The Uses of Benjamin DeMott (Part 1)
By Benj DeMott
Benjamin DeMott began writing about American culture in the 50s and he was a quickening agent in it for 50 years until his death in 2005.
DeMott wrote cultural criticism and social commentary as well as two novels and numberless book reviews. But he wasn’t simply a writer. He was widely known as an incomparable teacher. DeMott was a professor of English at Amherst College, but he also taught in less toney surroundings (Bethune Cookman College, DC public schools, etc.) He was a charismatic performer but he never took up all the air in a classroom. As an English professor - and as a literary critic - DeMott served as a defender of “the life and world of feeling.” He became, for a time, the most prominent protester against the sin of lifelessness in his own profession.
DeMott’s approach to Culture (and English) was informed by his ease with double-truths. Culture (for him) was about “the best that had been thought and said” and “the whole way of life of a people.” He was always alive to truths of individuation, yet he aimed to think straight about how Americans lived through the realities of race, class and gender. As Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review, noted, DeMott “had a particularly acute and original and free-spirited mind:”
He had a very wide-ranging sense of life, whether education, sports, fiction. He had strong values having to do with honesty, with appreciation of variety, with courage in civil life, and he was a very eloquent writer.
DeMott’s amazing range, though, made it hard for his occasional readers (or students) to fully comprehend his life’s work. The author himself wasn’t much help on this score as he didn’t like looking back (or talking himself up). Culture was always a growing thing for him. And he was too busy flowering to spend time worrying about his own legacy. He was as ambitions as the next American, but, as a born enemy of the portentous and clunky, considerations of his “career” as a writer felt like dead weight to him. (He liked a light touch even when he sat down to play jazz piano and he would’ve identified with another master-pianist’s plaint about a student’s heavy-fingered playing, “Only potatoes grow down.” Or in DeMott’s own translation into American idiom: “Brubeck sounded like a plowman to me.”) When DeMott did think back on his earlier work – prepping to write introductions for new editions of his 60s essay books, "You Don’t Say" and "Supergrow" – it was History not his own place in it that mattered most to him. The following personal (and necessarily provisional) interpretation of DeMott’s intellectual life begins with his own meditation on time past.
Late in his life, Benjamin DeMott recalled that History spoke loudest to him one night when he was down South in 1966 – “No war, death, passing of a baton, interview with greatness at the White House, afternoon in a hushed library with a volume of Shakespeare marked up by John Keats – nothing ever homed me in so directly on the weight of the past.” I’ll start this attempt to place my father’s movement of mind in (and out of) our times by returning to his first attempt to measure up to that moment in the 60s.
He was careful not to amp up the experience – it was “not dramatic or overwhelming.” Just a few seconds during his first evening in Mississippi where he was about to participate in a summer tutorial program for black youngsters who were going to enter integrated schools for the first time in the fall. As a new arrival from the North he was the night’s beer man, so he headed out with his bunk-mate in the project station wagon
I see beer signs but, says my bunkmate, we don’t hack around there. I understand naturally. As Yankee visitors we’re not well-regarded by local people and anyway going to Blacktown is a gesture of solidarity with the people we’re trying to help. Who needs this explained?
We turn from a paved road to a dirt one, one-story frame buildings, stores, tin roofs extended over the walks – a gallery effect, sort of. We slip up to the curb, diagonal parking. A black man and woman – his wife? – a woman with a baby in her arms – they’re standing outside the beer parlor. No, they’re looking in the window – they’re watching the TV inside. Not there for the beer, just for the program, baby awake for a bit. They’re pretty involved in the show. I wait a half-second, smiling at storefront communal TV. I climb out, shut the door. The sound surprises them. The black man looks at me. Instantly he steps off the walk into the gutter, pulling the woman’s elbow. She’s with him. – This way of talking about it doesn’t communicate the fact. It splits the act up as though there were stages or a moment of choice or a decision but no, there wasn’t any. This was a single moment of human response or recognition – the black man turns, sees us, moves himself and his wife and child from our path, though they are not in our path. They don’t look up. I feel locked into the deed of moving past them. I’d like to say something. Well look…I’m from out of town, it’s your town, it’s your section. You shouldn’t – You shouldn’t move like that. Nothing to be afraid of. They are merely there, waiting for me to go by. It comes out of the man, a strong projecting abasing current, that they have a sense of themselves as trespassers, guilty, dangerously guilty because a white man has parked his car close to them, a strange white advancing past them toward – really past them? – toward the beer parlor door. Or does he want their place at the window watching a Carol Burnett summer repeat? No turf on this earth is theirs, they are automatically cowed. They have no right to stand or to look. They can’t even inquire – in the honored way people inquire glancingly and deprecatingly about strangers. “Who’s that over there? I wonder who that is?” Not for them to know. This elementary primitive freedom – it’s not there. The child in the mother’s arms – could he or she feel the quick movement, the guilty instinctive fearful motion of retreat? Soak it right into the bones before they’re old enough to utter a word?
When DeMott published The Trouble with Friendship in 1995, issuing (what George Fredrickson - eminent historian of racial domination in American and South Africa - described as) “a clarion call to those still willing to consider the lessons of history before TV and advertising erase them completely,” he lived up to the felt obligation he incurred on that sidewalk in West Point, Mississippi.
