New Voices on American Life, Culture & Politics

Edited by Terry Teachout

Poseidon. 237 pp. $18.95

The 15 contributors to this provocative if uneven assortment of essays are described by Terry Teachout, not immodestly, as "a group of younger baby boomers who are helping to change the way America votes and thinks and lives." They are for the most part New Yorkers, native or adopted, and they meet monthly as "the Vile Body" -- a bit of cute, that -- to "drink, eat stale popcorn and pretzels, and talk endlessly and informally about whatever happens to be on our minds."

What that happens mainly to be, on the evidence of "Beyond the Boom," is themselves. They are, in Richard Vigilante's description, "younger baby boomers, college-educated, urban or at least drawn to cosmopolitan culture, more or less professional" -- which is to say intellectually if not financially upper-middle class, and with not too much interest (again, on the evidence of "Beyond the Boom") in those unlike themselves.

So there's a good deal of self-scrutiny in these pages, and no small amount of self-congratulation. Many of these essayists are here to tell us that the yuppie is not their generation's paradigmatic figure, that in fact the boomers are far more heterogeneous (the word recurs frequently) than is generally acknowledged, that there's a lot of private struggle going on in what Bruce Bawer calls "the most privileged generation in the history of the world." Again to quote Vigilante:

"I do not believe the yuppie myth because all the people I know are far more actively engaged by the realities of life -- real loves and real pains, real beliefs and principles, real sacrifices (often on behalf of those principles) and disappointments, real moral and personal dramas, and also real enjoyment of the goods of life and art -- than the yuppie myth suggests. Even considered superficially, the myth is untrue. The yuppies proper, the young urban professionals, seem to me remarkable for their education (usually better than that of their parents) and their devotion to the arts and sophisticated entertainment."

After a while all of this begins to seem a case of protesting too much, which is a pity because it distracts the reader's attention from the more consequential business afoot in these pages. These writers are old enough to have had a taste of the '60s, young enough not to have been stunned by that decade into the state of paralysis tellingly described by Teachout in his closing essay, "A Farewell to Politics." They are conservative -- the figure of Ronald Reagan looms in their consciousness as that of Franklin Roosevelt did in their grandparents' -- but they are neither reflexive nor doctrinaire; when they describe themselves as "new voices," they do so with good reason.

If there is a common and dominant thread in their essays, it is stated in the title of Teachout's essay. Though a few of them make obligatory gestures in the direction of political commitment, they are more interested in cultural issues -- "cultural," that is, in the broadest sense of the word -- than in political ones. Whether this is a new brand of social activism or merely a new twist on solipsism is as yet unresolved, but it is one broad area in which these essayists almost certainly represent their generation's members of what Teachout calls "the articulate class."

Apart from Teachout's, the best essays are those by Roger Kimball, Donna Rifkind and Bawer. Passion, often oddly absent in "Beyond the Boom," rears its lovely head in these pieces: Kimball writes about how "cultural life in this country is dominated on the one side by the politicized obscurities oozing out of the academy, on the other side by the vacuous maunderings of a media-addicted art establishment"; Rifkind, casting an eye on the celebrity-driven novelists of her generation, argues that "careerism is a poor choice for a writer to make, however rich its superficial rewards may seem"; Bawer, pungently criticizing the films of Steven Spielberg and his contemporaries, says that "the baby boom's principal cinematic legacy" seems to be "a consummate and abiding immaturity."

It's too bad that there isn't more of such self-criticism in "Beyond the Boom," because as Bawer most particularly recognizes, a generation so fortunate as this one does itself no favors by viewing itself in the rosy light of self-satisfaction. Taken as a whole, though, these 15 essays are valuable and instructive, not merely for what they tell us about the baby boomers but, even more, for the promise they offer of a bright new intelligentsia somehow emerging from the unlikely seedbed of the '80s.