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Alison Lurie and the way we were

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There is something peculiar and unsettling, about Alison Lurie’s novel, ‘Love and friendship’. It is peculiar because her book is set in a time in which I once lived  – and despite that time being more than half a century ago it all seems very familiar; in many ways I still live with and through the ideas of that time. It is unsettling because the realities that Alison Lurie describes show the necessities for cultural change. In ‘Love and friendship’ she evokes deep and enduring features of East Coast North American culture. I think she does this exceptionally well and profiles not only the way a certain class of white educated people spoke to each other but also she identifies the firmly established attitudes of both sexes in relation to their opposite sex. She published her novel in 1962 and it plainly reflects the beliefs, manners and even some of the cultural norms of the late 50s and early 60s: She shows us the life and outlook of both women and men; it is the women who are more or less condemned to a life of ‘support’ and ‘mothering’ and all the old cliches depicting the ‘second sex. And she also points to the fact that the men can ‘get away with it.’ For example, one central character is a philanderer, womaniser, heart-breaker and all-round self-indulgent chap – but who is accepted in the community as if it doesn’t really matter. He enjoys ‘playing’ with the fairer sex and in the culture of the times it was somehow, ‘OK’. She also makes explicit the nastiness facing gay people – people who love but ‘dare not speak its name.’ Gay liberation was still on the horizon.

Alison Lurie’s book is excellent because it really does succeed in bringing to life the conversations, private thoughts and the intellectual deliberations of her subjects. In so doing she not only lays bare the endemic sexism of the times but she also pinpoints an essential problem facing ‘the intellectual.’ She does this by reprising their long established worry – a worry made explicit in some of the following remarks – written in letters to a friend by one of the faculty members of the un-named New England university college. In those letters the author writes:

Really: Does any kind of intellectual argument or process have more than the most superficial effects? Sometimes I’m tempted to regard the whole enterprise … with immense indifference. [The local people say that] ‘They talk a lot up at the College’ – but life is going on somewhere else.’

In another letter the same author:

The College is not a microcosm of the world. The world … is a disorderly dirty scrapheap. The College, on the other hand, is a botanical or zoological garden, where each flower has its cage, each beast has its metal identification tag.

This latter observation is one that particularly troubles me. I used to work in a college and one of the charges levelled against it by perhaps a majority of the mature students was that it ‘wasn’t reality.’ It was, in fact, an unusual piece of reality – one that was set apart from the ‘dirty scrapheap’ of life. And the question that forced itself upon me was simply this: Did anything we did really make any difference? Did it (as the author of the quote above notes) have only the most ‘superficial’ effects?

For many of our students the effects were at best temporary: the real issues for them lay in the realities of the practical world.

And this leads me to a broad criticism of academic courses that think they can enhance practice: What is lacking in all those courses that are supposed to enhance practice is a good theory of practice itself. Practice takes place in the realm of felt experience – and this experience is significantly different from that generated within the academy. Practice is about dealing with power, the a-rationality of others – and always entails improvisation. Practitioners have to be strategic and sense how best to respond to dynamic situations. They cannot rely on the application of rationally derived rules. They cannot rely on the exhortations of the academic.

I have read some of the criticism (that is mainly very positive) of Alison Lurie’s book and although the critics agree that she provides a marvellous portrayal of a culture and society that has gradually given way to something apparently more equal and a trifle less sexist the critics seem to miss the point about the entirely different games that have to be played in order to succeed or be effective in the different realms of practice. The College environment is a kind of ‘botanical garden’ – a world within which complex games are played; it enjoys luxuries that do not apply in those other ‘outside’ worlds. But those other worlds are themselves laced with moves and counter-moves, feints, deceptions and endless hurdles to overcome. The world is a scrapheap and the rose garden is the exception.

Overall though, the emergence of the Me Too phenomenon underlines the fact that the sexism and exploitation which Alison Lurie highlighted in 1962 is still obviously manifest in western society. It’s plainly worse in many other cultures. And this shows just how slowly a culture actually changes. Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) theory gives an excellent account as to why this is so.

