Historian Christopher Lasch may be America's most famous tenured scold, though Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) would surely give him a run for the money. Both of these academics have published best-selling screeds faulting Americans for flagging moral standards; both have managed to gratify the national penchant for self-reproach. Lasch's first moment of glory came 12 years ago, with The Culture of Narcissism. Despite its scholarly demeanor, this modern-day jeremiad struck a popular nerve.
Now comes The True and Only Heaven, Lasch's first book in seven years, and in many ways his most impressive. Erudite, stimulating, and original, it is also filled with Lasch's trademark bile. ''To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light,'' he declares in one especially grumpy passage. Lasch's roll call of American vices unfurls sonorously for nearly a page.
His broader aim is clear: He wishes to rehabilitate the populist and puritanical strains in American political life. In essays on a wide range of thinkers, from the New England divine Jonathan Edwards to the social scientist Gunnar Myrdal, he attacks both the idea of progress and what he regards as the neoconservative movement's hypocritical enthusiasm for capitalism.
Despite the book's occasionally irritating self-righteousness, anyone interested in America's political culture will want to read Lasch's work. With analysts like Kevin Phillips (The Politics of Rich and Poor) already extolling the virtues of a new populism, the book's call for an updated combination of ''economic radicalism'' and ''petty-bourgeois morality'' merits debate. B+