“In most books, the I, or first person is omitted: in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” Thoreau, Walden
I’ve been reading Michael Barone’s Hard America, Soft America. His subtitle is “Competition vs Coddling.” But he describes quite theoretical & profound differences in weltanschauung. Of course, most agree in some situations (say raising a child) coddling is in order and in others (say training for combat) it isn’t. Statist economics coddle; free markets compete; closed societies protect their people from ideas, open ones let the bad ones compete.
But Barone is also getting at a larger notion – to live is not merely to succeed but often to fail; what we do is often & actually (even if we pretend it is not) irrevocable; that our time is limited and we can not revise endlessly – not acting can mean a choice is lost. In short, Hard America sees consequences (sometimes unpleasant and sometimes even disproportionately bad) of our choices. This is a world where authority is earned by risking one’s own self, money, time, work, future. This is not the world of the hesitant Prufrock nor of modern social science nor of some tort legislation. It is not therapeutic; it doesn’t blink; it doesn’t give quarter nor expect it; in short, it isn’t soft.
I’m thoroughly enjoying his work. It gives insights into my own life, the lit I teach, but is perhaps most useful in understanding the concave grading curve at the community college in which I teach. So, here is the first response; it is personal – as Thoreau says, we always start with the “I”.
Apparently, nature will out. My three daughters share a passion for home-making arts – sewing, cooking, and even cleaning. They certainly didn’t learn those skills from me. Some of this is the heavy influence of their grandmother, across the street and central to their lives, who, even at 88, remains a true old fashioned homemaker. Some of it, though, seems to be a resurgent calling, strong within their genes. Their only aunt, trained as a journalist, writes and works within the Ag department. She sews & has a large room set aside for crafts. Their cousin took a degree in ag journalism and has an eye for decorating and skill at design. My mother and her only sister were home ec majors, my other aunt produced beautiful needlepoint and endless projects. They knew how to paint, crochet, tat, knit, embroider as well as sew and (my mother excepted) how to cook. My mother, even in her retirement apartment, kept up a huge loom. Earlier, she had done spinning wheel demonstrations. Okay, I’m the incompetent one, the odd woman out. But I understand – I appreciate – I respect that world.
Last summer, my youngest daughter decided to take a sewing class. She was pulling me into my past and both of us were surprised – leafing through catalogs of patterns, figuring what notions she needed, choosing the right fabric – at how powerful if inchoate my feelings were. And how inadequate, troubled my help. Then, we had my mother’s heavy, black, portable Singer refurbished by a craftsman who passionately loved those great machines. My mother had bought it with money from her first job after college and before she joined the Waves, a lt. in the first months of World War II. She had traveled widely during those war years, apparently often hauling the machine with her. She’d sewn a good percentage of the clothes for her four children and even her husband on that machine, eventually opting for a newer & fancier one after I’d left home.
So, we trekked across town every day for a week, as she learned to sew in a free class set up by our County Demonstration Agent (a position I’d quite simply forgotten in the years since my youth). One day, as we were driving home, my daughter described her class that day. The girl sitting next to her was going to miss part of the next day, so her mother had spent the day beside her – helping, instructing, critiquing. Soon the girl was crying. Her mother was irate – the tears were likely to stain & wrinkle the fabric.
A year later I was talking to my sister & mentioned that story. My sister laughed; yes, that was what she remembered, too. She was thinking of our grandmother, I was thinking of our mother. Not surprisingly given both my mother’s personality and her training, she was generally one of the 4-H leaders. Our grandmother pieced together quilts so that now we have four chests full of them – ones seldom needed in this climate. But she, too, was a hard woman. It is hard to learn from family and a parent’s expertise is not always shared with patience and affection, nor learned with respect and diligence. Still, that class gave me a glimpse at what remains, as our childhood was, a part of “hard America.” That my memories are not all good & that this isn’t all that nostalgic is obvious. Let me say that the moments my sister & I shared could be multiplied endlessly. But, I’ve grown older & recognize it was not easy for a leader when her child’s work was seldom the best and often not adequate. It was not easy to stick out a troubled marriage (for either my mother or father) with troubled familial dynamics. It wasn’t easy for my father to rise early every morning nor my mother to sew into the night. I thought of the reviews of the book and ordered Barone.
In Texas, when animal science majors walked up the stairs or entered the door of my old business, my sister & I could pick them out immediately. They came from Hard America. Of course, part of it was a lack of sophistication. Hard America on the farm keeps its kids at home, works them hard; they don’t see a lot of the world. But when they do, well, you can trust them, most of the time, to be polite and competent. My husband’s cousins that are the most from that culture have joined the service and done quite well. They are at once deferential and self-sufficient—with much stronger, realer senses of who they are, of their strengths & limitations.
