Twilight of the Whites

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It can be difficult to appreciate how drastically things have changed. Among Cheever’s successors, the demise of white male dominance gave rise to a shameful style of writing, which Tad Friend, for his part, perfected. In a 2009 memoir,Happy Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendorhe anatomized American privilege with impressive candor, and in a way not always appreciated by those close to him.

A friend’s new book,At the beginning: a reframed lifeextends his case study but focuses primarily on his father, Theodore Wood Friend III (nicknamed Day), and the emotional battleground between the two men.

For nine years from 1973, the elder Friend served as the junior president of Swarthmore College. (In the photographs, he’s the frontrunner.) After losing a power struggle to a donor, he moved into public service, overseeing the Eisenhower Exchange for 12 years.

The Swarthmore period put a strain on family life. Day’s wife, Elizabeth, complained that he disappeared into his role. During this time, she entered motherhood ambivalently and unprepared, and often left Tad alone (two younger siblings fared better). “In the Early Times” traces his efforts, after his death, to forgive him and finally understand his emotionally unavailable father as well.

Day was a prolific writer of letters and notes, leaving behind a thicket of thoughts for his son. The shock was a dossier titled “Annals of Carnality 1948-1958”, which exposed Day’s struggles with desire. Eventually, the son found out about the infidelity.

Father and son both aspired to literary distinction; Day published an award-winning story from the Philippines as well as a first novel before three others were rejected.

Tad Friend hoped to do better. He had gone through Harvard, taking John Updike as a model, and soon made his way to The New Yorker. As he has a way of doing things, professional disappointment ensued, and it intertwined with the emotional disappointment Friend suffered as a child.

Probing the ways in which unhappy marriages can disfigure a family for generations, he turns a ruthless gaze on his own discontents. He intends not to go down without a fight, however; finally, “In the Early Times” offers cautious hope.

Friend’s contemporary Bill McKibben also cruised to Harvard, making an even shorter straight for The New Yorker, but his feud is more with the Founding Fathers than his own parents.

Although not of old money, McKibben enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Lexington. In his memoirsThe flag, the cross and the station wagon: a grizzled American looks back on his childhood in the suburbs and wonders what happened», he takes up the choices of the Americans dating from the Carter administration.

Through several previous books, McKibben has established himself as our Jeremiah of climate change. He returns here to the patriotism and liberal Protestantism that formed him. Though heroically rooted in the Revolution, McKibben’s hometown nonetheless strikes him as symbolic of where we as a nation have failed.

Americans may spring from liberal pieties, but at the polls they support measures that have turned property into an engine to build personal advantage, while excluding others.

McKibben admits that anxious commuters have done well with their children, and even that it’s hard to fault them for prioritizing good schools over social equity. But they did it at the expense of the world and the spirit of community.

McKibben’s Lexington had his best angels. During a dramatic nighttime standoff in 1971, in what he calls the largest act of civil disobedience in Bay State history, 458 townspeople were arrested after siding with the side of Vietnam War protesters.

Church leaders from around the region have been brought together in civil rights protests and led groups of young people on service trips across the south. Yet in today’s “post-Christian nation,” McKibben laments, resentful evangelicals fuel the Trump movement and mega-churches peddle a gospel of personal achievement.

McKibben is not nostalgic. He calls on Americans to turn away from the hyper-individualism he sees as our cardinal sin and engage in a new wave of activism. The youngsters should lead – but the old whites should be right behind them. Hats are optional.

MJ Andersen’s column appears monthly.

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