Boorstin, Daniel J(oseph)

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Boorstin, Daniel J(oseph)

(b. 1 October 1914 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 28 February 2004 in Washington, D.C.), Pulitzer Prize–winning historian who synthesized the American past and served as Librarian of Congress for twelve years.

Boorstin was born to Samuel Aaron Boorstin, an attorney, and Dora (Olsan) Boorstin (themselves the children of Jewish immigrants from czarist Russia). Samuel Boorstin had helped defend Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent who was lynched in 1915. The case stimulated the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, provoking some Jewish families to flee in fear from Georgia. Thus Boorstin grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the family had moved in 1916. He entered Harvard University at age fifteen, majoring in English history and literature, and graduated summa cum laude with an AB in 1934.

At first he sought to become a lawyer like his father. Winning a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Balliol College at the University of Oxford, Boorstin earned a BA in jurisprudence in 1936 and a Bachelor of Civil Law from Oxford the following year. He was then admitted as a barrister-at-law of the Inner Temple, London. Upon returning to the United States, he taught at Harvard and joined the Communist Party in 1938 but resigned immediately after the Nazi-Soviet Pact on 28 August 1939. In 1941 Boorstin earned a doctorate in jurisprudential science from Yale Law School and joined the Massachusetts bar. In that year his first major book, The Mysterious Science of the Law, was published, an elucidation of Lord Blackstone’s legal reasoning, which Boorstin presented as symptomatic of the social processes of eighteenth-century England. On 9 April 1941 he married Ruth Carolyn Frankel, who became his close scholarly and literary collaborator. Several of his books were dedicated to Ruth Boorstin, without whom, he later remarked, “I think my works would have been twice as long and half as readable.” The couple had three sons.

Only upon joining the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1944 did Boorstin fully transfer his academic commitments from law to history and switch the focus of his research from England to America. In 1948 The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson extended his interest in the eighteenth century. Despite the subtle flair for intellectual history that Boorstin exhibited, he soon abandoned that subgenre—and even deprecated its value as a way of approaching the American past. In The Genius of AmericanPolitics (1953), for example, the author argued that ideas were what Americans had rightly jettisoned as unnecessary baggage from the Old World. The national experience was best appreciated as the uncanny knack for finding fresh, practical solutions to the tangible challenges of the natural environment. His emphasis upon this can-do divergence from the ideological orientation that he ascribed to Europe was pithily recorded as he praised Americans for their pragmatism and their adroitness in wriggling out of the theoretical dilemmas that bedeviled Europe.

In 1953 Boorstin also experienced the most controversial episode in his career when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed him in the course of investigating Communist Party influence on university campuses. With an exceptionally promising career at stake, Boorstin proved himself to be a cooperative witness and named three names. Under oath he also offered with succinctness the credo that would shape the remainder of his career: “to discover and explain... the unique virtues of American democracy.” Boorstin explained that his vocation was to help others “understand the virtues of our institutions and their special values as those emerged from our history.” Whatever judgment is passed on his HUAC testimony, it must be noted that an extraordinary body of scholarship would radiate from that conceptual center. Although the consensus history of the 1950s with which Boorstin is indelibly associated has often been condemned for its unduly celebratory tone, he himself was provincial in neither his interests nor his experiences. He taught American history at Kyoto University (1957) and later held the chair in American history at the Sorbonne (1961–1962). During 1964–1965 Boorstin served as Pitt Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge. Such visiting professorships tended to fortify rather than alter his belief in the distinctiveness of his fellow Americans.

That vision animated the trilogy that consolidated Boorstin’s reputation: The Americans. The first volume, subtitled The Colonial Experience (1958), garnered a Bancroft Prize (1959). The second and much longer volume, subtitled The National Experience (1965), won the Francis Parkman Prize (1966). His still-longer The Democratic Experience (1973) earned the most prestigious honor of all: the Pulitzer Prize in History (1974). The Americans adds up to an extraordinary, if quirky, scholarly achievement. It bristles with novel and provocative insights; it is studded with clever epigrams; its research is prodigious; and its prose is compulsively readable. Boorstin tapped into the rambunctious dynamism that has pulsated through American society. He conveyed its innovative exuberance with infectious zest, but these three volumes also exhibit little critical edge or detachment.

