"The trouble with self-made men," someone has said, "is that they always insist on sharing the recipe." I remembered that the other day as I listened to Phil Donahue, the TV talk-show host, being interviewed about his newly published autobiography.
Donahue is about as genial as they come, but his view of his past is all too sour, in a typically American sort of way. He is especially stern about his stern Catholic upbringing and especially self-congratulatory about his defection from it, as if (many ex-Catholics talk this way) leaving one's religion represented a triumph of the mind.
You can't blame the trend on Donahue, but people nowadays do have a way of moralizing in reverse. I am ready enough to suspend my personal judgment of people who leave their religions and spouses, but I shall never understand how they can be vain about having done so, or how they can represent such desertions as moments of personal "growth."
To me it always sounds like a bad conscience being ingenious. And really, it is a little pompous to affect superiority to Christianity -- as if the faith that sustained Aquinas and Dante, Samuel Johnson and John Henry Newman somehow failed to meet the demands of Phil Donahue's restless intellect, which finds itself engaged, every weekday morning, in televised encounters with lesbian midgets and the like.
The modern American autobiographer is forever writing of coming "up" from things he has by no means proved his title to look down on. One of the ironies of our democratic society is the way people tend to be ashamed of their origins -- Irish, Jewish, southern or just plain middle-class. Snobbery, backbiting, invasions of privacy are considered unforgivable, unless, of course, you are writing about your own parents. One's background is no longer something to be grateful for; it's something to be transcended. One of the meanings that has subtly come to be attached to "success" is the rise from provincial subculture to urbane mainstream culture.
The basic trouble with this kind of rise is that upwardly mobile people tend to be too critical of the group they desert, and too uncritical of the group they join. They hardly realize, in fact, that they are actually switching allegiances. They experience a heady feeling of liberation as they move from a strict milieu to a lenient one, and they assume this means they have achieved something like intellectual independence. The plain fact may be that they are simply uttering a more respectable set of cliches. It is impossible to imagine Phil Donahue saying anything simply niave, but it's also impossible to imagine him saying anything original. sHe talks like his peer group in the media.
A good many pundits have strained to understand Jimmy Carter in terms of his Southern Baptist roots. But it's equally important to grasp the way he has tried to express his transcendence of those roots. He has been eager to "outgrow" many things: segregation, anti-communism, provincial morality. Hence the way he has played up his admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr and Bob Dylan and south to ingratiate himsalf with Playboy's interviewers: it's a way of overcoming the fear (and prejudice) that he's a mere "cracker."
But there are eddies in this flow, and many people resist the pressures of urbanity. This resistance can be simple, as in Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," or sophisticated, as in Norman Podhoretz' "Making It," a success story that finds a new way of debunking the quest for success -- a breakthrough in autobiography as Machiavelli's "The Prince" was a breakthrough in political science.
I suspect that Billy Carter's celebrated misbehavior is largely a stubborn defiance, a refusal to be "Yankified" as Jimmy has been, a deliberate rejection of what passes for culture. For all its crudity, there is an element of loyalty and integrity in it, an insistence on seeing with one's own eyes, speaking in one's own native tongue, being what one is instead of trying to forge a whole new self.