Commentary Magazine

The Fall of Public Man, by Richard Sennett

Going Private

The Fall of Public Man.
by Richard Sennett.
Knopf. 373 pp. $15.00.

Americans have always been chided both for their bad manners and their weak sense of social complexity. If Henry James thought the texture of American life thin, many foreign visitors spoke about the average American’s lack of civility. In her nasty but perceptive book, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Frances Trollope complained of the “violent intimacy” of a former American neighbor as well as the “coarse familiarity” of most Americans. In recent years such “coarse familiarity” has acquired a quasi-spiritual luster as somehow being more authentic, natural, and considerate. Though one can avoid a group-therapy session, it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid waiters who greet one by announcing their first name. The latter is a trivial point, perhaps, but it does suggest a serious question: what is the relation, if any, of our daily social maneuverings to our more general values?

At first glance it would appear that The Fall of Public Man addresses the question of manners broadly conceived—what Lionel Trilling in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel” called “a culture’s hum and buzz of implication.” The work of Richard Sennett, a sociologist who has previously written about the social dynamics of urban life, this book has an epigraph from Tocqueville that charges Americans with lacking a sense of society. Yet, though Sennett briefly touches on the notion of civility, his book is distinctly not a cultural history of American manners. Rather, it is a strange mélange of late 18th- and 19th-century intellectual and social history, including theater history, urban history, the history of the family and the history of dress, with several demographic charts thrown in for good measure. Reading like an interdisciplinary course gone haywire, the book suffers from an overabundance of historical detail and a minimal amount of precise argument. Rummaging through history to support his inflated thesis, Sennett unfailingly follows the cardinal rule of bad sociology: always choose a “profound” explanation even though an obvious one is readily available. In Sennett’s case, the profound explanation is simply that the two-hundred odd years from the 1750’s to the present have witnessed “the fall of Public Man.”

One asks, as Bellow’s Herzog asked of an equally portentous “fall” posited by Heidegger, “When did this occur?” Sennett’s scheme provides an answer of sorts: in the middle of the 18th century, when the old hierarchical order was in the process of dissolving and a new bourgeois capitalist order was yet in its infancy, there occurred a brief moment in the cultural life of the West—specifically in London and Paris—that Sennett labels the age of sociability. During this period people understood and accepted a clear-cut distinction between public and private—recognizing, moreover, that if public life were to flourish one would have to take the strangers one met at face value, at what they appeared to be rather than at what they “really” were. Sennett quotes Lord Chesterfield to that effect, and notes that such public “roles” were especially enacted in London’s coffeehouses, where anyone could speak to anyone else on public terms, not prying into his private life. Unfortunately, this Public Man bloomed only for a short time, and after slowly withering during the 19th century, he finally died, leaving us in the world of “today.” where we are all threatened by “the tyranny of intimacy,” and where public life has become a matter of “formal obligation,” approached with suspicion and treated as a phony ritual.

I put “today” in quotation marks because it is Sennett’s word, not mine. Sennett is exceedingly casual about his historical periodization, referring to his three eras as if they were buildings one could enter and always find the same congeries of thoughts, attitudes, values, etc. The historical scheme is not only heavy-handed, it is also lopsided; on the track of Public Man, we see him flourishing in London during the 1750’s—a mere decade—then watch him falling into privacy in Paris during the 1840’s and 1890’s, and finally find him wandering around New York in the 1970’s, overwhelmed by intimacy. It is hard to keep this Public Man in view, jet-setter that he is, and hard to accept an argument that culls evidence first from English history, then from French history, and finally from life in contemporary New York.



If the way in which Sennett gathers material to chronicle this “fall” is careless, the causes he provides for the downhill journey are flim-flam. There are three: industrial capitalism (or the capitalist system), secularism (or secularity), and a mysterious third force that Sennett never defines but calls “a strength which became a weakness. . . .” Of secularism the less said the better, for the definition Sennett provides is worthy of a Woody Allen: “ ‘The reason things are as they are in the world, reasons which will cease to matter in themselves, once we are dead.’ (See Chapter 1.)” But in any case Sennett’s major reason for the collapse of Public Man is clearly industrial capitalism. A monster of Miltonic dimensions—the sire of Mystification, Privatization, and Commodity Fetishism—capitalism is also endowed with Orwellian powers, for it “controls not only the ideas of those who are its defenders, but shapes the imagination of those who are in revolt against its evils.” Sennett insists that this creature’s ravages know no boundaries, but if such is the case, why is there no mention of Japan, a capitalist country that appears to have maintained its Public Manners? We are also offered nothing on how Public Man has fared in non-capitalist countries.

