The Simple Life

The Simple Life : Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture

3.95 (42 ratings by Goodreads)
  • Hardback
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Traces a persistent strain in American thought and conduct: the effort to turn away from materialistic society and to live instead a `simple life' devoted to plain living and things of the mind and more

Product details

  • Hardback | 376 pages
  • 162.56 x 233.68 x 33.02mm | 680.39g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • 0195034759
  • 9780195034752

Review Text

This is intended to be a historical study of the "tension between accumulating goods and cultivating goodness," "between prosperity and piety," in the American experience - and even if you accept that threadbare dichotomy as a given, the result doesn't amount to much: three cynosures - John Woolman, John Burroughs, Scott Nearing (his pro-communism excepted) - amid successive examples of entanglement between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Shi, a historian at Davidson College and author of Matthew Josephson: Bourgeois Bohemian, thinks Max Weber went astray in suggesting that Calvinism spurred material accumulation - somehow, they just came together. (Ronald Reagan is "a classic illustration of the synthesis.") So this isn't a repository of clear, incisive thinking. The reader will find rehashes of how colonial Puritans and Quakers, merchant and working classes, "came to emphasize material gratification more than pious self-restraint"; how the Revolutionary patriots 'based the same libertarian arguments that had been applied against British trade restrictions to reject traditional restrictions of their own social mobility"; how the republican "cult of domesticity" was smothered by entrepreneurial values; how romantic Transcendentalism demonstrated "the difficulty of the simple life as a societal ethic"; how, in the Gilded Age, an Andrew Carnegie sought (in his own words) to "set an example of modest, unostentatious living" - and "patrician intellectuals" railed against (in Charles Eliot Norton's words) "the ever-rising tide of ignorance and materialism." Then it's on to the Progressive plea for "conscientious consumption" and the book's best section: a modulated, inflected appreciation of the Saturday Evening Post's Edward Bok. In tracing the displacement of Ernest Thompson Seton's Woodcraft Indians by the Boy Scouts, too, Shi provides a graphic close-up of the dilution and institutionalization of reformist movements. There are a couple of unpublicized New Deal examples - the TVA "as an instrument of cooperative simplicity," the Department of Interior's homestead program - and then we're into 60s communes and such. The ancient dilemma of God-and-Mammon has had more penetrating treatment, in its American setting, than this formulaic sorting-out - but in the Progressive era at least, there's some well-developed illustration. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Rating details

42 ratings
3.95 out of 5 stars
5 24% (10)
4 50% (21)
3 24% (10)
2 2% (1)
1 0% (0)
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