacks, grants, and visiting professorships. The nostalgia will appeal to those who share it. Others may feel that such paradoxical lamentations over the fine state of things have worn thin. And thinness is the word that finally describes the quality of this readable but unsatisfying book—of chapters like “Fashions in Vulgarity” and “Conformity's Cultured Sister,” which are right enough in their observations, yet vague and piddling in their range of reference and application.

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