Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

Jackson Lears, Author, T. J. Jackson Lears, Author Basic Books $30 (512p) ISBN 978-0-465-09076-1
In this imposing, highly illuminating study, Rutgers history professor Lears (The Culture of Consumption) examines not just the rise of modern advertising but also the transformations of American culture that precipitated it and the influence of modern consumerism on our relationship to material objects. He deftly interweaves case histories of famous admen, like George H. Rowell, who founded the trade journal Printers Ink in 1888, and early modernist aesthete Earnest Elmo Calkins, with close readings of particular advertising campaigns and art and literature dealing with commodity culture. Lears's underlying thesis is that advertising, by treating objects of material abundance as signifiers of economic status and social progress, has reinforced America's puritanical alienation from the magic and carnivalesque hedonism of the pre-industrial world. He shows how a 19th-century commodity culture bustling with Barnumesque con men and patent medicine peddlars gave way to today's scientific-managerial consumer industries; and he chronicles the professionalization of an early 20th-century advertising industry headquartered on Manhattan's Madison Avenue. He also explores the intermingling of high and low art and suggests that the work of such artists as Proust and Joseph Cornell succeeds at investing material objects with an aesthetic value that transcends their role as mass produced, disposable goods. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 10/31/1994
Release date: 11/01/1994
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