The Industrial Age 1865 To 1917

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Boorstin believes that Americans are primarily what they make and buy, that things, not abstract ideas, shape the way we behave. The great part of his trilogy is a celebration of America’s pragmatic, “get-ahead” spirit and the wondrous time- and money-saving inventions it brought into general use, from ready-to-wear clothing to inexpensive beef and ham from Chicago. But this final volume is also a cautionary tale, with a heavy dose of Veblenesque pessi mism. Did the very perfection of techniques for democratizing consumption and widening experiences impoverish these very experiences? Boorstin asks. Today, he writes, most Americans live in rootless, “everywhere communities” eating “allthe-time food,” places stripped of their regional identity and local flavor. Endlessly, sometimes irritatingly, provocative, Boorstin’s work is a landmark of social history that is a pure delight to read.

Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955; Knopf) is a perfect complement to Boorstin. It is a book that is almost entirely about ideas—political ideas—and it astutely analyzes the modern reform tradition, from Populism to the New Deal, that Boorstin blithely passes over. The introduction alone is one of the most astute assessments of the American reform impulse ever written, an argument as pertinent today as it was half a century ago. A pervading characteristic of American reformers of both the left and the right, Hofstadter argues, is moral utopianism, an unwillingness to abide anything thought to be evil, whether it be saloons, bigcity machines, or the Communist party.

Anticipating Boorstin, Hofstadter argues that this restless reformism is most successful in dealing with “ things . … in technology and invention, in productivity, in the ability to meet needs and provide comforts. In this sphere America has surpassed all other peoples. But in dealing with human beings and institutions, in matters of morals and politics,” it has disabling deficiencies. It leads to moral crusades and to paranoid fears that some single conspiratorial force must be behind every evil and that these evils must be obliterated immediately and forever, not controlled or hemmed in. It is no accident, Hofstadter suggests, that some of the very reformers who broke up corrupt political machines and rapacious trusts imposed Prohibition on a thirsty nation.