"CHARACTER" IS one of those horrible Victorian virtues that makes you think of cold baths, savings accounts, the Protestant work ethic, self-sacrifice, manhood, duty and so on in a list of everything we thought we'd ripped out of American culture like a weed.

Now it's back. It's just a few tendrils poking up through the hardpan, but it's back. Sen. Gary Hart attacks "economic man" and urges on us "the desire for goodness, the search for truth." Secretary of Education William Bennett calls for public schools to teach values such as patriotism and reverence. In a new book, "The Moral Life of Children," psychiatrist Robert Coles has a chapter entitled "On Character."

One way or another, we find ourselves talking about character.

We're not supposed to be. The 19th century was the age of character and the 20th is the age of personality, according to the late cultural historian Warren Susman, who explains that it was around the turn of the century that we began trading in self-sacrifice for self-expression, the work ethic for the leisure ethic and integrity for charm.

Nevertheless, anachronism or no, the notion of character has been sliding back into our vocabulary. Witness "The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy," as Harvard government professor James Q. Wilson entitled his lead piece in the 20th anniversary issue of "The Public Interest."

Wilson concludes: "But for most social problems that deeply trouble us, the need is to explore, carefully and experimentally, ways of strengthening the formation of character among the very young. In the long run, the public interest depends on private virtue."

Even in 1985, after five years of conservative rule in Washington, this statement shocks. It shocks because it rejects the conventional wisdom that it is backward and unfair to blame the problems of society and its discontents on lapses of perseverance, patience, honesty, modesty, endurance, concentration or any other "character defects," as such things were once known.

Whatever the solution, it seemed that character, like Scrooge's Marley, was dead. No doubt whatever that the whole idea of it had vanished with those great rotundities (and orotundities) of national patriarchs such as Teddy Roosevelt, or President Garfield writing: "I must succeed in making myself a man."

And vanish it did. Why? For one thing, character got a bad reputation by being associated with robber barons and Social Darwinists. As Daniel Boorstin writes, "The rise of Protestantism and modern capitalism had somehow made a virtue of the personal qualities required to become rich."

The corollary to this was that if you were poor, you must lack character, except for those few paupers known as "the deserving poor." This view, says Boorstin, "would not long survive the American condition," being "alien to the rising American concern for a standard of living."

So what took its place?

Susman, author of "Culture as History," says it was personality.

Character, he wrote after a study of American culture high and low at the turn of the century, was associated with words such as "citizenship, duty, democracy, work, building, golden deeds, outdoor life, conquest, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity, and above all manhood."

"Personality," on the other hand, didn't even surface as a word in common usage until the end of the 19th century. Then, in the same sort of self-help manuals that once taught the building of character, the adjectives associated with personality were "fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, forceful."

The change happened fast. In 1899, one Orison Swett Marden published his "Character: The Greatest Thing in the World." By 1921, Marden was publishing a book called "Masterful Personality," and advising his readers: "So much of our success in life depends upon what others think of us."

The shift from character to personality accompanied another change much studied by cultural historians -- that of America from a country that valued production to a country valuing consumption. We didn't need character any more to produce things. All we needed was managers to "rationalize" factories, and consumers to send the profits soaring. A rising middle-management class stressed not character, but fitting-in, adjustment, charm -- personality. It valued leisure and self-fulfillment. People wanted to be "somebody."

The problem, as James Wilson points out, is that the age of personality "involves, at least in elite opinion, replacing the ethic of self-control with that of self-expression. Some great benefits have flowed from this change, including the liberation of youthful energies to pursue new ideas in art, music, literature, politics and economic enterprise. But the costs are just as real, at least for those young persons who have not already acquired a decent degree of self-restraint and other- regardingness."

Nowadays we have no shortage of personalities expressing themselves, finding themselves, being famous for 15 minutes (or however long it takes to read People magazine) and otherwise charming and magnetizing their way through the cultural landscape.

We do have a shortage of people willing to do things like get to work every day, or pay child support or keep a marriage together even though they have a mediocre sex life or "need to find out who they are."

And there are positions open for rich people who believe they should pay taxes rather than spend the money on accountants. Couldn't we also use a few 19th-century types who believe indebtedness is a disgrace and bankruptcy a sin? Who are ashamed of being on welfare? Who look at guilt as a sign they've done something wrong, rather than a symptom of mental illness?

Wilson mentions that we lack what the 19th century had to help give it character. "A variety of enterprises -- Sunday schools, public schools, temperance movements, religious revivals, the Children's Aid Society -- were launched in the first half of the 19th century that had in common the goal of instilling a 'self-activating, self-regulating, all-purpose inner control.' "

Then again, we've been hearing from quite a few revivalist preachers lately. And the government is asking the schools to teach values. We've just been through a national breast-beating session on child abuse. And we're drinking a lot less alcohol, as a country.

No doubt we're letting ourselves in for abuses of the 19th century sort, too, and we should beware of using morality as an excuse to do nothing for the powerless. But we're starting to hear people talk about "character" again.

Henry Allen is an editor of Outlook.