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Twilight of the white guys, The Boston Sunday Globe

Bill McKibben has established himself as our Jeremiah of climate change.

June 26, 2022

John Cheever knew a vanishing world when he saw one. In a memorable introduction, he linked his collected stories to a time when “the city of New York was still filled with a river of light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”

It was also a time when white men dominated literature.

Cheever’s excellence could seduce readers into thinking that the world he wrote about was also excellent. What point could there be in aspiring to, or writing about, any other? Even as twilight fell, the WASPs, with their pedigrees, trust funds, and elusive tragic flaws, remained enviable.

It can be hard to appreciate how dramatically things have changed. Among Cheever’s successors, the fading of white male dominance has brought forth an abashed style of writing, which Tad Friend, for one, has honed to perfection. In a 2009 memoir, “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor,” he anatomized American privilege with impressive candor, and in ways not always appreciated by his relatives.

Friend’s new book, “In the Early Times: A Life Reframed,” extends his case study but is primarily focused on his father, Theodore Wood Friend III (nicknamed Day), and the emotional battleground between the two men.

For nine years beginning in 1973, the elder Friend was the youngish president of Swarthmore College. (In photographs, he is the one with the sideburns.) After losing a power struggle to a donor, he migrated to public service, overseeing the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship for 12 years.

The Swarthmore period was a strain on family life. Day’s wife, Elizabeth, complained that he had disappeared into his role. She, meanwhile, entered motherhood ambivalent and unprepared, and frequently left Tad alone (two younger siblings fared better). “In the Early Times” charts his efforts, after her death, to forgive her, and to finally understand his emotionally unavailable father as well.

Day was a prolific writer of letters and notes, leaving behind a thicket of reflections for his son to hack through. The shocker was a file titled “Annals of Carnality 1948-1958,” which laid out Day’s struggles with desire. Ultimately, the son uncovered infidelity.

Father and son both longed for literary distinction; Day published an award-winning history of the Philippines as well as a first novel before three others were rejected.

Tad Friend hoped to do better. He had sailed through Harvard, taking John Updike as his model and before long making his way to The New Yorker. As it has a way of doing though, professional disappointment ensued, and it became entwined with the emotional disappointment Friend suffered in childhood.

Plumbing the ways in which unhappy marriages can disfigure a family for generations, he turns an unsparing eye on his own discontents. He intends not to go down without a fight, however; ultimately, “In the Early Times” delivers cautious hope.

Friend’s contemporary Bill McKibben also sailed through Harvard, making an even shorter beeline to The New Yorker, but his quarrel is more with the Founding Fathers than with his own parents.

Though not from old money, McKibben enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Lexington. In his memoir “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened,” he takes on Americans’ choices dating from the Carter administration.

Through several previous books, McKibben has established himself as our Jeremiah of climate change. Here, he reconsiders the patriotism and liberal Protestantism that formed him. Though heroically rooted in the Revolution, McKibben’s hometown nonetheless seems to him symbolic of where we as a nation have fallen short.

Americans may spout liberal pieties, but at the ballot box they support measures that have turned property into an engine for building personal advantage, while excluding others.

McKibben grants that anxious suburbanites have done well by their children, and even that it is hard to blame them for prioritizing good schools over social equity. But they have done so at profound costs to the world, and the spirit of community.

McKibben’s Lexington did have its better angels. During a dramatic nighttime confrontation in 1971, in what he calls the largest act of civil disobedience in Bay State history, 458 townspeople were arrested after siding with Vietnam war protesters.

Area church leaders were rounded up at civil rights demonstrations and shepherded youth groups on service trips to the South. Yet in today’s “post-Christian nation,” McKibben laments, resentful evangelicals fuel the Trump movement, and megachurches peddle a gospel of personal success.

McKibben is not nostalgic. He calls on Americans to turn away from the hyper-individualism he regards as our cardinal sin, and engage in a new wave of activism. The young should lead — but old white guys should be right behind them. Hats are optional.

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