Book Reviews -- Vance Packard and American Social Criticism by Daniel Horowitz

Article excerpt

Every college student of the 1950s and 1960s knew the works of Vance Packard, and while they may not have consciously shared in the perceived social ills that were his subjects, they recognized that there was something vaguely uneven about the author and his subjects. After all, wasn't Packard enjoying the same lifestyle that he often attacked in his books, which included The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seeker, The Waste Makers, and The Ultra Rich: How Much is Too Much? Wasn't it a case of glossing over the reality in order to reach the ideal?

Daniel Horowitz' intellectual biography, Vance Packard and American Social Criticism, looks deeply at the contradictions between Packard the man and Packard the writer, his lack of intellectual depth, his non-theoretical approach to social criticism, his writing style, his somewhat shallow appreciation for the culture about which he wrote, the nostalgia of his social vision, and his politics. In arguing for the significance of the trends revealed by Packard's works, Horowitz attempts to assess both Packard's writings and their impact on two generations of readers. That he is largely successful is a measure both of his research and the availability of data from Packard.

Horowitz, a professor of American studies and history at Smith College, argues that many of the post-World War II themes central to American culture are the focus of Packard's works. That Packard's vision is firmly anchored in a nostalgic past that more than a little is shaped by his own simple, agrarian, and Methodist upbringing is a point that is well made. It is a theme Americans return to periodically: A vision of an American society where the individual, family, and social responsibility are paramount. …

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