Social Critic, Historian Boorstin Dies
By JENNIFER C. KERR
The Associated Press
Saturday, February 28, 2004; 10:05 PM
WASHINGTON - Daniel J. Boorstin, the bow-tied, million-selling historian and social critic who coined the phrase "pseudo-event" and immersed himself in subjects both grand and obscure, died Saturday. He was 89.
Boorstin died after midnight of pneumonia at Washington's Sibley Hospital, his wife, Ruth, said.
Boorstin served as Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, and he remained active for years in library affairs. He helped with the acquisition of manuscripts and consulted on matters at the Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center, both of which he helped create.
But most people knew him for his own books. Boorstin wrote political history, cultural history, creative history and what deserved to be called popular history. He wrote about the evolution of clocks, where elevators were first used and the impact of mail-order catalogs.
His most influential work was "The Image," published in 1961. Years before such concerns were common, Boorstin wrote that the combination of mass media and corporate power had transformed the "language of ideals" into the "language of images." The news was now dominated by public relations, he believed, by "pseudo-events" staged for the sake of being reported.
In 1974, he won the Pulitzer Prize for history for "The Americans: The Democratic Experience." He also won several historians' honors and was a two-time nominee for the National Book Award. His works sold millions of copies and were translated into more than 20 languages.
But he was not universally admired. Although he disliked making political statements in his writing, he wasn't as circumspect elsewhere. In the 1950s, appearing before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, he named names of Communist Party members. In the 1960s, he was against affirmative action and attacked student radicals.
Nominated in 1975 for Librarian of Congress, he was opposed both by the Congressional Black Caucus and by black library employees. Even the American Library Association objected - because he was not a professional librarian.
Boorstin was also viewed with mixed feelings by professional historians. He was criticized for overlooking the more political moments of American history, from McCarthyism and Vietnam in the 1950s and '60s to multiculturalism in the '80s and '90s.
But few questioned that his books were highly readable. In such works as "The Discovers," "The Creators" and his "The Americans" trilogy, he tried to write history non-historians wanted to read, history he thought the professionals were too rigid to care about.
From science to farming, Boorstin looked upon history as a conflict between innovators and bureaucrats, those who thought for themselves and those who let others think for them. An admirer of William James, the great "pragmatic" philosopher, Boorstin saw the United States as the ultimate pragmatic experiment, created out of experience rather than ideas.
The son of Russian Jews, Boorstin was born in Atlanta in 1914. But the family soon moved to Tulsa, Okla., then a frontier town gushing both with oil and with what Boorstin called the "booster" spirit. Optimism, he remembered, was like a religion, worshipped as a New Yorker might feel called to the path of cynicism.
He graduated first in his class at high school and was only 15 when he entered Harvard University. Years later, while on holiday break from a teaching position at Harvard, Boorstin met a lively young Wellesley College graduate, Ruth Carolyn Frankel. Theirs was not a slow, scholarly courtship. They met on Christmas Day, 1940, and were married four months later.
An old-fashioned looking man who favored bow ties, Boorstin ran an old-fashioned operation. No market research or research assistants. Manuscripts typed on an old Olympia, then duly handed in to his primary editor, Ruth, who just as often duly handed them back and told him to do better.
"It was wonderful about how modest he was," said Ruth Boorstin, a writer and poet. "He would say, `Tell me if you don't like it, and I'll rewrite it,' but it was always brilliant," she said.
Boorstin never identified with academic historians, but he did teach for 25 years at the University of Chicago and lectured all over the world. In 1969, he became director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History and Technology (now the Museum of American History) and six years later he was nominated by President Ford as Librarian of Congress.
He had three sons: Paul Terry, Jonathan and David West.
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Associated Press