Central Nebraska isn’t Texas, isn’t even central Texas. We didn’t come from a ranching culture but from farming—though quite close to the geographical & cultural divide between the two. For instance, we didn’t rodeo – my parents would be shocked at the idea of putting a grade school kid on a huge bull. We weren’t, like many of our classmates, out on tractors in the field all summer & slopping the hogs before getting on the bus for an hour ride to school. But my brother, without pay, in grade school moved massive irrigation pipes for the farmer down the street. (Those were the days before pivots took over.) He and I had had paper routes in fifth & sixth grade. My life was easier than many – we didn’t farm, my parents assumed not only that I would go to college but that they would pay for the lion’s share of my expenses there. Indeed, my life was a good deal easier & less narrow than that of many of my students today
But my mother’s voice, judging laziness & inattention, wastefulness & self indulgence, remains in the back of my head. She came of stern stuff; she often remarked that man should eat to live not live to eat. My daughter laughs, saying that is hardly the attitude of a good cook. And, of course, she was not. She took pride in toughness & had little patience with sensuality. As a philosophy, hers was likely to get her children through but a little less likely they’d enjoy the getting through. In the years since I’ve sometimes been thankful and sometimes regretful I was brought up in what was much closer to “hard America” than the world in which my children live. I suspect that voice – valuing work over leisure, duty over pleasure – often drove me in the long nights of work. I don’t enjoy vacations but I do relish work. And generally we vacation a good deal less than we work.
My mother’s phrases often come back to me and they are not those of Soft America. But if they were harsh, they were also strong. I can remember overhearing her talking to a friend who asked about some problems I was having in grammar school; my mother replied she wouldn’t know; I hoed my own field. She said that with a certain pride, although I was in fifth grade. In Hard America, Soft America, Michael Barone describes differences that are important in the way we look at the world. Hard America, like say Melville & Hawthorne, has a tragic sense: we are born, sin, love; we procreate; we die. Perhaps we are forgiven. Perhaps there is a God. There certainly is order – there are consequences of acts and context in which those acts can have great importance. And choices, well, our choices are ones we have to live with in this world. Hawthorne’s sympathy lies with Hester, Melville’s with Billy Budd. But Melville recognizes as valid (if perhaps he disagrees with Vere) that in this world this is true even if we are barely conscious, perhaps even not conscious, we have a choice
But even the transcendentalists, so different from Hawthorne & Melville, arise from “Hard America.” “Self-Reliance” may not have as much of the tragic sense of life, but it is not therapeutic. Sure, Whitman tells us “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” Whitman & Emerson see nature but also our lives as a Rosetta stone to be deciphered and understood, histories in which meaning lies. Moving into Unitarianism, they may have done away with God but they didn’t do away with meaning. For those like Emerson & Whitman, the tragic is transcended – it isn’t gone. Because the truth is, Soft America doesn’t have many lessons it can give.
Soft America has a different way of looking at the world. It softens the responsibility, confuses the consequences. It blurs the meaning. It trusts human intervention in ways that the harder, more active America does not. I suspect sometimes it ignores the tragic, sometimes it believes the tragic can be explained not as the nature of the world but as someone’s fault (some tort litigation is a response to the harsh bump that occurs when a Soft America vision bumps into the tragic) One characteristic of the tragic is that the consequences seem larger & more painful than the cause (Oedipus, after all, didn’t know he was sleeping with his mother). But such ironies are not seen as true by a Soft America which believes this fallen world should be not merely just but also merciful; Melville & Hawthorne could explain that it is neither. Hard America knows we are often punished unjustly for what are mere mistakes: overcompensating when a driver starts to run off the road may lead to a head-on crash that kills all – a result harshly, horribly disproportionate. If interpretations of our lives are rosetta stones that explain the whole, then Soft America has been given a shortened & inadequate dictionary. It is likely, in the end, to fall into angst at the general disproportionality of it all: after all, what did we do so wrong that in the end we all are going to die?
Not that Soft America doesn’t have its place – with the child, the aged, the novice. We take responsibility for our children – it is our job to bear the consequences of some of their mistakes. Warmth, affection can also instill a sense of duty. I see that, too, in my husband’s family. If my mother-in-law was struck by the harshness of my parents, my parents saw her as overprotective, less self-reliant than they thought proper. Fortunately they spent little time together. I suspect the golden mean is somewhere between, but neither was, really, all that far out. We had normal childhoods with protective parents, but, it being the forties & fifties and both of us from rural roots, we grew up in something a good deal harder than most today. Indeed, my parents were heavily influenced by Freud (wasn’t everybody in the fifties?). But that merely made them more sure of the irrevocability of acts – theirs toward us, theirs toward each other.
I was lucky – my high school pushed us hard (I entered high school in 1959 – the year of Sputnik). Barone is the first person I’ve seen who has noticed what happened in education in that brief interlude of seriousness, between Sputnik and Vietnam. That was luck. Being born that time in Hard America was luck, too. That first year in college, we were told that over 50% would flunk out by year’s end. They did. And if I didn’t, by then, thanks mainly to French, I’d pretty successfully lost my scholarship. The result was that I never thought education was a matter of showing up.
