Herbert Croly’s One Little Book – Part 2

By May 17th, 2014

Herbert Croly’s One Little Book – The Promise of American Life – A Blog Essay by Mack W. Borgen – Part 2

Blog No. 41


Part 2 of Blog Essay

May 17, 2014

by Mack W. Borgen


The Relevance of Reason– The Hard Facts and Real Data About the State of CurrentAmerica

Book One – Business and Politics (July, 2013) (408 pp)

Awarded First Runner-Up, Best Business Book of the Year- 2014 Los Angeles Book Festival

Selected As Finalist (Political Science Category) – ForeWord Review’s 2013 National Book Contest

Book Two – Society and Culture (October, 2013) (438 pp)

Selected As Finalist (Popular Culture Category) – ForeWord Review’s 2013 National Book Contest

NEW: Selected and Awarded as Finalist, Eric Hoffer 2014 Book Award (Announced May 12, 2014)


Available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, SummerlandPublishing.com and some local bookstores.

Bookstores and academic and public libraries can obtain copies through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Quality Books, or Follett


Herbert Croly’s One Little Book

Part 2.

 (Author’s Note: Part 1 of this Blog Essay was posted by me as Blog No 40 on May 6, 2014. Part 2 of this Blog Essay is set forth below. Part of this essay is based upon a Personal Newsletter which I wrote about a number of years ago. The essay has been substantially modified and updated, but Croly’s thoughts remain stubbornly relevant to the nature, the style, and in many respects even the subjects of our current American conversation. Because of its length, this essay, Herbert Croly’s One Little Book, is being presented in three sequential Blog postings – Blog 40 (Part 1 – Posted May 6, 2014); Blog 41 (Part 2 – Posted May 17, 2014), and forthcoming Blog 42 (Part 3 – To be posted on/about June 1, 2014).

                 Herbert Croly died in 1930. He wrote only one book of any lasting fame. He was a somewhat staunch Republican, and yet curiously he co-founded The New Republic magazine in 1914.

                 The relevance of Herbert Croly to our Current America of 2014 may on its surface appear to be like the “price of beans.” But I think not.

                 I hadn’t read this book in literally years, but a couple of weeks ago some of my reading magazines hadn’t arrived on schedule. I became lost, disoriented, confused, so I filled some time by rereading his book. As I discovered, it had been too long.

                 For the last 15 years or so, we have all suffered “hard-copy journalism” which can’t seem to understand the difference between the powerful right of free speech and the apparent right of mere free publicity. We have all suffered the weak thinking of (too many) talking heads and the anecdotal ramblings of various shock jocks masquerading as talk show hosts and social and political commentators who, at times of their convenience, pass themselves off as both mere entertainers and supposedly insightful analysts. We all have also commonly suffered from the echo chambers of both the Right and the Left. Without questioning motives or impugning malevolence, it remains a fact that we may have suffered from fools with battle-ready microphones and audiences; from those who routinely suggest that “data” is somehow the plural of “anecdote;” and from those who routinely imply that both truth can be created by the use of Dante’s old canto – “til oft repeating, we come to believing.” For all of these reasons and even apart from the broken state of our American media and the poor quality of our American conversation, it may be useful at this juncture (or wherever we are) to once again visit the One Little Book of our long ago, passed away friend, Herbert Croly.

 Sitges, Spain

                 The first time I read Herbert Croly I was living in the small coastal village of Sitges, Spain. Everything was exciting back then — in fact, things were near perfect.

                 I was young, poor, stupid, and happy. For several weeks I had hung around Sylvia’s Bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris. The place was heavy with the ghosts of Hemingway and Dos Passos and Fitzgerald and Stein. But my time in France was doomed. By and large I viewed the French — and still sometimes do — as lazy people too often driven by convenience. Their good food and fine wine didn’t change the fact that they haven’t done a damn thing since Napoleon roamed Europe and stole its art for The Louvre. So, being an arrogant purist (and conveniently ignoring both the sad reigns of both Torquemada and Franco) I moved to Spain (after a couple of wonderful and indulgent months on the Riviera — but that’s another story).

                 Armed with my portable Smith-Corona (the writer’s laptop of my age), three work shirts, and a carload of books, I settled into Sitges. It was perfect. Red wine was 11 cents a liter back then, and the Germans hadn’t yet re-invaded that part of the Costa Brava. The only distraction was the annual onslaught of the skinny Brits who would come each Summer and burn themselves silly under the Mediterranean sun.

                 It was here, in my little apartment in Sitges, that I first read Herbert Croly.

 The Promise of American Life

                 Herbert Croly’s only book of any import was The Promise of American Life. Only 7,500 copies were initially sold. But it has been re-published and stayed in print ever since.

                 Croly’s book has outlived the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince. Later he survived Mailer and Vidal as well. But it is too early to tell whether or not he’ll survive the Internet, social media, and the metadata of our new American life. This author hopes that he may.

                 Part of the brilliance of Croly was that he was such a “pure” intellectual — making explicit what is implicit in the events of his time. I have long believed that the political purpose of a nation cannot be easily separated from its social and economic goals, but it was Croly who tied this into theory supported by logic.

                 Croly’s book remains pertinent today because of the striking parallels between the turn and beginning of the 20th Century and the turn and beginning of our 21st Century. For Croly, the sea changes of economic forces resulting from America’s new industrialism were everywhere. Now, those sea changes return as America tries to find its place in the “global economy” and tries to react correctly to our new age of information and to the accelerated pace of history and knowledge itself. Then, like now, diverse and discordant movements were loud, bombastic, and tainted with self-righteousness. Twenty years ago we got Falwell and Robertson. Now, we have our own set of raging and raving political commentators “lighting up” the American conversation just as, 100 years ago, they had William Jennings Bryant, a 101 utopians theorists, and a full gaggle of social Darwinians.

                 Croly, alone and without the “boost” of radio and television, took it upon himself to point out how the traditional hopes of American democracy were being defeated by social and economic forces not contemplated by the nation’s founders. I have suggested before in my first book, The Relevance of Reason – Business and Politics (and in its companion book The Relevance of Reason – Society and Culture) that the temptations of immediacy and actions of instinct cannot be disregarded as irrelevant or dismissed as brief historical episodes without consequences. It seems self-evident, but it is often lost in the shuffle, that what happens in America matters. Quickly or slowly, directly or indirectly, “up, close and personal” or otherwise, there is no hiding. We all eventually feel the consequences of how we behave; of what we do; and of what we ignore, We are part of the story. Very bluntly, the “News at 6:30” is not someone else’s sit-com — it’s ours.

                 Croly encouraged political action and Republican (!) reform for both moral and economic reasons. In the flowery language of his day, he insisted that “the principle of democracy is virtue.” When America was formed 225 years ago, it was a “wide-open space.” There weren’t that many of us; the frontier wasn’t “closed,” and, most importantly, your living room was a long ways from mine. It’s not surprising that Americans adopted what Croly refers to as a kind of “optimistic fatalism” which led us to believe that even a philosophy of drift would lead, inevitably, under almost providential auspices, to a glorious conclusion. Croly was one of the first to reject the notion of optimistic fatalism. He was one of the first to sound the alarm and to note that the “glory days” were over.


Copyright © M. Borgen, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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