Notes and Observations

On Our Civil Religion

By Lewis H. Lapham

Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 244 pp. $18.95

DURING THE FIRST 150 years of the American settlement," Lewis H. Lapham observes in one of the many digressions to which he is prone, "the sermon, especially the jeremiad, served as the principal means of literary expression among a people who enjoyed the favor of Providence. To write was to preach." It still is, at least as practiced by Lapham himself. In his newspaper columns and now in this study of our national infatuation with money, Lapham is a preacher of the old style, rolling along under a full load of indignation and righteous vituperation. Money and Class in America is an angry book; it is also frequently a funny one, and what is more it is frequently right -- when, that is, it is not quite extravagantly wrong.

Lapham, by his own confession, grew up rich and privileged among the gentry of old San Francisco; he moved East for prep school (Hotchkiss) and college (Yale) and has remained there as a journalist, primarily at Harper's magazine, of which he is now editor. Living and working in Manhattan as he has these many years, he has had ample opportunity to observe at close hand the behavior of that island's ever-expanding parvenu class. This has permitted him to develop a loathing for the arrivistes that borders on the obsessive, a loathing that has inspired many of his wittiest columns and that is the principal motive behind this book.

Though Lapham is at pains to emphasize that old money is not discernibly more attractive than new, and though he claims to prefer the brash energy of the new to the wan complacency of the old, he often gives the impression of peering haughtily down at the upstart social climbers from his perch atop what passes for the American class structure. At times it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his real complaint is not with money itself, or with our peculiar attitudes toward it, but with the age: With the rise of a moneyed class whose wealth comes not from service or manufacture but from the mere manipulation of money, a class that flaunts this wealth with vulgar display that even the robber barons and their wives would have had difficulty exceeding. And though he repeatedly mentions that this ostentation is as evident in Miami and Los Angeles as New York, there can be no question that his greatest grievance is with what he sees before him in the city where he lives; his grudge has a personal twist to it, and I certainly don't blame him.

So it is wise to read Money and Class in America with an awareness that its author's point of view is rather more ambiguous and internalized than he seems to realize, but that does not diminish the force of his central arguments. He is concerned with investigating what money means to Americans, and he contends that a central aspect of the national character is our frequent inability to distinguish between its secular and spiritual connotations. "What interests me," he writes, "is not so much our vanity and greed (vanity and greed being as common among Balts or the Kurds as among Texans), but the place of money in the American imagination." Later he writes:

"The Bill of Rights was appended to the Constitution as a grudging concession to a loud minority that persisted in thinking of money as a commodity rather than a sacrament. The argument between these two unambiguous factions comprises the American dialectic and tells most of the story of American politics. The nation's history could be written as a long argument between opposed enthusiasms, an argument alternating between episodes of avarice and generosity, between spasms of orgiastic spending and sudden withdrawal behind the perimeters."

Well. We have some pretty wild theorizing here -- Lapham's economic interpretation of the Bill of Rights is unconventional, to say the least -- and some oversimplification as well, yet Lapham's perception of the basic "argument" about money seems to me correct. We worship money, we use it as one of the standards by which we measure ourselves ("the numbers establish the moral coordinates of the American dream"), and we regard the accumulation of vast amounts of it as the most prestigious accomplishment one can aspire to; yet there is another side of us, one that recognizes money's total inadequacy as a guide to human worth and that knows it is really nothing except "an utterly colorless abstraction or a convenient arithmetic cipher." The conflict between these two attitudes is indeed, as Lapham argues, central to the American character. HE'S RIGHT about many other things as well: that many of our wealthiest people are characterized by "their chronic disappointment and their diminished range of thought and sensibility"; that "the talk of money is never quiet," permeating as it does every corner of society and every aspect of business and personal life; that "the arts of the higher shopping" are a form of civil religion and "the acts of consumption define the spirit of the age"; that "the desire for exclusivity is as American as the sentiment in favor of democracy," one of its most vivid manifestations being the haste with which the newly-rich attempt to isolate themselves from the society above which they have risen; and that people who give over their lives to the worship and accumulation of wealth are "stunted by their faith in money."

In these and other observations Lapham is on the mark, and in a number of his anecdotal asides he is stingingly funny about the excesses and pretensions of the rich. In the end, though, he is his own worst enemy, because he is given to sweeping generalizations that simply do not withstand scrutiny: "Without a deal or a business relation held in common, Americans discover that they have little to say to one another," or, "In the United States, we are all parvenus, all seeking to become somebody else. . . ," or, "We prefer to handle money in the purified form of a credit card -- that is, something decorously abstract that doesn't arouse the suspicion of hotel clerks who might look with disdain on any prospective guest so vulgar as to offer cash."

These generalizations reflect what seems to me the greatest shortcoming of a book that in so many other respects is provocative and perceptive. Lapham is so fixated on money and the tiny world of those who have lots of it that he finds it not merely the root of all evil but the root of just about everything else. Yet those of us who live ordinary middle-class lives know from our daily experience that money is only one of the motivating forces in our lives, that there are other -- dare we say nobler? -- impulses that cause us to do as we do. No doubt ours is the most money-obsessed national culture in history, and no doubt this quasi-spiritual fetish explains much that is wrong with us, but there is far more to the story than that. Lewis Lapham's analysis is often tart and entertaining, but his focus is on only one very large tree rather than the whole forest of human motives and impulses. ::