Culture » April 9, 2004
George W. S. Trow is a sort of tragic hero. His essays offer us clues to how we might correct our national life. But his wisdom is likely to be lost on us, even on those who would agree with him. Like Cassandra, he can tell us things that are true and that would save us if we could understand them, but his working premise seems to be: You will not understand what I am going to say. In fact, why we won’t understand is a large part of the truth Trow has to tell us.
In The Harvard Black Rock Forest, originally a 1984 New Yorker essay, Trow examines the history of New York’s Black Rock Forest, a 3,800-acre site overlooking the Hudson River. In the early 20th Century, this devastated forest was bought by New York banker James Stillman. His son, Ernest Stillman, reclaimed the area as a demonstration forest in 1928 and bequeathed it to Harvard in 1940. Stillman left an endowment more than sufficient to maintain the forest intact in perpetuity, yet by the early ’70s Harvard’s directors were considering selling the land to developers. This is a familiar enough tale of betrayal of trust. But Trow, while he cares deeply about the fate of the particular (this particular forest and this particular instance of misplaced trust), is equally interested in what these particulars have to say about larger changes in our national character.
To describe these changes, Trow creates three kinds of “being-in-place,” as a means of demonstrating how virtue comes to exist. For Trow, virtue cannot exist outside of place. Who we are depends on how we behave in a particular place. Thus, people can be:
Mostly here: When “here,” people are affected by and responsive to specific local conditions. The ethos of human settlements, this is people doing what they have to do to survive. It is “what works.”
Here and there: Trow defines this as the “manner of the museum.” The location of a museum usually has a relation to its collection, but the tendency is to remove the substance of the collection from any sense of place. The ultimate destination of this logic is London Bridge in Arizona.
Everywhere and nowhere: The modern ethos par excellence. A strip mall is nowhere and everywhere. It has nothing to do with a particular place, and yet it is inescapably present in every American town.
Trow critiques our movement away from the virtue of “honorable men” doing the “work of men” in a particular place to the less-than-honorable work done by “impersonal forces” that are both nowhere and everywhere. These forces now rule the world. Trow writes, “Clever men ally themselves with these forces, while idealistic men struggle to move certain valued things out of their way.”
Moving valued things out of the way of voracious impersonal forces is a very good way of describing the preservation work of organizations like the Nature Conservancy. But it makes their save-an-acre projects in the rainforest seem desperate. It’s like a family whose house is in the way of a wildfire and they must decide whether to save Fido or grandpa’s heirloom rocking chair. Either way, the house is doomed.
Even worse is that this force that will take your place has no interest in it as a place and has no place of its own. It is drifting, hungry, anonymous, but sadly familiar. It’s what 7-11 did to that charming, dilapidated Victorian house on the corner. It’s what ADM does to family farms. It’s what Clear Channel does to local radio broadcasting. It’s like a virus. It has nowhere to be that is its own. It has nothing to do but replicate itself. It will colonize you.
The place of virtue, for Trow, is in none of these places. It is in what Trow himself practices—the virtue of being both “here” and “everywhere.” People acting in a particular place with “clarity and sense” generate local virtues, running “like a small channel throughout history,” that ultimately become the spirit of a people.
Trow’s attention to the relationship between honorable conduct and spirit points to a religiosity that, if practiced, would be tonic in these days of fundamentalist wrath. Cut off from a traditional channel of “clarity and sense,” we can only be a people without spirit. Cut off from the “here,” we lack spiritual nourishment. From this vantage, Pat Robertson constitutes the anti-Christ of “informal forces” broadcasting from nowhere and everywhere.
Trow’s work is valuable because he shows us how to dwell within a tradition of honorable work practiced locally. He performs this virtue for us, and it is through his sense of style, conceptual inventiveness and acuity as a reader that he becomes both heroic and, strangely, lost.
Trow’s virtues are lost on us because we are so much a part of the present moment ourselves. Marooned in a “nowhere” that is anything but utopic, we live in identical subdivisions and wander like phantoms in our rationalized “transportation systems,” denied the comfort of place and the warmth of other people. We believe our world is the business of experts and none of ours. Worst of all, we accept this world of unknowable origins as our world. Politicians refer to it as our “American lifestyle.” They think it’s worth fighting for, and many of us seem to agree.
From Trow’s point of view, this appeal to “lifestyle” is a sad confession that our lives are empty of meaning and dignity. Yet Trow cannot be heard amidst the noise made by our various wars against poorly understood things like “terror,” or “drugs,” or “evil doers.” But even if there were less of this noise and we could hear him, we wouldn’t understand Trow because we have internalized the logic of impersonal forces ourselves. Impersonal forces are not only “out there” acting on us. They also are “inside” of us. We recognize this internalization in all the little “of courses” of our lives. Of course we need something called a job, money, cars, TVs, computers, gourmet gadgets and the rest of it. Of course we hope the economy prospers. It’s all about the economy, stupid. But we cannot listen to all of these “of courses,” and at the same time be able to hear Trow. In this context (which Trow would call “no context”), his virtues can only be something “interesting” we heard on NPR. Now just another media commodity, Trow’s ideas are quite dead and irrelevant.
Poet Robinson Jeffers was one of those “honorable men” Trow eulogizes. Hunkered down in Big Sur with his red-tail hawks, Jeffers wrote in “Ave Caesar”: “We are easy to manage, a gregarious people/Full of sentiment, clever at machines, and we love our luxuries.”
How strange to think that the final Caesar is a mere manager. It is a faceless managerial class that administers the Ruling Order of Impersonal Forces. It is Harvard legal advisors saying that their “conscience is clear” as they put a forest legacy up for sale to the highest bidder, turning a blank and pitiless gaze on the virtues of place and human capacity. For Trow, a poet like Jeffers can only be another last Mohican, a member of a vanishing tribe whose individual worth vastly exceeds that of those who will replace him. The irony here is that when this last poet goes he takes his sense of place with him, leaving us in a sad nowhere.
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent books are The Middle Mind and America's Magic Mountain.