Susan Jacoby: A Voice of Reason

An E-Book Exclusive from Pantheon Coming Tuesday, April 23

Susan Jacoby's "The Last Men on Top"

A Look Back Without Anger at the World War II Generation

My American generation--born in the decade after the World War II--is the last to have grown up in a world in which men were supposedly in charge of everything except the upbringing of children. This is the world of "Mad Men," in which visibly successful males of the species are allowed to behave like pigs as long as they earn a good enough living to support their families and make their companies prosper. Flagrant adultery, impregnating secretaries, pimping for clients, even assuming a false identity to escape service in the Korean War: The good old boy network covers up everything.

But there was a huge catch. The mid-20th century man who supposedly had it all could lose it all the moment he committed the ultimate male sin of failing to bring home a reliable paycheck. This essential point is being missed in the renewed public debate today over the proper balance of power between women and men--a debate that manages the neat trick, whether in fiction or politics, of simultaneously romanticizing and demonizing the last men on top.

The truth is that for ordinary American men with ordinary white-collar or blue-collar jobs, the power was more imaginary than real. Even the minority of men who did possess extraordinary power paid a high price in the emotional domain if they did fail to be "good providers."

As a feminist and a woman, I feel a real sense of urgency about the need to challenge the false narratives that have developed in recent years about how fabulous life was for men in the good or bad (depending on one's perspective) old days. These narratives are important because they inform public debate about what the economic and cultural future should look like in the United States. They are based on the assumption that male dominance in America's postwar decades was not only commonplace but made men (if not women) happy. This is a dangerous premise, because it promotes cheap nostalgia that minimizes the burdens that the old power arrangements placed on both sexes.

I have written this e-book in memory of my father, Robert Jacoby, who worked 60-to-80-hour weeks in a world in which both he and my mother would have been pitied had she worked outside her home.

READ AN EXCERPT IN "The Daily Beast,"

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From Yale University Press: Susan Jacoby's New Biography of Robert Ingersoll: "The Great Agnostic and American Freethought"

If you were a fan of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," you will not want to miss this long-overdue biography of Ingersoll from Yale's American Icons Series. In this provocative portrait, Jacoby explores the career of the foremost spokesman for secularism and the separation of church and state during America's Gilded Age. When Ingersoll died in 1899, it was widely acknowledge that he might well have become president of the United States had it not been for his openly expressed antireligious views. To the question that retains its divisive power--was the United States founded as a Christian nation?--Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.

This erudite and entertaining account restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of "new atheists." Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America's often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, including women's rights, immigration, and evolution, that are as potent and divisive now as they were in Ingersoll's time. The Great Agnostic emerges as one of the indispensable public figures who keep an alternative version of history alive. He devoted his life to the greatest secular idea of all--liberty of conscience belonging to the religious and non-religious alike. For further information, visit




"Robert Ingersoll used his wit to blast the absurdities of religion, while his warmth kept him close to his audiences. He has found his perfect biographer in Susan Jacoby, who uses his story to provide deep insights not only into Ingersoll's century but out own." 

--Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction"


 "As someone who did brave battle with narrow-minded fundamentalists in his own day, Robert Ingersoll would surely be appalled at the political influence of their heirs today. But their very rise makes Susan Jacoby's fine, compact and judicious account of Ingersoll's  life and ideas all the more important. She has given us a splendid intellectual portrait of an American who deserves to be better known."

--Adam Hochschild, author of "To End All Wars" and "Bury the Chains"



Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age

Vintage Books February 2012

Susan Jacoby, an unsparing chronicler of unreason in American culture in the New York Times bestseller The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, now offers an impassioned, toughminded critique of the myth that a radically new old age—unmarred by physical or mental deterioration, financial problems or intimate loneliness—awaits the huge baby boom generation just beginning to turn 65. Combining historical, social and economic analysis with personal experience of love and loss, Jacoby turns a caustic eye not only on the modern fiction that old age can be “defied” but also on the sentimental image of a past in which American supposedly revered their elders.

This book unmasks the fallacies promoted by 21st-century hucksters of longevity—including health gurus claiming that boomers can stay “forever young” if they only live right; self-promoting biomedical businessmen predicting that 90 may soon become the new 50 and that a “cure” for the “disease” of aging is just around the corner; and wishful thinkers asserting that older means wiser.

The author offers powerful evidence that America has always been a “youth culture” and that the plight of the neglected old dates from the early years of the republic. Today, it is urgent to distinguish between marketing hype and realistic hope about what lies ahead for more than 70 million Americans who will be over 65 in just twenty years. This wide-ranging reappraisal examines the explosion of Alzheimer’s cases, the uncertain economic future of aging boomers in a shaky economy, the predicament of women who make up an overwhelming majority of the oldest—and poorest—old; and the absence of control over dying in a society that devotes a huge proportion of its health care resources to medical intervention in the last year of life—even when there is no hope that the person will ever recover.

Susan Jacoby raises the fundamental question of whether living longer is a good thing unless it means living better. This book speaks to Americans, whatever their age, who draw courage and hope from facing reality instead of embracing that oldest of delusions, the foundation of youth. The author applies the same standards of reason to aging as she did to the dumbing-down of American culture in The Age of American Unreason.


Susan JacobySusan Jacoby is the author of ten books, a frequent contributor to national magazines and newspapers, and the recipient of numerous awards, including a 2001 appointment as a fellow of the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers. She is a member of the advisory boards of the Secular Coalition for America and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. 



New In An Updated Paperback Edition From Vintage Books

This impassioned, tough-minded work of contemporary history—a New York Times bestseller in 2008—paints a disturbing portrait of a mutant strain of public ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism that has developed over the past four decades and now threatens the future of American democracy. The author examines the challenges posed by the current anti-rational landscape--personified by the rise of the Tea Party--for the administration of Barack Obama, who pledged during his campaign to restore reason and science in public policy-making. Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Susan Jacoby dissects a culture at odds with America’s heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern knowledge and science. With mordant wit, the author offers an unsparing indictment of the ways in which dumbness has been defined downward throughout American society. America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by a popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.

Finally, the author argues that anti-rational government is not the product of a Machiavellian plot by “Washington” but is the inevitable result of “an overarching crisis of memory and knowledge” that has left many ordinary citizens and their elected representatives without the intellectual tools needed for sound public decision-making. The real question is not why politicians have lied to the public but why the public was so receptive and so passive when it heard the lies. At this crucial political juncture, The Age of American Unreason challenges Americans to face the painful truth about what our descent into intellectual laziness and our flight from reason have cost us as individuals and as a nation.