The Lonely Crowd, Part II: Optimism and Pessimism in the 1950s and 1960s

            The Lonely Crowd was originally published in the year 1950, but almost every printing of the book available today includes a preface written for the third edition of 1969. David Riesman, who wrote the book in collaboration with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, wrote this preface, as well, and he acknowledges therein the challenge of introducing the book to a different generation of readers. Although it may be difficult for us, living in the year 2022, to appreciate the tremendous psychological change that must have occurred among the American people between the years 1950 and 1969, Mr. Riesman witnessed it firsthand and experienced it personally, and he shares with us this summary of his observations:

“Obviously, the problems that preoccupy attentive Americans now [in 1969] are different from those preoccupying people when The Lonely Crowd was written [in 1950]; and, among the reflective, an atmosphere of what seems to me extravagant self-criticism has succeeded an earlier tendency toward glib self-satisfaction.”

If this perspective seems to us at all passe or unremarkable, it is only because, in our time, it has become so prominent and so widespread. It may even be the majority perspective, or at least one in which the majority of Americans could find common ground. We understand exactly what Mr. Reisman means when he speaks of the 1950s as a period of “glib self-satisfaction”: as soon as he says this, we envision the adolescents of the time, wearing deliberately gaudy clothing, driving around in luxurious cars, and spending money at diners, record stores, and drive-in movie theaters. We envision them living in a state of perpetual bliss, enjoying themselves in the moment, without any premonition of the troubles and struggles that were soon to come.

We hardly need to say that this vision of ours is only the shallowest stereotype, a dull cliché that has been promoted largely by Hollywood. Nevertheless, the 1950s were, indisputably, a time of accelerated consumer consumption: as everybody already knows, Americans were buying, and using, and discarding with a perpetually hastening pace throughout the Eisenhower era, and this is symbolized in our image of teenagers dressing up and driving around and having a good time. We are imagining them behaving as consumers, and obtaining considerable consumer satisfaction. On this point, everyone appears to be in agreement—where we differ from one another is in our view of the moral and ethical values underlying this behavior, but we will not address that controversy today.

Mr. Riesman’s perspective is accessible to us also because we understand exactly what he means when he speaks of “extravagant self-criticism”. Clearly, he is speaking of the Vietnam era, which was still ongoing at the time he wrote his preface. When we envision the Vietnam era, we envision constant political conflict and dispute, pertaining not only to the war in Vietnam but also to racial tensions and other social issues. Even the name of the period suggests that it was defined by its contentious political condition, as though this were the foundation upon which all else would come to be based. Maybe this is so, or maybe it is only another superficial stereotype, one that was developed and distributed by the mass media. In either case, we recognize that there was a difficult political situation forming at the time, and that many Americans responded to it with a feeling of despair and pessimism for the future of their country.

How long did this despondent sentiment reign in the United States? We cannot answer this question precisely, not at this time, but we can affirm it did eventually yield to yet another state of “glib self-satisfaction”. This latter state, by all appearances, became the majority condition at some point in the 1980s, approximately twenty years after the epoch of “extravagant self-criticism”. But the “glib self-satisfaction” of the 1980s was eventually challenged by a new mode of “extravagant self-criticism”, which seemed to obtain popular appeal at some point in the 2000s. In other words, we have been observing this cycle of sentiment in motion for three quarters of a century, if not for much longer than that: I suspect there are books, written long before The Lonely Crowd, in which this same phenomenon is observed, though probably described with different terminology.

This reminds me of a meme that is currently popular among certain cynics. It is a picture of an American teenager standing outside the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August 2001 and saying to himself, “I’m so excited for the prosperous future awaiting my generation!” It is interesting to consider how quickly these shifts in popular sentiment occur, with optimism giving way to hopelessness, and hopelessness giving way to optimism, within a span of less than twenty years—not even a full generation. It doesn’t even seem remarkable to us that Riesman felt himself prepared to summarize the 1950s when he was not yet a full decade removed from their conclusion.

Having said all of this, naturally we are keen to know what to make of it. Do we rest assured in the historical probability that a relatively carefree state of “glib self-satisfaction” will eventually succeed our current time of “extravagant self-criticism”? Or do we despair for the great likelihood that we will never completely overcome our tendency for “extravagant self-criticism”? Personally, I think it is foolish to expect our cultural conditions to serve us, or satisfy us, with opportunities for “glib self-satisfaction”, and I think it is equally foolish to lament their inability to do so, and to respond to our own disappointment with despair. There is reason for humanity to feel both pride and shame, and there is a time to reflect on one and a time to reflect on the other. And I wonder if we are living, not in an era defined by one or the other, but in an era defined by a conflict between the two.

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