Ancestors Life and Times of a Libertine

Christopher Lasch

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My subject lies before me like a patient awaiting the knife—my fair country, ravaged bride of the wilderness, struggling to bring forth a new civilization.

This is no normal birth: the mother is still no more than a girl: her hips are too narrow; surgery is indicated. The intercom crackles up and down the corridors of the vast metropolitan hospital: “Calling Dr. Fox! Dr. Fox to the delivery room!” I hurry to the operating table, the master-surgeon, calm in the midst of confusion. One of the nurses weeps in a corner. The young intern confides, in an undertone everyone can hear, that the case is hopeless. The bride moans rhythmically; she looks up at the surgeon, her eyes full of hope and fear. Dr. Fox issues crisp instructions; the others take heart from his quiet command of the situation. The patient’s heart-beat stabilizes. Other life signs return. The surgeon’s eyes over his mask betray no hint of emotion. He delivers a bouncing baby boy with the face of a mature adult, whom they all recognize as the new man the world has been waiting for. The mother relaxes, sleeps. The master-surgeon strides from the room, having come, seen, conquered.

I see myself, then—I hope without illusions, with neither false modesty nor false pride—as a skilled surgeon presiding at the birth of a new American culture, a culture more advanced, more mature, stronger and healthier than the old culture, which was stunted by puritanical repression and the harsh work of taming a virgin continent. From the time of its founding, it has been widely assumed that America would be the womb of a new race of men; but it is only in our time that the new man is finally beginning to emerge—all the rest has been a long and difficult preparation, a four-hundred-year pregnancy. If it has been my privilege to assist at the delivery, it is a peculiar conjunction of circumstances, much more than my native abilities, that has made this possible. I happened, Harold Fox, to be in the right place at the right time. The part I played could have been played by hundreds of others; fortune alone assigned it to me.

My many-sided public career has spanned five decades, from World War II to the Watershed. I am confident, therefore, that an account of my life, which intersects at so many points with the great events of the time, will also constitute a record of my country’s history during the most decisive years of its existence.

As a Rhodes scholar in the late 1930s, I witnessed at first hand the moral collapse of England and other Western democracies, epitomized by their appeasement of Hitler, and came to understand that the United States would soon be called from its historic isolation to play a dominant role in world affairs. Democracy was on its deathbed; the alarms went out; Uncle Sam hurried to the scene like a country doctor summoned in the middle of the night, his saddlebags flapping, his horse’s hoofs clattering on the road.

The assumption of global responsibilities had a sobering, maturing effect on our people, especially the people in government, who were most directly charged with these awesome responsibilities. As an officer in the OSS and later in the newly formed CIA, I saw the emergence of a new type of public servant—tough, pragmatic, realistic, without illusions about “making the world safe for democracy” or about bringing into being, through politics, some other grandiose design, but determined all the same to leave the world a better place than he had found it.

I was privileged to play a minor but by no means insignificant part in the shaping of American foreign policy during the years after World War II, when the United States rallied the free world, turned back the menace of totalitarianism, and guided the European left in its struggle to establish progressive democracy as an alternative to communism. Driven out of government service by the reckless demagoguery of the late Senator McCartney, I returned to America after seventeen years abroad and assumed the editorship of Gastronome, a new monthly devoted to the art of good living. Later, as everyone knows, I founded Man of the World—“the most influential magazine of our time,” according to the noted critic Leslie A. Fielding.

I saw my career in journalism as an extension of my work in government, both having as their object the promotion of a new cosmopolitanism. I sought to help my countrymen overcome their parochialism, assume the responsibilities of world power, and cultivate a mature outlook—a new sophistication—that would be commensurate with these responsibilities. I realized, moreover, that the new society that was emerging—the post-puritan society, I liked to call it—would be above all a society of leisure; accordingly I tried to prepare the American people for the demands of leisure by showing them how to enjoy life discriminately and without guilt.

After fifteen highly successful years as an editor and leader of opinion, I returned to politics in the late sixties, when it appeared that everything the country had achieved since World War II was in danger of being overwhelmed by a misguided radicalism obsessed with destruction for its own sake. The public already knows something of the part I played in the Trixie administration and in the Watershed scandals, but the full story remains to be told. In my account of the Watershed affair, I intend to spare no one and to bring out the inside story for the first time. The symbolism of that name, incidentally, has not escaped me: the Watershed was truly a turning-point in our history, and I trust that my account will make clear why it should be regarded as such.

