John Ciardi, John Fischer, Marya Mannes
America and the Uncommon Man
VTR Date: March 23, 1958
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THE OPEN MIND
“AMERICA AND THE UNCOMMON MAN”
MARCH 23, 1958
Moderator: Mr. Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Mr. John Fischer, Miss Marya Mannes, Prof. John Ciardi
Announcer: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, “America and The Uncommon Man”. Your host on the Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, Historian, Author, and Lecturer at the New School for Social Research.
Mr. Heffner: There has been a great deal of talk about leadership over the past couple of years in this country. There has been talk about the necessity for America to exercise leadership amongst the nations of the free world. There has also been a great deal of talk about our developing leaders here at home. As a matter of fact, just two months ago, the New York Times quoted Dr. John P. Hagen, who is the director of the Vanguard Satellite Project as calling on the United States “to create an intellectual elite to lead the nation to supremacy in the space age.”
As a matter of fact, the origin of this program on “America and The Uncommon Man” was an article, rather I should say an editorial, written by John Fischer in Harper’s Magazine some months ago. In this particular editorial, Mr. Fischer talked about a book on uncommon people. He talked about the clans or the families that over some generations now; over 300 years, have contributed such great leadership to the English people. And, Mr. Fischer said, the horrid moral of this book is inescapable.
A nation depends for most of its culture; for its government and for its survival on a relatively few uncommon people and these come from a still smaller number of blood strains.
It would seem to follow then, that a nation would do well to cherish and foster these uncommon people, for on them rests its hope of greatness. Yet, Mr. Fischer went on to say that no idea could be more subversive to mid-century America, dedicated as it is to the common man. Our whole way of life is now based on the theory that only the mediocre and ineffectual deserve to be especially cherished by society. The notion that exceptional people ought to get exceptional consideration and that their abilities might be transmitted by heredity is felt to be shockingly undemocratic and un-American. So this is the century of the common man and this is our subject for today.
Now let me introduce my guests. My first guest is Mr. John Fischer, the Editor in Chief of Harper’s Magazine. Another guest is Miss Marya Mannes, Critic for The Reporter Magazine. And my third guest is Professor John Ciardi of Rutgers University, Poetry Editor of The Saturday Review. I think I ought to begin today’s program, Mr. Ciardi by putting you on the spot. I’ve quoted from Mr. Fischer and now I’m going to quote from Miss Mannes and ask you how you 1d react to this quotation from a book that Miss Mannes is writing that will be out in the fall. This is from a chapter that she now calls “Don’t be Superior”. And in it she says, she writes about the democratic conviction that “the weak shall inherit the Earth”. She says, “We seem to have a genuine fear of leadership as being alien to equality we cherish. And I’d asked you just in the beginning of this discussion whether you think that there is such a tremendous break between our tradition of equality and the possibility of developing leadership at this particular time in our country.
Professor John Ciardi: I had two things in mind, after you asked that question. In the first place, I think we give the verbal emphasis; we have a verbal worship of the word “leadership”. It’s impossible to get a student into graduate school or into college without filling out a form saying: “Leadership?”
I wish sometimes to say: “you know, he’s a pretty good follower.” You can’t have a class made up of nothing but leaders. We have this verbal fetish on the word “leadership.” I don’t know what it means; I think it is a verbal confusion.
But there is another confusion I see going along with this that bothers me. It’s called “great principle.” ·we have agreed for the purposes of government that all votes shall be counted equally. It’s obvious that one vote can be more thoughtfully considered than another, but our faith in democracy is that the errors will cancel out and that the will of the majority can rule. I accept this premise. I think it offers a better form of government than any other. It’s obviously a compromise one.
It becomes dangerous when this idea that all votes are equal becomes all minds are equal. The very system of education implies that some people are better at things than others and can be trained to better purposes. That one man is more capable in one way than another. There are these inequalities. There can be no democracy in intellect or in talent. There must not.be.
Miss Mannes: Well, I entirely agree with both Professor Ciardi and Mr. Fischer. It’s extremely un-American thoughts that we are ex pressing today, because I think we have for a long time been feeding on this fallacy of equality, confusing equality of opportunity, which is a magnificent thing, and really the basis, I would think, of the whole society, with actual human equality; there is no such thing. And I think the sooner we realize t at some are better than others – some are not as good as others, and that the better ones should be allowed the liberty of expression and of leadership, the happier we will be. Certainly, the stronger we will be.
I think we have simply got to get rid of this fallacy that “I am as good as you are,” because I’m not. Or, I might I even be better.
Mr. Heffner: Why do you say that this is un-American?
