Marjorie Garber | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 2020
Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern
What does it mean to be a character? To have character ? Can animals have character? What about old furniture? And why did we used to assume that the presidents of the United States had it in spades? At Marjorie Garber’s Character: The Story of a Cultural Obsession is a sufficiently comprehensive attempt to historically unpack the word. Tracing the origins of the concept to Aristotle, Garber, a prolific author and professor of English and visual and environmental studies at Harvard, documents the range of meanings and manifestations of the concept to the present day.
As she writes, typically, “‘to have’ character (or to be a ‘character’ person) is to be ethical and commendable – or, as in the case of my office, to show signs of experience and wear; “to be a character” is to be singular and eccentric; having “character problems” means failing to live up to certain accepted standards of behavior; to be a “character type” is to cross the boundaries of psychology, psychoanalysis and literature. While this may all be quite simple, she asks us to consider, is character learned or innate? Changeable? Hereditary? We moderns, Garber notes, relate character to an act of writing itself – see, for example, Twitter’s 280 “character” limit. In fact, she notes that “to write” was one of the earliest meanings of the word “character.” To what extent, how and what we write, and, as some have asked, what we physically look like – even the shape of our head – are related to our character?
At over 400 pages, Garber’s tour de force offers a mind-boggling range of sources and subtopics. She notes that “leadership,” one of our most contemporary buzzwords, was once referred to as “character building” — thus self-help titles ranging from Robert E. Lee on Leadership at Shakespeare on management. Politicians, sports personalities and celebrities get a lot of attention in the volume. Donald Trump is mentioned far too often, but readers will also learn from an analysis of Hillary Clinton as “Lady Macbeth of Chappaqua”, John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” and the exclusion of Pete Rose from the Baseball Hall of Fame (a sportscaster encouraged the room to “forget character, welcome character.”) plus a lengthy discussion of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Brett Kavanaugh.
A number of literary works are examined for their views on the subject, from the memoirs of Alfred Kazin A walker in the city (“personage meant demonstrative obedience; but the teachers already had it – how else could they have become teachers? … the President of the United States had the greatest amount imaginable) at the Tin Man in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, among dozens of others. Psychologists, she writes, emphasize the distinction between personality and character, even though “finding it out is not easy.” Perhaps the first relates to behavior and the second relates to values and ethics. Popular YouTubers are known as social media “personalities” but aren’t really considered for their moral rectitude.
Quoting Jerome Karabel, Garber notes that “character” as a criterion for admission to the Ivy League in the 1920s was a way to keep Jews out. This, of course, raises many questions about what it means to be national in character. Is such a concept, Garber asks, “a set of beliefs, a racial or cultural heritage, an example of wartime courage, a pious fantasy, a political slogan”? Examination of the nature of America’s character inevitably leads to a discussion of Tocqueville’s work. Democracy in America, Back to Jews in the Context of Anti-Semitism, the “melting pot”, and Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. We understand the picture — the analysis is long on quotations and references (it’s hard to find a paragraph without a quotation) and lamentably short on the author’s own analysis.
Much of what “character” means is left unanswered through no fault of the author. Instead of conclusions, there are curiosities, bizarre physiognomic attempts to identify the character with its many modern euphemisms. Quoting Bari Weiss, Garber notes how words like “strong” and “healthy” are often, in the context of women, code for “skinny” and “beautiful,” an indication of changes in language that are actually linked to what we might assume the character means. As Garber notes in his conclusion, “we may not agree on what it is, but we know when it’s lacking.”
Hoping that, despite its nebulosity, the character concept won’t go out of fashion and be dismissed as a remnant of a “more naïve, more ethical, or at least cheeky past,” Garber admits that the subject of his study “May not be perfect, or perfectible, but it’s currently the best we have.
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