He first recalled the particulars of his encounter there in a 1970 Commencement address. The purpose of his talk was to warn against habits of disengagement and detachment cultivated within the “white middle-class spaceship known as the liberal arts college.” He understood the virtues of the “comparatistic, tolerant, unflappable, tragical-comprehensive view of life” he was criticizing, but he told the Class of 1970:
We need an unmanned father, a spat-upon black child with us in this room, in the chair beside us. We need it not because we wish to voluptuously savor our guilt but because we should care for true knowledge, whole knowledge…If we put ourselves aside, if we open up this room and let them stand near us – not particularly moving, simply surprising – or the pusher outside the Sock It To Me Baby candy-store on Amsterdam Avenue, if we press to know this experience from within, to live imaginatively into a life composed exclusively of unlucky moments, we may free ourselves from abstraction. And if we don’t we will never be educated.
The spaceship called the liberal arts college isn’t as white as it once was, but it’s still a place where you’re encouraged to float above it all. Though the lucky few are not above kissing ass as the poet Philip Levine noted during a recent symposium at Amherst College in honor of DeMott. Levine spoke about his own stints trying to teach creative writing at elite schools, recalling he’d often found it impossible to educate their type A-student personalities.
Levine’s lively talk was the Conference’s peak, but the low-point was instructive too. The last panelist – who shall remain nameless because it’s not about him – spent a sentence on DeMott’s book about the myth of a classless America, The Imperial Middle, and then sang a song of himself. Rocking back in his chair he recalled (for his own pleasure and no-one’s edification) nada encounters with unnamed New York Intellectuals and Euro-socialists. In the days before the symposium, someone referred to this inside dope as a “class act.” A fantasy that proved to have some truth in it when a portion of the audience went mandarin with him – chuckling dutifully as he dissed a terrorized America’s “spasms of narcissism” and Bush's inarticulacy. Their complicit response evoked an aspect of the academic liberal imagination that Benjamin DeMott found less than winning. DeMott wasn’t the sort who conflated high principle with snarkiness toward everyone outside the “progressive” Nation. DeMott saw through the post-9-11 fantasy of a “forever absolved” America (and George W. Bush’s persona was anathema to him) but he was never content to do dirt on the great unwashed. Democracy for DeMott was all about (what John Dewey called) “conjoint communication” though he understood how hard it was for any intellectual to get into the flows.(1) When DeMott addressed his fellow citizens he sometimes felt he was “trying to drive an ax through ice,” yet that was the job as he conceived it. You were supposed to break on through – “to get across without selling out.” That phrase is Richard Hoggart’s whose work offered DeMott one important model of intellectual engagement. There were others as the best reviewer of DeMott’s “Thinking Straight” books noted:
DeMott is writing in a vocabulary accessible to what was once known as the general reader, and to this particular general reader the gesture seems to be a mark of political seriousness. I seem to remember that a liberal middle class, when this country was possessed of such a commodity, was much given to books written in this idiom. DeMott is perfectly aware of this, and he seems to be consciously trying to reinvigorate a rhetorical tradition associated with Richard Hofstadter, Lionel Trilling, and Robert Merton.(2)
There’s still a need as an auditor at the DeMott Symposium underscored when she gently upbraided panelist Richard Sennett for his lack of interest in popularizing his recent work on contemporary class structures feeling. Sennett himself had recalled that DeMott had “ridden to the rescue” when he (and Jonathan Cobb) published Hidden Injuries of Class to “resounding silence” in 1970 and he thankfully recalled the helpful review by “this English Professor” who turned the tide back in that day, yet he seemed unaware that DeMott’s own work on class was marked by his, DeMott’s, determination to write in a way that would not require a mighty explainer. While DeMott was never afraid to ask a certain height of his readers, the more he wrote, the less interest he had in underscoring his own high intelligence. He was a liberal who liked being useful.
According to his New York Times obituary, Benjamin DeMott was best known for his Thinking Straight books about class (The Imperial Middle), race (The Trouble with Friendship) and gender (Killer Woman Blues). DeMott certainly reached a new generation of readers during his last decades, but he’d long since achieved (what he once referred to) as his “tiny reputation as an essayist.”
There was a time back in the 60s when he knew he’d arrived. He was under no illusions that moment was a crucial one in contemporary intellectual history, but his remembrance of it (in the new foreword to the Transaction reprint of his 1964 essay collection, You Don’t Say) offers a promesse de bonheure to any under-valued writer.
I was in New York on writing business and a Harcourt publicity person asked if I’d seen “your wonderful review” in the Times? I read the thing through hastily in the Hippodrome garage, waiting for my car. A cursory uncomprehending reading, performed by the travel-mind: the getting out of the city Friday afternoon mind.
Outside New York I pulled in at the first Turnpike rest area and reread my “wonderful review.” The piece was by a critic named R.V. Cassill, not known to but respected by me. There was a photo of my map in the middle of the page – mouth silly-wide with laughter. I’d never seen it before. The praise ran paragraph after paragraph, the word “intelligence” clanging in the headline and text.
In domestic life and through the lives of my children I’ve learned much about joy. I know, moreover, that people who are hugely moved – whether exhilarated or depressed – by the judgments of others on their performances suffer from a dependency that is, in itself, very bad luck. The other week (we are back in 2001), in the same reviewing medium in R.V. Cassill cried me up almost 40 years ago, a young writer saluted my latest book as “hopelessly out of touch.” And because I’m a relatively lucky man, the wound is healing nicely.
On the other hand, one solid memory of the surprise of full-throated praise survives and still stands…Even half-forgotten, it does not wither. I remember the place and hour of exultation perfectly. I remember shouting at myself, “Ben!, Ben, baby!” I remember banging the steering wheel with both hands and wanting it to dance with me. I had been writing close to twenty years, counting the earliest mishaps, and had never heard praise unsmutched by reservations about my “difficulty,” “obscurity,” “over-literary approach,” “Jamesian diction,” endless sins. And all at once it was over. Amazingly, inexplicably, at some rest stop in Connecticut: you win. How? What happened?
