The Predicaments of Plenty: Interwar Intellectuals and American Consumerism

Article excerpt

Scholars have thoroughly charted the rise of American consumer culture and the intellectual responses it has engendered. They have paid far less attention, however, to the ways in which the Great Depression forced a fundamental change in intellectual attitudes toward this development, which is often referred to as consumerism. Writers, reformers, and educators of all political persuasions forged a significant critique of American mass consumer behavior in the years between the world wars, when an explosion of credit, advertising, and consumer goods fostered a dramatic change in attitudes toward wealth, leisure, production, and consumption. While I do not seek to enter the ongoing debate over when and why a true "consumer culture" came into being,2 I do hope to show that the complex interwar consumerism critique was characterized by both a conservative longing for tradition and social order and a liberal attack on corporate power and the artificial manipulation of human desires. I further contend that many critics of consumerism modified their views considerably as a result of the economic crisis of the 1930s, and that this change in attitudes mirrored the political left's abandonment of radical solutions over the course of the decade.3

Through an analysis of the writings of Samuel Strauss (1870-1953) and Stuart Chase (18881985)-two of the period's most perceptive critics of consumerism-I will attempt to illuminate the intellectual problems posed by this early incarnation of the "affluent society." Strauss and Chase are worthy of our attention for several reasons. They were not the only ones who denounced mass behavior, of course, as interwar critiques along these lines emanated from a variety of writers, including the sociologist Robert Lynd, the novelist Sinclair Lewis, and several former progressives. Even journalist par excellence H. L. Mencken's musings on the new middle-class "booboisie" betrayed apprehension over the changing economy's threat to traditional conceptions of social status. But Strauss and Chase stood out from their peers because they routinely placed American consumption habits at the center of their agendas. And despite their dissimilar backgrounds and goals (Chase was an active, pragmatic technocrat, while Strauss was a sequestered theoretician), they came to remarkably similar conclusions regarding the more troubling aspects of consumerism. Chase was more widely read than most of his progressive counterparts, and in the ensuing years numerous historians and economists have studied his writings (Westbrook 389). However, few scholars have focused on Chase's cultural and moral message, and fewer still have closely scrutinized any aspect of Strauss's work.

A close look at these individual voices in the consumption debate can, I believe, edify our understanding of the long process whereby the United States became a consumer society, while also helping us chart the intellectual conversation in a society grappling with the emergence of consumption as a driving social and economic force. Strauss and Chase thus serve as valuable models for the way in which apprehensive Americans eventually grew to accept, or at least tolerate, the consumerist juggernaut.

In order to explain the context of my argument concerning Strauss and Chase, a brief note on the secondary literature is in order. Scholars have come to a variety of conclusions regarding intellectual responses to early-twentieth-century consumerist trends. William Leach, Susan Matt, Daniel Horowitz, Meg Jacobs, and Kathleen G. Donohue have published some of the most notable recent work on consumption, business, labor, and the state in the early twentieth century. These scholars' studies of the rising consumer culture are all exemplary, but with the exception of Donohue and Jacobs, they say little about when and how progressives and New Deal-era intellectuals modified their attitudes toward consumerism after 1930. Horowitz, for example, suggests that the early years of the Great Depression led some intellectuals to predict significant changes in consumption patterns and the national cultural life, but he does not explore these intellectuals' changing attitudes toward consumption. …