HIDDEN HISTORY By Daniel Boorstin Harper & Row. 332 pp. $19.95
DANIEL BOORSTIN, who recently served as librarian of Congress (1975-87), and before that as director of the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology, has long been one of our most prolific, wide ranging (and widely read) historians. This harvest of 24 essays, gleaned from four decades of intellectual curiosity and fertility, is highly representative of his awesome scope: from antiquity to the future, and from law to technology.
It is also indicative of his customary strengths and trademarks. In the latter category, for instance, he is a wordsmith who constantly salts his pages with idiosyncratic phrases, some of which have by now become part of common parlance: pseudo-event, givenness, the preformation ideal, well-knownness, and the Fertile Verge (the last a means of describing and defining American creativity).
Boorstin is equally comfortable offering grand generalizations (e.g., "the more flexible we have made our constitutions, the more rigid and unexperimental we have made our political theory"), alongside obscure yet intriguing particulars (e.g., that Charles Darwin refused when Karl Marx asked his permission to dedicate Das Kapital to him).
Boorstin also serves up a delicious menu of firsts: the concept of sightseeing (in 1847), the notion of a news release (in 1907), introduction of the newsreel to the U.S. from France in 1910, and the copyright for the first American Express Travelers Cheque in 1891.
Boorstin also has highly distinctive emphases. He strongly believes in American exceptionalism even though that bias has been under attack for a decade now as an unfortunate form of parochialism. Here are a few illustrations that some readers may find problematic: "During our first centuries we experienced more different kinds of verges, and more extensive and more vivid verges, than any other great modern nation"; "In no other country has the hagiography of politics been more important"; "American history, more perhaps than that of any other modern nation, has been marked by changes in the human condition"; and "We like to try the new as do few other peoples in the world."
Although these are very difficult claims to measure, there is no sign that Boorstin has even tried to do so. Although he really is not a national chauvinist -- indeed, Boorstin paints a rather gloomy picture of our contemporary culture and future prospects -- he persistently labels our attributes as the best, or the worst, or the most, or simply as distinctive. He gets our attention by paying a price: a certain lack of judiciousness.
Boorstin will shock Native Americans with the assertion that "the North American continent was (except for sparse Indian settlements) empty of indigenous populations." And his muse occasionally nods in other ways. When he calls the 1920s "a dreary, unheroic decade," one wonders about Babe Ruth and sports, Charlie Chaplin and other film stars, Thomas Edison who became a legend in his own lifetime, and various literary celebrities of the roaring '20s.
Curiously, Boorstin continuously celebrates the role and impact of "community" in the making of America. Individualism is scarcely mentioned. This discrepancy is symptomatic of a problem with balance throughout.
Even so, the best of these essays are eminently readable and provocative. "A Flood of Pseudo-Events" is justly famous and perhaps even more valid today than when it was first published 25 years ago. "The Perils of Unwritten Law" is particularly stimulating in this year of the Constitution's bicentennial. "Political Technology" will aid many readers in understanding the value system formed in those critical years from 1776 until 1787. And "Two Kinds of Revolutions" (political and technological) is engagingly creative and speculative -- Daniel Boorstin at his best.
Michael Kammen's most recent book is "Selvages and Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture."