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Second, historians face the problem of how to explain these changes. This latter task is always tricky for historians or at least it should beand it poses particular challenges for the historiography of this period. The Second Industrial Revolution, the rise of trusts and corporations, the emergence of the professions and the managerial class, the burgeoning growth of cities and the rise of urban culture, transformations in economic and social relationships within the home and the workplace, conflicts and compromises between capital and labor, the shift in broad societal values from a producerist ethic of thrift to the acquisitive extravagance of conspicuous consumption — these sweeping changes in American life gave a new shape to American culture, a shape that in many ways still holds today.
The historian of this era, then, has to work especially hard to make the familiar strange, and Leach faces this task gamely.
Desire must precede demand. Consumerism as a way of life — by the end of the era, the American way of life — was more, Leach argues, than a new practice; it was, in fact, a new culture. In making his argument, Leach invokes culture in the round — in an all-encompassing, anthropological, and overtly Geertzian sense.
He argues that the mercantile industry, led by the flagship department stores, with savvy capitalists at their helm, created an entire culture — a coherent system of values, practices, beliefs, rituals, iconography — around the ethos of desire and conspicuous consumption.
From the burgeoning theatricality of store window displays — an art form and a professional practice shaped to a great extent by the innovative, inventive L.
These products and experiences, once considered wasteful luxuries, would be rechristened as necessities to which the average consumer should feel entitled and for which he — or, more and more frequently, she — should be willing to pay, in cash or, if necessary, through increasingly available credit.
While this disclaimer might be gesturing toward or against a particular argument in the historiography, its presence points more generally to the second major problem that historians of this period often face.
For even more difficult than showing how and to what degree society changed during this era is explaining who or what caused or called forth those changes. Historians of every era have to consider, even if only to eventually sidestep, questions of causality — but no era in American history seems to pose more difficulty in this regard than the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
The change is structural, systemic, complete, coherent — but it is described in terms devoid of personal agency. Like atoms seeking a stable bond, individuals dislodged from their insular and provincial lives by the disruption of railroads and long-distance commerce congregate and reflexively cohere in various associative configurations — professions, corporations, bureaucracies.
While Leach practically apologizes for the heavy emphasis on the biography of John Wanamaker — a felicitous consequence of his access to a rich and previously unstudied archive — he in fact takes refuge in biography and the biographical as a way of carving out a greater role for individual agency and conscious choice in the restructuring of society.
Frank Baum to the economist Simon Patten, who envisioned the promised land of a surplus economy dripping with limitless goods but apparently never tasted its sweetness for himself.
But the claims Leach does make upon the evidentiary ground of biography are somewhat problematic; they go too far, while at the same time not going far enough. This is useful information, and it helps to elucidate the particular choices that Wanamker made as a businessman.
But then Leach continues: Did he shape Gilded Age religious attitudes toward consumer capitalism, or did he merely or mostly exemplify them?
What is the relationship of this particular example to the period as a whole? These are the problems I expected Leach to address at least implicitly here. Leach is writing at a particular, pivotal moment in the historiography of the period. Nevertheless, he is correct to see a continuity, or at least a correspondence, between the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and our own moment.
For historians who write about this period are hard pressed to find an explanatory language that is not shaped by and for the very object of our analysis. Indeed, contemporary historians often seem to narrate or interpret the rise of corporations and consumer capitalism in corporatist terms, through which we advance hypostatic explanatory schemes that ascribe something like a personal will to impersonal structures.About William R.
William R. Leach is a professor of history at Columbia University. His books include Butterfly People, Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life, and Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, which was a National More about William R.
Leach. Leach Summary In his introductory chapter of his book Land of Desire, William Leach claims that the rise of “American capitalism began to produce a distinct culture” (Leach, 3). Capitalism is defined as a political or economic structure governed by private interests to gain a profit.
Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach (Pantheon Books, New York, ) The original American culture was an idealized blend of Republican virtue, Christian piety and community values overlaid against a backdrop of /5.
In Country of Exiles, William Leach, whose Land of Desire was a finalist for the National Book Award, explores the troubling effects of our national love affair with mobility. "By , after almost fifty years of growth and struggle, the modern American capitalist culture of consumption had finally taken root." The following is a review of William Leach's book Land of Desire, an analysis of American consumer culture.
William R. Leach is a professor of history at Columbia University. His books include Butterfly People, Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life, and Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, which was a National Book Award finalist.4/5(2).