Several writers near the start of the 21st century have urged looking back in time to recapture a spirit they say has mostly disappeared. Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, tells the stories of ordinary and famous Americans who grew up during the Depression years, mobilized heroically to defeat the Axis powers in World War II, and in the following decades established the most prosperous society known so far on the earth.
After the war, Brokaw writes, “Americans at home rushed to start families and build communities and careers….” He continues –
However, they did not abandon their sense of duty and service to their community and nation. Indeed, it was encoded in them as a result of their personal experiences first in the Great Depression and then in World War II. In these times, individual and collective survival depended on a selfless sense of commitment to a common cause.
“Sense of duty and service” and “selfless sense of commitment” are terms that describe the will. But how did those motives happen to surge within that generation? Was it purely the product of historical forces acting to arouse an evolutionary survival instinct, or was it more? Some might suggest that times of cataclysm and confusion can strip away the veneer of civilization to reveal something very real beneath – the will for a good life individually and together.
David Brooks takes the latter view in his 2015 book The Road to Character. His theme might be called personal moral narrative, shaped by community. Like Brokaw, Brooks uses biography to develop his theme by describing the lives and works of 4 reformers – Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin, 2 leaders of soldiers – Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, 2 writers – Samuel Johnson and George Eliot, and the ancient Catholic philosopher Augustine.
Following the lead of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks identifies 2 conflicting aspects of human aspiration that he calls Adam I and Adam II. Adam I seeks to build a résumé of recognized achievement, “to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.” Adam II seeks to develop character, to respond to a calling, “to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.”
It cuts into Brooks’ argument a bit to recognize that each of his chosen subjects achieved fame and considerable power in the Adam I sense, but that is probably more a result of what his readers would expect than his own primary intent. Who would buy a book about such heroes as the woman who drives a bus at the airport or the old couple next door tending their roses?
The first and perhaps most powerful biographical vignette told by Brooks is that of Frances Perkins. Franklin Roosevelt recruited Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet of any U.S. President. She became a chief architect of the New Deal that lifted the country from the Great Depression.
Frances Perkins was raised in a New England family attentive to religion and to classical education. She continued that kind of training at Mount Holyoke College, supplemented by some curious advice that she should major in her weakest subject, chemistry, which she did.
After graduation Perkins spent some time at Hull House in Chicago, an institution founded by Jane Addams to serve the poor. Addams deplored any sense of superiority among the privileged young women there who became the first social workers. Feelings of compassion and benevolence emphasized class differences between these young women and their poor clients. Therefore such feelings, usually praised, met with suspicion at Hull House.
Unsafe working conditions were rampant in the age of industrialization. In 1911 Frances Perkins personally witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 of 600 workers, most of them young immigrant women. Stairway doors had been locked to prevent theft and wasteful rest breaks. At least 60 workers leaped to their deaths from the windows of upper floors to escape the flames. The preventable loss of young lives aroused a collective sense of guilt in most New Yorkers. Perkins later wrote, “It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa!”
Perkins worked her way into public service under two New York governors, Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt was elected president, he called on her to become his Secretary of Labor. She said yes only after receiving a promise from Roosevelt to carry out a comprehensive program of federal intervention to move the country out of the Great Depression.
The official U.S. Social Security website says this about Perkins’ efforts during those years–
As Secretary of Labor she played a key role writing New Deal legislation, including minimum wage laws. However, her most important contribution came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security. In this position she was involved in all aspects of the reports and hearings that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935.
Marriage and family for Frances Perkins began precipitously and descended from there. She fell in love with Paul Wilson, a well-bred economist working for New York City. After some indecision, they married suddenly in a Manhattan church unattended by family or friends. Following the death of an infant boy, they had a daughter named Susannah. Paul turned out to have bipolar disorder, which led to many long stays in mental wards and institutions, where Frances would visit him periodically. When living at home, he was often accompanied by a male “secretary,” whose presence provided an extra margin of safety for Frances and Susannah.
Frances nurtured a habit of spiritual retreats during her long years in Washington. According to David Brooks–
Perkins had made frequent visits to the All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Maryland. She would go to the convent for two or three days at a time, gathering for prayers five times a day, eating simple meals, and tending the gardens. She spent most of those days in silence, and when the nuns came to mop her floor, they sometimes had to mop around her, for she was on her knees in prayer.