Miss Mannes: Well precisely because I agree with Mr. Fischer who himself said so that this is contrary to the philosophy that we’re taught from the age of six up in our textbooks, that we’re taught every day by the mass media. Not directly, but indirectly. That we are all really the same and any evidence of superiority is considered really an affront. I think the people, this might change and I think Mr. Fischer is optimistic. But I think up to very recently, there was a real antagonism to superiority and I don’t mean social superiority, I mean the excellence in the human being, is a suspect quality.
Mr. John Fischer: That’s a relatively recent concept of democracy in this country. The founding fathers didn’t feel that way at all. Jefferson believed in an aristocracy of intellect. And so did all the people who helped him found the country. Washington, Hamilton, Monroe, Madison, put a heavy premium on brain power. And I think it’s only in the last forty or fifty years that we’ve sneered at superior people in politics and cultural life in this country.
And I think the count is changing again; I’m more optimistic than when I wrote that piece you quoted from.
Mr. Heffner: Well, that’s what I wondered in terms of what you say first now, about the true history. Whether, why Miss Mannes said it is undemocratic; it’s un-American now. It’s contrary to the popular method at this time, but it isn’t contrary to what Jefferson would’ve said.
Miss Mannes: No. I was thinking only of my own life. Our greatness in the earlier days was precisely because we did recognize an elite. That’s, I know, an unfortunate word, but we did recognize the superior man and gave him great respect.
Mr. Heffner: Do you think it’s possible within the framework of 20th century culture, with mass this and mass that and mass the other thing to possibly have an elite in any area despite the scientists now, their cry for an intellectual elite?
Miss Mannes: Well, we’ll have to reverse gears rather sharply, and here again you mentioned science. My reason for not being quite as optimistic as Mr. Fischer is that there is now this tremendous cry for the superior person; the leader; the intellectual; the scientist. But only because they are useful. They are needed and they now deserve respect because we can’t survive without them.
This is a fairly short term and applied attitude, I think.
I would like to see us mature enough to recognize excellence in a man who was a popular failure. But we don’t; it has to be linked with success.
Mr. Fisher: Oh nonsense, I think we recognize popular failures pretty often. Norman Thomas is one of them. Reinhold Niebuhr; you can run down a long list.
Miss Mannes: Well, who’s we?
Professor Ciardi: The eggheads, you know, I don’t think this carries for any Gallup poll. I have the greatest respect for Thomas.
But I’m thinking there is a true quality of un-Americanism in this because we recognize practical achievement. We recognize practicality. We recognize what works. We are now ready to enshrine the scientists. We are ready to go to the moon. Nobody is thinking what are we going to do with the moon when we get it. What is its consequence to the human race. I think its un-American to this· extent; that the United States is an experiment in a great concept. In some ways in a great impractical concept.
It’s not practical to make people happy. It’s much easier to rule them. Democracy is a desirable inefficiency. It’s much easier to take orders than to run an election. The greatness of America, I think, stems from its great starting concepts. When we come to admire only practicality or when only that which works that turns out a gadget, that turns out a piece of science for which we all have a great deal of respect, to be sure. But when that becomes the goal of all, then we are destroying the thing that America stands for.
Mr. Fisher: I don’t think it is the goal of all. I think there is more.
Professor Ciardi: I say, when it becomes the goal of all. I have one faith in this; that America has responded to challenges in the past. I think that when the American people realize how great the challenge is, something may happen.
Mr. Heffner: Yes, but what challenge are you talking about?
Professor Ciardi: I’m talking, well, specifically let me put it this way. Divorce yourself from all emotional commitment and listen in on Khruschchev’s speaking to reporters. He says with calm assurance, — “there is no question of opinion in this; it’s a matter of charts and figures, that at our present rate of progress (speaking of the Russians) we will overtake you at a certain point and surpass you and you will never regain your leadership.”
He is right, unless we speed up. At the present rate, Russia will overtake us, will pass us, and unless America meets this challenge and speeds up, tightens up its thinking and tightens up among other things, its dreadful school system, then the Russians are going to get ahead.
Miss Mannes: Well, I’d like to bring in another concept of our whole nation. The pursuit of happiness. Because I think this has now become — noble as it was in idea — I think this has become a dangerous handicap in a sense. By that I mean, we have achieved so much material happiness, so much comfort, so much prosperity that it is very hard to want abstract ideas, to want to be different, to want to extend outward intellectually or any other way. I think we are really sinking into our own fat and until we get uncomfortable, until adversity hits us in some form or other,
I honestly don’t think we are going to achieve this — not only equality with Russia — but we are not going to live up to our full capacities.
