Obituary: Christopher Lasch

By Hodgson, Godfrey | The Independent (London, England), February 19, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Christopher Lasch

Hodgson, Godfrey, The Independent (London, England)

Christopher Lasch, historian: born Omaha, Nebraska 1 June 1932; member, history faculty, Williams College 1957-67, Roosevelt University, Chicago 1960-61, University of Iowa 1961- 66, Northwestern University 1966-70; member of faculty, University of Rochester, New York 1970-94, Don Alonzo Professor of History 1979-94, chairman, Department of History 1985-94; Freud Lecturer, University College London 1981; married 1956 Nell Commager (two sons, two daughters); died Pittsford, New York 14 February 1994.

CHRISTOPHER LASCH was a cultural historian who moved from the position of a radical critic of American society to a stance, neither liberal nor conservative, in which he stressed the importance of what might be called "basics": self- reliance, community and family. Few writers described with greater honesty the disappointments and dilemmas which the past 40 years held for American intellectuals of a progressive bent who came of age in the Eisenhower years.

One of Lasch's few interventions in public life, if it can be called that, was disastrously misinterpreted. He was one of the gurus called in to advise President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and diagnosed a "national malaise". The phrase backfired and helped Ronald Reagan to defeat Carter in the 1980 presidential election.

Born in Omaha in 1932, the son of a journalist (who at the age of 87 outlives his son), Lasch graduated from Harvard College, where he met his wife Nell, the daughter of the pre-eminent historian Henry Steele Commager. He went on to do his master's and doctoral degrees at Columbia University and taught at a number of colleges until he settled at the University of Rochester, where he was chairman of the history department.

Lasch began as a man of the Left; specifically as a Middle Western radical, whose early books, among them an account of American liberals' response to the Russian Revolution and The Agony of the American Left, published in 1969, reflected this orientation. In 1979 his book The Culture of Narcissism was a best- seller; even before the high tide of the "Me Generation" and "Greed is Good", in the 1980s, Lasch portrayed the United States as full of self-absorbed, unconfident people easily manipulated by advertisers and politicians.

In a later book, The True and Only Heaven, a work of vast learning, published in 1991, in which he accused both Old Left and New Right of being led astray by blind faith in the idea of progress, Lasch described his own political evolution with a historian's precision.

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