The Book Club

Drowning in Details

Dear Chris,

A Consumer’s Republic is full of fascinating baubles of information—in the late 1950s, women actually carried pink credit cards? It’s a detailed and convincing narrative of the suburbanization of America. Its account of the impact of racism on everyday black life in the postwar years is, as you say, vivid and arresting. And it does an exceptional job of showing how women defined themselves in relation to and against the American cult of consumption.

And yet, for all that, I think—like you do—that it’s a disappointing book. Certainly when I picked it up I was anticipating something dazzling, both because I liked Cohen’s first book very much and because the subject of this new work—consumption in postwar America—seemed irresistible. (The shallow side of me was impressed by Knopf’s packaging of the book, too.) But this is a thoroughly un-dazzling book. It’s serious, respectable, exceptionally well-researched. But it never really moves.

You’ve explained why already: The prose is heavy going in places. And Cohen didn’t figure out a good solution to the problem any 20th-century American historian faces: Namely, that’s there too much information out there. Traditionally, historians had to scrounge for every bit of relevant data. But if you’re writing about New Jersey in the 1950s, as Cohen is, you’re swimming in information. The key is making sure your reader doesn’t drown in it. Cohen doesn’t always pull that off. Too often, it’s hard to tell what she wants us to pay attention to. And while what you call “nitpicking detail” may be another person’s “copious documentation,” sometimes copious can be too copious.

A couple of decades ago, one of the big trends in academia was micro-history, where a historian would take a single object or person or problem and, by excavating it in great detail, try to uncover some deeper historical truths. (Micro-history has become big in popular historical writing ever since the success of Dava Sobel’s Longitude.) There are all sorts of problems with micro-history: It’s easy to draw huge generalizations from flimsy evidence, and it’s an excuse not to dig hard enough in the archives. But at its best, micro-history makes it seem like you really can see the world in a nutshell. A Consumer’s Republic is obviously the opposite of micro-history in ambition. But the book could have used a touch of micro-historical focus, like a chapter about a single shopping mall or a particular “citizen consumer” campaign.

The danger with this approach, of course, is that your history becomes purely anecdotal. Well-chosen anecdotes can go a long way, though. Think of the way Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish crystallized its thesis about punishment in Western culture in two images: on the one hand, the regicide Damiens being drawn and quartered; and on the other, the perpetual surveillance of Bentham’s Panopticon. And the truth is that in the best parts of A Consumer’s Republic, Cohen is able to find the telling details and filter out the incidental ones. (It is fascinating, for instance, that when the first shopping malls were built, the parking spaces were made especially wide because most women shoppers were new drivers.) That she didn’t do it enough may be why the book felt simultaneously too long and too short.

What about the substance of Cohen’s argument? I assume that in the next couple of days we can get more deeply into the details of her thesis (which I think is actually pretty different from Galbraith’s in The Affluent Society, even if it comes from a similar political point of view). But I’ll just offer up a couple of thoughts/questions that her book brought to mind.

First, Cohen seems, at least implicitly, to be drawing a sharp distinction between mass consumption before World War II and mass consumption after it. There’s something plausible about this thesis. The idea of the purchaser consumer was wrapped up with Keynesianism, and World War II invigorated the idea of the citizen consumer. But it’s certainly true that at least since the late 19th century, and arguably even before that, Americans have been obsessive consumers. In a fascinating new book called Keeping Up With the Joneses, historian Susan Matt shows how between 1890 and 1920, envy was transformed from a vice into a virtue, since it would drive people to be more ambitious and work harder in order to acquire more stuff. Obviously the Great Depression put a crimp in these plans. But how was the consumerism of the 1950s and 1960s different from that of the 1920s (setting aside the fact that American prosperity was more evenly distributed in the postwar years)? You could ask a similar question about the differences between the post-World War II consumer movement and the Progressive initiatives that resulted in things like the Pure Food Act in the early 1900s.

Second, what were the real goals of Cohen’s “citizen consumers”? When these people were out there demonstrating against high meat prices, what were they really after? Did they want a coherent system of price controls? Did they think the government could allocate resources better than the market? Or did they just want (as I sort of suspect) to pay less for meat? In other words, were they really citizen consumers or were they just looking for a free lunch?