Daniel J. Boorstin
Daniel Joseph Boorstin (October 1, 1914 – February 28, 2004) was an American historian at the University of Chicago who wrote on many American and world history topics. He was appointed the twelfth Librarian of the United States Congress in 1975 and served until 1987. He was instrumental in creating the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. Repudiating his youthful membership in the Communist Party, Boorstin became a political conservative and a prominent exponent of consensus history.
He argued in The Genius of American Politics (1953) that ideology, propaganda, and political theory are foreign to America. His writings, along with those of historians such as Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and Clinton Rossiter, were often seen as belonging to the "consensus school," which emphasized the unity of the American people and downplayed class and social conflict. Boorstin especially praised inventors and entrepreneurs as central to the American success story.
Boorstin was born in 1914, in Atlanta, Georgia, into a Jewish family. His father, Samuel, was a lawyer who participated in defense of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent who was accused and convicted of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. After Frank's 1915 lynching led to a surge of anti-Semitic sentiment in Georgia, the family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Boorstin was raised. He graduated from Tulsa's Central High School in 1930 at the age of 15.
Although Samuel wanted his son to attend the University of Oklahoma, become an attorney, and join his own law firm, Daniel wanted to attend Harvard Law School. He graduated with highest honors (summa cum laude) from Harvard in 1934, then studied at Balliol College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar, receiving BA and BCL degrees. The American National Biography Online states that he joined the Communist Party in 1938, then left it in 1939, when Russia and Germany invaded Poland. In 1940, he earned an SJD degree at Yale University.
Boorstin moved away from his earlier leftist views. In 1953, after being subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Boorstin became a cooperating witness and gave the committee the names of other Party members in his cell. Some students later boycotted his lectures due to his testimony to the HUAC. Boorstin was hired as an assistant professor at Swarthmore College in 1942, where he stayed for two years. In 1944, he was hired by the University of Chicago as a professor until 1969.
He was the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge in 1964. He served as director and senior historian of the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution (now known as the National Museum of American History, Behring Center) from 1973 to 1975. President Gerald Ford nominated Boorstin to be the Librarian of Congress in 1975. On April 9, 1941, he married a Wellesley College graduate, Ruth Carolyn Frankel (1917–2013).
She quickly became his partner and editor for his first book, The Mysterious Science of the Law, published in the same year. With Ruth as his collaborator, Boorstin wrote more than 20 books, including two major trilogies, one on the American experience and the other on world intellectual history. The Americans: The Democratic Experience, the final book in the first trilogy, received the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in history. Boorstin's second trilogy, The Discoverers, The Creators, and The Seekers, examines humanity's scientific, artistic, and philosophic histories, respectively.
In his “Author’s Note” for The Daniel J. Boorstin Reader (Modern Library, 1995), he wrote, “Essential to my life and worked as a writer was my marriage in 1941 to Ruth Frankel, who has ever since been my companion and editor for all my books.” Her obituary in The Washington Post (December 6, 2013) quotes Boorstin as saying, “Without her, I think my works would have been twice as long and half as readable.” Within the discipline of social theory, Boorstin's 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America is an early description of aspects of American life that were later termed hyperreality and postmodernity.
In The Image, Boorstin describes shifts in American culture – mainly due to advertising – where the reproduction or simulation of an event becomes more important or "real" than the event itself. He goes on to coin the term pseudo-event, which describes events or activities that serve little to no purpose other than to be reproduced through advertisements or other forms of publicity. This book also describes the type of false stories that came to be called "fake news" in the 2010s.
The idea of pseudo-events anticipates later work by Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord. The work is an often-used text in American sociology courses, and Boorstin's concerns about the social effects of technology remain influential. Boorstin has been credited with saying, "Ideas need no passports from their place of origin, nor visas for the countries they enter ... We, the librarians of the world, are servants of an indivisible world ... Books and ideas make a boundless world."
When President Ford nominated Boorstin to be Librarian of Congress in 1975, the Authors Guild supported the nomination but was opposed by liberals, who objected to his perceived conservatism and his opposition to the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The American Library Association attacked him because Boorstin "was not a library administrator." The Senate confirmed the nomination without debate.
Boorstin retired in 1987, saying that he wanted to do full-time writing. He died of pneumonia in Washington, D.C., on February 28, 2004. He was survived by Ruth, his three sons, Paul, Jonathan, and David, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. David Levy, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, said humorously in one of his lectures after Boorstin's death: "One can only imagine what he might have achieved if he had only listened to his father’s advice about where to go to college."