Boorstin, Daniel J(oseph) 1914-2004

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BOORSTIN, Daniel J(oseph) 1914-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born October 1, 1914, in Atlanta, GA; died of pneumonia February 28, 2004, in Washington, DC. Attorney, educator, librarian, and author. A former librarian of congress, Boorstin was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose social and intellectual history books became bestsellers. The son of a Russian immigrant lawyer, he studied English literature and history at Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude in 1934. His academic excellence won him a Rhodes scholarship, and he consequently attended Balliol College, Oxford, earning a B.A. in jurisprudence in 1936 and a B.C.L. in 1937. Boorstin became a barrister-at-law in London in 1937 before going back to America as a Yale Law School fellow and earning his J.S.D. in 1940. His academic career began at Radcliff University, where he was an instructor in American history and literature from about 1939 to 1942; about this same time he also taught at Harvard University as a history instructor and legal history lecturer. In 1942, Boorstin was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. After working as an attorney for the Office of Lend-Lease Administration in Washington, D.C., for a year, he returned to academia, first at Swarthmore College, and then at the University of Chicago. At Chicago he was named Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Professor of History in 1956, remaining in that position until he accepted the directorship of the National Museum of History and Technology at the Smithsonian Institute in 1969; he also served at the Smithsonian as senior historian from 1973 to 1975. It was while in Chicago during the turbulent 1960s that Boorstin gained a reputation as a conservative. A member of the Communist Party for one year in the late 1930s, he later testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, turning over the names of some of the people he had known to be Communists. This information came to be known among the college students at Chicago, many of whom boycotted his classes. Despite this, when Boorstin was named head of the Library of Congress in 1975 his emphasis on public information and making the country's chief repository of knowledge open to scholars and the general public alike was evidence of the open-minded, non-elitist attitude that enveloped his conservative ideals. To make the Library more welcoming to guests, for example, he held concerts and other events there and created a reading center for the public. His populist notions are also evident in his many books of social history, most famously in his trilogy The Americans, which includes The Colonial Experience (1958), The National Experience (1965), and The Democratic Experience (1973), the last of which won a Pulitzer prize. In his early writings, he was also notable for bringing to people's attention how image was coming to mean more than substance to the American public, a theme he discusses in The Image: What Happened to the American Dream (1962). A prolific author, while heading the Library of Congress he still managed to publish many books by writing in his spare time. This included The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself (1983), the first book in a trilogy about explorations in sciences and philosophy that also includes The Creators (1992) and The Seekers (1998). After leaving the Library of Congress in 1987, Boorstin worked as an editor-at-large for the publisher Doubleday & Co. and lectured at universities and other learning institutions all over the world. Although as a social historian he was sometimes criticized as a popularizer who focused on superficial issues, other historians lauded him for taking note of some of the seemingly unimportant aspects of history and formulating new and highly original ideas from them. Among his other books are The Decline of Radicalism: Reflections of America Today (1969), Democracy and Its Discontents: Reflections on Everyday America (1974), Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected (1994), and Daniel J. Boorstin: A Comprehensive and Selectively Annotated Bibliography (2000).



New York Times, March 1, 2004, p. A23.

Times (London, England), March 2, 2004.

Washington Post, February 29, 2004, p. C1.