Abundance for What?
Reading through this new collection of David Riesman’s essays is a peculiarly unpleasant experience. The pieces collected here were originally published or delivered as lectures during the past nine years, and though they fall naturally into four sections divided by subject—“The Impact of the Cold War,” “Abundance for What?” “Abundance for Whom?” and “Social Science Research”—all together they comprise a single continuing enterprise: to define the new temper of American life brought about by the conditions of “abundance” or “affluence” or whatever term one chooses to characterize the postwar period. Now this subject is one that no one living in America can long escape from or fail to feel himself implicated in. It is, moreover, preeminently David Riesman’s subject; indeed, one might almost say that in The Lonely Crowd he invented it. And yet far from providing illumination or even entertainment, Abundance for What? only wearies the spirit.
Why this should be so is not quite self-evident. It is not that Riesman has nothing interesting to say. He has all too much that is all too interesting to say. It was, after all, in a review of The Lonely Crowd that Lionel Trilling made his now-famous remark about sociology’s having taken over the traditional work of the novel, and even in these essays one can see what Trilling meant: Riesman has the kind of imaginative concern for the styles and textures of social behavior that becomes all the more precious as it threatens to disappear (in, oddly enough, this age of sociology).
To be sure—as Daniel Boorstin so heatedly demonstrated in Book Week—the difficulty with Abundance for What? is partly literary. Reisman is not by any definition of the term a good writer; and this book was clearly edited by a process of agglomeration, by the addition of further notes and comments and explanatory prefaces, when what was needed was a sharply critical blue pencil. Beyond that there is the fact that the essays collected here are not essays at all but memoranda, or, rather, hasty outlines for books. With most of the pieces Riesman does not seem to be exploring the subject at hand so much as trying out yet another angle of entry into some imagined new “classic study” of American society. The result of writing under the pressure of this constant straining for the definitive idea and idiom, this operating in a veritable frenzy of extrapolation, is a prose style that is at one and the same time gruelingly explicit and maddeningly general.
Finally there is Riesman’s unfortunate taste for working in collaboration. No fewer than seven of the essays in this book bear the name of a co-author, and in most of the others one can find at least some touches of an alien hand. Riesman and his collaborators seem to regard social “insights” as so many bits of raw ore that can be refined together in any combination; and the broader the combination, the grander and more …