Instead of such comparative analyses, we get a mixed bag of snippets from French and English history—which should probably be regarded with skepticism, since Sennett often distorts the meaning of his own evidence. Thus, in his discussion of the age of sociability, Sennett makes much of his distinction between coffeehouses and clubs, the latter portending the fall of Public Man since they eventually became private places where a select group of tired businessmen could collapse, read the newspapers, and above all be silent. To build his case, Sennett quotes Boswell about Samuel Johnson’s concern with the “private” lives of all would-be applicants to the famous club he presided over. It seems that Joshua Reynolds once told Johnson that David Garrick, the celebrated actor, presumed that he would immediately be invited to join the club if he showed interest in doing so. Johnson pretended to be irritated by Garrick’s presumption. “He’ll be of us! How does he know we will permit him?” Johnson says to Reynolds. Sennett pounces on this interchange, which he got secondhand from a recent study of 18th-century coffeehouses, and says: “Garrick approached the club . . . as though it were a coffeehouse in the old manner. That openness Johnson denies.” But this reading is surely wide of the mark, for Johnson was not particularly interested in the private lives of those who aspired to join the club; he cared only that they talk eloquently and intelligently. In any case, Johnson had been a friend of Garrick’s for about thirty years, so that he knew Garrick’s private “personality,” to use a word that Sennett invests with ominous meaning. Johnson’s remarks here are, in truth, merely a slightly strained joke, for Johnson always liked to criticize Garrick, since he was somewhat jealous of his friend’s success on the stage. Sennett’s Johnson, then, is not the “real” Johnson but an actor in a grandiose historical allegory—someone who points toward the fall.

If, in the above passage, Johnson anticipates the fall of Public Man, in another passage Sennett makes him serve as a member in good standing of the age of sociability. Sennett makes a distinction between two attacks on John Wilkes, the notorious libertine and Whig-radical, one by Johnson and one by “Junius,” the nom de plume of an influential writer on politics whose real name we have yet to discover. According to Sennett, Junius’s attack is full of personal abuse whereas Johnson’s is substantive—a public attack, not a private one. Once again Sennett’s “profound” explanation misses the obvious point: Junius could get away with vindictive personal abuse because he worked under the cloak of anonymity and was not open, therefore, to the charge of libel or the challenge of a duel. Johnson had to worry about these things; but even he did not worry about them unduly. According to Boswell, Johnson’s attack “broke out sometimes into an extreme coarseness of contemptuous abuse. . . .” Throughout the 18th century, even during Sennett’s golden age of sociability, the language of political argument was often marked by intemperate calumny.

Sennett, I suspect, is so sloppy in his use of evidence because he wants to make sure that his historical investigations come up with lessons for the present—more specifically, lessons for the New Left. Sennett believes the New Left failed because it became preoccupied with community rather than sociability, with relations along psychological rather than social lines. To prove this point he ransacks the past, so that he can say of Junius’s attack on Wilkes that ultimately it paved the way for “the modern impulse to find political measures worthwhile only to the extent that their champions are ‘credible,’ ‘believable,’ ‘decent’ persons.” Toward the close of this book, Sennett exhorts those on the New Left to find their way to civility, so that they can more effectively do battle against the realities of capitalist power, challenging “the forces of domination or inequity. . . .” But Sennett, finally, is not optimistic about this possibility, for the tyranny of intimacy caused by the capitalist system is a “more subtle” form of tyranny than the “brute coercion” of fascism (shades of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man!) and therefore more difficult to resist.



Is Sennett’s concoction merely a homily for the New Left? Well, yes and no. Sennett is saying that everyone’s politics—not just the New Left’s—is a politics of the private man, one that focuses on personalities, not issues. Though this may be true of New Left politics, it is certainly not true of the politics of most Americans; during the past twenty years Americans have consistently voted according to issues, not personalities. Though obviously a candidate’s personality plays some part in the way voters respond to him, Lyndon Johnson, a man who was widely regarded as an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer, handily defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964; and in 1972 Richard Nixon, a man whom no one liked, scored a landslide victory over George McGovern. Both Goldwater and McGovern radiated honesty and decency, but most voters chose Johnson and Nixon; issues won these elections, not personalities.

For all this book’s inadequacies, one cannot completely dismiss its concerns. There was a movement away from sociability during the past two hundred years, one that has been rehearsed by all the standard works of intellectual history. But aside from some remarks on fashion and on city planning, Sennett’s book is simply a bad map of familiar territory. Thus, when Sennett talks about therapeutic narcissism, he is going over ground carefully cultivated by Philip Rieff in his seminal work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. And when he speaks of the need for social “masks” to preserve civility, Sennett is following Hannah Arendt, who made much of the dangers of “unmasking” hypocrisy in On Revolution. That Sennett makes no reference to these books is puzzling, but then there is much about The Fall of Public Man that is puzzling, not least that it seems less to have been written than produced—the product of two “idea-men,” ten consultants, four researchers, five readers, and three editorial assistants, the whole enterprise supported by the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study. One wonders how this product of “academic capitalism” managed to get so far without anyone’s telling Sennett that he had an Edsel on his hands.

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