It comes back, as I say, perfectly clearly – the sudden nourishing change from the dreary, dreary weather of reservation.
Back to the rain: the Times obituary for DeMott allowed that his work was marked by his engagement with both popular culture and literary art only to use the mobility of his mind against him. It invoked (unnamed) critics who trashed his hi/low fluency as trendy. The obit writer was apparently unaware that DeMott wasn’t one of thousands of professors who began going pop the late 80’s once “cultural studies” was established as a tenure track in the American Academy. He began writing seriously about popular culture in the late 50s. And he paid some professional dues for his openness to American life. Harvard’s English Department was about to hire him away from Amherst College in the early 60s, but when tight-thinkers there found out he’d just written a piece about Men’s Magazines the romance was over. A recent New Yorker article about Playboy centerfolds sent me back to DeMott’s piece. The New Yorker writer (Joan Acocella) noted Hefner’s centerfolds were portrayed as the girls next door. But DeMott’s “The Anatomy of Playboy” got closer to the minds, such as they were, behind the Mansion.
The Playboy world is first and last an achievement in abstraction: history, politics, art, ordinary social relations, religion, families, nature, vanity, love, a thousand other items that presumably complicate both the inward and outward lives of human beings – all have been emptied from it…the editor offers a vision of the whole man reduced to his private parts. Out of the center of this being spring the only substantial realities – sexual need and sexual deprivation….
There is however, one strong locus of resistance to the idea of experience as fornication (actual or potential). Alone in his chambers a reader may believe that the world is his erection, but on the thoroughfare or in the office or in a back seat he has encountered conflicting testimony – someone’s obliviousness to his need, a moment of rebuff, suffusion of shame…I burn, memory says, but perhaps they do not.
The magazines say: nonsense, they are always burning, are made for it, have got to have it, are wild wild wild to be snatch.
Too demotic for Harvard in 1962.
You can feel the Donald (“Best sex I ever had”) busy being born when DeMott finds Apprentices asking to be schooled on the letters pages of Playboy and Gent. But his “Anatomy” has more than historical interest. It whispers to me when I hear the PBS meets pimp patter in the late night ad for the strip joint that runs on CNN – From the beginning of time men have made an art out of honoring the female – Much canvas and stone has been devoted to this compelling endeavor. The Tradition continues at Penthouse Executive Club.…
DeMott recognized the urge to trump traditional constraints that put women on a pedestal rather than a pole wasn’t all good. But he also understood it was mean to mock the long slide toward sexual liberation that sped up the 60s. Despite his clarity about Playboy’s hollow humanity (and the reductive scientism of 60’s sexologists – see his essay “How We Lost the Sex Lab Wars”(3)) he recognized there was dignity in the American pursuit of sexual pleasure “for the masses:”
A sense in fact of meanness conquered and ordinary life freshened here and there by joy, can be made out in the closing pages of the Masters and Johnson report by anyone yet unfrozen in postures of de haut en bas.
DeMott’s resistance to such postures is apparent in his Playboy piece when he compares the magazine to “other enormously successful enterprises at reduction” such as The New Yorker:
The New Yorker is an anti-pastoral; and, as it separates the slicker from the rube, touring Elmira and Dubuque for the pure comedy of Upstate or the Midlands, shrugging off the “country” and national solidarity, it releases its audience from the wearing piety of a democratic ideal.
Time Magazine, on the other hand, bottomed up to its audience, “promoting disbelief in the different man, the larger talent, the holy genius." The point of such observations, as DeMott noted later, was “to freshen resistance of taken-for-granted inegalitarianism and leveling postures – habits of mind and expression which constantly erode ideal democratic understandings, attitudes, values…” DeMott’s early essays in defense of his ideal of democracy tend to be more ponderous than his later efforts think straight about the basic issues and problems of American life. Before the 60’s came smoking down the line, DeMott wrote (as he said) in service of the notion that “nothing is as simple as it looks.” He wasn’t so much a committed writer as one longing “to be commensurate with whatever behavior was on view.” Yet his democratic instincts brought him into conflict with New York intellectuals who placed themselves (at that time) as writers on the left in a way that DeMott did not (though he was always an unapologetic liberal).
When DeMott gave a negative review to a book of essays by Norman Podhoretz (who had not yet renounced his leftism) – placing the author as a gossipy insider, indifferent literary critic, and incipient politico – he was attacked by Podhoretz’s friends on the letters page of the New York Review of Books. Take a glance at the plaints of William Phillips - “I think Doings and Undoings is an impressive achievement…Norman Podhoretz is one of the most gifted younger critics in this country.” – and Jason Epstein – “With respect to the rules of what rustic cult can DeMott say within a single paragraph that Podhoretz utters ‘simple, essential truths’ upon which ‘sanity depends’ while charging that he is a ‘writer whose literary taste and manner are undistinguished?’ If ‘simple, essential truths’ do not distinguish a critic's taste and manner, what, according to Mr. DeMott, does?” DeMott seems to have won the argument: “Mr. Phillips's point is that he, William Phillips, is right, therefore I am wrong. I know it's difficult to upset a 1500-word case in 250 words, but I believe Mr. Phillips should have tried. He might at least have drawn attention to one "insight" or shrewd critical observation in Mr. Podhoretz's book that would have testified to virtues I ignored… Mr. Epstein's questions deserve answers. I believe a good critic should be able to state complex truths (this isn't Mr. Podhoretz's talent).” DeMott’s early line on Podhoretz’s limits wasn’t a lucky shot. He developed his insight a generation later in an important piece explaining how neoconservatives (like Podhoretz) traduced the tradition of double-truth telling associated with their liberal mentors – Lionel Trilling, Robert Merton, and Richard Hofstadter. Originally published in Harpers (and later reworked in The Imperial Middle) that article probably belonged in The New York Review. But back in 1964, Phillips and Epstein won their little war with DeMott. After they weighed in on behalf of Podhoretz, NYRB’s editors’ lost DeMott’s number for more than three decades. He didn’t write for that journal again until 1999.
