This measure is powerful because it indicates the mood and tenor of the people, but imprecise because each respondent has a private notion of the country’s proper direction and how it should be charted. Right-direction/wrong-track polls amalgamate elements as empirical as the gross domestic product and as spiritual as the nation’s soul.
Somewhere deep down, though, this metric assumes a common idea of America, a mutual sense of where we are meant to go. And it assumes that we aren’t there yet. We’re an unfinished enterprise, a journey toward something better. Lin-Manuel Miranda compressed this into a few lines in his musical “Hamilton”:
“ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal’
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson,
I’m ’a compel him to include women in the sequel!”
My sense of America’s direction is shaped to an immeasurable degree by the writer and teacher Robert D. Richardson Jr., who died June 16 at 86. His signature biographies — of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James — together trace the implications of our founding ideals for the growth of a distinctly American philosophy. These books rank among “the glories of contemporary American literature,” according to distinguished novelist and critic John Banville.
That’s true, because the works are saturated with the best qualities of a rare individual, a man I loved like a father. My wish for every young person is that they might find a mentor and role model as suited to their own gifts and shortcomings as Bob was to mine. As a scholar, he was diligent, humble, meticulous and insatiably curious. As a writer, he was charming, lucid and deeply respectful of his readers’ time. No writing is good that fails to hold someone’s interest, he taught. As a companion, he was witty, dependable, sensitive and fully present, fully alive. It was he who first explained to me that the word “enthusiasm” is rooted in a Greek idea of godlike spirit within. Bob was among the most enthusiastic people I’ve known.
He identified with each of his subjects on the man’s own terms: with Thoreau as a scientist, a naturalist and close observer of the world; with Emerson as a teacher, an optimist, a life coach; with James as a lover of human complexity, of mysteries, of all that cannot be precisely pinned down yet must be navigated.
Bob found the thread connecting these giants of America’s tumultuous, formative years “in their pluralism, in their liberation from Puritanism, in their respect for mind.” They reconciled self with community and idealism with pragmatism, each arguing in a distinctive way that the path to a better society is through the free expression of our own best selves. They were “voices for democratic individualism,” Bob once explained. “Each voice counts. Every voice counts.”
They are, in the categories of today’s literature faculties, “dead white men” — but their ideas live. Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes that would support slavery and an unjust war, explaining himself in the classic essay “Civil Disobedience.” His spirit is stronger than tear gas at protests from coast to coast.
Emerson’s belief that each life contains the seed of greatness — that each soul has claim on an equal share of the common soul of humanity — animates the young people known as “dreamers” and indicts the failing schools of disadvantaged children.
And the spirit of James moves among all Americans who are disconcerted and unnerved by the absolutism waxing on the right and on the left. James taught that the value of a practice or policy doesn’t depend on the authority or movement that promulgates it, nor on the philosophical framework from which it derives. Results matter. The proof is in the pudding.
If we’re on the wrong track (I share the widespread belief that we are), perhaps our mistake was leaving the paths these writers blazed. Emerson’s self-reliant America cannot be happily led by a president who claims that “I alone can fix it.” Thoreau’s conscientious nation can’t accept one who brandishes a Bible to ward off dissent. James’s humane America recoils from a leader who congratulates a dictator on his concentration camps for religious minorities.
I think Bob would say: Trust the voice inside that urges each of us, individually, to build, grow and improve. Seek that same spirit in others. Then rise together, headed once more in the right direction.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.