Her need for spiritual sustenance escalated in 1939 when several members of the U.S. Congress brought impeachment charges against her. Whether fair or not, they expressed outrage at the slowness of deportation proceedings for an immigrant from Australia, who was a labor organizer and a suspected Communist. Perkins herself came under suspicion of being a Communist. Over the course of hearings that lasted a month, Perkins replied in excruciating detail to accusations brought by the House Judiciary Committee. In the end the committee found insufficient cause for impeachment.
Frances Perkins was a person who could sense and answer and follow a calling. While accomplishing much, she did not neglect her marriage, as unhappy as it was. She understood the connectedness of life. The working girl was her sister, the working guy her brother. In one sense, she never turned her eyes away from the sight of young people hurtling down from the 9th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to the pavement.
The story of Frances Perkins fills just one chapter in The Road to Character. As mentioned already, David Brooks gives other examples of well-known people whose character developed in the context of relationships and institutions.
In these blogs previously, here and here, relationships as well as institutions have been described as “domes” within which decisions of will arise. Personal character, or even identity, is not confined to the individual human life. Instead it is distributed between the solitary individual and the domes of two to millions in which that individual participates. The meaning of character is more distributive than transactional.
George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower were shaped by the army, of course, but the relation was more than that. They lived as military men; along with others they formed the army.
Samuel Johnson produced the first widely accepted, authoritative dictionary of the English language. Early in his career, his writing endeavors were joined to those of the Grub Street Press, where his conversational style came from “the tavern and café.” His mature work as an author engaged a larger dome. As Brooks puts it –
He did not do it alone any more than any of us does. Much of our character talk today is individualistic, like all our talk, but character is formed in community. Johnson happened to come to maturity at a time when Britain was home to a phenomenally talented group of writers, painters, artists, and intellectuals, ranging from Adam Smith to Joshua Reynolds to Edmund Burke. Each raised the standards of excellence for the others.
I am struck by the couples described in The Road to Character. George Lewes effaced his own career aspirations to better support those of his wife, Mary Anne Evans the novelist (her pen name was George Eliot). Mothers and sons – Ida and Ike Eisenhower, Monica and Augustine – built character ascending toward achievement for the betterment of their world and ours.
Philosophers are cited, though not often, by Brooks. He ascribes to Aristotle the notion that “if you act well, eventually you will be good.” He refers to an 1877 essay by William James titled “Habit” to this effect:
James wrote that when you set out to engrave a habit— say, going on a diet or always telling the truth— you want to launch yourself with as “strong and decided an initiative as possible.” Make the beginning of a new habit a major event in your life. Then, “never suffer an exception” until the habit is firmly rooted in your life. A single slip undoes many fine acts of self-control. Then take advantage of every occasion to practice your habit. Practice a gratuitous exercise of self-discipline every day. Follow arbitrary rules.
According to William James, seconded by David Brooks, this kind of asceticism makes us secure in the vocation we choose. It need not be a lonely asceticism. The emphasis on engraving a habit as an act of will reminds me of Charles Peirce (see earlier blog) and the dome of friendship he shared with William James and others in the ironically named Metaphysical Club.
What is the end of character, the goal toward which it aims? Brooks denies that it is pleasure or even happiness. But it is a focus of will and a certain kind of joy, as he describes it:
One sees this in people with a vocation— a certain rapt expression, a hungry desire to perform a dance or run an organization to its utmost perfection. They feel the joy of having their values in deep harmony with their behavior. They experience a wonderful certainty of action that banishes weariness from even the hardest days.
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Featured image: Horse-drawn fire engine on the way to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, by George Grantham Bain Collection, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons. Fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on 3 topmost floors of the Asch building in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, March 25, 1911, by unknown, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons. Bodies on sidewalk, victims of the fire, by Brown Brothers, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons. Social Security cards, by US Government, Social Security Administration, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons. Frances Perkins, framed photography, by US Government, Social Security Administration, Public domain.
 Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation, Random House, New York, 1998 and 2004. Preface to the 2nd edition, p. viii.
 Brooks, D. The Road to Character, Random House, New York, 2015, Kindle edition, location 79.
 Brooks, location 964.
 Ibid., locations 4256-4259.
 Ibid., locations 1194-1198.
 Celebrated in an excellent book titled The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2001.
 Brooks, locations 607-609.