The Upswing, by Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett (Simon & Schuster, 350 pages)
Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, promised his wife in 2015 that he was done writing books. (He had 12, including the highly regarded Bowling Alone, which examined the collapse of community within the U.S.)
Then, “tinkering with several obscure datasets — [his] favorite pastime,” Putnam happened upon information that made him change his mind. The information was the startling resemblance of the United States late in the 19th century to what the nation is grappling with today.
It was all there: “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed — all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being.”
So Putnam dug into the economics, politics, society and culture of what Mark Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age” and tracked how Americans climbed out of their societal morass. It took six decades, but from a low point at the turn of the century, the nation lugged itself to a high point of greater economic equality and a stronger social fabric between the 1960s and 1970s.
America did this, write Putnam and his co-author Shaylyn Romney Garrett, while transforming from an “I” society to a “We” society, becoming the sort of people who would cheer when JFK said we shouldn’t ask what our country could do for us.
But then, having reached this lofty peak, we promptly trudged back down down to the “I” pit. If you put this on a graph, you find an inverted U, something akin to Mount Crumpit, sans the Grinch. The good news, according to Putnam and Garrett, is that our forebears left us a map of how to get out of the problems that now dog us, if we only pay attention to their upswing and how it came about.
To take a measure of a society’s emphasis on individual over community, the authors explore a range of research to include the obvious (use of pronouns in publications) to the strange (how popular baby names reflect individualistic behavior). They then explore potential causes — from prosperity to globalization — and potential villains in the narratives. (Kids, you’re off the hook. “Neither Millennials nor Twitter and Facebook can possibly be blamed for the I-we-I curve,” Putnam and Garrett write.)
For people not eager to don the political label “progressive,” the relentless communitarianism that Putnam and Garrett promote may give pause, as well as their soft swipes at Randian (both Ayn and Paul) individualism. But conservative hearts will gladden at their prescription for a moral awakening, although the authors don’t think that such an awakening necessarily needs God, but revival of civil responsibility. Engineering a 21st-century upswing will involve “immense collaboration” of resources to re-educate the population in what we owe to each other, and a “groundswell of agitation” to force Progressive-era-like change.
They sound a note of caution: This is not an overnight revolution, and the upswing must leave no one out, but instead “appeal to the full range of American values.”
“Progressive reformers quickly learned that in order to succeed they would have to compromise — to find a way to put private property, personal liberty, and economic growth on more equal footing with communitarian ideals and the protections of the weak and vulnerable, and to work within existing systems to bring about change.”
Putnam has said he wrote The Upswing not to make money but to effect change that he can see in his lifetime. He is 79, so he must be convinced that the strategies he and Garrett put forth here work. The pair make a compelling case that America in 1890 was much like it is in 2020 (sans a pandemic); less so that Americans are willing to accept their prescription. It is a scholarly book that will most appeal to policymakers, but accessible to anyone puzzling until their puzzler is sore over how to descend Mount Crumpit.
At the very least it’s an argument for not naming your kid something weird, so future sociologists won’t blame you when the country looks like a Dumpster fire. B
It sounds like the most self-indulgent genre ever, but books on writing — that is, books written for writers by other writers — can be fascinating, even for people who write nothing more than posts on social media. The point is that if you’ve reached the professional point at which a publisher deems you worthy of musing on the craft of writing, you are probably astonishingly good at it.
Case in point: Claire Messud’s new “autobiography in essays,” which is intriguingly titled Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons I Write (W.W. Norton, 336 pages). An acclaimed novelist who now lives in Massachusetts, Messud writes gorgeously of her childhood in the sort of rich prose you’d like to bathe in. A sample from her opening chapter, on being asked to explain to a Toronto Sunday school class what it was like to live in Australia:
“I remember the scarlet fury of my cheeks, the twitching misery of that hour, to which I responded with sullenness and a furrowing of the brow, while my sister gamely chatted and revealed snippets of our private, our secret, other life as if it were less real, or of the same reality, as the dingy brick and gray linoleum and folding chairs around us, of the same reality as the brittle, bosomy instructor or the indistinguishable Christian children who were her charges.”
Definitely worth a look.
Other authors who have brilliantly wed life stories with advice and inspiration on the craft of writing include Deborah Levy, whose eloquent The Cost of Living came out in paperback last year (Bloomsbury Publishing, 144 pages) and the Anne Lamott classic Bird by Bird, published in paperback in 1995 (Anchor, 256 pages) but still an Amazon bestseller.
Also check out C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, thoughts on writing culled from Lewis’s letters, by Corey Latta (Wipf and Stock, 250 pages).
But for just a fun, motivational read about how to collect your thoughts into an essay, screenplay or book, there’s nothing better than Vermont writing coach Joni B. Cole’s Good Naked (University Press of New England, 208 pages). Mercifully, for a month in which we learned way too much about Jeffrey Toobin and Rudy Guliani, there’s a subtitle: Write More, Write Better and Be Happier.