Post script: My friend, the writer and thinker Peter Villiers, also worked with me in the same College. He would argue that one of the best ways of effecting progress towards rationality and justice was through the methods that we did actually use: thus, day after day, we provided our students with the opportunity to discuss their professional problems and their varying solutions with each other. And what emerged was an appreciation of difference – and a recognition that there were always alternative ways of securing worthwhile ends. In a sense they were ‘comrades in adversity’ and, with a bit of luck, we helped them consolidate their values through the process of debate and discussion.

‘In my life’ – Judy Collins and Alison Lurie

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Each Easter I run a quiz for the family: the quiz has questions on many topics but tends to reflect European and American culture; it includes two music rounds and one picture round. The quiz can last for a good two hours and the teams compete with each other to ‘win’.

The family likes the quiz and, at its conclusion, they each get some sort of reward for their efforts. For example, for one of my daughters I have chosen three vinyl records and a bottle of Bulleit Rye; One of the records is by Memphis Minnie, one is from the celebrated Blue Note club in New York and one is by Judy Collins. The one by Judy Collins entitled ‘In my life’ was produced in 1966 and hailed as a new departure for a folk singer. (I bought the record in 1967 and was always slightly puzzled about it: I think this was the year when the counter-culture really took shape and the record was marked by an emerging originality.)

For some of us – including me – the 1960s allowed our imaginations to ‘take off’; we were freed to live and mediate experience through our imaginative powers. It was a good time and often an exhilarating time.

By chance at the same time I selected Judy Collins’ (1966) ’In my life’ as one of the vinyl records for my daughter I came across an old edition of a paperback book by Alison Lurie. The book was first published in 1962 and my copy looks terrific. Its title? ‘Love and friendship’.

The book is a fascinating read because it reveals aspects of East Coast American culture that prefigure the counter-culture of the mid and late sixties. She shows us (in 1962) the divide between men and women, girls and boys; there are marked class distinctions and there are patterns of interactions that are subtle, intricate and constrained. There are old stoves, galoshes – and people write letters; no one says ‘cool’ or ‘like’ … but the people are – well – they are primed for the ‘new’.

I think the book is tremendously interesting because it can be seen as a description and analysis of a culture that no longer exists. There are glimmers of its legacy in works such as Joan Didion’s ‘Where I was from’ and the kind of aside mentioned in ‘Billy Lynn’s long half-time walk’ when its author refers to ‘old money’ – but overall, the world that Alison Lurie describes and portrays is gone. The contrast say between ‘Love and friendship’ and any of the more contemporary work by Bret Easton Ellis underlines the striking shift in aspects of the American way.

Lurie’s book is excellent because, in addition to showing us how certain Americans lived and thought in the years immediately preceding the Hippy movement and the Woodstock phenomenon, it includes an exploration of relationships – but it also has moments of intellectual reflection – the kind that make me stop to consider what I have just read; Here are two of them:

In a letter reflecting on teaching at a college somewhere on the east coast of the USA a writer-in-residence responds to the judgement that a fellow academic’s whole career has been ‘a failure’ with the observation:

What is success, after all, but the proof that one has come to terms with society.


Writing comedy is a dangerous project; One … lays oneself open to the fatal accusation of having no sense of humour, to which there is no comeback. The tragic position is much more impregnable; critics who are not moved by one’s tragic works can always be called shallow; they have, obviously, no sense of compassion.

In addition there are references to Emerson and Thoreau and Descartes and there is an insight into how the humanities could be taught imaginatively and rigorously. (There was no internet; students had a few books and actually were required to demonstrate that they could think for themselves. Alison Lurie even provides her readers with a sample assignment from an Humanities course!)

This kind of book and the type of education it profiles stands as a sociological document – as an indicator of the striking shift that has taken place in American culture (a shift paralleled in UK culture). And this takes me back to the Judy Collins LP ‘In my life’: on it she includes songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Brel, Donovan as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In each song the lyrics have a depth of meaning. In those days we listened to the songs and tried to make sense of the words. Those words cultivated our imaginations and our sensibilities. As a result we could, if we wished, detach ourselves from the material world. We could live through ideas, hopes and dreams. I think it is far harder to live like that nowadays.

P.S. The photo is taken from International Times – when the music was changing and the walls of the city shook.