Vance Packard and American Social Criticism.
Yet, despite an impressively sustained run in the literary marketplace, Packard has somehow remained an obscure figure in American intellectual life, destined to be forever wedded, particularly in the minds of historians, to the milieu of the 1950s. His reputation rests on three best-selling works of social criticism penned during those years, books that made him famous and wealthy, and left an unmistakable impress on the minds and parlance of Americans: The Hidden Persuaders (1957), The Status Seekers (1959), and The Waste Makers (1960). Such works would seem to put him in the vanguard of those social critics, today so plentiful, who examine the attitudes and cultural practices that accompany a consumption-driven economy. The manipulative power of advertising, the ceaseless competition for social distinction in the middle classes, the role of commodities as class markers, the immense wastefulness of an economy based upon planned obsolescence - these issues and more were raised in irresistibly readable form by Packard's "trilogy." But his name now seems destined to survive chiefly as an item in the familiar laundry list of postwar social critics - a list that includes C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, William Whyte, John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Goodman, Daniel Bell, and John Keats, among others.
To achieve bibliographical immortality in this way is a mixed blessing, for it secures preservation at the price of conflation. Packard's name lives on, but it lives in the shadow of other names, especially those of more respectable academic pedigree. Everyone who studies the fifties knows Packard's name. But few know much about him beyond the obvious, and fewer still are likely to have given his works the attention that they would afford, say, The Lonely Crowd (1950), The Organization Man (1956), or The Affluent Society (1958). Nor are they likely to remember that Packard produced many other books: on animal intelligence, the decline of privacy, changing sexual mores, the perilous lot of children, and the rootlessness of American life. The thought that there might have been anything distinctive about Packard's voice as an American social critic is simply not entertained.
The present book makes a good cause for changing that state of affairs, and for taking Packard's name off the laundry list for more individualized attention. But it does not do so by boosting Packard or glossing over his shortcomings. Although Daniel Horowitz benefited from the direct personal assistance of his subject in researching this book, it is a tribute to both men that Vance Packard and American Social Criticism is far from being an uncritical celebration of Packard's importance. On the contrary: one comes away with an acute sense of Packard's complexity, of his intellectual and personal limitations, and of the remarkable and enduring ambivalences with which he has lived. In the end, Horowitz accepts the conventional assessment of Packard as a synthesizer and retailer of other people's ideas, rather than an original thinker; and he readily concedes that Packard's books were often flawed by his penchant for crowd-pleasing, superficiality, haste in composition, and even punch-pulling.
But, he would add, these judgments hardly begin to exhaust what needs to be said about Packard, both as an individual and as a culturally indicative figure. And so, although Vance Packard and American Social Criticism is billed as an intellectual biography, it is actually a good deal more than that. To begin with, Horowitz's criticisms are qualified by a keen awareness of the dilemmas, both personal and structural, faced by any writer like Packard. Here was a nonacademic author coming out of a strictly journalistic background who wanted to write serious books of social criticism that drew on academic social science but were accessible to general readers - and would thereby make him a pile of money, or at least enough to live on comfortably. Not an easy feat, but Packard managed to do it consistently.
Academics often complain of the limitations imposed by professionalized academic discourse. But Packard faced a far more formidable set of problems. He depended for his livelihood upon his ability to operate effectively in the very commercial culture he made a career of debunking and satirizing. At the same time, however, his popular success, and the adjustments he made to achieve it, consistently denied him the academic respectability for which he longed. Like so many writers in this century who have hoped to steer between the swirling Charybdis of academe and the devouring Scylla of the literary marketplace, Packard ended up having to pick one over the other. Although he chose the latter, it is to his credit that he was never entirely content with the choice. He was not a sellout; indeed, it was his desire to be independent and write as he pleased, free of the constraints imposed by editors, that propelled him into a risky book-writing career. But independence brought a kind of loneliness, for although he enjoyed a huge reading public, he had no intellectual peer group. In that sense, Packard suffered from the structural limitations of American intellectual life, with its growing polarization between academic highbrows and popularizing lowbrows.
Horowitz's book, then, like recent scholarship of Joan Shelley Rubin and Janice Radway, revisits the complex issues attending "middlebrow" culture in twentieth-century America.(1) (By the same token, too, it touches on the problem of the "public intellectual.") Influenced by such scholarship, Horowitz has adopted an unusual strategy for exploring the cultural role that Packard's books played, and the territory they tried to occupy. After two fairly conventional chapters about the trilogy, which consist largely of content analysis, publishing history, and a consideration of Packard's emergence as a social critic, Horowitz provides two chapters on the trilogy's reception. The first details the responses of "readers," drawn from letters Packard received .from admirers, mostly unknown to him. The second deals with the published responses of "critics," particularly those from the business community, the sociological guild, and the urban intelligentsia.
The results of this inquiry are not easily summarized, but they indicate that each of Packard's contemporary audiences had a different, and highly partial, understanding of what he was doing. The popular readers, though they tended to be enthusiastic about Packard's work, often seemed astoundingly resistant to its critical message. Many readers of The Hidden Persuaders, for example, wrote to ask how they could use motivational psychology to further their own goals; and readers of The Status Seekers appeared more eager to find ways of increasing their own status than to transcend status-seeking. Meanwhile, critics from the business community, outraged by the books' irreverent depiction of them, attacked Packard with a virulent intensity that surprised him. An equally critical, and somewhat snobbish, reaction came from turf-protecting academic sociologists, who deigned to notice Packard only in order to savage him. A similar disdain marked the books' treatment by writers like Dwight Macdonald, who affixed the label "middlebrow" to them, or Loren Baritz, who saw Packard as a pious "nostalgic," yearning for the values of the nineteenth-century village. For all his marketplace success, Packard faced incomprehension and ungenerosity on all sides in the reception of his books.
