Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is enough to make the heart of an American Studies scholar skip a beat. We Americanists share Ehrenreich’s deep skepticism about the torrent of wan motivation that saturates our society, including the modern university that aspires to an “excellence” empty of any real content. I recently heard a story about a university president who worried aloud to his faculty that they did not “want it” enough (no mention of what “it” might be or why insufficient want was at the root of the university’s problems). He presumably thought it was enough to mimic the language of corporate America that Ehrenreich so brilliantly dissects. In this, as in so many things, academe has come to look more and more like the for-profit institutions it once eschewed.
Yet there is even more cause for celebration in Bright-Sided, because Ehrenreich has taken pains to articulate a history of positive thinking in the nineteenth century—which, any American Studies scholar worth her salt will tell you, is the crucible of everything that is interesting in U.S. culture, good or ill. No wonder we keep wanting to turn Barack Obama’s election into a discussion of Abraham Lincoln.
So when Ehrenreich states that positive thinking has its origins in nineteenth-century New Thought (a belief in the power of mind over matter), you can hear the sound of a thousand scholars thumping their copies of Walden with approval. Indeed, her chapter on the “Dark Roots of American Optimism” reads like a who’s who of nineteenth-century cultural history: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the James family (William and Alice, but no Henry) all make appearances.
But not Mark Twain.
This omission seems odd at first, because Twain was the great skeptic of America’s first gilded age. Christopher Hitchens recently (and with a crankiness that both Ehrenreich and Twain himself might appreciate) argued in The Atlantic that our own time has yet to produce a satirist of Twain’s range and depth. Politics, finance, religion, imperialism: these were all targets for his pen. His famous wit was laced with a darkness that would be terrifying were it not so funny. “Why is it that people rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral?” he asked. “It is because we are not the people involved.”
However, the greatest statements of Twain’s pessimism comes in his fiction, in which he seemed almost to delight in torturing the characters he had created, from the famous “problem” ending of Huckleberry Finn to the ghastly carnage of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Reading Twain is sometimes like observing a boy training his magnifying glass on a nest of insects. We know that somebody should stop him, but we can’t stop watching.
Twain seems to be a natural ally for Ehrenreich, as his targets included one of the pillars of nineteenth-century New Thought: Mary Baker Eddy and Church of Christ, Scientist. Bright-Sided draws a direct line from Eddy’s teaching that “there is no material world, only Thought, Mind, Spirit, Goodness, Love” to contemporary motivational coaches who preach a similar “mystical notion”: “the world is dissolved in Mind, Energy, and vibrations, all of which are potentially subject to our conscious control.” In both cases, the right kind of thinking is good for what ails you.
Near the end of his career, Twain himself wrote a series of articles on Eddy and her church, eventually culminating in a volume simply titled Christian Science. The book begins with a well-known sketch in which Twain describes himself as the victim of a hiking accident (looking like “a hat-rack”), and the only medical aid available is a professor of Christian Science, a Mrs. Fuller, who purports to heal him by explaining that Twain’s pain, his broken bones, and his body are all nothing more than the imagined products of “Mind.” “All else is substanceless, all else is imaginary,” she explains. The sketch concludes with Twain trying to pay her for her services with “an imaginary check,” only to be sued for “substantial dollars.” As Twain says, “It looks inconsistent.”
This seems to be exactly the kind of debunking that Ehrenreich has in mind. The opening set-piece of Christian Science is a perfect counterpart to the first chapter of Bright-Sided, where Ehrenreich describes how the culture of breast cancer patients has become saturated with the ethos of positive thinking, as though pink ribbons, teddy bears, and meditation were a substitute for medical research or the investigation of the environmental causes of the disease. However, to stop with Twain after his initial send-up of the healing practices of Christian Science is only to tell a small part of his story.
Twain admits later in Christian Science that his mother had been cured by a “faith doctor” and states in a footnote that the teenaged Olivia Langdon, later Twain’s beloved wife, consulted a “traveling ‘quack.’” His children suffered through a variety of mind cures for nervous ailments, and one even later became a Christian Scientist after Twain’s death.
Twain, in other words, was well-traveled on roads that promised to vanquish the suffering of the body through the power of the brain. He earned the scorn of medical journals with these comments: “How much of the pain and disease in the world is created by the imaginations of the sufferers, and then kept alive by those same imaginations? Four-fifths? Not anything short of that, I should think.”
Here, and elsewhere, Twain equivocates on the question of the use of positive thinking in medicine. There’s plenty of choice skepticism in Christian Science, though. But Twain’s main target is not the doctrine itself. Rather, what Twain loathes is the prophet and her church. For hundreds of pages (to the point that even Twain’s most admiring fans admit tedium), Twain relentlessly skewers Mary Baker Eddy as an intellectual lightweight and decries the practices of the Church of Christ, Scientist. He rips apart Eddy’s writing and claims that she could not be the author of Science and Health. He submits the Church’s regulations to withering scrutiny, showing how Eddy has kept all of the power in her own hands. And he lambastes the entire enterprise as a kind of spiritual garage sale, in which everything has a price, and no charity receives any benefit. Twain’s anti-Eddy rages were well known to his friends, and he even began writing a futuristic novel—The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire—set in a world that she had conquered entirely.
As the tirade spreads across the pages of Christian Science, what becomes clear is that his monomania was thoroughly laced with admiration. Twain was no stranger to the desire to make money, but he was notoriously bad at it. In Eddy, he found someone who was able to turn her writing and teaching into considerable amounts of cash, and from his perspective, she showed no signs of slowing down. She had even mastered the art of copyright, a subject of paramount importance to Twain, to the point where nearly everything she scribbled could be converted into cash. No wonder he spent so much time savagely attacking her prose: Eddy had beaten the nation’s most famous writer at his own game.
This is the Twain (the Twain who is both infuriated and intensely jealous of Eddy, perhaps even infuriated because he is intensely jealous) we should take back to our own culture of inspirational coaches, motivational gurus, and preachers of the prosperity gospel. As I was reading Ehrenreich’s take-down of this world and its ethos, I did not always feel the kind of scorn that I knew I should. Instead, it was hard for me to keep from thinking something like what I imagine Twain must have felt when he first pored over the writing of Mary Baker Eddy: I could do this. How hard can this be? I could put on a happy face and make enough money that the smile would become real.
Ehrenreich never admits that this kind of thinking crossed her own mind. Perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps going to the conventions and how-to sessions for positive thinkers cured her of the illusion that this was an easy business to master. Perhaps she is just a better person than Mark Twain or me. But she does explain how this mode of positive thinking is deeply entwined with a capitalistic ethos in which Americans not only want to get rich, but believe that they will. The seductions of positive thinking and the sweet nothings of the marketplace are spoken with the same honeyed tongue.
If there is an antidote, Ehrenreich has yet to find it. Collective action, empiricism, and hard work: These are the genuine cures for the economic, social, and even medical ailments that plague us. But they are less alluring than positive thinking, now as in Twain’s time. This is why it is so curious that Ehrenreich has left another major historical figure out of Bright-Sided: Barack Obama. More than anyone else in recent history, Obama has attempted to marry the language of optimism to the methods of rational governance; to join positive thinking to the drudgery of meticulous policy. Surely, some of the difficulties he has suffered in this last year comes from the sheer ambition of this project, and it is simply too early to know whether he might yet pull it off. I still have some hope that he will, but my judgment may be clouded by own addiction to positive thinking.