DeMott wasn’t removed from New York intellectual circles. He was a member of The Century Club and at ease in Manhattan. He liked to keep current but his feeling for pre-modernist cultural resources – vivified each semester he taught Shakespeare and Tolstoy (and each evening he played Jelly Roll Morton tunes on the piano) – made him slightly skeptical of New York’s avant gardes. That skepticism came through in his review of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (which still bothers some of her hagiographers) though, in retrospect, it seems commensurate to the behavior on view:
A thoroughly American figure stands at the center of Against Interpretation… The haunting image is that of a lady of intelligence and apparent beauty hastening along city streets at the violet hour, nervous, knowing, strained, excruciated (as she says) by self-consciousness, bound for the incomprehensible cinema, or for the concert hall where non-music is non-played, or for the loft where cherry bombs explode in her face and flour sacks are flapped close to her, where her ears are filled with mumbling, senseless sound and she is teased, abused, enveloped, deliberately frustrated until –…
Until we, her audience, make out suddenly that this scene is, simply, hell, and that the figure in it (but naturally) is old-shoe-American: a pilgrim come again, a flagellant, one more self-lacerating Puritan.
Despite his reservations about the first of Sontag’s ads for herself, DeMott understood it was a “feat” for her “to have brought such a complex figure to life in a collection of essays.” (allowing she’d written a “beautifully living and quite astonishingly American book”). His own essay collections from the 60s brought to life a very different American character – less artsy and less “liberated” than the most celebrated literary personas of that decade. DeMott explained how to see through his I in the foreword to his 1968 collection, Supergrow.
The arena in which to judge the worth of the sort of imagining most often spoken about in this book isn’t literary…The testing area is dailiness, ordinary human encounter, family life experience, the supper table.
Our family goofed on Dad at the table when one of Supergrow’s reviewers referred to him as a Renaissance Man. But he surely was a voice of variousness. Especially in the 60s when he wrote about everything under the sun – parachutists and pop music, Civil Rights and homosexual writers, greeting cards and tickle-touch theater, Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Horton Cooley. He had to reign himself in a little in later decades when he was forced to go more by the book (which is one reason he ended up writing more of his own). But I can’t think of a cultural critic from his generation who matched his range of responsiveness. Not even Leslie Fiedler who once said he regarded DeMott as his ideal reader.
Fiedler and DeMott weren’t buddies but a rickety piece of furniture in our family dining room hinted at a certain intimacy. We called it the Leslie Fielder chair after the man himself who’d busted it on a visit to our house. My Dad’s personality wasn’t as outsized as Fiedler’s (and he wasn’t a natural-born taboo-breaker). But he had his own authentic presence. An old friend caught a bit of it in the course of depicting him as Emerson’s “Man Thinking.” That’s too solemn a conception – my moody Daddy didn’t always lead with his head and he wasn’t above playing with others’. (A colleague remembers DeMott’s role in a late-sixties Poker Club whose members teased each other hard: “DeMott's technique was to show up at this nickle-dime-quarter game, with a fat money clip, placed on the table in plain, intimidating sight. He then proceeded to bet conservatively and cannily added to the chagrin we felt.”) Still, DeMott had uses for Emerson, whom he often quoted in print so it’s not impertinent to picture him (as per that old friend) as a modern Man Thinking:
An always-on-the-job critical mind, one that was constantly listening and learning and judging, while turning it over in his mind…as if automatically trying to determine whether it was worth his time, whether it was good or bad, right or wrong—and in what category it fitted best…In conversation, he was always prepared to reply and/or make a contribution by delivering the result of this automatic gathering-of-and-thinking-over-of-information-process that went on in his mind (all the time) while delivering his opinion as if fully formed…His verdicts—his comments—were often so well honed (right or wrong). And they often stayed “out” to provoke questions and get more information. His physical presence was very much a part of his speaking—his voice sharp and crisp and dominant. His speaking often had an element of superiority more than his writing in part because of his instant awareness of the meaning of comments made by those to whom he was speaking.
One part of Ben was to tell it as he saw it; another part was to get on with the conversation.
Dinner talk with Dad wasn’t always so purposeful. But I recognize the voice evoked above. And I’m guessing it would speak to thousands of students who took his English classes. A master of sublation, DeMott could “take your point” (if there was anything to be had!) and make it sing. Serious conversations with him might lead to an idea or clarify an emotion. But whether he was inside Bush’s brain or Bottom’s, the aim was the same – “to reach beyond the obvious to the true.”
The moral quality of that quest was most apparent in the 60s and during his last decades. While he was wary in the presence of piety – “I’m like the lily,” he once told his Mother who was a Christian Science healer – he knew he was doing the right thing when he forced himself to write simply (which as someone once said “is as difficult as to be good”) about complex political matters. His essay exposing the 9/11 Commission Report – a meticulous piece of work done under a deadline at a time in his life when intellectual labor had become harder for him –is exemplary here.