Mr. Heffner: Yes, but I’m interested that you say, “Not only going to live up to our capacities.” We began by talking about The Uncommon Man. And I think we were talking about, oh, the John Adams or the Winston Churchill, the man who he is very different from, or different than — his fellow Americans or his fellow Englishmen.
Now we turn to you, Mr. Ciardi, and you talk about a material challenge – and Miss Mannes too, at the very end of what she just said about the pursuit of happiness, talks too about a material challenge.
Professor Ciardi: I was speaking of the challenge to our whole system. I feel very strongly that if science conquers without whatever you want to call it, the humanities, keeping pace with science, then we become a machine state.
Mr. Heffner: Yes, but I come back to the point that your cardinal point here you set forth has to do with material things. You talk about a race with Russia. And is the challenge material?
Professor Ciardi: The challenge is material. Well certainly, you can’t think against a machine gun; you can’t think against an atom bomb. But the answer has to be more than material.
Mr. Heffner: Mr. Fischer, you think in these terms that Mr. Ciardi and I have just been talking. Do you think the challenge is material?
Mr. Fisher: I think the immediate challenge is and I think it’s not only Russia but a growing economic recession that is making people a little more uncomfortable, a little more thoughtful, a little more eager for imagined leadership than we have been in recent years. I think it is perfectly understandable when people get too fat and happy and sleepy they don’t like to make much effort to think very hard; when times are a little harder and challenges from abroad are a little more acute, then we tend to pull up our socks and go to work and think and spend money for school systems and pay brains better than we do in comfortable times.
Professor Ciardi: May I ask a question that has been bothering me? The last time any man was really in the White House was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and everybody was taking pot-shots at F.D.R. and making jokes at his expense and in mud-slinging against F.D.R., and it was all accepted in a good American sense of humor. Now, when I joke against the resent incumbent – what’s his name?
– Then this is somehow sacrilegious. We are not to make jokes about the presidency. What sort of terrible conformity is this? I thought it was a great American tradition to throw a tomato at the White House.
Mr. Heffner: There is just one trouble I think about that. You are sitting here, and this is a mass media, a mass means at getting at people, and you are…
Professor Ciardi: All right, watch your mail then. A lot of people are going to be indignant.
Mr. Heffner: But you are still doing it, aren’t you?
Professor Ciardi: Sure, I’m doing it.
Mr. Heffner: Indignation, but this, I think that this is just the thing…
Professor Ciardi: I’m not blind, I just don’t know any better.
Mr. Heffner: I thought this was going to be in a very real sense more the thing that we’d be talking about. I’m very interested that you have turned the conversation towards an immediate challenge and you, Mr. Fischer, are in a recent editorial in Harper’s. You say you are optimistic.
There’s something in the spring air that makes you feel pretty good about this but again, isn’t it in terms of meeting an immediate challenge which seems to me to have very little to do with the criticism that you state in this earlier editorial and the criticism that Miss Mannes states in this to-be-published chapter which has to do, not with meeting material challenges, but with an idea about uncommon men — men who are different, not for a purpose.
When you are talking about scientists, I think, who can be — who are different so that they can beat the Russians. But you are not talking about someone who is different and has no use for us.
Professor John Ciardi: Well, this is only what Miss Mannes was saying, that there has to be impractical achievement if you like. There has to be what I call values achievement. Science can make an Atom Bomb, but it’s interesting to me that as soon as the physicists turned it out, they all became theologians and philosophers. Now you know “What hath God wrought?” they began to think in terms of what’s the human race doing with this thing on its hands. Which is not a scientific question.
Mr. Fischer: And I think you can argue that we are paying more respect to artists, musicians, writers — even poets John — today than we have in many generations. How long has it been since a poet such as Robert Frost has become a popular television star, is that an exaggeration?
There’s a question in that though, you see Robert Frost has outlived his neglect. He got a lot of it for a long time. If you are good and if you live to be eighty four as Frost is to be this month, I believe, then say Frost had died fifty years ago. His achievement would still have been real and the audience would be catching up with by now, but he’d have been dead.
Miss Mannes: Excuse me, age seems to endow respectability to the uncommon man. You can’t be uncommon until you are eighty. And then I would like also to say that this audience who listens to Robert Frost or one of the other — Or Earl Russell, of course. That is not as large as the Perry Como audience. In fact, I think that it’s a ratio of about forty to one…
Mr. Heffner: That’s a lot.
Miss Mannes: Well, merely that, a, well, you were saying, we now recognize a man like Frost, we endow him with honors. We do as, we still, a very small percentage of the population. Here we come back again, I hate that word, but an elite.
