The Decline and Revival of Friendship in America

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The angel Clarence’s inscription in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” a gift to George Bailey at the climax of the 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“I set about naming the capsule. Al [Shepard]’s Freedom 7 had struck the right note. Gus [Grissom], in Liberty Bell 7, had been inspired by both patriotism and the capsule’s shape. I had several ideas, but I was trying very hard to keep [John Glenn’s children] Dave and Lyn involved and make them feel a part of my mission. I asked them if they would be willing to think about some names.

“I said, ‘There’s only one ground rule. The world is going to be watching, so the name should represent our country and the way we feel about the rest of the world.’ They pored over a thesaurus and wrote dozens of names in a notebook. Then they worked them down to several possibilities, names and words including; Columbia, Endeavour, America, Magellan, we, hope, harmony, and kindness. At the top of the list was their first choice: Friendship. I was so proud of them. They had chosen perfectly.”

— Astronaut John Glenn, explaining why his 1962 space capsule was named “Friendship,” in John Glenn: A Memoir, 1999 [emphases added]

Old friends, memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fears.

— “Old Friends,” lyrics by Paul Simon, 1968

Childhood Notions

The America I grew up in placed great stock in platonic friendship. This was reinforced by the particulars of my own very Southern family. My maternal grandfather had been such a beloved member of his Kentucky hometown that when he died at the young age of 47, its entire downtown closed to attend his funeral. This story was passed down to me, repeatedly. “This is who and what and how we are,” was the implicit message.

My maternal grandmother was said to have had numerous “close friends,” “dear friends,” as my mom would say with just that stressing. Much later, I found letters from one of my grandmother’s friends, a sorority sister of hers at Vanderbilt who was also the sister of the poet John Crowe Ransom. The emotion in those letters struck me — theirs was a decades-long friendship that lost little of its passion over time and distance.

In this same Kentucky town a generation later, I vividly remember my first cousin, a native, asserting that he had 5,000 friends — the entire population of the town. I disputed the assertion, but I couldn’t doubt that everyone in town knew him, and his father (my maternal uncle), and his and my grandparents.

My father, a Presbyterian minister of great gentleness, preached of a man who is recorded to have followed these words to live and die by: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” He walked the walk, on the Via Dolorosa, all the way to Golgotha, we are told. My dad remembered his pastor-friends’ ordination day anniversaries long after they had retired, the last person around to share that moment with his friends in some cases. As I said at his funeral, my father’s highest word of praise was: “thoughtful,” in the sense of thinking of others — including friends.

I internalized all these notions of friendship, probably because my own personality gravitated to a similarly Romantic notion of friendship. As a teenager I came across the idea of “commonplace books,” in which people of Thomas Jefferson’s time would laboriously copy down meaningful quotes from literature to learn and memorize — literally, words to live by. I imitated this. A packrat, today at age 53 I still have the notebook I used as a commonplace book. I still remember many of the quotes. And several of the ones that have stuck with me the most deal with friendship:

Well, we’ve been lucky devils both/And there’s no need of pledge or oath/To bind our lovely friendship fast,/By firmer stuff/Close bound enough.

— Robert Graves, Two Fusiliers

I even wrote that quote in the high-school annual of one of my female high-school friends.

And this quote nearly made we weep as a 16-year-old in Alabama, from of all people Justice William O. Douglas:

After [my] impeachment proceedings were over and closed… Hugo L. Black, Jr… talked with me on a visit to Washington, DC. He said that while the matter [of impeachment of Douglas] was pending before the House, several Southerners came to him asking if he would not sound out his father [Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black] concerning their plans to remove me from the Court. Young Hugo took the matter up with his father, who said, “I have known Bill Douglas for thirty years. He’s never knowingly done any improper, unethical or corrupt thing. Tell his detractors that in spite of my age, I think I have one trial left in me. Tell them that if they move against Bill Douglas, I’ll resign from the Court and represent him. It will be the biggest, most important case I ever tried.” The message brought tears to my eyes, for by then Justice Black had died and I had never had the chance to thank him.

— William O. Douglas, The Court Years, p. 377

In college I found my muses in poets and Southerners who felt the same way. The Rev. Will Campbell, civil rights hero and Southern Baptist heretic, penned the concluding story for a photo-essay book called Covenant entitled “Rhodes.” It is the story of two life-long but nearly permanently separated friends who haven’t seen each other “but a few times in sixty years.” They reconnect during the narrator-friend’s terminal illness, and the healthy one does an act of disobedience and kindness for the other at great risk to his social and legal standing. This being the South of Will Campbell, alcohol is involved — as is uncompromised friendship.