A letter of advice DeMott wrote in his seventies (to a friend in his eighties) hints at the self-command that enabled him to enhance American culture for 50 years. This evocation of his will to separate Mind from Me suggests he was one of (E.M. Foster’s) “plucky” ones who represent “the true human tradition.” It also indicates that for DeMott (as for many deep thinkers) thought was often a process of exaggeration:
As for advice, you ask for none or otherwise I wouldn’t give it. But, confident that you’re not listening I will give you some. Study humiliation. You have nothing ahead of you but that. You survive not by trusting old friends. Or by hoping for love from a child. You survive by realizing you have nothing whatever the world wants, and that therefore the one course open to you is to start over. I’m saying that literally. You have to start over. Recognize your knowledge and experience are valueless. Realize the only possible role for you on earth is that of a student and learner. Never think your opinions – unless founded on hard work in a field totally new to you – are of interest to anyone. Treat nobody, friend, co-worker, child, whomever, as someone who knows less than you about any subject whatever. You are an Inferior for life. Whatever is left of it. There’s nothing to do, Don, but get a course catalog, find a subject you have a faint interest and no competence in whatever, bury your sense of yourself as smart and go to work. Suck up to those who are correct in their estimate of your mind as valueless. Work harder still for their good opinion. Don’t wince when they try to change your copy or your mind. You are a boy again…Work still harder. It passes the time. You remember what it was like to learn. You forget what it was like to pontificate assured that somebody was listening. In my case for about a dozen years, nobody was listening. Work harder yet and you’ll get through to the end, humiliated thoroughly but smarter than you were at 85. This is the best life can offer. And it’s better than it sounds.
A younger DeMott offered a cheerier account of his working life when he recalled writing his second novel, A Married Man:
the experience rushes to mind, the freedom, sense of perfectibility…How happy I was! – happiness being nothing more or less than a road by which it does seem possible truly to get there from here.
DeMott’s compulsion to keep getting there made life more difficult for him when he was ill and might have been better off healing blankly. But it also gave him more reasons to live. When he came to consciousness after his third major heart surgery – he couldn’t talk but he smiled and asked for a pencil and pad – “I Can Write” he wrote. Before his last heart operation, he was racing to revise the final draft of his final piece right up until the morning he went into the hospital. One of his favorite phrases (though this goes back a few decades because he never let himself be ruled for long by a stylistic tic) was one I jumped off from at the top of this piece – “movement of mind.” Which hinted at his own intellectual tendency in time. As did his use of dashes, though he relied less on those marks of thought-in-motion in his later work.
DeMott was physically as well as mentally mobile (as anyone who tried to keep up with his long strides knows). He rode fast horses into his 70s, a red convertible in the 60s and other dashing cars in his last decades. He sailed (until a Florida tide almost took him under). He played tennis and golf (and poker), reveling in the rush of competition. But he could take time out too. He liked to stretch out as he told a story – the punch-line was rarely the point of his jokes. When he sat down at the piano, he often dug into a jazz standard or blues he’d been digging since the 30’s, searching for surprises in the same old chords. Al Green (whose falsetto inspired my pop’s vocal improvisations for a stretch) once recalled his mom telling him, “Son, wherever you go, have a good time.” My dad helped teach his children that lesson by playing – and whistling! – well. He took the time to live well too. He iced his martini glasses and savored my Mom’s cooking, carving the meat like a Cartesian, salting and peppering it like an artist. He had an eye as well as an ear for beauty. He encouraged my Mom to cultivate her glorious gardens, collected Fairfield Porter paintings, and dressed with flair. (When the surgeon visited him the night before his last heart surgery, DeMott noticed the knife was wearing a shirt made out of Sea Island cotton –“Takes a dude to know a dude” he said, mocking himself as he prepared to mount the gurney.)
DeMott’s Wilde style never seemed at odds with his almost puritanical sense of vocation. His negative capability here brings to mind Tom Wolfe – another Dandy-writer with energy to burn. Like Wolfe, DeMott preferred to think forward and he respected writers who tried to get their minds around America. But he also understood the dangers of being a “Now” specialist. His definitive NYRB essay on Wolfe’s moral trajectory, “Ahead of the Curve,” argues that getting real about American life shouldn’t be conflated with clocking “the wrong stuff” that began proliferating in the Reagan era (“Recall the hour, the tide that lifts all boats was rising. Lawyers going broke on a million a year, private jets hung with pricey paintings…values by the dozen shelved with merciless sell-by dates.”) DeMott, of course, wrote against that materialistic American grain. But his Thinking Straight books were also marked by his readiness to challenge intellectual fashions on the left. Back in the 90s, “progressives” who dreamed of nurturing working class consciousness tended to diminish the role of race and gender. While apologists for “identity” politics regularly avoided the middle class-bound character of their own cultural politics. DeMott refused to get locked down on either side of the class vs. culture divide that shaped debates on the left. The Thinking Straight books were meant to impel American citizens to get on with the national conversation. Though not all the eventual interlocutors were aware of who/what had pushed the program. (DeMott managed to inject the core-idea of The Trouble with Friendship into mainline culture, but I doubt many citizens identify him as the most consecutive argufier against race-based versions of the End of History fallacy and “nice” ways out of the American Dilemma.)
DeMott was most at home on native grounds. But he was worldly too. (Try his 1964 piece on African imaginative writing, “Oyiemu-O?:” “By protesting in the name of his feelings, he lays it down forcefully that the ‘revolution of rising expectations’ is a billion revolutions, numberless contradictory wellings of perversity, passion, industry and sloth which, because inward and personal, cannot ever be fully comprehended in the flat language of success and failure.”(4)) He was alive, in particular, to the Anglosphere. And the intellectual traffic there went both ways. He coined the term Powellodator to describe the transatlantic audience for Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. And his search for good fiction in English made for an imagined community of taste unbound by national boundaries – “Where are perfect love stories found? Margaret Drabble has written one (The Waterfall), as has Walker Percy (The Second Coming) and Hans Koning (An American Romance)…” But literary taste wasn’t all that he shared with Brits. Richard Hoggart was responsive to DeMott’s early (and later) work on popular culture, inviting him to the Birmingham Center when British cultural studies was being invented there in the mid-60s. (At the Center, Hoggart’s colleague Stuart Hall pushed their American visitor to listen to Motown while DeMott helped Hall hear Thelonious Monk.)