Yet Baritz's characterization hit the bullseye in many respects, for Packard's core values were thoroughly traditional, even defiantly old-fashioned. His books, Horowitz argues, were really "jeremiads that celebrated virtue and lamented corruption." Packard described himself as a "modern Isaiah crying out in the wilderness of tail fins," and indeed he was a moralist who loathed and feared the wild profligacy of a burgeoning American consumer culture (p. 207). He consistently esteemed producer values, simplicity, hard work, individual responsibility, honesty, community cohesion, privacy, local democracy, and the like. Thus did Packard differ from some of his colleagues on the postwar critics list. Although other writers often tapped classic Puritan-republican themes of moral declension in their work, they also tended to dismiss such values as outmoded. The authors of The Lonely Crowd, for example, argued that "work" could no longer serve the individual's search for autonomy and meaning, and "play" should henceforth assume that role. To call for restoration of the nineteenth-century "inner-directed" character type, they contended, was an exercise in futility. Such a position, however, was unthinkable for Packard. It cut clean across his moral grain.
That grain was set early in life. Born in 1914 in the tiny Pennsylvania village of Granville Summit, Packard was raised by devout and observant Methodists, whose beliefs and example established a moral template that never left him. His father was a struggling dairy farmer with an eighth-grade education, and his mother was a former schoolteacher with a characteristically Methodist zeal for temperance, missionary work, and other expressions of moral reform. The Packard family spent the first ten years of Vance's life in this rural, agrarian, isolated setting - years that endowed him with reverence for independence, hard work, thrift, self-sufficiency, and respect for the natural environment.
Then in 1924 his family moved to State College, when his father, seeking relief from the growing anxieties of proprietary farming, accepted a position with Pennsylvania State College's research farms. Although the move to town pleased Vance's mother and resolved the family's financial difficulties, it was traumatic for Vance. As a plain, awkward farmer's son he initially found himself intimidated by the new setting, and outclassed by the sophisticated sons and daughters of the Penn State professors. Goaded by feelings of inadequacy and shame, tle bumpkin Packard determined to remake himself. As so often happens in the lives of high achievers, an accumulation of childhood wounds, taunts, and slights ended up fueling a colossal ambition to excel.
During his college years at Penn State, Packard discovered a gift for journalism, a trade that allowed him to put to good use his feelings of being an outsider-observer, rather than an insider-participant. After training at the Columbia School of Journalism, he eventually found his way to a position at American Magazine, where he remained for fourteen years, honing his feature-writing and observational skills, learning about Madison Avenue, and mastering the ins and outs of the literary marketplace. When the magazine folded in 1956, Packard was ready for the next step. He had already completed the manuscript of The Hidden Persuaders, and was preparing to send it off to the publisher. At the age of forty-two, after years of working for others, Packard launched a career as a freelance writer, and became his own boss - thereby recovering some of the lost agrarian independence of his youth.
Or so he hoped. Yet Packard soon discovered that he would always be at the mercy of forces beyond his control, especially the vagaries of markets and reviewers. And being his own boss did not resolve the ambivalences that shadowed his work. If anything, those ambivalences became more pronounced as time passed. As an analyst, Packard sought to link individual behavior with larger structural considerations. But his critiques of those structures themselves tended to be timid and circumscribed, and his solutions personal and moralistic in character. While he reviled certain excesses of the advertising industry, he held back from broader attacks upon the whole industry, or upon the economic system that produced it. Although he ostensibly attacked American status-seeking, his criticisms were sufficiently mild that his work became required reading for the most passionate status-seekers. Ardently seeking commercial success, he pretended to ignore the highbrow critics yet never stopped hoping to win their approval. An extoller of the simple, rooted life, he nevertheless accumulated a sizable fortune and lived very well indeed, shuttling at one point between a house in suburban Connecticut, a house on Martha's Vineyard, and a villa in Mexico where he and his wife Virginia liked to spend their winters. Writing about the perils of prosperity turned out to be lucrative work.
But before dismissing Packard as a bundle of contradictions, one should ask whether the contradictions are his alone. In a recent survey of employed Americans, the sociologist Robert Wuthnow found his subjects consistently expressing extraordinarily conflicting attitudes toward money, proclaiming in one breath that Americans are too materialistic, and in the next breath unashamedly affirming money's importance, and wishing they had more of it.(2) This may, as Wuthnow suggests, have to do with the present national mood. But it probably also indicates a more hard-wired national characteristic, one which antedates Packard. Consider The Great Gatsby (1925), which with its odd mixture of cynicism, shrewdness, romanticism, and moralism, elegantly captured the same ambivalence about acquisitive materialism - an elegance that is only heightened by the knowledge that Fitzgerald himself longed for the very status and prosperity that so appalled him in the Buchanans and Gatsby. Vance Packard may not have been the most penetrating, radical, systematic, or original social critic of his time. But as a cultural indicator, a writer whose ambivalences managed to register those of his middle-class readers and their world, he was, so to speak, right on the money.
1. Joan Shelley Rubin, "Between Culture and Consumption: The Mediations of the Middlebrow," in Richard W. Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History (1993), pp. 163-91, and The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992); Janice Radway, "The Scandal of the Middlebrow: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Class Fracture, and Cultural Authority," South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Fall 1990): 703-36, and Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984).
2. Robert Wuthnow, "Pious Materialism: How Americans View Faith and Money," Christian Century, March 3, 1993, pp. 238-42.
Wilfred M. McClay, Department of History, Tulane University, is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994), and is working on an intellectual biography of David Riesman.
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|Author:||McClay, Wilfred M.|
|Publication:||Reviews in American History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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