This will by no means be a record of public events alone. Nothing that contributed to my development will be ignored. Friendships, love affairs, personal triumphs, and occasional failures have all played their part in my growth. I shall record them with as much discretion as is consistent with the demands of complete frankness.

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Born in 1916 in the little prairie town of Inverness, Illinois, now a suburb of Chicago, I was raised in moderate circumstances until my father’s business was wiped out by the repeal of Prohibition, after which the family lived in genteel poverty. My father found it difficult to settle down to a vulgar life of trade. He opened a dog-racing track, but the whippets were decimated in the hard winter of ’34. For a time he sold patent medicines. Later he found a job selling life insurance, but the work was alien to his temperament. Minimizing risks, prudently laying by for the future, were activities for which my father had little enthusiasm. He lived for the moment. I see now that he was ahead of his time, a hedonist living in a world still dominated by the Protestant ethic.

My mother came from New England stock. A woman of refined tastes, she suffered daily humiliations in the narrow village to which my father had brought her. She encouraged my bookish tastes, providing me, on my thirteenth birthday, with a leather-bound set of The Messages and Papers of the Presidents. My encounter with the liberating rationalism of Thomas Jefferson had the unexpected consequence that I became an atheist, to the chagrin of my mother and of Reverend Carstairs, the Congregationalist minister.

“I attribute this development,” I overheard the reverend say, “not so much to Jefferson as to evil influences closer to home. I’m afraid, Ellen, the boy takes after his father.”

“Lower your voice, John,” said my mother. “I don’t want Harold to overhear you. It is important that he should respect his father.”

“Let us respect them that are worthy of it.”

The residents of Inverness despised my precocity. I turned inward, and wrote bitter satires in the style of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

Every winter the town was seized with the frenzy of basketball. As editor of the Iconoclast, the school paper, I wrote bitter satires on the decline of sport—from a diversion of gentlemen to the vulgar amusement of the herd. I also designed the uniforms of the cheerleaders—a credible early version of the miniskirt.

The “jocks,” as we would call them now, naturally regarded me as a “queer,” but I took my private revenge. Blessed with good looks, sensitive, intellectual, and unburdened by conventional scruples, I was remarkably attractive to women. My success in this line fairly maddened my loutish classmates, and I was more than once singled out for physical abuse. Never mind; the daughters of Eve found me irresistible. When I was a freshman in high school I had the great good fortune to be apprehended in compromising circumstances with Patsy Murphy, a senior, the homecoming queen and the toast of Inverness High. The Latin club, of which I was already president, had unanimously voted to build a float for the homecoming parade—a lifelike representation of the cave in which Dido and Aeneas sought shelter from the storm. Finding ourselves providentially alone in her family’s barn, at a critical stage in the construction of the float, Patsy and I sought shelter from the deprivations of village life on the Middle Border. Her father made an ugly scene, as a result of which Patsy was forbidden to attend her own coronation—a further deprivation for which I later consoled her with all the powers of sympathy at my command. My own reputation, however, was made. No female was judged safe from my nocturnal depredations. Reports of my exploits spread through both the school and the town; nor did I do anything to correct the exaggerations that accumulated around my growing legend.

After graduation, I became the first alumnus of Inverness ever to attend Harvard College. As a scholarship student and outlander to boot, I had to endure the snubs of the Cabots, Lowells, and Lodges. Traditional barriers of class and caste were still very much in evidence at Harvard in the thirties, and the spirit of snobbery prevailed. To have attended a public high school meant that you were permanently ostracized from polite society. It was an open secret, of course, that polite society had become a terrible bore, but many young men of plebian birth still pined over their exclusion from it, and a few were led to commit acts of desperation. Poor John Loeb, a Jewish teacher’s son from Camden, New Jersey—an absolutely hopeless case, in other words—assiduously cultivated the men in Lionel, Strauss, and Wigglesworth, tagging along at their heels, intruding himself into their games, inventing distinguished ancestors by the dozen, and dressing in a manner that threatened to exhaust the family savings by the end of the first term. His imitation of the proper Bostonian was letter-perfect, but it bore the fatal stigma of having been acquired rather than inherited. The Wigglesworth crowd led him on, giving John to believe that he had been elected into one of the most exclusive clubs in Cambridge. On the night of his “initiation,” a public ceremony was held in the middle of the Yard, at which John was invested with the title, “Social Climber of the Year,” and made to ride around the Yard on an ass, bearing what he was told were the traditional emblems of the office—a shiny metal Christmas “tree” signifying false claims of ancestry, a gigantic calling card pinned to his back, and the tongue of an ox hung around his neck, with which to lick the boots of his betters. Two weeks after this event, poor John threw himself from the Boylston Street Bridge into oblivion.