In the 70s, DeMott contributed to the British anthology – Approaches to Popular Culture (along with Raymond Williams et. al.). DeMott’s essay on the “literature of politics” – “Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption” – served as the book’s closing chapter and it’s easy to see why he had the last word. (I remember reading the piece before I went off to college and marveling then that the author – was he really my dad? – seemed to know everything about American society.) Not many Americans, though, read the piece so I’ll take a moment here to trace a few of his moves in this intellectual tour de force.
It was the Watergate hearings that launched DeMott’s heady train of thought and, in particular, Senator Howard Baker’s novel approach to the questioning of CREEP figures such as Herbert Porter. When Baker asked Porter “What was your state of mind, how did you feel?:”
Mr. Porter’s face betrayed a touch of surprise at these questions, as well it might, for these are not queries of the kind familiar to trade association persons, and Porter and the rest – Dean, Magruder, Mitchell, Erlichman, Halderman, others – seem to have been genuine trade association men. Of what mentality do we speak when we use this phrase? Suppose yourself an employee of the Independent Grocers Association lobby in Washington: how exactly do you deal with events or experiences or questions from without? As follows, by referring them to the welfare of the Independent Grocers. An oil shortage, a riot in Detroit, the conviction of a Congressman for taking bribes from contractors, a decision about Federal control of advertising rates on cable TV channels, a new food stamps program, a drought in East Africa – about each of these issues, about all matters, a trade association man is never confused. The essential questions before cannot be moral, philosophical, professional. There is but one question, unvarying, superbly comforting. “How will this affect us?”… To be asked how one felt at a time when one was only doing a good trade association man’s job…It is a little like waiting in your car as a traffic violator for a cop, who when he finishes writing a summons, hands it to you accompanied by a bit of a Verdi opera. Mr. Porter is jostled. He falls back on the old worn Nixon organizational words – team player, member of the group. The media seizes on the words, we are once again off on the weary culture critique of the 1950s, conformity, etc. But the life of this instant of questioning, as of many others, lay elsewhere in the patch of moral surprise, and this life could have been touched by an alert journalist.
That wasn’t happening but, according to DeMott, journalists weren’t alone in failing to catch and explain such moments of feeling on the wing. Academics were missing the life on air during the Watergate Hearings due largely to “the ceaseless crying down of theories of literary reference that actually haven’t had standing for two centuries or more.” DeMott held up a passage of sophisticated sophistry to illustrate apolitical “anti-referentialism.”
“What is the Civil War and how do we know it?” asks Professor Poirier in 1968. “Where is Lyndon Johnson and how does anyone know him? Is he a history book and epic poem or a cartoon by David Levine? Who invents Lyndon Johnson, when and for what immediate purpose? Where does fiction end and the historical figure begin? And what about Richard Nixon, the living schmoo? How do we know…the Vietnam War…any more than we know Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon?”
When DeMott jumped back to the Watergate Hearings, he dispatched such votaries of “discourse.”
Where is Robert Halderman and how does one know him? One knew an instant of him – something not to be confused with words – as Mr. Weicker read back his marginalia. Good! Great! One saw a person knowing in a discrete instant that he was being perceived as caught out, feeling within himself that he had been deceived, hating his deceiver, half-shamed yet not by what it was held he should be ashamed – a complex of experience, in short, different for Halderman than for Weicker, or for the viewer.
But if too many American academics were stuck in “schoolboy positivist” discourse that inhibited imaginative inquiry into political facts of feeling, there were other growing points in “our literary culture.” DeMott recognized the “democratic nerve trills” when Mailer imagines a Mr. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge who feels himself to be “necessarily superb.” And then his mind turned to the work of gifted younger writers “who can imagine astounding solidarity with the outs, the bottom dogs” and to one poem in particular – Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.” DeMott gave his essay over to that (now acclaimed but then not so well-known) poem, wondering at the author’s capacity “to live into a snippet of near speech – a poor black father to his son, at the zoo, see, they feed the lion now – live into it, dilate it, pack it with furious force, becoming in the process priests of presumption, touching resonances of Whitman and Blake.” He ended by linking the “curious and moving national willingness to take our leaders out to their and our own edge” during the Watergate era (“how it has awed Europe!”) with the American audacity of Levine’s “Lion.”
I mailed Levine a copy of “Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption” last month, (which I’d been meaning to do for years). He responded quickly:
Thanks for sending the essay by your father. I was beginning to wonder if it actually existed, but here it is – written in ’73 – among other things celebrating my poem as it’s probably never been celebrated before or since. I was very moved. It’s funny that when I met him ’74 or ’75 he didn’t mention having written about the poem. I guess he was just a modest man.
