Sometimes journalism makes a social scientist scratch his head. (For instance, it seemed to take ages for the press to report that economic inequality in the U.S. has been great and growing since the 1970s – and has not been balanced by equal opportunity, which has been weak and waning. More on this next week.) This post is about another, smaller puzzle: The New York Times’s obsession with “anxiety.”
“Anxiety” is the name of a regular Times’s online blog, which makes a frequent appearance in print. Postings include memoirs, musings, works of fiction, and art – all about the anguish of anxiety. It is true that “anxiety disorders” are, according to NIMH, the most common “mental disorders” in the United States. But one could imagine an occasional nod to, say, the more destructive category of “mood disorders.”
Maybe the Times’s editors think that we are now living in an “age of anxiety.” However, wise observers have been declaring “ages of anxiety” for at least 65 years, perhaps many more.
Age of Anxiety
Learned attention to an “age of anxiety” probably originated with W. H. Auden’s 1946 extended poem, followed by Leonard Bernstein’s 1949 symphony, and then Jerome Robbins’s 1951 ballet, all of that name. Writers for the Times used the phrase on over 650 occasions in the twentieth century, half of those instances between its first invocation by essayist Alfred Kazin in 1946 and another by essayist Malcolm Cowley in 1963. “Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety,” wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the Times in 1948. Google’s Ngram software shows that use of the phrase in American books soared from virtually nil around 1945 to a peak in the late 1950s, and then steadily declined afterwards. Perhaps that was the age of anxiety.
The 1950s may have been an especially anxious era for Americans, what with the Cold War, nuclear threats, and the baby boom. Some have speculated, however, that the reduction of palpable dangers in 1950s Americans’ everyday lives, such as early death, deep poverty, and brutal accidents, paradoxically led them to increasingly worry about the smaller, remaining dangers. Or perhaps, some argue, the Mad Men of the advertising industry created the age of anxiety by ginning up people’s insecurities regarding bad breath, unfashionable clothes, and social ostracism (Ch’s 2 and 3 of Made in America discuss these notions).
The labeling of Americans as anxious, however, goes back much farther than the 1950s. It appeared in descriptions of late-nineteenth-century Americans’ encounters with the modern urban economy. Even earlier, Tocqueville in the 1830s wrote that the American “every instant fancies a thousand [good things] that death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret.” Noted historian Page Smith wrote an essay focused on colonial America arguing that “anxiety and despair, as much as confidence and optimism, have characterized our history from the beginning.”
So, what’s up with the Times’s Opinionater blog, Anxiety? It’s a puzzle. Maybe the most-often quoted comment I ever made to a journalist is one answer: “A social trend is whatever is happening to a newspaper editor and the editors’ friends.”