America lost two distinctive and important voices this week, two writers whose works dealt with absolutely vital but virtually ignored elements of the nation’s history and character: the ‘marginal’ classes and the ruling class. Without the histories of Howard Zinn and the fiction of Louis Auchincloss, we would have a poorer understanding of the forces that form and move our society, for good and ill.
The more well-known of the two departed, Howard Zinn, was of course the author of A People’s History, which even though "it told an openly left-wing story" (as the New York Times notes, in mildly scandalized tones) sold more than a million copies, "was taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country," and spawned many off-shoots, by both Zinn and historians inspired by him. (Such as David Williams’ remarkable People’s History of the Civil War, among many others.)
The NYT obituary, while duly respectful in tone – our radical activists are always duly respected when they are safely dead (Martin Luther King, Woody Guthrie, etc., etc.) – also provides a bit of comedy in its attempt to let readers know that Zinn was not really "serious." To do this – and here’s the comedy bit – they drag poor old Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. out of the grave. The Times exhumes a quote from Schlesinger – best known as one of John F. Kennedy’s minor minions – to prove that "even liberal historians" rejected the silly, unserious Zinn, who, the Times sniffs, "accused Christopher Columbus and other explorers of committing genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters." Can you even imagine such a man being taken seriously in the drawing rooms of Georgetown? Schlesinger couldn’t:
Even liberal historians were uneasy with Professor Zinn, who taught for many years at Boston University. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.”
Coming from a courtier as ever-fawning toward power as Schlesinger – who among his many imperial services helped strangle the new democracy of Guyana in its cradle – this is pretty rich. But very much par for the Times’ decorous course. In any event, Zinn’s work – which he rightly called "the first chapter, not the last, of a new kind of history" – will continue to reverberate and inspire. (Schlesinger’s, not so much.)
The NYT obit for Auchincloss is also riddled with respectful undermining. But in this case, it is the same kind of gentle dismissal that dogged Auchincloss throughout a half-century of writing novels and stories about his native milieu: the ruling class of the United States.
The obit, like decades of Auchincloss reviewers, brushes aside Auchincloss’ "chronicles of Manhattan’s old-money elite" as quaint and pretty evocations of a "vanished world." A vanished world! Here we see once more the Times’ diligent adherence to one of the most enduring and pernicious American myths: that the nation has no ruling class. When pressed, our chewers and spewers of the cud of conventional wisdom will sometimes allow that there used to be a ruling class, way back in the bad old days; but they insist that this "old-money elite" has long since vanished from power and influence, having been largely dissolved into the great meritocracy of modern America.
In partial mitigation, however, the Times does grudgingly offer an opposing viewpoint from Gore Vidal [cribbed from his 1974 essay, "The Great World and Louis Auchincloss"]:
Like [Edith] Wharton, Mr. Auchincloss was interested in class and morality and in the corrosive effects of money on both. “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs,” Gore Vidal once wrote. “Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives.”
Vidal’s essay (available in his remarkable compendium, United States) has much more to say about the reality of the ruling class – and the deadly myth of its non-existence. It is indeed astonishing that this deeply disinforming notion continues to be perpetrated even today – when a scion of that very same ruling class has only recently concluded an eight-year term in the White House, and when we have all witnessed, with our own eyes, the public treasury being raided to preserve these elites from the consequences of their own rapacity.
The Times, perhaps to its credit – or perhaps because the editors thought no one would be reading at this point – gives the last word to Auchincloss himself, and so will we:
Even near the end of his life, Mr. Auchincloss said the influence of his class had not waned. “I grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in a nouveau riche world, where money was spent wildly, and I’m still living in one!,” he told The Financial Times in 2007. “The private schools are all jammed with long waiting lists; the clubs — all the old clubs — are jammed with long waiting lists today; the harbors are clogged with yachts; there has never been a more material society than the one we live in today.”
“Where is this ‘vanished world’ they talk about?” he asked. “I don’t think the critics have looked out the window!”