THE SIMPLE LIFE: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David E. Shi

THE SIMPLE LIFE: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture

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This is intended to be a historical study of the ""tension between accumulating goods and cultivating goodness,"" ""between prosperity and piety,"" in the American experience--and even if you accept that threadbare dichotomy as a given, the result doesn't amount to much: three cynosures--John Woolman, John Burroughs, Scott Nearing (his pro-communism excepted)--amid successive examples of entanglement between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Shi, a historian at Davidson College and author of Matthew Josephson: Bourgeois Bohemian, thinks Max Weber went astray in suggesting that Calvinism spurred material accumulation--somehow, they just came together. (Ronald Reagan is ""a classic illustration of the synthesis."") So this isn't a repository of clear, incisive thinking. The reader will find rehashes of how colonial Puritans and Quakers, merchant and working classes, ""came to emphasize material gratification more than pious self-restraint""; how the Revolutionary patriots 'based the same libertarian arguments that had been applied against British trade restrictions to reject traditional restrictions of their own social mobility""; how the republican ""cult of domesticity"" was smothered by entrepreneurial values; how romantic Transcendentalism demonstrated ""the difficulty of the simple life as a societal ethic""; how, in the Gilded Age, an Andrew Carnegie sought (in his own words) to ""set an example of modest, unostentatious living""--and ""patrician intellectuals"" railed against (in Charles Eliot Norton's words) ""the ever-rising tide of ignorance and materialism."" Then it's on to the Progressive plea for ""conscientious consumption"" and the book's best section: a modulated, inflected appreciation of the Saturday Evening Post's Edward Bok. In tracing the displacement of Ernest Thompson Seton's Woodcraft Indians by the Boy Scouts, too, Shi provides a graphic close-up of the dilution and institutionalization of reformist movements. There are a couple of unpublicized New Deal examples--the TVA ""as an instrument of cooperative simplicity,"" the Department of Interior's homestead program--and then we're into 60s communes and such. The ancient dilemma of God-and-Mammon has had more penetrating treatment, in its American setting, than this formulaic sorting-out--but in the Progressive era at least, there's some well-developed illustration.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press