Author Archives: Peter Levine

the character of poets and of people generally

In Coming of Age as a Poet (Harvard, 2003), Helen Vendler interprets the earliest mature verse of four major poets: Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. She argues that great poets reach maturity when they develop consistent diction and formal styles; favored physical and historical milieux; major symbolic referents; characters or types of characters whom they include in their verse; and some sort of (at least implicit) cosmology. They often retain these combinations to the ends of their careers.

Robert Lowell provides an example (mine, not Vendler’s). From the 1940s until his death, his characteristic milieu is New England–specifically the coastal region from Boston to Nantucket–over the centuries from the Puritan settlement to the present. His diction mimics the diverse voices of that region’s history, from Jonathan Edwards to Irish Catholics, but he brings them into harmony through his own regular rhymes and rhythms. His major symbolic references include gardens, graveyards, wars of aggression, the Book of Revelation, and the cruel ocean. He avoids presenting a literal cosmology, but he describes several worldviews in conflict. Sometimes, the physical and human worlds are cursed or damned and we are estranged from an angry, masculine God. Other times, the world is a garden: organic, fecund, and pervasively feminine. (See my reading of The Indian Killer’s Grave for detail.)

A combination of diction, favored characters, milieux, subjects of interest, value-judgments, and a cosmology could be called a “personality.” I don’t mean that it necessarily results from something internal to the author (a self, soul, or nature-plus-nurture). Personality could be a function of the author’s immediate setting. For instance, if Robert Lowell had been forceably moved from Massachusetts to Mumbai, his verse would have changed. Then again, we often choose our settings or choose not to change them.

A personality is not the same thing as a moral character. We say that people are good or virtuous if they do or say the right things. Their diction and favorite characters seem morally irrelevant. For example, regardless of who was a better poet, Lowell was a better man (in his writing) than T.S. Eliot was, because Eliot’s verse propounded anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, whereas Lowell’s is full of sympathy and love.

So we might say that moral character is a matter of holding the right general principles and then acting (which includes speaking and writing) consistently with those principles. Lowell’s abstract, general values included pacifism, anti-racism, and some form of Catholic faith. Eliot’s principles included reactionary Anglicanism and anti-Semitism–as well as more defensible views. The ethical question is: Whose abstract principles were right? That matter can be separated from the issue of aesthetic merit.

I resist this way of thinking about virtue because I believe that it’s a prejudice to presume that abstract and general ideas are foundational, and all concrete opinions, interests, and behaviors should follow from them. One kind of mind does treat general principles as primary and puts a heavy emphasis on being able to derive particular judgments from them. Consistency is a central concern (I am tempted to write, a hobgoblin) for this kind of mind. But others do not organize their thoughts that way, and I would defend their refusal to do so. What moral thinking must be is a network of implications that link various principles, judgments, commitments, and interests. There is no reason to assume that the network must look like an organizational flowchart, with every concrete judgment able to report via a chain of command to more general principles. The hierarchy can be flatter.

To return to Lowell, one way of interpreting his personality would be to try to force it into a structure that flows from the most abstract to the most concrete. Perhaps he believed that there is an omnipotent and good deity who founded the Catholic church when He gave the keys of heaven to Peter. Peter’s successors have rightly propounded doctrines of grace and nature that are anathema to Puritans. Puritans massacred medieval Catholics and Native Americans who loved nature and peace. Therefore, Lowell despises Puritans and admires both medieval Catholics and Wampanoags. In his diction, he mocks Puritans and waxes mournful over their victims. His poetic style follows, via a long chain of entailments, from his metaphysics.

But I think not. It is not even clear to me that Lowell, despite his conversion to Catholicism, even believed in a literal deity. (Letter to Elizabeth Hardwick, April 7, 1959: “I feel very Montaigne-like about faith now. It’s true as a possible vision such as War and Peace or Saint Antony–no more though.”) The point is, literal monotheism did not have to be the basis or ground of all his other opinions, such as his love for and interest in Saint Bernard or his deep ambivalence toward Jonathan Edwards. Those opinions could come first and could reasonably persuade him to join the Catholic Church. By mimicking the diction of specific Puritans in poems like “Mr Edwards and the Spider,” Lowell could form and refine opinions of Puritanism that would then imply attitudes toward other issues, from industrial development to monasticism.

Poets are evidently unusual people, more self-conscious and aesthetically-oriented than most of their peers, and more concerned with language and concrete details than some of us are. As a “sample” of human beings, poets would be biased.

But they are a useful sample because they leave evidence of their mental wrestling. Poetry is a relatively free medium; the author is not constrained by historical records, empirical data, or legal frameworks. Poets say what they want to say (although it need not be what they sincerely believe), and they say it with precision.

