A few years ago, I started blogging Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, chapter by chapter, as I read the book (ch. 1, ch. 2). I got bogged down writing at chapter three, but prompted by her new book, Living with a Wild God—Bright-Sided is decidedly atheistic, though sympathetic to the less deistic, more pragmatic aspects of religion, in opposition to the new book, which suggests much more openness to specifically religious experience—I went back to my notes to see what I could make of them. I ended up borrowing an audiobook version of Bright-Sided to refresh my memory.
One of the few notes I made, originally, about the third chapter was that it was written in a style I personally dislike: generalization mixed with what read like superficial scholarship, not really interesting enough as journalism to rise above a weak argument. Moreover, this is the point at which Ehrenreich abandons the strictly present-day, extra-theological treatment of positive thinking, and delves into the history of religion.
The first part of the chapter is a short history of American religion. It’s extremely selective, running from pioneer Calvinism through New England Puritanism through transcendentalism through Mary Baker Eddy through William James, and finally to Norman Vincent Peale. The argument’s developed mainly through anecdotes that are connected by Ehrenreich’s own conclusions about their significance. There are footnotes to relevant scholarship—but these are not to recent work in history and sociology of religion. Rather, they’re to the hoary classics, familiar from the bibliography at the end of the American Studies text: Perry Miller on the Puritans, Ann Douglas on “the feminization of American culture” (the association, largely, of the Protestant religion with the work of wives). There’s a quick run-through of the history of “neurasthenia” and “hysteria” and their frequent appearance in books of the period, with reference to clergymen and females.
This last seemed inadvertently too readily to accept the idea that the women’s maladies—though they might also have been assisted by Aleve or Metamucil, had those patent remedies been around—really were caused by something like “hysteria.” Ehrenreich blames their suffering on the Calvinist religion’s emphasis on personal self-examination, and morbid preoccupation with what she considers extremely complex and academic concepts from theology. It seems plausible that had they had real work in the world, they would not have felt sick or weak. She also rejects out of hand, as idiosyncratic and religiously motivated, some writers’ contention that in the nineteenth century some mental suffering might have been caused by the speed of social and technological change, and the difficulty of adapting physically, as well as emotionally. On this topic, it just happens that I’ve read enough to know that her argument is selective in the extreme. But in general, the argument of the chapter just doesn’t seem sufficient to support Ehrenreich’s conclusions.
On a first reading, it seemed that Ehrenreich was arguing that positive thinking was a form of New Thought/Christian Science, which was itself a healthy rejection of a morbid Calvinism (exemplified by those New England writers who had breakdowns after doubting their own salvation), but which also unfortunately retained some morbidity of its own, morbidity that was exaggerated by the time it culminated in the present-day positive-thinking movements. This seemed simplistic at every point, up to where the argument seemed to suggest that Joel Osteen’s flavor of Christian worship draws more on Christian Science and Theosophy than on any Christian tradition.
Ehrenreich seemed to intend to ridicule a certain kind of self-help book, as Wendy Kaminer did several years ago. (Kaminer’s name doesn’t appear.) But I was only familiar once with a book Ehrenreich discusses, and she got it wrong in a peculiar way: she chose the one place in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in which he recommends that people get daily exercise, spend some leisure time in a way they enjoy, and do something creative (what he calls “sharpening the saw”), and she described it as his recommendation that people never permit themselves downtime, but use their spare time to work harder to “get to the next level.”
But on the second run-through, I realized that this chapter is more in the nature of a personal essay than a scholarly outing. The traditions mentioned in it are those with which Ehrenreich has her own personal experience: her mother was raised by her own grandmother, an old-style Presbyterian who later turned to Christian Science. The evidence and citations she lists are more in the nature of support for her sense that what she has to offer from that personal experience is of wider importance.
It’s clear that Ehrenreich sees Calvinism and New Thought/positive thinking, and the elements that make them up, as strands of belief and ideas that are available at any time in history, though in different forms. It seems plain that she herself embraces the Calvinist ideal of hard work and “getting on with it,” and values that part of her heritage. It’s equally plain that she prefers science to the wishful thinking that suggests a person can make things happen by thinking hard, or just by wanting them enough.
This chapter is insightful and informative, and may lead readers to more sophisticated versions of positive thought than that represented by “The Secret.” Ehrenreich does not, however, offer any positive recommendations or persuasive conclusions about the nature of either positive thought or Calvinism. She does offer a lot of suggestions, about the nature and cause of mental breakdowns, and about various strands of Western theology. But when those suggestions approach condemnations of ways of life or varieties of religious experience, she’s neither persuasive nor, at all times, entirely clear. As a personal essay, it’s an excellent read. As intellectual history, though, it would have benefited from being placed in a more complete context.