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Vance Packard and American Social Criticism.

When academics cite thinkers whose ideas shaped the nature of social debate in the 1950s and 60s, they customarily evoke figures such as Betty Friedan, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, David Riesman and C. Wright Mills. Seldom do they mention Vance Packard. His work is considered too anecdotal, unoriginal and lightweight to rank high in the pantheon of intellects. Yet it was Packard's books, chock full of journalistic prose, middlebrow tastes and flights into romantic moralism that the mass public devoured. From The Hidden Persuaders in 1957 through The People Shapers in 1977, Packard was seldom absent from the best-seller list, and two subsequent books enjoyed modest success. Smith College Professor of American Studies Daniel Horowitz rescues Packard from scholars who assume that popularizers are too trite to be important. Drawing extensively on Packard's writings and supplementing them with personal interviews, Horowitz has produced a first-rate biography that neither romanticizes nor diminishes his subject.

Horowitz traces Packard's life from his boyhood Pennsylvania farm life through his current New England semi-retirement and notes the various influences that shaped his thought. From his childhood Packard developed a small-town moral code anchored in Methodism, middle-class ethics and producerism. This meshed well with suburban and pietistic outlooks when he transplanted himself to homes in Connecticut and on Chappaquiddick Island. Along the way he absorbed the teachings of Penn State sociology professor Willard Waller, particularly his humanitarianism and penchant for readable prose. Packard further honed the latter skills at the Columbia School of Journalism, and as a writer and editor at American Magazine.

Above all, Horowitz presents Packard as Zeitgeist, a man whose views mirrored the hegemonic norms of white, male, middle-class America in the 1950s and early 60s. Packard's life is contextualized through introductory chapter sections that locate him within historical and cultural trends. He also links Packard to other critics through clever chapter titles. Packard's move to the suburbs, for example, is titled "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," an homage to Sloan Wilson's novel. Packard's was indeed a "suburban vision" (p. 221) that assumed problems sprang more from the excesses of affluence than the deficiencies of poverty. He championed a middle-class lifestyle tempered by producerism and communitarianism as the antidote to individualism and the lust for status he felt rampant in American society. When Packard espoused political solutions - and Horowitz insists that Packard was no ideologue - he called upon government to safeguard communities and individuals from unscrupulous business practices, a classic liberal regulatory posture.

Although scholars like Seymour Martin Lipset and Lewis Coser dismissed Packard as simplistic and his data as sloppy, his refusal to sing the praises of corporate America and 50s-style conformity made him heroic to millions of readers. Saving Packard from academic reductionism forms the heart of Horowitz's analysis. He draws upon the pathbreaking work of Janice Radway to view Packard through the eyes of readers, book critics, the business community, New York intellectuals and suburbanites as well as the academic community for whom he was anathema. What emerges is a more complex and influential individual than sociologists like Coser or Herbert Gans would have us believe. In studies of media manipulation, planned obsolescence and mindless search for status, Horowitz insists that Packard got the questions right, even when his solutions were vague, his prose heavy-handed and his research unscientific. For Horowitz, Packard was a synthesizer, not an original thinker, and a "middle-brow" spokesman for the masses, not an intellectual.

Horowitz also criticizes his subject. He sees Packard as a bundle of contradictions, a man with three homes who did not live the frugal life he espoused, and one who profited from exposing manipulation in the advertising trade, yet tirelessly promoted himself. Further, Packard simultaneously attacked and created consensus ideology when he attacked Big Business, but shied away from radical economic and social alternatives. Thin-skinned, Packard frequently over-reacted to attacks on his books, yet he actively sought acceptance from the very academics who rejected him.

Horowitz notes that Packard's influence waned as the times changed. His Sexual Wilderness (1968) addressed contemporary sexual mores, but read like a Methodist polemic against feminism, promiscuity and youth culture. Likewise, A Nation of Strangers (1972) appears a nostalgic work that longs for bygone times, but which misunderstands American pluralism. In the wake of the 60s, Packard embodied the "crisis of liberalism" (p. 240) shared by many white males of his generation. Ill health, outmoded ideas and declining sales curtailed Packard's activities after 1972, though 1989's The Ultra Rich, a critique of the symbolic uses and cultural power of money, once again engendered debate.

In the end, Horowitz argues that Vance Packard the middle-brow popularizer should be taken seriously as a social critic, even if some of his conclusions and methods are suspect. The reader is treated to a balanced, thoroughly researched and thoughtful biography. Taking a page from Packard, it is also jargon-free and imminently readable. This book should challenge professors to reconsider the way they teach the intellectual underpinnings of late 20th-century American society. At the very least, Vance Packard should be recognized as a force in American social criticism.

Robert E. Weir Bay Path College
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Weir, Robert E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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