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Agency, Autonomy andAuthority: The EthosandModernization Hamilton Cravens,ed. Ideas in America's Cu/!llres: FromRepublic to Mass Society. Ames· IowaState University Press, 1982. 199 +XXV PP· John P Digginsand Mark E. Kann, eds. The P,oblemof Authority inAmerica. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.255pp. William Graebner. A Histo1:l'of Retirement: The .Meaning and Function of an American [11st1tutio11, 1885-1978. New Haven and London: YaleUniversity Press, 1980.293 + x pp. CharMiller.Fatherand Sons: The BinghamFami(1• and the American Mission. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.308 + xipp. H.Wayne Morgan. Drugs in America: 4Social Histo1:i-, 1800-1980. Syracuse: Syracuse UniversityPress, 1981.233 + xipp. James Tagg These are five disparate works. Superficially, they have one common characteristic; their chronological turf roughly spans the period from the Civil Warto the present, with minor exceptions. After that, the fragmented nature ofmodern research takes over, with purpose, genre, content, research design, sources,argumentation and analysis differing greatly. Char Miller's study of theBingham family, a work which fails in the waysTurgenev's Fathers and Sons succeedsin analyzing generational relationships, is a brief biography of five generationsof Binghams and a survey of their drive to combine will and action intopurposeful mission. Ideas in America's Cultures is a festschnft commemoratingStow Persons' many contributions to American intellectual history; itseightarticles on religious and social ideas, of very uneven quality and diverse subjectmatter, come together somewhat in their focus on the relationship of clustersof ideas to individuals or groups. Morgan's Drugs inAmerica is a tightly organized, coolly written survey on the employment of, and general social responsesto, drugs from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Expressing greater subtlety and complexity of thesis than Morgan, William Graebner examinesthe changing purposes and manipulations of age discrimination, the concept of retirement and old age pensions. The Diggins and Kann collection of conference papers-incorporating history, political science, literary criticismand psychology-demonstrates how treacherously broad and varied approaches can be to a philosophical concept such as authority. CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 15.Number 4, Winter 1984,451-463 452 JamesTagg What is there, then, to link these five disparate books together? Perhaps there ismore than those who lament the increasing fragmentation ofscholarly approaches might expect. 1 From beneath the declared theses of these works emerges a broad, powerful theme-the dilemma of human agency andmoral autonomy in the American experience. Human agency implies that the intent and design of individuals has some relationship to cause and effect in a larger social context. Agency is rationality leading to purposeful action, although it need not imply absolute dominanc~ of the mind over will.2 Moral autonomy and authority flow, at least in part, from. the exercise of agency. Only through the identification of willwith action can the individual claim responsibility and autonomy. Again, autonomy does not mean separation from society at large, but a relationship withthat society in which the autonomous, not alienated, individual influences that society and must answer to it. Herein lies the issue of authority as well.True authority, not authoritarianism, is the legitimate possession of influence and power; it is will and action directed toward morally proper ends. Yet, authority accrues only partly from within and is conditional and further made legitimate by nature and society. Proper focus requires the further step of placing agency, autonomy and authority in an American historical context. This done, the American ;iast divides neatly into two parts: 1)the era before the Civil War and the on-rush of industrialization, in which an ethos of individual agency and autonomy arose, and 2) the period beginning in the late nineteenth century whichsaw some aspects of modernization erode agency in the name of efficiency and order. The former period is replete with evidence of the primacy of agency and autonomy. It began even with the Puritan "errand;' a term defined byPerry Miller as "the actual business on which the actor goes, the purpose itself,the conscious intention in his mind:' 3 By the eighteenth century, the crack-in-the· door allowing individuals to be partial agents of their destiny, first created by the Puritans' own federal theology, had been pushed wide with the infusion of the Enlightenment. 4 Such evolutions of...


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