In two intriguing, counterintuitive essays on America’s elites, political scientist Samuel Goldman argues that WASPs, though they fell from power, won by creating institutions that house the country’s establishments, while Jews, who “occupy some of the most influential positions in American life” and are in many ways the “successors to the WASPs,” lost in becoming bland, apparatchik-like custodians of American institutional authority.

In “joining and ultimately displacing WASPs in their academic and other bastions,” Goldman writes, Jews lost their “vitality” and “distinctive identity.” As Saul Bellow gave way to Stephen Breyer, Jews became, in this reading, not so much synthetic WASPs as etiolated hybrids. “The elite, the professions,” journalist Ben Judah writes in a masterly essay on how American Jews lost themselves, “feel if anything WASP-Jewish.” The delicate dance drained both parties of their lifeblood.

It’s the other side of meritocratic assimilation, the success stories, that make up the American Dream. The admirable ecumenical tolerance of today’s elites has been purchased, Goldman and Judah suggest, at the price of homogenization and sterility—so many sacrifices of cultural virtù as people with different traditions, tastes, and repulsions try to get along with each other at work.

When WASPs held all the cards, they initially resisted elite assimilation. Their cartel was premised on keeping the stranger out, and they were especially wary of Jews. The egregious cases—Edith Wharton (whose depiction of Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth is a tissue of anti-Semitic clichés), T. S. Eliot (fixing, as Milton had done, on “the dark idolatries of alienated Judah”), are perhaps less troubling than the milder, unexpected ones: Theodore Roosevelt, in a fit of pique, denouncing The New Republic as the work of “three anemic Gentiles and three international Jews,” or Eleanor Roosevelt describing a “Jew party” in Bernard Baruch’s house that seemed to her “appalling.”

There were, to be sure, WASP philo-Semites, headed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who pointed out how much the two groups had in common. WASPs were products of a Puritan tradition: their forebears, much like those of Jews, regarded themselves as a chosen people. (New England was to be an American Zion.) Since both groups lived with a perfectionist heritage that induced hysteria, mutual neurosis was a potential bond.

WASPs noted, too, that they shared with Jews a respect for intellect and education, as well as a capacity for application and industry. The problem was that they suspected that Jews might, on the whole, surpass them in these things. By 1922, the percentage of the student body of Harvard College that was thought (by apprehensive WASPs) to be Jewish had risen to some 21 percent. Harvard’s president, A. Lawrence Lowell, believed that such numbers would “ruin the college.” When Lowell demanded a quota of 15 percent, Franklin Roosevelt, a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, supported him.

WASPs came around to assimilation not so much from innate generosity as from the realization that nepotism was deadly. Their universities, law firms, banks, corporations, and government bureaus needed talent, and their own kin could not supply enough of it. Henry Chauncey (ironically, a legacy at Groton and Harvard) was instrumental in developing the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which ended the WASPs’ near monopoly of schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The meritocracy was born, and Jews flourished in it—only to find themselves, Judah writes, “leading some of the most undramatic and tedious Jewish lives of all time.”

“Ah, the Exile, the Exile!” Abram Shapiro cries out in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Family Moskat. “It’s demoralized us.” For Goldman and Judah, American Jews, trapped in the meritocracy’s Pavlovian system of rewards, are exiled from a more complete humanity. “We’re obsessed with dead Jews or we’re obsessed with Israelis,” Judah writes: obsessed, that is, with people living more richly than wonks in “Think Tanks, Mid Level Media Jobs or MFA-track writing careers,” or technicians in banks, law firms, and government circumlocution offices.

WASPs were there before them. In the decades after the Civil War, a group of WASPs that included Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Vida Scudder complained that America’s Gilded Age elites were prosperous but empty, a “miracle of timid and short-sighted selfishness,” in Roosevelt’s words. WASPs cast a longing eye on the vitality of premodern cultures. Adams looked to Athens, with its humane versality, for an alternative to America’s empty noise, as well as to Japan’s Nikkō and Samoa’s Pago Pago. He and Scudder were drawn, too, to medieval civilization, she on account of the vibrancy of its Franciscan charity, he because it “never knew ennui. When it was bored, somebody got killed.”

It was partly romanticism à la Walter Scott and Emma Bovary. But Adams’s and Scudder’s deeper point was that a mechanical approach to life that overstimulates one or two of the citizens’ appetites, while whole regions of their moral and instinctual life lie fallow, is psychically ruinous. As much as his English friend Matthew Arnold, Adams believed that a microscopically specialized modernity was turning out, in Arnold’s words, “incomplete and mutilated” human beings, “stunted and enfeebled” in their nature and potential. He himself, he saw, was one of them.

