Daniel J. Boorstin has always done very interesting things with the materials of the American past. Trained as a lawyer, with the sympathies of a historian and the instincts of a sociologist, he has looked at the familiar from unexpected angles. More often he has prospected on territory that others in search of more obvious ores have left unclaimed. Less attracted by past politics than many of his brethren, he has increasingly concentrated his attention on what he calls the American experience. By this he means the way people in this country have lived out their daily lives as, over the years, dramatic changes have occurred in our means of production, communication systems, population distribution and cultural sanctions.
Fifteen years ago he published a book that examined the experience of the people in the Colonial period. This was followed in 1965 by a volume that carried the record through the Civil War. Now, with the appearance of "The Americans. The Democratic Experience" the enterprise is completed. By any criterion -- size, variety of subject matter, philosophic import -- this is a project designed on the grand scale.
The first volume opened as the Arabella made her landfall off Cape Sable on June 6, 1630. The present work ends at 4:17 P.M. July 20, 1969, as the first American set foot on the moon. Long as is this passage of time, the transit of social and spiritual space is somewhat greater. Almost the first sentence in the first volume is "Never was a people more sure that it was on the right track." Almost the last sentences in this concluding installment deal with the momentum in our technical systems that is drawing men even further into the intricate maze that seems to be the future.
In so vast an enterprise, there is bound to be room for claims to correction and pleas for modification of emphasis or judgment. I made a list bearing on matters on which I have some knowledge in the present volume. It cites two errors of fact and indicates places where I wish Mr. Boorstin had said more, a larger number of places where I wish he would have said less, the names of some men I think he should have mentioned and discussed, and certain issues or events on which my opinion was different and presumably more firmly grounded than that of Mr. Boorstin. On reading this list over I decided not to offer it in evidence here. Laid against the imposing achievement of this work it all seemed small-minded and unproductively petulant.
And what is the nature of that achievement? Mr. Boorstin has, in the first instance, written a big book filled with arresting quotations from past observers of the American scene; delightful portraits of inventors, organizers, go-getters, scholars, con-men, engineers and reformers that he has, often enough, rescued from oblivion; clear and simple description of industrial processes; entertaining reports on customs, habits and states of mind. The range of information is remarkable -- from how a calf is branded or how a noun became a verb to the way soap flakes are packaged or what celluloid did for photography.
For all this disparate material it becomes increasingly obvious Mr. Boorstin has effective organizing principles. He concentrates his primary attention on the torrent of goods and services that has flooded through the society in increasing volume throughout the last century. He looks upon the torrential outpouring as a process and sets out to analyze it systematically -- origins, course of development, methods of distribution, rates and measures of consumption and discernible consequences. Along the way he looks at most of the things we have made and bought to simplify and expedite or extend the progress and reach of our daily lives, both the self-evident and the less obvious -- automobiles, phonographs, frozen foods, cameras, cash registers, telephones, glass, elevators, flush toilets, cast-iron radiators, computers; the list is virtually endless.
He then looks at the way these things have been distributed, or, increasingly, pumped under subtle pressures into society. From the general store in the small community we are taken to the mail-order houses, the department store, the five-and-ten, the drug store that sells almost everything and on to the contemporary triumph of the supermarket.
Along the way, Mr. Boorstin discusses the expansion of credit, the creation of the installment plan, the entrapments of advertising, the development of reliable statistical procedures (an especially effective section), all of which when brought together are designed in part to control and in larger part to expand the volume of goods and services pushed into society. The implications of all these marketing improvements are nicely suggested in the examination of the modern Christmas as an exercise in the higher symbolism of enforced consumption.
From time to time Mr. Boorstin draws back from his descriptions of things and processes to consider possible consequences. One of his principal conclusions is that each new good or service designed, as in a democracy it should be, to simplify the business of living for everyone appears to act often as a subtle force to increase the disengagement of the individual from the previous reality. He is interested in the attenuating influence of each particular.
What happens to the sense of the real when a man ceases to bargain over the cost of an article lying before him on the counter and, instead, writes off to buy at the fixed price some article that he has read about in a catalogue? What happens when one exchanges the plot of ground he stands on for 10 shares of stock in a company 1,000 miles away? What happens when the memory, treasured through the years, of attendance at a single concert by Jenny Lind is displaced by the opportunity to recall the voice of Joan Sutherland on tape at any hour of the day or night? What happens when written words organized within the iron scheme of grammar are supplanted by a newspeak that is without form -- and often void -- and that is transmitted along the waves of the air to everyone everywhere? What happens when the thing itself -- the actual occasion, the real event -- becomes transformed in every household, six and a half hours a day, into a shifting image on a 21-inch tube? And, finally, what happens when certain ineluctable restrictions of nature are broken through by machinery man has made?
For the most part Mr. Boorstin is content to have settled conclusions or positive answers on such matters to one side. But every now and then he suggests that the sum of all the attenuating circumstances he offers in evidence is a force that puts everyone into what he calls an "everywhere community." It is a community with "befuzzed" boundaries and indefinite rules for citizenship. It is a place of non-events and extremely ambiguous portents where action, often enough, is transformed into "experience-at-a-distance." At least, he seems to say, there were things in the saddle in Emerson's time. Now, like the Lady of Shalott, we seem "half sick" from the weight of shadows.
It is a chilling diagnosis. The support given it by Mr. Boorstin's impressive clinical history is no less convincing because some of the symptoms have already been described by consulting specialists in other fields -- Kenneth Galbraith, David Riesman, Victor Ferkiss and Zbigniew Brzezinski for instance. And the prognosis is yet more chilling. As Mr. Boorstin points out in his concluding chapters -- which are the best in the book -- we are at the point reached by the man who invented the mill to grind out salt when he discovered he's neglected to include a device for turning it off.
With great ingenuity we have devised a system which produces an incessant discharge of changing goods and services. This system is what we now call a technology. Technology derives its refreshing energy from the ideas of science, and science proceeds by a steady expansion of knowledge. Hence from the continuing excitements of science this technological system has developed a powerful momentum. Indeed the classical separation between thought and action has been broken through. "The pace of Research and Development, of advertising, of ingenious, pervasive, and inescapable new ways for making and marketing nearly everything to nearly everybody, made it seem that the future of American civilization and the shape of every day life could not fail to be determined by the means and velocity of the enterprises already in being." Thus we are carried into "this new unfreedom of omnipotence."
There Mr. Boorstin takes leave of us with a long quotation from William Bradford's description of the Pilgrim's debate, while still in Holland, of the merits of the proposed trip to the New World. It was "a great designe, and subject to unconceivable perills and dangers." But their condition was "not ordinarie" and their calling was "urgente." "Yes, though they should loose their lives in this action, yet might they have comforte in the same and their endeavors would be honourable."
Mr. Boorstin's publishers have known from the beginning that they were on to a good thing. In announcing the first volume in the series 15 years ago, they spoke of Parrington and Beard. Here the comparison is with Tocqueville. There is never much point in discussions of the difference between blurb's reach and author's grasp. And anyway everybody has always fallen short of Tocqueville somewhere and probably always will. The fact is that in this case not only the publishers but all those interested in this country and its future are on to a very good thing. Not the least of his impressive contributions is the fact that in writing this book Mr. Boorstin has recovered so many of the resources of history as a means to further understanding of the present and more intelligent planning for the future.
Elting E. Morison is the author of "Men, Machines and Modern Times," "Turmoil and Tradition," and other books.