My great and abiding literary friend is the Romantic poet John Keats, whose passion for his own friends arguably matched his phenomenal passion for poetry. I voraciously read his letters to his friends and family, seeing him stand up for them in times of trouble even as his own short life disappeared out from under him. Most of them are lost to history except as Keats’s set of friends. One of them, Charles A. Brown, is buried under a marker with the simple inscription, “The Friend of Keats.”

This is the America I (idiosyncratically) grew up in. It is not the America I now live in.

America Sans Friendship

Tyra Banks: “You have no real family, you’re on the wrong side of 40, you’re childless, and alone. Somebody close to you said, ‘One more flop, and it’s over.’”

Tugg Speedman: “Somebody said they were close to me?!”

Tropic Thunder, 2008; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk-H8pfYEAk

I learned upon my departure from Alabama to Wisconsin for graduate school in 1988 that friendship was dying in America. It took time for this realization to sink in, and the scholarship of Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and Bill Bishop (The Big Sort), among others, to place this development in the much larger context of diminishing social capital and failing social institutions. But it was apparent to me within three years of landing in Madison, WI that something was terribly wrong, and getting wronger. My experience was sharpened by being in academia, that infamous “scorpions in a bottle” institution that I remain in 30 years later. As a lover of friends and friendship, I felt the loss early and painfully.

I’ll not rehash the arguments, but simply provide a few Google-able statistics that illustrate the conventional wisdom’s shift from denial to acceptance:

2004: The end of the TV show Friends is accompanied by a reassuring Gallup poll indicating that Americans have, on average, 8.6 close friends who are not members of their family.

2010: Internet survey by Cornell researchers reveals that Americans have on average 2.03 close confidants, down from three a quarter-century previously.

2017: Business Insider headline: The average American has only one close friend — here’s how we got to this point.”

Anecdotally, my wife Pam and I can recount the stories. Once in Athens after years of unsettledness due to grad school, post-doc, and a toxic assistant professorship, we made conscious efforts to put down roots in Athens. That included friendships. But, alas, it was too late; everyone was too busy. There was the couple with the small child who we hit it off with. We tried and tried to schedule a get-together. Before any of us knew it, they were moving to another state. There was the new faculty couple; before we could get together for dinner they were pregnant. And now they’re divorced and single-parenting. Two of the people I would do a few things with, died unexpectedly — one from a fall, one from a heart attack. We couldn’t build up friendships before something broke. After repeated attempts over a period of close to a decade, we consciously backed off, giving up temporarily. (And that was around the time social media hit, as well; more on that in a sec.)

At a deeper level than conventional wisdom and personal anecdote, MIT author Sherry Turkle, in Alone Together and other writings, raises serious concerns about where American culture (and other, tech-savvier, cultures) stands with regard to interpersonal relationships. And my former UGA student Brandon Stanton captured how this is not a universal phenomenon in one particularly poignant vignette in his Humans of New York series, in August 2013.

Digression on Digressions: Social Media

Oh, but social media! In the aftermath of Russian bots and Facebook revelations we are somewhat past the facile notion that American’s friendship deficit is overcome, nay is a surplus because of social media. Thank goodness we are getting past the PR hype and slowly becoming more sophisticated users and consumers of social media at last, but its flaws bear repeating.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2006, when my own students (!) created an account for me. I have 2,194 friends and another 443 friend requests, most of them from people I don’t know who found out about me last September when I was posting about the impending flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

But how many of these people are close friends? Even those I have known for 45 years do not invite me to gatherings. When I was being flamed on Facebook by one them for daring to cite printed evidence that President Barack Obama might be a Christian, only one old friend rose up to stop the attacks — and then, only because his wife (who doesn’t know me) asked him to. Since the dawn of e-mail, and on social media today, I have had long and fruitful friend-discussions with “pen pals,” but those friendships tend to go off the rails at one point or another, usually because of political/religious differences that matter more to them than to me.

While Facebook provides the sense of friendship, and on occasion the seed for actual friendship, the substance of face-to-face friendship is still missing. I have 2,194 Facebook friends (oops, now 2,195), getting close to half the total that my first cousin claimed to have in real life. But the only people I feel truly comfortable hanging out with, or going to a concert or sporting event with, are Pam and our son Evan. It has been this way in my life for the past 22 years, since I was 31 and completed my Ph.D. dissertation. I emerged from my cocoon, and friendships had died — along with the concept itself, it seemed.

This is not unusual or unique, or limited to my generation. One of the best viral messages of the just-past Lenten season was from a Salt Lake City, UT Mormon, a member of an unusually tight community by 21st-century American standards:

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America gave up friendship for Lent, a long time ago.