Mr. Heffner: But with no country, at any time in history, as far as I know has been made up entirely of people who honored great poets and appreciated the best. Almost by definition this is not something you can expect to be universal.
Miss Mannes: Not made up wholly, but unless I’m very wrong, it seems to be that there have been periods in France and in England and in Italy where there was remarkable respect and admiration for leading figures in the arts and the humanities from people who were not intellectuals. But from people, ordinary people who had a vested interest in the excellence of their men and I just don’t think we have that.
Professor Ciardi: May I state what I think is a pre-condition for this sort, of thing? I’m very much taken by the notion that there are two audiences for anything…
And I’ve come to call then the horizontal and the vertical audience. There’s a horizontal audience that consists of all the people alive at any one moment. And most of our thinking it seems to me, most all mass media thinking and all the thinking in terms of what is called “Democratic education,” is in these terms; the total audience of people alive today. But ideas do not exist only for this horizontal audience. They exist for vertical audience down through time. From the beginning of human thought with, the long unforeseeable projection into the future. In the arts, this is most obvious. I’ve been working on Dante. Dante’s audience is now six centuries old and if all goes well; parts of it are yet to be born 10,000 years from now.
You see the continuity of human ideas in vertical audience always outnumbers in time, the horizontal audience. But the horizontal audience at any moment outnumbers the vertical audience.
The “elite” if that’s the word for it, those who care about values, are oriented to the vertical audience. Mass media, the politicians and what passes current for hoop-de-la ideas are always oriented to the horizontal audience, and there is a necessary conflict between them.
Mr. Heffner: But suppose one were to assume that the audience for Dante would increase and increase and increase, and that the reader and the knower of Dante became no longer an uncommon man? Would we still then be in the same situation, in the same pickle that Mr. Fischer and Miss Mannes have described?
Professor Ciardi: I can not imagine that possibility. It takes attention. It takes close attention and focusing one’s attention is hard work. Thinking is hard work. And as long as there are easier ways to get along, and the fact is as I can see it, that one needs to know very little in order to make a good living in the United States as things are.
Mr. Heffner: Now let’s take your own point about life, I’m sorry…please go ahead…
Miss Mannes: I just want to pick a phrase he said: “to get along” and I was going to toss up a possible definition of greatness or uncommoness as a form of maladjustment, possibly the most valuable form of maladjustment and this is because I don’t think any human being can achieve excellence without difference, and I don’t think he can achieve difference without solitude or at least a certain degree of non-belonging to others. He’s got to belong to himself. And I think that if there’s anything that we have suffered from in the last years it is this insane group activity — group thinking group everything, group living. You cannot produce excellence in a group.
Professor John Ciardi: You have to be willing to be wrong for the right reasons. I’m no Thoreau worshipper but I cherish the American parable in Thoreau going to jail for refusal to pay his taxes and when Emerson came to see him, he said: “what are you doing in there, Henry?” and Thoreau answered: “What are you doing out there, Waldo?”
Well, that’s what I wondered before Mr. Fischer about your optimism, particularly in terms of our attitude towards, scientists, are working in a group or at least towards a group end - the group end that Miss Mannes is talking about.
Mr. Fischer: The may work towards a group end, but I think they do their important work as individuals. A little earlier, before the program started, John was quoting a proverb. Saying that: “A Camel is a Greyhound that has been designed by a committee.” I think this is true of most committees. And most excellent work gets done in solitude as Miss Mannes says. But the thing I’m optimistic about is the relative growth of appreciation of excellence. Dante, after all, in John’s new translation has sold 600,000 copies in the United States.
Professor John Ciardi: Uh, uh, uh, 300,000 copies.
Mr. Heffner: We’re doubling it for today, it’s all right.
Mr. Fischer: I misunderstood you, but even so, 300,000 is probably more people than ever read Dante in any one country in any one generation…
Professor John Ciardi: Now I add, that this has been used as a textbook, which does not prove that it’s been read…
And, if I may challenge an earlier statement of Miss Mannes’ once more, Lenny Bernstein, for example is not yet 80 years old…I think he has become a pretty well recognized and appreciated figure.
Mr. Fischer: That is an interesting phenomenon, the growth of good music in the United States and I think largely Radio and Hi-Fi reproduction has been responsible for it. But in 1900, we had practically no musical life and by 1950, music has become a tremendous cultural force and industry in the United States.
Mr. Heffner: Well now look, you say it has become a tremendous cultural force. Okay. This is no longer being an “Uncommon Man” to enjoy and to participate in musical things, and I come back to the question again of the man who as Miss Mannes says: is alone, is as she said possibly maladjusted in terms of our concern for group living and adjustment.
