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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 it. It is an indulgence of the spirit rather than a confrontation of the problems.

In the days of Gladstone, even in the early days of Lloyd George and Wilson, civilization could perhaps afford what amounted to laissez-faire intellection about political and social problems (although liberals themselves have always objected to laissez-faire economics). The geographical sphere of application was narrower, the discourse was held among those who could understand the argument, the processes of argument, and could possibly be responsive. The very enemies—on the right and left—provided, by their activism, the protective walls to keep the green lawns smooth and uncluttered on which the liberal croquet balls could be neatly batted and caromed. Now the field becomes smaller and smaller; it verges on the cute. One can admire the mental grace, the poetic idealism of the participants while noting the rapidly decreasing relevance of the exercise. In 1947 Field wrote a two-part editorial—again unimpeachable—arguing against an effort to outlaw the Communist Party and arguing that the Truman plan to help Greece and Turkey must not involve (as, of course, it did) helping the rightist monarchy of one and the quasi-fascist regime of the other. Then he went on:

The only way to beat an idea is with a better idea. We cannot beat the idea of communism with the idea of military imperialism. We can beat it with the idea of a free democracy.

It makes the heart sink; for it is the sort of pink, scented blather that persists, that still fills our government pronouncements and liberal editorials about, for instance, Southeast Asia and South America: the wild opium dream that the immediate installation of New England town-hall meetings throughout Vietnam and Colombia would solve all our problems there. Possibly the worst aspect of it all is a growing suspicion that many of the ladies and gentlemen who issue these statements feel simultaneously a righteous glow from their utterances and a basic disbelief in their reality. They wish the utterances could be pertinent (as who does not?); but then they turn out the lights in their offices and go to the bosoms of their families, feeling that their duty has been done and also hoping, in the depths of their minds, that they may live out their lives undisturbed and be cozily dead before the dream is punctured.

This, obviously, is not to belabor Field with responsibility for our dilemmas. But his life after the age of forty is typical of the genus bred by the eighteenth century, cultivated by the nineteenth, and possibly to perish in the twentieth, which believes that discussion in itself is action, that belief in doctrine in itself is loss of liberty. (“I do not believe in Belief,” said Forster. But the Viet Cong does.) The liberal is the child of free capitalism, whether he be rich as Field or poor as most of us. He rose with the rule of the fattening middle class; he disappears, naturally, in totalitarian states of the right or left; he is an intellectual ballet dancer, charming and abstract, under democratic socialism. It takes small gift for prophecy to foresee drastic changes for capitalism and the world before the end of the century. By that time the liberal tradition, of which Field was a good exemplar, may be remembered, perhaps indeed ruefully, like the hansom cab.

Field was the grandson of the Marshall Field who founded the Chicago department store, but he was never much active in that business. After combat service in the First War he helped to form an investment banking firm, from which he withdrew in the early 1930s. But he did not give up business when he became interested in social and political matters. His financial association with the unsuccessful newspaper PM is well-known, as is his founding of the successful Chicago Sun (now the SunTimes). Somewhat less known is a latter-day organization called Field Enterprises, which controls several businesses, including (as is stated) the publishers of Stephen Becker’s biography.

This biography is lengthy but light. There are long excursions into the lives of men who were associated with Field (Aubrey Williams and Saul Alinsky, for examples), a synoptic history of Chicago, and other divagations that do not show thoroughness so much as self-indulgence, the currently endemic incapacity to omit any material once it is uncovered by research. Worse than this, there is a consistent effort to be readable that is frequently repellent. Few pages are spared these Reader’s Digest humanizing touches:

We tend to see public figures as symbols and not as people, and when they are rich we relegate them to worlds not our own…But like millions of other men Marshall Field exulted in the sight of green hills and the smell of salt air and the taste of cold beer on a hot day—and loved his son, flesh of his flesh, deeply, as his son loved him.

Becker’s expertise in the arts, en passant, is questionable. (Let us not dwell on his bravado in standing with Fitzgerald and giving us a page of notes on Field as Jay Gatsby would have seen him.) As proof of “great days” in the theater he cites, among others, Elmer Rice, Kaufman and Hart, Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Kingsley. He calls Lust for Life “a biography” of Van Gogh. He says of Field’s interest in music: “He may not have known a mordent from a pralltriller.” Why should he have? A pralltriller is one kind of mordent. The reticent, tasteful man that Becker has taken pains to draw would, on the author’s own evidence, have been embarrassed by this garish book about himself.

Letters

Letters November 5, 1964

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