Citizen Field

Marshall Field III

by Stephen Becker
Simon & Schuster, 511 pp., $7.50

In later life Marshall Field said of his youth that it was the last period when being rich was pure, careless fun. His biography suggests, although this is not its intent, that his life was part of the last period—not yet ended—when being a liberal is pure, caring fun. One does not mock Field’s sincerity, his many generous philanthropies, his immense help to many urgent causes, to point out that he gratified himself: not as Lord Bountiful but as a man whose life had been disintegrating and who reclaimed his soul with good deeds. Tolstoy’s rich men and princes, when they felt self-disgust or emptiness, turned to the primitive emotion of the gypsies or to purgation through physical suffering. Field turned to liberalism.

His crisis came with, and was in some degree occasioned by, the New Deal. He had not been a silly playboy but a sober investment banker and a devoted parent. Nevertheless he felt his life to be savorless. He had been divorced (and was soon to be divorced again before his third, lasting marriage); he was drinking rather heavily; he had lost his pleasure in sports. Through extensive psychoanalysis with the famous Gregory Zilboorg and the friendship of the well-known liberal lawyer Louis Weiss, he began to focus on potentially rewarding activity. Compassion, which is the core of most anticonservative thought, became at least as important to him as the courtesy, honor, and devotion to intelligent business management that had been his three principal tenets until then.

His inarguably useful work included humanitarianism, particularly child welfare and Negro rights, and vigorous defense of academic liberty as trustee of Sarah Lawrence College during McCarthyism. It is in politics, centered in his journalism, that the sheer self-gratification of his (and all) liberalism—as opposed to its utility—becomes most apparent. He wrote in 1945:

But what we have accomplished has been accomplished only by blood and sweat, by the utmost efforts of men and women who believed in their dreams and who got out and fought for them, figuratively and literally. That is why we must all join together to promote freedom actively—by becoming tough enough to move in a new direction when old methods fail, by giving all our countrymen the rights we ourselves want to possess, by preparing our children to be able to think for themselves, by supporting freer access to facts in every field both new and old, and by working for a peace that will give all nations the chance of eventually joining in a free world community…Freedom is more than a word.

The sentiments are unimpeachable. The liberal views of John Dewey and E. M. Forster are, in part, only deeper extensions of these ideas and others in Field. But in the light of conditions as they exist and as they portend, one now sees in Field’s words a facility, almost an irresponsibility: the contemporary equivalent of a hundred Hail Marys to avert the Black Plague. The faith is beautiful, the disease disregards…

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