Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Close-ups of America - from fads to heroes. Microhistory

Hidden History: Exploring Our Secret Past, by Daniel J. Boorstin. New York: Harper & Row, a Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book. Xxv plus 332 pp. $19.95. THIS is a major contribution to a sometimes neglected subject, the writing of microhistory, or what Daniel Boorstin calls explorations into a secret past - in this case, America's. Here the former librarian of Congress and award-winning historian offers a sampler of his own writings in the genre published between 1948 and 1985.

While the revelations are less sensational than one might expect from the enticing title, ``Hidden History'' provides intimate close-ups of some of the best known of America's people; critical examinations of our fads and foibles; candid portraits of our heroes - sung and unsung; and penetrating analyses of certain events and pseudo-events, those nonspontaneous, specially concocted ``experiences of our own contriving'' (like MacArthur's ``triumphal'' journey across the country after he was fired by Truman).

About these ads

Boorstin's prologue sets the tone for his anthology. It is an essay about America, which he sees as ``a land of verges,'' of encounters between things - sea and shoreline, city and countryside, old worlds and new ones, traditional ways and innovative technologies.

Boorstin claims that, out of the historical, geographic, cultural, and demographic interactions, three characteristics emerged: an exaggerated self-awareness; an openness to novelty and change; and a tendency toward community consensus, a sort of interdependence of fate, especially in the face of adversity. Other traits could be added to the list, some quite contradictory, such as the belief in equality alongside a long history of discrimination, the celebration of rugged individualism and the involvement of so many in all kinds of collective activities to enhance personal aggrandizement, and other general discrepancies between creed and conduct.

Some of these are evident in various guises alongside Boorstin's designated ``three'' in sections written under such grand rubrics as ``The Limits of Discovery: The Bias of Survival,'' ``A By-Product Nation,'' ``The Therapy of Distance,'' ``Revolution Without Dogma,'' ``From Hero to Celebrity,'' and ``The Republic of Technology and the Limits of Progress.''

The volume is a rich potpourri, with 23 essays and hundreds of insights - and hindsights - on a variety of topics. They defy easy summarizing. Instead of trying, let me highlight a few that caught my fancy.

In ``The Transforming of Paul Revere,'' Boorstin turns the national hero, Minuteman-courier of the message that the British were heading for Lexington, back into the Bostonian provincial, former soldier of the king, and local silversmith he actually was.

In ``The Adamses: A Family in the Public Service,'' Boorstin explains how, after four generations, ``as democracy progressed, the capacity of the Adamses for national leadership declined''; how ``an egalitarian nation, motley with recent immigrants, no longer acquiescent to genteel New England leadership, left the Adamses behind,'' and how little they cared as many of them abandoned America, a society that had become more and more alien to their sense of noblesse and the moral certitude they had tried to convey to others.

Not all the essays deal with the early days of nationhood. For example, in ``A Nationally Advertised President,'' Boorstin writes about how the advent of public relations and modern media techniques in the first FDR administration began to reshape the symbolic and substantive character of the presidency. And, in ``From Charity to Philanthropy,'' he discusses the likes of Rosenwald, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and all those who founded privately funded museums and concert halls and colleges like Cornell, Stanford, and Chicago, explaining that they were not anonymous patrons doing their ``Christian duty'' but involved and committed advocates, seeking to direct the course of the arts and sciences and education itself.

About these ads

Most of Boorstin's perspectives are spelled out in detail. Sometimes, however, his use of a one- or two-liner almost says it all. Part V, ``The Momentum of Technology,'' begins with this opener.

Admiring friend: ``My, that's a beautiful baby you have there!''

Mother: ``Oh, that's nothing - you should see his photograph.''

The rest is commentary.

Peter I. Rose, a sociologist, is director of the diploma program in American studies at Smith College.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.