Books by Peter N. Stearns

Released: June 6, 1997

This leftist academic examination of our collective fascination with dieting depicts it as a manifestation of capitalist consumer culture duking it out with the secular remnants of puritanism. Stearns, founding editor of the Journal of Social History and a historian at Carnegie Mellon University (Millennium III, Century XXI, 1996, etc.) approaches our concern over personal poundage as a construct that, exceeding the demands of fashion or good health, can be understood only in larger cultural terms. We Americans relish the consumer goods with which we surround ourselves but feel a mite guilty about indulging in them. So we have contrived a way to—literally and figuratively—have our cake and eat it too: We diet. Focusing intensely on limiting caloric intake lets us feel virtuous and self-controlled even as we ignore our profligacy as consumers. We are not all equally affected; notably, from the 1920s to the 1960s ``weight morality bore disproportionately on women precisely because of their growing independence, or seeming independence, from other standards.'' In France, the other society considered, Stearns does not detect a view of weight loss as a moral crusade or fat as an outward sign of guilt. For Americans, rewards (a better job or social life) will come when they become thin and healthy; for the French, being thin and healthy is the reward. Interesting as the cross-cultural comparison is, one senses that its neat findings slight some untidy questions. For example, why does Stearns focus on the gender of the target of antifat comments but not on that of their source? To what extent are unattainable standards of slenderness invaluable in allowing people to devote a portion of each crowded day to self- absorption? Does that count as an expression of guilt? Those who agree with Stearns's premise from the first page will readily accept his illustrations as proof. Others may see this as an interesting study that suggests the complexity of a phenomenon more convincingly than it accounts for it. (15 illustrations, not seen) Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 1996

An intelligent debunking of end-of-the-millennium hype from historian Stearns (Carnegie-Mellon Univ.) What is the end of the 20th century going to bring—especially when it is also the end of the second millennium? Probably not very much, according to Stearns, except that the Big Date (he opts for 2001, rather than 2000) could provide an opportunity for us to take a long look at our society and where we are going. Stearns begins by reminding us that the whole idea of the calendar as we know it is very relative: Not only is our calendar Christian and just one among other ancient systems of reckoning time, but even its adoption in Christendom came relatively late—the French court was still using Constantine's system of 15-year cycles in the 13th century. Stearns describes how the stories of mass hysteria at the end of the first millennium have long been exposed as an anti-Catholic myth concocted by Enlightenment writers, such as Jules Michelet. Stearns gives us a brief tour through Christian millenarianism, including Nostradamus and 14th-century Joachim of Flora's vision of a coming era of the Holy Spirit. But the author notes that this outlook only really flourished among fringe groups during the Reformation; some found their way to the New World and still constitute a vocal minority here. We are given a review of recent turn-of-the-century attitudes: How Americans in 1900 celebrated a coming era of progress, whereas fin-de-siäcle Europeans were not so sure. Stearns offers a savvy commentary on our curious, contradictory society, with its emphasis on ``impersonal friendliness'' and lack of historical awareness, and makes his own guarded prognostications. A welcome dose of sense as we begin to leave the decade, the century, the millennium. Read full book review >