By McClay, Wilfred M.
The Wilson Quarterly , Vol. 22, No. 3
Of the many books that seek to tell Americans about themselves, The Lonely Crowd stands among a small collection of classics. Yet the meaning of this modern classic was largely misunderstood during the decade of its greatest popularity, and its analysis of American society may be more relevant to our time than it was to the 1950s.
The eminent American sociologist David Riesman, who celebrates his 89th birthday this September, has had a career of many parts: as an attorney, law professor, freewheeling intellectual, respected student of American higher education, fearlessly independent commentator on diverse political controversies, elder statesman of the American academy. But there is one accomplishment with which his name will forever be linked, above and beyond everything else he has done: an amazingly durable book of social and cultural analysis, now nearly 50 years old and still going strong, entitled The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character.
As its subtitle suggests, The Lonely Crowd was not only an examination of the changing structures and folkways of American society at mid-century but also an exploration of the changes taking place within the souls of individual Americans. In its various editions and translations, it has sold many hundreds of thousands of copies and been read attentively the world over. Along with such works as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, James Bryce's American Commonwealth, and D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, it has earned a place on the small shelf of essential books about American society and culture.
The book's enormous popular success came as something of a surprise to Riesman and his then unknown co-authors, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, who were well aware of the many elements of chance and serendipity in its gestation. Composed during the late 1940s in a white heat of creativity, The Lonely Crowd started out as a relatively modest study of the sources of political apathy. But it grew like topsy, through many drafts, into a much more ambitious study of American life. When the book was finally published in 1950, the professional sociological community gave it a subdued reception, a mixture of lukewarm praise and mildly dismissive criticism. But, to Riesman's surprise, it received a far more enthusiastic reception from the general reading public.
In retrospect, it is not hard to see why. The very title of The Lonely Crowd - although the phrase was dreamed up virtually at the last moment by the publisher, and never appears in the book - seemed to register the ambivalences of an entire generation of middle-class Americans. The oxymoron also captured many of the more troubling features of the corporatized, bureaucratized, suburbanized, and homogenized white-collar America that had emerged in full flower in the years after World War II.
In particular, the book expressed a worry that, despite the postwar era's exuberant prosperity, the traditional American ethos of self-reliant independence was rapidly atrophying, and, as a result, America was turning into a nation of anxious, over-socialized, and glad-handing personality mongerers, salesmen, trimmers, empty suits, and artful dodgers. Hence the paradox captured in the title: a teeming throng whose individual members nevertheless feel themselves to be achingly alone, empty, devoid of purpose or independent meaning.
The Lonely Crowd quickly became one of the defining works of the 1950s - a decade that, contrary to its reputation for intellectual blandness and timidity, was exceptionally rich in works of sharp and enduring social criticism. In September 1954, four years after the book's appearance, Riesman appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the first social scientist ever to do so. His sober countenance was surrounded by figures representing the central concepts drawn from the pages of The Lonely Crowd. Beneath this curious and fanciful tableau was the identification of "Social Scientist David Riesman" and the pointed question: "What is the American Character? …