One month and nearly a half-million likes later, Mormonger’s post is still true. It will continue to be true, no matter if it’s retweeted 112,000 times or 1.12 x 10^12 times. When it comes to friendship, social media is like Marxism: great critique, but not a workable solution. It is a digression, an epic digression for millions, a starting point but a trap unless it is placed in perspective as merely a starting place. In Jacob Bronowski’s exhortation regarding science, uncertainty, and the Holocaust, “ We have to touch people.”

Without the human contact, social media is ultimately faux life. Just ask the bots.

Back to “Real” America

We are no longer living in the America of my literary youth, nor the America that my parents believed in and my grandparents lived in. We are not the Bedford Falls America of Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey was the richest person in town because, as Clarence’s inscription in the famous copy of that most American book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, reads:

Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.

By these words, shown on-screen at the end of one of the two most beloved and most American of all films, many Americans might infer that they are failures.

This is not the Russellville, Kentucky of my grandparents. It is not the South of Will Campbell. And it’s not Bedford Falls, either.

This is Pottersville.

But why? How did we get to this point? To pose the question that Philadelphia Inquirer reporters and Pulitzer Prize winners Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele used as the title of their 1992 book, America: What Went Wrong? Putnam and Bishop and others have provided the data, and some analysis. I believe that recent events give us even more insight into friendless America.

Friendship And Its Enemies

In the past year, it has become easier to comprehend and digest the idea that America is living out a kind of dystopian future before our eyes. (Scoffers are invited to join Jon Meacham and other “all is well” apologists of the recent past on the dustheap of history — or at least to go read something else on Medium.) This would suggest that we might learn something about our current crises by revisiting some of the key dystopian texts of literature.

Both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were exceptionally keen observers of culture. Both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World shrewdly address how friendships are managed, contained, and manipulated by their dystopias’ regimes.

In Chapter 15 of the 2003 compilation Love and Friendship: Rethinking Politics and Affection in Modern Times, Corey Abel assesses friendship in these two novels. Because this is a Medium essay and not a scholarly work, and because I do not have a Ph.D. in comparative literature, I am doing what you might expect and Googling and pretending to know more than I do about the scholarship on this subject. That said, the abstract of Abel’s piece (which I cannot find in toto) says some truths:

Contrary to many “political” interpretations, of “Brave New World” and “1984” this paper stresses that the evil of totalitarian government is not simply in the presence of great and arbitrary power, but in the particular ways that such power erodes love and friendship, the bases of social life. The crisis represented by the destruction of all possibility of love and friendship is placed in the context of Dostoevsky’s meditations on “The Grand Inquisitor,” and reflections by noted political theorists on the character of modern politics.

A 2009 compilation, Friendship: A History, by Barbara Cline points out that there was never a golden era of friendship. While this is true, one cannot read the writings of Lincoln, or the Greeks, or (as I have said) Keats or Will Campbell without seriously wondering if this is the moment in which crying wolf is not a false alarm. If those were not golden eras, fine, but perhaps we exist in a fundamentally worse era — not just not-gold, but dross. Fool’s gold. But why now?

Put simply, friendship is a threat to existing power structures. It is deep, and unpredictable, as irrational and indefatigable as hope itself. In eras of oppression, friendship must be either stamped out or co-opted in ways that neutralize its effect.

Orwell and Huxley lay this out expertly in their complementary dystopian scenarios. Without rehashing the storylines, in Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the two keys to crushing Winston and Julia’s rebellion is to force each of them to betray the other. After that, they are free to go. The friendship (not platonic, but still friendship) that made them dangerous, is ruined. In Brave New World, the deep, irrational exclusive type of friendship is obviated with a culture of polyamorous fun. Friendships are replaced with “victim-friends.” When the Savage rebels against the conditions, the State responds with false words of friendship:

Straight from the depths of a non-existent heart, “My friends, my friends!” said the Voice so pathetically, with a note of such infinitely tender reproach that, behind their gas masks, even the policemen’s eyes were momentarily dimmed with tears, “what is the meaning of this? Why aren’t you all being happy and good together? Happy and good,” the Voice repeated. “At peace, at peace.”

There is no room in dystopia for a friendship that raises fists (or money) against those who threaten or intimidate. Happy and good, at peace — don’t make waves, keep the status quo flowing. This is precisely why Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” says the word “friends” to George Bailey with such special venom.

Little wonder, then, as the Second Gilded Age of America reaches heights undreamt-of by the First, that American friendship withers. It’s a threat. Every minute spent by friends at a bar or a bookstore or at their homes is a minute not spent “productively,” not spent creating wealth for the 0.1%. Worse yet, those minutes might be spent contemplating the situation. Even worse, those minutes might be invested in community institutions: service organizations! Voter registration! The horror, the horror!!

