Published Humanitas, Volume VI, No. 2, 1993

The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, by Christopher Lasch. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1991. 591 pp. $25.

This is a bold and incisive book by the well-known cultural critic and scholar best remembered for his pointed description in a 1979 book of the culture of narcissism. Although Christopher Lasch, like his predecessor Marshall McLuhan, is virtually a fixture of North American pop-culture, he teaches history at the University of Rochester rather than at a “prestige” university. The fact that someone of his caliber is at Rochester, rather than Harvard, underscores the ongoing decline of the big-name universities and the emergence of academically superior institutions of the so-called “second tier” in the United States.

The work begins with a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne from which the phrase forming the title of the book is derived. The reference is to those who very stubbornly and “stoutly contend” that “Vanity Fair” rather than the real “Celestial City” is “the true and only heaven.” As one reads the book, one can see “Vanity Fair” as an apposite image for contemporary society, with its ceaseless whirl, consumption, and meaningless circulation (of money, goods, and people), while “the Celestial City” would be the metaphor for a more settled society with a sense of limits…

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