Erudite fondler of women not words

Max Lerner
April 2, 1999

True to the puns on his name - Marx Lerner, Slow Lerner - Max Lerner (1902-92) was above all a discoverer. As one of his acolytes said in memoriam : "He was a discoverer of ideas, of people, of movements, of America." It was a fitting tribute to a life of unbridled divagation - intellectual and sexual - told here by an admiring former student, wisely and well.

Lerner was a melting-pot progressive: Russian-American, Jewish, clever, winning and greedily intellectual. Beyond the pale at Yale (in the 1920s a hotbed of snobbery and anti-semitism), he majored in English literature. He wrote his master's thesis on the economic theories of Thorstein Veblen and did his doctoral work at Washington's Robert Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government - then a new foundation. On the application form, under "the strong qualities which you could bring to graduate studies", he listed: "A very extensive reading; enthusiasm; a love for putting my words somewhat prettily together; a penchant for close reasoning and clear exposition; a horror of pedantry and of research possessing no significance or originality; a prejudice for delving beneath the surface and for viewing a problem in its larger aspects; and some knowledge of the law."

One wonders what the Economic and Social Research Council would make of that.

Lerner could have had tenure in five disciplines. He was an inspirational teacher throughout his long life, but his mission lay outside academe. He became a columnist, a pundit, one of the finest of his day - democratic, mesmeric, panoptic - the Walter Lippmann of the left. Norman Cousins observed what a brilliant wordsmith he was. "He doesn't fondle words or flaunt them. There is a discipline here, an ability to turn words properly, with a sense of rhythm in the sound and in the phrasing I a superb literary fabric I strong and evenly knit."

Lerner wrote long. His magnum opus was America as a Civilisation (1957). Tocquevillian in sweep and Galbraithian in outlook, this erudite and expansive work foreshadowed many of the issues that would preoccupy the next generation - environmental, civil, racial - just as its discussion of "the imperialism of attraction" anticipated the influential thesis of "empire by invitation".

He was as concupiscent as he was prescient. He may not have fondled words but he certainly fondled women. Gross moral turpitude was all part of a day's work for Lerner. Sadly, this is the least successful dimension of the book - the sexual undertow of the intellectual life is treated as if analysing a play.

But even here Lerner had something to say. "In recent years, I have been absorbed, as a president watcher, to note how Eros has combined with the power drive in the forming of presidential character."

Perhaps, he speculated, Roosevelt was such a forceful leader because he was so passionately attracted to Lucy Mercer. Monica Lewinsky, where are you now?

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the promised Land

Author - Sanford Lakoff
ISBN - 0 226 46831 3
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 323

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