Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society

by John W. Gardner
Harper Row, 141 pp., $3.95

The dust-jacket of Mr. Gardner’s new book leaves the reviewer with very little more to do. “John Gardner is the most perceptive living observer of American Society,” Adolph A. Berle asserts. This is an unequivocal statement, dismissing in one breath David Riesman, Daniel Bell, Jules Henry, James Baldwin, and for that matter, Norman Mailer. “I can think of no recently published book which deserves wider attention for the perception and clarity with which it analyzes today’s complexities and the soundness and wisdom with which it prescribes for revitalization,” writes Grayson Kirk. This seems a pity, but Dr. Kirk would surely not have said so unless it were a fact. Presidents of Columbia, to be sure, are not always great readers.

I cannot find in the book anything that can be called a prescription for revitalization, though the effect of the book is mildly euphoric. It isn’t that specific, and makes no recommendations for change in the structure of society itself. Mr. Gardner’s book is actually a clear but very elementary analysis of the way a bureaucratic society operates. Into this he incorporates suggestions for altering our values and moral posture in such a way as to take more advantage of the opportunities for autonomy that he insists that society presents. It is not a critical examination of American social institutions as such.

Mr. Gardner, as the dust-jacket chastely affirms in the smallest possible print, is himself President of the Carnegie Foundation; and the “warm, hard-hitting wisdom” with which, Mr. Berle observes, he “must offend the cultists of decay, self pity, and chaos” is therefore a matter of considerable public interest. The tone of the book is set in its very first paragraph:

As I was browsing in a university bookstore [Columbia?] recently, I heard an apple-checked girl say to her companion, “The truth is that our society and everything in it is in a state of decay.” I studied her carefully, and I must report that she did not seem even slightly decayed. But what of the society as a whole?

What, indeed? To this question, Mr. Gardner devotes the 141 pages of his book—little enough for the task. The task itself is not a dishonorable one. Mr. Gardner attempts to draw from the ideas of thinkers, like Fromm or even Kierkegaard, who have carefully considered the sources of creativity and selfhood in the often agonizing human condition, a simple, comprehensible message in terms that will not frighten a cautious, ordinary reader. From the very title of his book, and in every sentence in it, he clearly considers himself to be a defender of the creative individual against the system, whose constrictiveness and hostility to individuality he asserts and deplores:

This is a day of inner estrangement and outer conformity, and we must combat both. On the one hand, the processes of modern society have placed subtle and powerful restraints on the individual. At the same time—and this is the confusing part—other aspects of modern life are…

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