I think the testimony of poets at least suffices to show that some admirable people begin with concrete admirations and aversions, forms of speech, milieux and referents, and rely much less on abstract generalizations to reach their moral conclusions. Their personalities and their moral characters are one.

Not Quite Adults

Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray have published Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Bantam 2010). Their book is a product of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, an ambitious collaborative project that also yielded, among many other works, an article by Constance Flanagan and me on “Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood.”

Not Quite Adults is admirably broad, accessible, and well-written, enriched by the stories and voices of real people. (The Network conducted 500 interviews). It begins with a vignette of a typical young person of 30 or 50 years ago, who left home and started life immediately after high school graduation. Today, in contrast, half of 18-24-year-olds still live in the bedrooms where they were children. The ages at which people become financially independent, move out of their parents’ homes, marry, vote, and finish their final degree have all risen rapidly.

One response is to view all these young people as slackers or immature. But that overlooks the profound difficulties young Americans face today in becoming independent. It also overlooks the many ways in which the third decade of life can be a valuable time for learning, developing skills and networks, and contributing to society. Finally, it overlooks serious gaps in the experience of different groups of young people. Some–Settersten and Ray call them “swimmers”–are using their young adult years to strengthen their positions, racking up advanced degrees and social networks before they settle into careers and families. This is all to the good (as long as their expectations of success aren’t excessive, leading to disappointment). Others–whom the authors call “treaders”–struggle to move through the cross-currents of economic insecurity. For them, the third decade of life is increasingly difficult, and they need social investment. Settersten and Ray point to Youth Build, Youth Corps, and Civic Justice Corps as examples of programs that need more support.

The book has its own interactive website, including a blog on which Rick Settersten asks most recently, “Why do so many Americans have it out for young people?” At a time when many of the basic indicators of young people’s well-being (crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and drug use) have been improving, older Americans seem convinced that the new generation is a threat. Asked to discuss “youth,” working class Americans immediately identify behavioral problems–violence, crime, lack of respect for adults and for themselves–while elites are just as concerned about low test scores and dropout rates. Meanwhile, the data on young people suggest substantial improvement.

college students expect service, study abroad, and extracurricular clubs but report stress and low emotional health

Trends in Expectations for College (CIRP Freshman Survey)

Using data from the College Freshman Survey of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), John H. Pryor reports that incoming college freshmen are increasingly likely to expect that they will participate directly in extracurricular activities, community service, and foreign study–all experiences that have civic purposes and benefits.

But the same study also shows that incoming college students report increased levels of stress and historically low levels of emotional health. A record-high proportion of incoming freshmen (73%) say that the “chief benefit of a college education is that it increases earning power.”

For institutions of higher education, these trends raise several questions: Are we meeting the expectations of our incoming students? Can meaningful service activities be antidotes to stress and poor psychosocial well-being? Can they enhance students’ economic opportunities? Or do some students report being “overwhelmed” because they are pursuing civic experiences as well as academic work and jobs?

(Cross-posted from the CIRCLE homepage.)

the Campaign for Stronger Democracy

The Campaign for Stronger Democracy pulls together activists for campaign and election reform, deliberative democracy, transparency, collaborative governance, civic education, national and community service, and community organizing. It is an unprecedented coalition, the need for which I tried to demonstrate rigorously through an exercise in network mapping. The Campaign’s monthly newsletter is turning into my favorite compendium of relevant articles. You can register for the free newsletter here.

the Eight Americas

Christopher Murray and six colleagues have published an article entitled “Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States.” They divide the entire US population into the following categories:

    1. Asian: Asians living in counties where Pacific Islanders make up less than 40% of total Asian population

    2. Northland low-income rural white: Whites in northern plains and Dakotas with 1990 county-level per capita income below $11,775 and population density less than 100 persons/km2

    3. Middle America: All other whites not included in Americas 2 and 4, Asians not

    in America 1, and Native Americans not in America 5

    4. Low-income whites in Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley (with 1990 county-level per capita income below $11,775)

    5. Western Native American: Native American populations in the mountain and plains areas,

    predominantly on reservations

    6. Black Middle America: All other black populations living in countries not included in

    Americas 7 and 8

    7. Southern low-income rural black: Blacks living in counties in the Mississippi Valley and the Deep South with population density below 100 persons/km2, 1990 county-level per capita income below $7,500, and total population size above 1,000 persons (to avoid small numbers)

    8 High-risk urban black: Urban populations of more than 150,000 blacks living in counties with cumulative probability of homicide death between 15 and 74 [years] greater than 1.0%

Disparities in life expectancy are enormous–for example, women in America 1 outlive men in America 8 by 20 years. It is illuminating to view these empirically-derived categories instead of the usual baskets (such as White versus African American). Below is my chart of selected disparities from the article: