FABLES OF ABUNDANCE: A Cultural History of Advertising in America by T.J. Jackson Lears

FABLES OF ABUNDANCE: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Excessive ambition weighs down this important revisionist history of advertising in the United States. Lears (History/Rutgers; No Place of Grace, 1981) argues that modern advertising does not, as most think, promote hedonism but on the contrary serves class and state interest by controlling social energies. In fact, he says, scientific and nationalist myths promoted by advertisers alienate Americans from the potentially subversive pleasures of material objects. Lears casts previous critiques of advertising -- in particular those in the sociological tradition of Thorstein Veblen -- in a new light, claiming that their puritanical condemnations of consumption further this containment of pleasure. These sophisticated arguments will make a significant impact on cultural studies. The difficulties here arise from Lears's efforts to embed his reflections in a social history of American advertising and a meditation on its relationship to art. Tracing traditional New World themes of magical abundance through the 19th-century era of peddlers and medicine shows, he shows how Protestant values of personal authenticity and plain speech formed an uneasy dialectic with promises of transformation offered by commercial culture. But his narrative dissipates as it moves into a string of meandering mini-biographies of figures like P.T. Barnum, Theodore Dreiser, and Edward Steichen while eschewing the case studies of particular advertisements and their reception that might have lent more weight to his theoretical contentions. In the final chapters he interprets treatments of advertising by novelists from Frederick Exley back to Henry James, concluding with a paean to American artist and ad designer Joseph Cornell. Lears seems to claim that the artistic imagination, high or low, can transcend our culture's dualisms. But these artists, with their fabled neuroses, seem problematic sources for a new vision of everyday life. While Lears's inquiry bears abundant fruit, he has stunted some of his ideas by cramming three books' worth of intellectual goods into one package.

Pub Date: Nov. 30th, 1994
ISBN: 0465090753
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Basic