Judah finds a similar sense of stuntedness in contemporary American Jews. If Adams and Scudder lived vicariously in the romance of the twelfth century, many diaspora Jews today, Judah argues, live vicariously in the romance of Israel, loving it even when they hate it, wallowing imaginatively in the drama of “a country whose fate is still so precarious, its life so fantastical, or if you look at it from the other side, so cruel,” that it is a sort of Book of Judges come alive. Other Jews, like S. Y. Agnon, romanticize the miserably poor but humanly exuberant shtetls and urban neighborhoods in the Pale of Settlement, where characters like Reb Yudel and Moshe Leib “study Torah in dire poverty and distress,” but through an intensely developed common life experience joys and sufferings unknown in Manhattan or its opulent suburbs.

WASPs and Jews find in the aliveness of their alternative cultures a way of being that stimulates parts of the brain that everyday American life rarely touches. Judah’s complaint that the American Jew’s existence is “lifeless,” “fake,” is anticipated by the lament of an American WASP—Lambert Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors—that his New England existence is a fraud: the train of “real” life was waiting “at the station for me without my having had the gumption to know it was there.” It is only in the artist Gloriani’s garden in Paris, as a set of nerves he didn’t know he had comes alive, that he realizes that he is an exile from life’s feast.

If Jews dissatisfied with their diaspora modernity found a solution to existential anemia by returning to Israel, WASPs, for their part, satisfied a similar longing by creating, in America itself, charmed zones in which neglected places in the soul could ripen. James, in his fiction, portrayed the revivifying effect of places like Venice on exiled moderns (Hyacinth Robinson in The Princess Casamassima), but it was his friend Isabella Stewart Gardner who, with a fund of WASP practicality and an even larger pile of WASP cash, established a Venetian museum in Boston. Her nephew Amory Gardner, enamored of Athens, created in the town of Groton northwest of Boston a school that historian Richard Hofstadter would call “a little Greek democracy of the elite,” a toy Athens that trained Franklin Roosevelt and other leaders of the WASP revival. Columbia’s Core Curriculum, inspired by a fin-de-siècle WASP humanism that looked to premodern civic culture for models, was an effort to counteract mechanical narrowness by producing, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “large-minded men, committed to great ends, devoted to virtue, assured of the dignity of the human estate and dedicated to enhancing and preserving it.” By exposing students to “great works of the imagination,” the Core would “foster and even institute this large-mindedness, this magnanimity,” in America.

What united the schools, clubs, colleges, museums, and concert halls of the WASPs was a faith in premodern techniques of opening the mind. That much-abused word, poetry, was indispensable to their project: not poetry as it has been sentimentalized in our kitsch-saturated age, but as Plato understood it in the Laws, in which he overcame an earlier ambivalence to find virtue in living poetry, in the myths, playacting, games, music, and masquerades at the heart of the primeval community. Interfused in life, this poetry lifted the day above its prose and the mind above its mundaneness. WASPs made shrewd use of it, not least in their formative prep schools, in which myth, music, and a hygienic athleticism molded (in addition to a horde of stockbrokers) some notable civic humanists.

The underlying insight was as familiar to Jews as it was to WASPs. The Viennese writer Nathan Birnbaum, “bored with Europe’s progress and its ‘emancipated humanity,’ with the masquerade of little people who play god and keep sinking into the mire,” was under modernity’s unexuberant stars quite as drawn to “primitive” poetries as the Massachusetts Gardners. “My heart is cold and dried like wood,” the scholar Moshe Leib Lilienblum lamented as he suffered under modernity’s regime of unadulterated prose. “The poetry has been torn out of my heart,” and with a spirit “frozen with hoarfrost” he pronounced a “funeral oration on my wasted life” that much resembled Lambert Strether’s.

The WASP effort to restore a lost balance in the soul was not wholly successful. The importation into America of snatches of poetry lifted from Athens, Venice, and Jerusalem made for a finished product that was in some ways superficial and derivative, like the Collegiate Gothic and neoclassical architecture WASPs favored—“ill-chosen souvenirs,” in Lewis Mumford’s words, from “crumbled civilizations.” This was John Ruskin’s criticism of the Renaissance itself: its classicism, he argued, was a half-hearted imitation of the achievement of others rather than an organic growth.

But imperfect though the WASPs’ methods were, they produced a few generations worth of civic generalists. Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Stimson, Vida Scudder, and Learned Hand worked to resist narrowness and do justice to whatever was in them, with an idea of civic conscience providing the overall framework. Beside today’s tech-finance elites, boorishly beguiled by rockets, spaceships, and synthetic ventures in immortality, the WASPs, with their Athenian civic humanist fantasies, are rather appealing.

But their humanizing forums were on too small and snobbish a scale, and too shallowly embedded in the larger infrastructure of life, to make much of a difference in America as a whole. And by the time their enlightened archaism bore fruit, it was unfashionable. Twentieth-century intellectuals, rejecting romantic premodernism, embraced avant-gardism in the arts and social sciences, a modernism that was in some ways more constricting than liberating. Le Corbusier’s theory of functional segregation exacerbated narrowness by making life run in rigidly separate grooves. Modernism achieved its apotheosis not in showpieces like Manhattan’s Lever House but in the lightly dressed hog troughs of the suburban shopping center. Loos and Le Corbusier, in their hatred of poetic ornament (that “inexhaustible meaningfulness,” as Nietzsche called it, which “hung about a building like a magic veil”) stood godfathers to the prefabricated, antiseptic spaces in which so much of our life is now passed, scrubbed of anything that might speak to the heart. The result is abstraction without voluptuousness, light without shadow: all that richer complexity of desire that led Nietzsche to say: “Whenever I look for another word for music, I only ever find the word Venice.”

