Coping with Abundance
Up to this point, we have seen how Americans have defined themselves and their place in society through goods. Their spending ways have said as much about their desires as their purchases, as much about the meanings of the things they bought as their physical consumption. Still, Americans have not always been pleased with a culture built around such longings. At this midpoint in our journey through the all-consuming century, we need to pause to ask: How in the first half of the century did Americans challenge and restrain this culture of consumption?
Americans have a long history of tension between the pursuit of material pleasure and the quest for simplicity. The extraordinary abundance of America's virgin land, relatively free from the grasp of the privileged few, attracted wave after wave of immigrants and pioneers willing to forego familiarity and relative comfort in the present for the hope of far greater material rewards in the future. Fulfillment was supposed to come to those who worked hard and were faithful to the dream of success. If Max Weber's famous saying that America was born “modern” has any validity, it is in that America was born a market. Yet these same settlers brought with them a rich religious and moral heritage that made a virtue of selfcontrol and of communities protected from vice and corruption. The same country that has been addicted to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs has also been the home of Prohibition, antidrug “czars,” and stringent regulations on smoking. The culture that defined itself by its ever-rising “standard of living” also produced prophets of personal simplicity.