I don’t think there is a coincidence that America’s “golden age,” massive warts and all, existed when not a few Americans could work a 40-hour week without long commutes and have time to read the newspaper, go to community events, get together, socialize, and even to think. And that our current moment is just the opposite, with many “white-collar” workers doing 60 hours a week or more, often with long commutes isolated by themselves in frustrating traffic and ranting radio-show hosts, and who often bring more work home with them — with almost no time or inclination to read, attend events, or participate in community leadership. And with no time to think. However this situation came about, it isolates and separates and kills friendships just about as effectively as Big Brother did with the rats.

Our soma, the drug that makes us feel better without making us well, is social media. We feel we have done something when we “like” a post. We have done nothing; nothing to change the circumstances, nothing to right wrongs. We yak and stay right where we were, not unlike the ineffectual proles at the bar in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Way Forward to Friendship in America

This polarized moment in American history would seem to be an awkward moment for a revival of friendship. Fact is, it’s the best and most crucial time for such a rejuvenation.

Dave and Lyn Glenn, who wisely chose the name “Friendship” for their dad’s space capsule, were born in 1945 and 1947, respectively. However, their generation is, by general acclamation of those of us 53 years old and younger, the single most abrasive, insulting, condescending, and friend-destroying group on social media. The little good that social media can do for us with regard to friendship is to plant seeds. I have been utterly astonished at the conduct of fiftysomethings, sixtysomethings and seventysomethings on Facebook since its clientele expanded from college-age students in the mid-to-late 2000s to today. While it is by no means universal, it is identifiable. No small number of the Baby Boom generation have repudiated the message of the Glenn kids and are friendship-killers. They burn up Friendship upon re-entry; they unlash the heat shield and roast potential friends with their own meltdowns. (Before you flame me for this observation in a deeply ironical act, ask three people you know under the age of 40 to assess the veracity of this paragraph. Be prepared to be surprised.)

So:

Rule 1: The hate has to stop. Friendships can indeed be formed around hate, but America’s doomed if that’s the route we take. And I’m not just talking about right-wing hate, either. If we can’t be civil at first contact, then we will have a civil war. Is that what you want?

Rule 2: We should be together. As a child of 1965 I can quote the Sixties music almost as well as the Boomers, and no song captures the best of that era than the Jefferson Airplane’s “We Can Be Together” (from 1969; go here for Herb Bowie’s definitive, brilliant analysis of the entire song):

We should be together
Come on all you people standing around
Our life’s too fine to let it die
We should be together

What does this mean? Face-to-face community. Start online, if you must. But come together, right now, as naturally as possible. Take your vacation time and visit friends. Invite people you barely know to lunch. Branch out beyond your socioeconomic and ethnic comfort zone. And importantly, across generations. Growing up I had mentors who were, in some senses, friends who were 20, 40, even 60 or 70 years older than I was. I began experiencing generational segregation when I went to graduate school, and I’ve never escaped it — except via my role as a teacher and mentor. Friendship is not “Friends”hip, limited to one’s own generational peers.

And don’t look at your phone when you’re together. I am one of the few Americans who does not carry a cell phone with me in public, and I carefully watch people in public places who are “together alone,” in Turkle’s phrase — distracted from the person in front of them. When you are together, be together.

Rule 3: Tear down the walls. If I’m right and the friendship deficit in the United States is not entirely a coincidence, but instead serves our dystopian tendencies and those who profit from them, well… up against the wall, moneymakers. We have to fight back. The kind of America worth saving requires us to struggle. This is where the generations younger than mine seem to be ahead of everyone else in some key respects. Long commutes ruining your life? Find a way to live closer and ditch the car. Workplace demands asking you to give everything up for the corporation? Quit or change the rules. Older folks want to turn your school into an armed camp? Organize and resist.

And always recognize the stakes — this isn’t just about disliking “disturbia” or being “that darn Millennial” at work, or a gun control “nut.” It is about saving, or recreating, a United United States worthy of the name, that at least attempts to avoid a dystopian demise. A United States where Paul Simon’s vision of old friends actually exists, again.

It is heartbreaking but true that my own parents died with few friends around; many had died, but that wasn’t the only reason. It was also because America had changed from the days of their youth in the 1930s to the days of their passing in the 2010s. My cousin in Kentucky did not die with 5,000 friends, or anywhere close to it, partly because America had changed from his youth in the 1960s to the 2010s. I don’t know that it’ll be much better for me.

But we have to try.

Won’t you try… — Jefferson Airplane, “We Can Be Together”

I guess I just miss my friend. — The Shawshank Redemption

No life is worth living without the mutual love of friends. — Cicero

Written by

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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