Modernism itself is now dated, and the postmodernism that succeeded it still more banal. But our intellectual elites—what Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have called our clerisy—have done little to address the despondency WASPs and Jews identified, a despondency that is the more poignant because it is so intimately connected to the greatest of our modern goods.

Goldman and Judah point to the dullness of the meritocracy, but that sleepiness is merely a symptom of what is stultifying in the most valuable of modern creations: pluralism. Pluralism tolerates all poetries, on condition that you keep the music to yourself, because the poetry that works for you might not work for the person in the next cubicle. But shut away in a box, the poetry that the aging Plato thought to be both the nourisher of the soul and the builder of community can’t help people get through the day: it ceases to be a machinery for organizing experience and transmuting its anarchies into wholeness.

We are richer and healthier than ever before, but we all know that something is missing. WASPs tried to fill the vacuum with premodern techniques that liberated pent-up powers and put some of them to work creating a more entrancing common life. Their thinking went something like this: under modern stars, large regions of the soul lie uncultivated—and left uncultivated, grow rank. The result is a neurasthenia (soul-sickness) in which the unused appetites, deprived of sustenance, feed upon themselves. Possibility frustrated is possibility become poisonous. The road to health lies in getting one’s music out and affording it scope in practical life.

The problem that perplexed the fin-de-siècle WASPs is now our problem. Amid the wreckage of modernism, in a culture in which interchangeable parts threaten to create interchangeable people, we have too few outlets for our suppressed powers, and too few resources to resist what is narrow, disconnected, and hysteria-inducing in our manner of living: the pharmacy becomes our poetry. Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw the endgame, shuddering at a modernity that throws the citizen “back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.

Our contemporary clerisy, as Goldman, Judah, and Daniel Markovits show, is living the problem quite as much as the rest of us: whether WASP, Jew, or anything else under the sun, many of our harried meritocrats long for completeness, a more worthwhile connection to themselves, to their work, to other people. (The health of the soul and the health of the community are for all civilized peoples intimately connected.) But it’s a problem our elites don’t try very hard to solve, perhaps because they think it insoluble. The price of pluralism may be sterilized banality. (If you need a little “thick” culture to restore your equanimity, take a vacation in Fez or Gondar or Chania or Varanasi.) The freest and most prosperous state may (as Henry Adams believed) be psychically unstable precisely because it has been constructed on too shallow an emotional foundation. But before acquiescing in that despairing conclusion, we should ask: Is synthesis possible? Can the wisdom of older techniques be adapted to our modern manner of living in ways that nourish the soul without sacrificing the pluralism and diversity to which we owe so much, which have got us out of the habit of killing each other over infinitesimal differences in musical taste? (“Poetry is called religion,” Santayana said, “when it intervenes in life.”)

Leopardi argued that with the decline of the compact poetries of the premodern community (“Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together”), one must learn to build oneself “a little city within the great one.” Various intellectuals took up the challenge. The Viennese architect Camillo Sitte sought (much like American WASPs) to create public spaces that would be works of artistic synthesis or Gesamtwerkes—intensive concentrations of different poetries that would collectively penetrate, and elevate, the soul. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wanted to resurrect the premodern “play-circle” and the “primary play-quality” of its poetry, its intimations of “beauty, sacredness, magic,” a realm “of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter.”

Good starting points, to be sure; but our contemporary clerisy, Lionel Trilling observed, is as a rule too deficient in imagination to consider such possibilities, too attached to the idea that a “virtuous democracy” must necessarily incline to “dullness and stupidity.”

In his preface to The Liberal Imagination, Trilling looked back wistfully through John Stuart Mill to Coleridge, a poetic visionary whose approach, he thought, might counter our modern tendency to envisage the world in a “prosaic” way. No such luck: to read the musings of today’s clerisy intellectuals on “community” and “well-being” is to wonder at their helplessness. It as though they never heard Carlyle insist that without “the music of some inspired Orpheus was no city ever built,” never grappled with Plato’s insight that we have been “strung by our choirmasters (the gods) on a thread of poetry and play.” To digest that would require imaginative effort; it would require staying awake. Far easier to slip back into the soporific language of socioeconomic utility; a greater and more widely diffused material abundance will by itself save us. In the meantime, take your meds and be sure to get your prescriptions refilled.

Emerson said that the question of how “to spend a day nobly, is the problem to be solved, beside which all the great reforms which are preached seem to me trivial.” That our clerisy no longer even asks the question is the measure of its failure.

Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images


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