DeMott’s ear for “Lion”-like voices sharpened during the 60s. His own most daring acts of democratic presumption date back to that decade. But he stayed alive to American artists who clarified inner configurations of response beneath the Mind of the Imperial Middle. He wrote memorably about the “uses” of James Baldwin and a dozen other African-American writers, about Bruce Springsteen long before the Boss became a liberal icon, about the art of Harvey Keitel (in Blue Collar) and Robert DeNiro (in Raging Bull) and Barbara Koppel (Fire and Fear: The Mike Tyson Story). The “American Talkback” chapter in the The Imperial Middle is probably the summit of his late work in this mode. But a CUNY professor wrote recently that DeMott “deserved a monument” for his essay honoring the work done during the Open Admissions era by the genius writing teacher Mina Shaughnessy (who specialized in living into the language of the un-entitled). DeMott’s short essay on Charles Burnett’s film, Killer of Sheep (reprinted in his collection Junk Politics) is another keeper. Evoking key scenes, DeMott praised Burnett’s art for releasing audiences from abstract talk about “black despair,” but he grasped the film’s own self-concept:
It’s about teaching right conduct to the young – or rather about trying and failing at that effort, trying again, ultimately giving up. The theme is the loss of that which practically defines the human essence, namely the saving right to reprove.
DeMott’s readiness to name that theme is a reminder that his path crossed at certain points with Christopher Lasch’s on the latter’s journey toward a Left Conservatism. They wrote trenchant appreciations of each other’s work in the 90s and they weren’t logrolling. While Lasch affirmed that The Imperial Middle “is a book we’ve needed for a long time,” he complained about the book’s Talkback chapter. Lasch lacked DeMott’s responsiveness to underdog stories and pop life was verboten to him. They also disagreed about second wave feminism, yet they shared a nose for the stench from “the culture of narcissism” that Lasch decried in his famous book. Here’s DeMott recalling his experience at a spring training baseball game where the feelings stirred were “green, clean and fresh” until Howard Cosell arrived, setting off a chant – How-weee. How-weee.
Listening and watching the celebrity and his fans introduces the illicit and sly. Neither party has met the other, yet each feigns familiarity, closeness. The air becomes knowing and cynical. Cosell gestures once or twice at the chanters, raises his chin to them, smiles as though in bonhomie, as though assured of the quality of the relationship between the chanters and himself as private persons. Perceiving this, the chanters grow for a moment more raucous – more daring? more mocking? And the rest of us are turned are transformed into voyeurs, forced to try to read an unreadable primal scene, an obscure play of faked personal relations. It’s like catching a scent, on a forest walk in a crisp air and golden sunlight, of putrescence, and realizing, at once, that you won’t be able to hold your breath long enough.
DeMott placed his Cosell piece (“Recognition Scene”) under the heading “The Culture of Celebrity” in Junk Politics along with his critique of “The Politics of Dave Eggers” (i.e. no politics – the “conviction that the one state that matters is the state of one’s own envy”) and an inspired early 80s essay, “Who’s On First?,” in which he invented an All-American (on empty) voice to narrate from inside the media terrarium. He began by putting his finger on Walter Cronkite’s role at the roundtable during Convention wrap-up shows “back in the Walter days:”
Walter was the Thumb and the fun was you watch the others muscle for their shot. People in there maintaining position, showboating, fighting for it with smiles but no sucking up, maybe eyeing each other but always on the lookout to say the insightful thing that will put the others in a response-to-you-situation. They may not like it, the others, but if it’s good Walter came back to you and made them eat it anyway. Walter heard what you said as long as you weren’t hogging. “Bruce there was something you said a minute ago that really struck me” – Zingo, you’re off and running.
I eat it up.
DeMott wasn’t beating himself up for that because “win or lose, up or down, it’s drama.” But he sensed the personal was inexorably triumphing over the political. So he turned to Emerson at the top of his essay – “The mind of this country taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Over to you to Dan Rather…
Now about Dan. I would have said, frankly, Dan sucked up too much. It got worse after Dan beat Roger [Mudd] out and it was so flagrant you wondered. I was positive they would go back on themselves about Dan. Just say to the guy, Dan, you’re sucking up too much. The Thumb-to-be doesn’t suck up.
Read today, “Who’s On First?” underlines the Big Lie in Rather’s famous sign-off (“Courage”) but more importantly it gets to the heartless heart of in-it-to-win-it journalism - Geraldo Rivera’s “news with passion,” Lou Dobbs’ demagoguery, Amazing Nancy Grace, Katie (where the moon don’t shine) Couric…
The narrator in “Who’s On First?” is in the same ballpark as the one who speaks for George W.S. Trow in his media analyses. A decade or so after the initial publication of “Who’s on First?,” Trow picked up DeMott’s enquiry – wondering “Is Dan Mad?” in a piece that linked Rather’s rise to the decline of American journalism: “If you want to know what the mind of a person who will do anything to keep power is like –well, Dan can give you a whiff of that.”(5)
DeMott and Trow belonged to a sort of counter-culture committed to making sense within (what Trow called in the late 70’s) The Context of No Context. DeMott’s 60s essay, “Against McLuhan,” may be a foundational text here. Anticipating Trow’s post-60’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” through tv-land, DeMott objected to Marshall McLuhan’s willingness “to set himself up as the constituted pardoner of his age – a purveyor of perfect absolution for every genuine kind of modern guilt:”
Give it all over, is the message. Give over self-doubt, self-torment, self-hatred. Give over politics. Give over conscience. Relax, go soft and complacent, accept your subliminal perfectibility…And having done this, we can take off absolutely, fly up from the non-world of consciousness into the broad sanctuaries of ecstasy and hope. (“The Computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity…a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.”)
It is here, of course, precisely here - in the gift of oblivion – that the heart of McLuhanian munificence is found.