What about this man? Do you think this man has more of an opportunity today; than he did in Jefferson’s time when Jefferson talked about an intellectual elite?
Miss Mannes, how do you feel about that?
Miss Mannes: He has more chance today than he had five years ago in that horror which has still left its marks, I think over the whole society. We are just beginning to come out of that nightmare.
But I still think that we have a tendency to exile our uncommon man. You know, we talk a lot about the Russians. Every time somebody falls of the presidium with a bang, he is sent out to…Well, I can’t pronounce it, but you know…6,000 miles away…
But what do we do? We virtually exile Oppenheimer; we have exiled George Kennan., we have exiled Bohlen in the Philippines. We have wasted so many of our valuable and excellent men. I think because of this basic suspicion of uncommonness.
Mr. Fischer: I don’t think that we’ve exiled either Oppenheimer or Kennan. I think perhaps, they are being more useful today than they were when they were in government service.
Professor John Ciardi: There is a double question asked here; ability to make their way, more opportunity. There are two kinds of things involved in this question of opportunity. One is opportunity to form one1 s self and so long as we have all the cultural instruments available so long as there’s a library in New York, anybody is free to go read it; it’s there. If you were being brought up in the back woods of Illinois as Abe Lincoln was, this opportunity was not available. The opportunity is there.
But then, the other thing of getting along means reaching people. Now these are two different questions…A man is free to form himself. But how many people can he reach with his formed ideas? This is the matter of rather larger consequence in one’s sense. I wouldn’t say larger, but it’s the other part of the consequence in terms of the nation.
Mr. Heffner: Yet, this week, this past week, has been National Library Week, and I said I’d get in a plug, even if it were a day late. But you pointed out before Mr. Ciardi, the increase (or you did Mr. Fischer) in the number of people who are reading or on the number of books are being read so that communication does provide, or do provide a means of getting at people with one’s ideas..
Professor John Ciardi: Edmund Burke said calamity is a mighty leveler, a mighty stimulus. As things get tougher, I think people will think more, they have to.
Mr. Heffner: You continue to put your emphasis on: “As things get tougher” and “Meeting the crisis.”
Professor John Ciardi: I don’t know how else to read the facts. I should like to read them otherwise, but I’d like to see a little less flatulent comfort in the world.
Mr. Heffner: Well suppose we were to elevate the uncommon man to great heights for common purposes. Would you still be satisfied?– and by common, I mean, group purposes. We need the scientist now; he’s going to help us survive. If we are going to survive at all it will be in part, as you people agree, through his work.
But what about the man who isn’t serving common purposes? Is there a place for him? I think this is still to me a very important question.
Professor John Ciardi: I don’t hate the common man. I get along with him, I drink with him.
Heavens, I like him. I’m a little tired of trying to teach him, because, does he have to be quite that common?
But one of the things that keeps edging at my mind in this is that the common man is determined by practicality to a very large extent. Now practicality — that which is practical, is simply that which has been tested in the past…
What makes the progress in society is not practicality. Practicality simply maintains status quo. It’s the impractical man, the man who takes a chance on something — that has not been tried who provides the future for a nation.
If, for example, you are an engineer and you have a problem to solve, — even a simple thing as problem solving and a good solution to this problem depends on some new untested impractical element, it’s going to be the hair brained man that takes a chance on an untested idea that will solve this problem, if it is solved at all.
Miss Mannes: Yes and we have called them starry-eyed idealists, fuzzy headed, muzzle headed, what-nots for at least ten years.
Mr. Fischer: That dirty word, liberals.
Mr. Heffner: Yes, but Mr. Fischer says that this is their day, or their day is beginning to dawn.
Mr. Fischer: I think they are better off now than they have been in a long while. I think brains gets rewarded better now than it has in the past 20 odd years.
Mr. Heffner: That’s probably a very good note to end on. Thanks so much Mr. Fischer, Miss Mannes and Mr. Ciardi…
The Open find will be back in two weeks on April 6th.
At that time, that will be Easter Sunday. Our subject will be War, Peace and Mankind. And my guest then will be Norman Cousins, the Editor of the Saturday Review and Doctor Buell Gallagher, the President of City College…see you then.
Announcer: WRCA has just presented, ”The Open Mind.” Your host on “The Open Mind” is Richard D. Heffner. Mr. Heffner’s guests today were John Fischer, Marya Mannes, and Professor John Ciardi. If you have any comments or questions on today’s program, or if you have any suggestions for future programs, please send them to “The Open Mind” in care of this station.