Such scenes, together with the general economic and diplomatic crisis of the thirties, made me something of a socialist. As editor of the Crimson, I carried on a tireless crusade against the pretensions of wealth, the insularity of the New England elite, and the criminal indifference of Harvard men to poverty and injustice at home and to the rise of fascism abroad. While the prep school types disported themselves in their meaningless frivolities, I carried off the scholastic prizes; nor did I neglect the physical side of my development, excelling at tennis, squash, and soccer. The only aristocracy to which I have ever aspired is the aristocracy of talents, and as long as my equals recognized my abilities, I did not trouble myself over the opinion of my “superiors.”

The most useful lesson that I learned at Harvard was that great men are human too and that nothing is gained by treating them with exaggerated and worshipful admiration. Contemptuous of my social betters, I nevertheless stood in considerable awe of my teachers until, gaining their intimacy, I came to understand that even intellectual giants have their blind spots, the famous have their flaws, and the mighty their pettiness. To hear a couple of distinguished professors hotly disputing the batting averages of the Brooklyn Dodgers is an education in itself; to be able to correct them both, the equivalent of an advanced degree.

One incident in particular stands out in my memory. After winning an essay contest in history, I was summoned to a state dinner at which the prize was to be conferred with suitable ceremony. All the great lights had assembled for the occasion—Morison, Merk, Miller, Parsons, Sorokin, even men from esoteric fields like philosophy and religion. As we gathered for cocktails, my hand shook so badly that I could hardly hold my glass of sherry—the first glass of sherry, incidentally, that I had ever had.

The distinguished historian Arthur Schillinger, Sr.,[*] who had once taught at the University of Illinois—his period of exile and probation, as his colleagues jokingly referred to it—was delighted to learn that I came from the “Northwest Territory” too.

“How are things out in the old territory?” he asked in a voice that was sure to be overheard by several of his colleagues.

“Fine,” I stammered, conscious of the fact that this remark fell somewhat short of the brilliance demanded by the occasion.

As we sat down for dinner, Professor Schillinger, evidently forgetting our earlier conversation, asked once again about conditions in the “territory.” His question came during a momentary lull in the conversation; I was conscious of heads turning all up and down the table.

I assured him again that things were fine. A palpable disappointment greeted this weak and deferential reply. Burning, I stared at my plate.

After dinner we adjourned to the common room for coffee. Professor Schillinger, greeting me by this time as an old friend, announced in a voice that instantly commanded the attention of the entire room, “Mr. Fox, you know, hails from the prairie. Once lectured at Illinois myself—period of exile and probation. Tell me, Fox, how are things out in the territory?”

Without thinking I blurted out: “I have news for you—it’s become a State.”

The room “broke up.” The next day my remark was already legendary. I have never again deferred to eminence out of a misplaced sense of my own unimportance.

Just before my graduation—magna cum laude—I was elected a Rhodes scholar. On a balmy day in September 1937, I sailed for Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth, an innocent going abroad, a pilgrim to the shrine of culture. Little did I dream that I would not return for almost twenty years, having long since left my innocence behind, somewhere on my many travels.


Christopher Lasch (1932–1994) wrote this satirical novel in the summer of 1973 in a cottage in back of his family’s Vermont vacation home. As Lasch later told an interviewer, he considered his novel while he was writing it “a devastating, witty send-up of American politics,” but his publisher didn’t agree, and soon enough he abandoned the project to the drawer. This excerpt from chapter one—the first time any part of the manuscript has been published—introduces the protagonist, Harold Fox. The rest of the novel chronicles Fox’s rise to prominence in Cold War America and his fall from grace as a member of the “Richard Trixie” administration during the “Watershed” scandal. All Lasch manuscripts © Nell Lasch and courtesy of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Library. —Jeff Ludwig

[*] An allusion to Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who taught at Harvard from 1924–1954 following stints at Ohio State University and the University of Iowa. Much of this scene appears to have been borrowed from Lasch’s own Harvard experience. As a history major during his student days, 1950–1954, Lasch won the department’s William Scott Ferguson Prize for best essay; the award was presented at a similar ceremony, which Schlesinger Sr. attended.

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