While writing Christmas at Long Lake I re-read José Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, which helped me clarify what I was about in my memoir: depicting the last vestige of a folk culture as mass culture attained supremacy.
In my edition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985, with foreword by Saul Bellow, of all people), the translator, Anthony Kerrigan, writes in the introduction:
“Though the “folk” tend to be sound, the “masses” do not. These two distinct words evoke a robust distinction…Ortega wrote essays probing the ‘aristocratic’ nature (in the sense of preservation mostly) of the folk and their lore…How often in democracies has not the sound instinct of the folk proven more viable than the elitist machinations of the politicians?”
In Christmas at Long Lake I write of an American family but one still very much European, a first-and-second generation American family yet ruled by folk traditions and values, with old world dignity and self-sufficiency, a benevolent monarchy unto itself.
But looming over it is the neurotic mass culture—in the first TV I see as a boy at a neighbor’s home, in the lurking migration of my father from manual work to paperwork and of my family from bucolic and esthetically rich rural America to denatured and sterile suburbia. I view Christmas at Long Lake as a microcosm of the final days of folk culture in America, documenting the death rattle of family life, independence, and freedom.
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Along with that, I think I was influenced intellectually by my sociological reading, particularly C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956 or thereabouts, I think).
In it he posits that a fundamental power shift had occurred or was occurring in America, from power being vested locally in the family, the church, the community, and the school, shifting to large institutions: the government, the economy, the mass media, the corp-orations, etc.
I think that one thing that makes Christmas at Long Lake poignant for many readers is that it dramatizes that loss of power for one family, it being uprooted and twisted because of these larger institutions, particularly the post-war economy, and losing its own dominion. I think readers understand that loss of power, because it has happened to most fami-lies at one time or another, in one generation or another, the forced moved from self-sufficiency and control over the ruling aspects of their lives to powerlessness and dependency on larger institutions.
But intellectual considerations aside, what drove me to write this book was a visceral feeling of that loss for my family.