But my mother & father & those years of exciting if scary classes gave me most of what I value about myself and my heritage: If you didn’t want the Communists to take over, then you’d better learn your French & physics & math, or at least to read & write passably well. If you screwed up the dress, well, hell, you had to wear it. If you burned the potatoes, well, hell you had to eat them. Of course, I wasn’t very good at some of this – I learned my many limitations. But I also learned something about what I was good at. I’m perhaps too willing to expect little of myself in some areas, but these, too, are choices. My choices might be limited by my own abilities, but there were choices nonetheless. (And this is why my oldest daughter danced, my middle daughter played the cello & my third swam – each entered a competitive arena, one where pratice had a heavy influence on results but where llimitations of the body & the talent are obvious as well.)
It is a bracing but useful way to approach life. The spots where “Hard America” remains at the softest of times are obvious – the military, then international commerce. But it isn’t just those worlds. In the softest of worlds, big choices are going to have big consequences. Jane Austen saw a hard world: the Bennetts had not planned well, their daughters needed to marry well. If you made choices like Lydia’s, well, you had to live with Wickham the rest of your life. If you made choices like Jane’s and Elizabeth’s, well, the future looked a lot rosier. Cause and effect, sure. In this world each of us pays for lunch. And if no-fault divorce, abortion sometimes make what might seem the most irrevocable, revocable, ask anyone who has had either. They may have softened the hard but they remain pretty uncomfortable to bump up against.
To my mother, life was tough if not often tragic. It was full of consequences & larger perspectives. She would occasionally snort in irritation at our local librarian (her mother’s 1st cousin and the one who wouldn’t always let me check out the books I wanted until my mother interfered). A divorcee of that older generation (born in the decades before the last century began), my mother’s assessment was that “she’d made her bed and now she needs to lie in it.” This repeated sentiment was probably intensified by her occasional references to the future when she would divorce our father. But if she had, she wouldn’t have expected sympathy. She gave no quarter, but she also took none.
She sacrificed greatly to send us to educational summer camps where our interests were nurtured. Only as an adult did I understand the work, patience and budgeting it took to get four rural kids to those camps as well as piano and dance lessons. Of course, she made practicing hell but I suspect this came from her sense of duty (and also, I suspect, from a sense I, as well as she, lacked even a minimal appreciation of music and that we had wandered into a sea in which we would never find safe harbor). I suspect duty reigned as often as affection – but that, too, is not a bad example. And of course, raising four children was expensive, with little reward.
I don’t think it is an accident that she came of the kind of Presbyterian stock that had first sailed to New England in the early Puritan waves, later moved to Virginia & Kentucky, finally settling Nebraska during Reconstruction. She saw the world as symbolic, as imbued with power. If every act is symbolic, then a poorly sewn seam implies potential sloth, perhaps a willingness to let chaos prevail. Depending upon anyone else sacrificed integrity as did accepting a position that expected dishonesty. If she was restless & relentless about her husband’s numerous failings, not taking such a position was never her complaint. Delivering papers late was not thinking of the needs of your neighbors; it was the sign of a selfish & immature approach to business relations.
The typology I try to describe to my students in the Puritan’s view and the power of symbols that reached its zenith in the American Renaissance were natural to her as well as my father. Both understood that the leaves of grass, the white whale, the red letter – these weren’t just “things” – they were much, much else. My parents saw the world as imbued with interpretive power and any one human action as but the tip of an iceberg, huge & looming and meaningful. They did not believe this because of their religious views. My father seldom went to church; my mother’s beliefs, like his, were remarkably close to the Deism of Bryant. When I started teaching “To a Waterfowl,” I thought, ah, that was how they saw life. Their distrust of religious enthusiasms is repeated in all three daughters’ approaches (much more committed than their parents & grandparents) to religion.
My mother, bred on a farm & schooled in home ec & spending her formative years in the service during WWII, understood the world as the old guys did. I suspect it was because she was a product of and producer of Hard America, with its self-inspection and self-reliance & belief in duty. She did feel there was an order in the universe, a final justice. But it wasn’t up to us to soften it, to forgive – it was a parents’ role to analyze, demand, expect. She knew free lunches were suspect.
Passing on a way of looking at the world was perhaps the most important gift, skill, craft they gave us. They valued persistence, duty, work. Neither my father nor mother would think, for instance, that institutions could be set up in Iraq within a few years – they would expect troops to remain there long into the future. But that, they would say, is the price of changing those old institutions. I’m not sure if they would have thought it was worth it or not. But, they believed intensely in democracy and that intertwining of freedom & liberty that is the U.S. They also were not isolationists – indeed, they felt real contempt for that vision. Those were especially inspired by WWII but also derived from their shared strong senses of the universality of human nature. They didn’t think man changed easily nor quickly. In short, I always felt they were grown-ups. And that they expected their children to be grown-ups, too.