Although Boorstin served as the Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor of American History at the University of Chicago and edited the Chicago History of American Civilization Series (1957–2005), he was largely immune to scholarly fashion. The Americans is primarily a work of social history. But because of his indifference to themes that later became inescapable (race, ethnicity, class, and gender), the trilogy did not exert a major influence on succeeding generations of scholars (even if many of them purloined the many anecdotal gems from The Americans to enliven classroom lectures). Each succeeding volume in the trilogy aroused greater professional suspicion that Boorstin’s approach was both idiosyncratic and too diffuse to be a model for future historians. Reviewers and critics welcomed the finely etched portraits and the juicy set pieces but missed a main frame of political and Constitutional developments; even the national scars that had never completely healed, like the Civil War and Reconstruction, were barely noticed in the author’s fervor to trace, for example, the origins of refrigeration and the formation of “consumption communities.”

A rare capacity for salvaging obscure episodes and for making sense of the technological inventiveness and social patterns in the American past did not mean that Boorstin could distance himself from contemporary issues. His diagnosis of modern conditions, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), is curiously a work that is too scathing to bear much resemblance to his historical overviews. The Image advances a case against the unreal and unserious character of public culture. To describe the fabricated happenings and misleading news reports that overwhelm the power of citizens to discriminate between reality and its shadow, Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-events,” which became a commonplace label for the devices of publicity agents, media consultants, and spin doctors to manipulate the public mind. The Image also traced how the texture of experience became enfeebled, how the adventurousness of travel degenerated into the comforts of tourism, and how the power of the hero can no longer be separated from the banality of the celebrity (whom Boorstin memorably defined as “a person who is known for his well-knownness”).

After a quarter of a century teaching at the University of Chicago, Boorstin moved to Washington, D.C., in 1969 and became the director of the National Museum of History and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution. He served as its senior historian from 1973 until 1975, when he was appointed Librarian of Congress. For a bibliophile who had praised the book as “the single greatest technical advance” that humanity had devised, the job he would hold for the next dozen years was ideal. Heading the world’s largest library, Boorstin promoted democratic access, including the arrangement of concerts, public readings, and multimedia events. But not even the performance of his official duties slowed Boorstin’s writing efforts. He consecrated himself to another, even more ambitious trilogy. Until his resignation from the Library of Congress in 1987, his regimen of writing consisted of weekends, weekday nights, and weekday mornings—when he usually arose by five a.m. to peck at a manual typewriter.

The trilogy that pushed the total sales of his books into the millions was far more extensive—in time and in space—than his earlier trilogy focusing on the United States. The Discoverers (1983) portrayed geographic and scientific pioneers. The Creators (1992) did the same for artists. The Seekers (1998) marked a return to his early fascination with ideas by examining the legacy of religious and philosophical thinkers. Even grander in scale and length than The Americans, this trilogy conveyed Boorstin’s sense of amazement at the magnitude of the human—mostly Western—adventure in wresting culture out of and over nature. These syntheses were targeted not at specialists but rather at a general audience.

Boorstin’s awesome erudition and his undiminished aptitude for raising interesting questions did not prevent even scholars who had no objection to addressing the general reader from expressing grave reservations about his entire project. The Discoverers, according to the Oxford historian Keith Thomas, “has a large and epic theme, but it is not an entirely coherent one.... Dr. Boorstin’s approach to intellectual history is... distinctly old-fashioned.” Perhaps no single intelligence could do justice to the scale of the topics that the trilogy covered, and in the final decades of his career Boorstin’s talent was most effectively revealed in shorter pieces—in discursive essays and in excerpts from the big books. Collections like Hidden History (1987) and Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected (1994), as well as the culmination in The Daniel J. Boorstin Reader (1995) (all edited by Ruth Boorstin), demonstrated a fluent, sparkling mastery of the essay form. Boorstin died of pneumonia at age eighty-nine.

Among the most prolific, popular, and versatile of American historians, Boorstin wrote more than twenty books and is remembered as the Librarian of Congress who brought the public into this hallowed institution. The National Book Foundation awarded Boorstin a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1989. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages.

Boorstin’s papers are in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. An early assessment of his historiographical legacy is J. R. Pole, “Daniel J. Boorstin,” in Marcus Cunliffe and Robin W. Winks, eds., Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians (1969). Eric Bentley, ed., excerpts Boorstin’s HUAC testimony in Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968 (1971). Stephen J. Whitfield’s critique of The Image, “The Lost World of Daniel Boorstin,” is in Stanley I. Kutler, ed., American Retrospectives: Historians on Historians (1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post (both 29 Feb. 2004).

Stephen J. Whitfield