The Nature of Liberty?

I’m writing an op-ed for a newspaper with national and international circulation–they asked for it, but I don’t know that they’ll publish it–and I went looking for William Dean Howells’s novel of 1890, A Hazard of New Fortunes, because I had forgotten the name of the character whose future becomes that moral hazard.  In the op-ed, I was trying to say that we’re stumbling blindly through a trackless wilderness (there’s that phrase again), like Oedipus and Lear and ____, because we can’t treat consumer culture as the reality of our time, as the site of our redemption, the raw materials of a fortunate fall.

I retrieved the old dusty paperback from the bookcase in the hallway, looked through it and remembered “March,” yeah, that’s him, and thought immediately of Augie, another man at risk.  Folded in this book were two yellowed pages, old enough to pose as parchment, and as I opened them I knew they were notes on an essay I had just the day before cited in class from memory, notes I had taken in 1973 in the library at Northern Illinois University because I was so amazed by the belated, anachronistic clarity of the sentiment.  I had come across the essay while looking for something else–can’t remember what–and was enchanted, mesmerized, by its energy and conviction.

These are my astonished excerpts of William Dean Howells, “The Nature of Liberty,” Forum 20 (1895-96): 401-09.  Even this late in the 19th century, notice, left-leaning intellectuals understood ownership of oneself as the condition of freedom as such.  The labor movement and the woman movement (the singular held until ca. 1910) had already blown by the old man, redefining freedom and individuality, as Jane Addams was at great pains to demonstrate as early as 1894.  Theodore Dreiser was waiting in the wings to demolish the set on which Howells acted out his drama of the self-made man.  Even so . . .    I wonder if our search for equity in the present might be informed by this man’s notion of freedom.  It certainly informed Christopher Lasch’s late, great book, The True and Only Heaven (1991).

“In fine, liberty, whose supreme expression is self-sacrifice, is only another name for choice. . . .  The free man has duties, but the slave has none, and he has no responsibilities. . . . If you are free, you are responsible for what you do with your gifts, and for their use in behalf of others. But if you are not free, it is your master who is responsible.

“As to what empowers you to self-sacrifice, renders you responsible, makes you free, it is commonly supposed to be the citizenship of a free country.  But this is very questionable; freedom by no means follows from such a citizenship.  . . . He is a free man if he has the means of livelihood, and is assured of their possession; if he is independent of others.

“But if he is dependent on some other man for the means f earning a livelihood, he is not free.  Freedom in fact, which in its highest effect is self-sacrifice, and of the skies, is chained to the earth in the question of necessity, as certainly as the soul is chained to the earth in the body.  It is only occasionally a political affair, a civic affair, it is constantly a social affair, a pecuniary affair, an economic affair.”



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