DeMott appreciated Trow’s Great Refusal of that gift. He invoked Trow’s insights into the mainline media culture of “A-List Adrenalin” in his own valedictory essay, “The Hard Man Cometh.” It’s possible, though, to overstate their intellectual kinship. DeMott didn’t see our Age from Trow’s Urban Haute Bourgeois angle. (See his critique of Trow’s UHB-ish take on Aretha Franklin’s artistry in The Imperial Middle.) DeMott put himself out there with the rest of us beneath de haute en bas contempt at the end of “Who’s On First:”
Well, Christ, what do you think? Of course it’s all one man against another. One on one. What about it? What are you thinking, all for one, one for all? Sure we should have that, I agree. One for all, certainly. Where the people are not standing up to each other, muscling all day – let’s work for the good of everybody. I buy it. Wonderful. Only tell me where it is, is all I’m asking. Show me where it is and I’m for it. The trouble is you can’t. The most important thing is stick up for yourself or who will. Friend, the bottom line is not one for all. We are talking Democracy. Pictures of the democratic way of life night after night…On the shows…you see the battle unfold. The obligations. The celebrity remembering he’s not so big because this is America, no kings. The underman remembering no matter how hungry, he has got to not show it because he’s equal to begin with. Night after night, if you watch with me, this is what you see. You see scrambling. guys struggling to be kind of proud and kind of humble. You can look for it anywhere else but you’re not going to see it because people hunker down. they’re scared. They act like, Who Me? I’m a happy guy, want nothing. Money’s no problem. Terrific. I love my job. Bullshit! They’re all waiting and wanting but wanting to not let you see it, wanting to not suck up or look down or lose position. But on the shows it’s America. Guys and girls looking out across the air toward the other person even-steven no matter what is going on inside. What I am, what we are – I’ll keep watching for it even if nobody ever writes it down. I mean, what is the message, what are they putting, what are you suppose to see if it isn’t this? Am I missing something? Am I unique?
Well…Yeah. DeMott’s way of being with his fellow citizens was shaped by his singularity. It wasn’t second nature for him to conceive of an all-for-one-up-from-under collectivity pursuing radical democratic goals. DeMott was no isolato, but he wasn’t much for marches or demonstrations. I only remember him going to one – a protest against the Rushdie fatwa. He wasn’t the sort to sign off “in solidarity” and he was never a party guy. Jean Bethke Elshtain’s line – "Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers” – is to the point and so’s Orwell’s credo – “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”
DeMott served that conception of liberty when he talked back to the 9/11 Commission and the Establishment figures who talked up the “moral aura” of its Pulitzer-nominated Report:
This document—already elevated to iconic status—qualifies as a weapon in a major domestic conflict: the war on incisive, sometimes rudely disruptive critical thought—thought that distinguishes the democratic citizen from the idolatrous fool, the sucker, the clueless consumer, the ad person’s delight.
DeMott’s case against the Report – “Whitewash as Public Service” – was founded on his patient effort to reconstruct the moment when Commissioners were confronted with Bush’s brazen refusal to acknowledge his history of obliviousness to pre-9/11 warnings about Al Qaeda. While DeMott allowed it would be arrogant to claim to know “the interior mind of the 9/11 Commission” he imagined a range of possible immediate reactions to Bush’s duplicities and then explored why the Commissioners would have found it difficult to bring themselves to challenge the President’s statements, though they knew from their own investigation his version of events could not be the truth. (“The record speaks.”) DeMott argued the Commissioners’ failure to draw the line during the original ninety-minute Bush-Cheney session drove them inexorably towards an outcome that implicitly absolved Bush “by scotching all attempts to distinguish better from worse leadership responses.” Devolution toward serial mea culpas – “Blaming everybody a little, the Commission blames nobody” – followed from the initial “evasions, silences and suppressions of doubt.”
The necessity thereafter was to construct a Report whose parts would move together toward two tightly interconnected goals: (1) sweeping questions of presidential character off the table and (2) presenting the Commission’s equivocation as the result not of cowardice but of rational recognition of the power of the contingent, imponderable, and impersonal in human life. What the Commissioners had to supply amounted to an alibi, both for the President and for themselves.
DeMott’s case against the 9/11 Commission sublated the critique of the “progressive” imagination made by First of the Month writers and public intellectuals like Kanan Makiya, Paul Berman and Jean Elsthain (who has protested against the “self-flagellating reactions of some Americans to terrorism…The mea culpa is a refusal to judge. And this refusal to judge with an appropriate seriousness is a problem in every area of American life.”) “Whitewash as Public Service” flipped their criticism of the American left’s post-9/11 mania for mea culpas. DeMott was aware of his essay’s implications on this score. And he knew he had much in common with those on the other side of the dialectic who were exercising their saving right to reprove.
DeMott’s contribution to First of the Month’s 2004 election forum (a month after he published “Whitewash”) spells out his desire to transcend dim partisanship: “Election times are hell on self-respect…The questioning critic in me dopes off.” While he was gratified “his” candidate had done so well in the first 2004 presidential debate, he whipped himself for exalting in replays of Kerry’s “scores” and relishing “exchanges in which rounded-up half-truths encouraged faith in fluency as the highest virtue:”
The point is that election time is self-simplification time. The temptation grows to stop being a person who thinks - a thinking being as distinguished from a fan. Somebody sustained by the habit of trying to talk back to pseudo-thought wherever it originates, in political season and out, the stuff that paves the world with con.
I'm venting, of course. When you feel yourself being not so gradually massified back into the natural human mediocre state, you vent. The case is that I can't wait for the day after Election Day and the chance to aspire to a better self.
END OF PART I (READ PART II HERE.)
From September, 2006
Dear Benji---I'll be in town from 10/13-10/22. Did you want to meet for lunch on the 17th or 18th? See you soon---Collier
Posted by: Collier Hands at September 27, 2006 05:25 PM