Fantasyland: Or, Rich Guy Slams America

THIS WEEK we highlight a new book trashing America by establishment trashmeister Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

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One doesn’t have to read the book– the text is in the title. The title is all you need to know about what’s contained in the pages.

Mr. Andersen is getting a splash of publicity c/o his publisher, with laudatory reviews.

“A frighteningly convincing and sometimes uproarious picture of a country in steep, perhaps terminal decline–”  -The Guardian

Kurt Andersen’s publisher is Penguin Random House, a multinational company, part of one of the “Big Five” publishing conglomerates which dominate the trade. Their headquarters is in New York City. They’d better hope the nation isn’t in terminal decline!

“Reading a great revisionist history of America is the bookish way to feel what it’s like to be born again.”  -Hanna Rosin, New York Times

Andersen himself, curiously, is an Insider’s Insider; a Capitalist’s Capitalist. One of the Elect: Harvard grad married to a Harvard grad. From his bio:

“He was named by New York magazine as one of the “100 People Who Changed New York,” and by Forbes as one of the “25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media.” And he was named the 2014 arts Medalist by Harvard College’s Signet Society.”

In his career Andersen has founded start-ups and sold them for huge sums of money. See the negotiations for one of his companies as related by Ken Auletta:

“”I don’t believe that anyone is going to give the company more money,’ Cramer remembers telling Andersen.”

He took the best deal. Cashed in. Sitting pretty. Yet Kurt Andersen isn’t happy. You would think he’d be kicking back smoking a big cigar saying, “Isn’t America great?” There’s no disdain for Harvard or venture capitalists (those he knows) in his book, one can wager. Instead, he takes aim at the American people themselves– for their populist ethos and political choices, all of which makes Kurt Andersen’s life, if not unprofitable, at least discomfiting. (2016 was the first time since 1984 that a Harvard-or-Yale grad was NOT elected to the Presidency, and in Andersen’s lofty milieu, that is simply outrageous.)

Yes, trash America’s 500-year history– and make yet more money in the process. Open the door for Dostoevsky’s Demons. Who cares? The French aristocrats who sparked revolution in 1789 were consumed by what they sparked. What does that have to do with aristocrats today?

Meanwhile, we have a question for our readers. How would you describe Kurt Andersen’s expression in the photograph below? Smug? Pompous? Arrogant? Or does the facial smirk represent something else? Indigestion? Complacency? Constipation?

Hatred of his own country?

Let us know. Thanks!

KurtAndersenconstipated

The Wise Men

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Who steered the direction of American literature after World War II?

Editors like George Plimpton, Robie Macauley, Reed Whittemore, Robert Silvers, and William Phillips. Men on a mission who, as much as they professed no artistic ideology, very much pushed an artistic ideology. They’d been formed by various factors, whether by privilege, or the war, or by disillusion with Communism. By 1950 all were Wilsonians out to save the world by making it “Safe for Democracy”– their own special internationalist version of democracy.

Literature was their tool– they fully believed in the importance of the art. Paris Review (like Encounter magazine in the UK) was founded as a cultural ambassador for Anglo-American liberal ideals– presenting an intellectual alternative to the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Communism. Liberal Cold Warriors, these editors disdained– or had rejected– the populism of the American past. John Steinbeck and his kind were out. Henry James as the ideal cosmopolitan author was in.

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For our cultural aristocrats, literature, to be safe, must never engage too strongly in ideas. As an editor at New York Review of Books told me in a note in the late 1990’s, characters must never serve as mouthpieces for ideas. George Plimpton told me essentially the same thing on the one occasion I met him, at a literary debate held at CBGB’s in 2001. To these people, burdened– as they saw it– with the task of preserving literature, a broad view of the world was considered dangerous. An Ayn Rand or Frank Norris wrote beyond their well-regulated lines.

Focus moved instead to the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois self. American literature became gnostic: insular and solipsistic. Cleansed, nuanced, refined; denuded of its loud voice but also much of its energy. For prose: John Updike. For poetry: John Ashbery.  Aesthetics was not the only weapon. No longer could a writer appear off the street like Thomas Wolfe or Jack London and be taken seriously. Writing programs and markers of breeding ensured all who entered the Halls of Approval were thoroughly screened.

Did these men and their journals have influence? Tremendous influence. They understood the concept of leverage; that a publication with a readership of 10,000 could determine who did or did not receive a large book contract– chiefly because that small readership was powerful and elite.

The change in aesthetic direction made the wise men– as well as their sources of money– very happy. Literature came under the control not of the unpredictable American people, but of themselves. The Elect.
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American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

The thing to know about these men and their journals is that the faces they showed the world were misleading. George Plimpton was a smiling bon-vivant but also much more than that. The notion that he didn’t know the source of Paris Review‘s original funding is an absurdity.

Likewise, New York Review of Books, founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, postured for a long while as a radical Leftist publication– yet it was started with Random House money during a New York newspaper strike as a way for the giant book companies to advertise their new releases. It’s always been an extension of New York-based Big Corporate Publishing. Sophisticated PR for them, one might say.

In the New York literary world, nothing is ever as it seems.