A Billboard Lovely as a Tree

Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

by Jackson Lears
BasicBooks, 492 pp., $30.00

I thought I’d learned all about the Puritans’ take on advertising from accounts of Salem divines igniting the occasional witch as a public service announcement. I discovered I was wrong one day in the Cathedral at York. I was staring at the stump of a tiny vandalized statue of the Virgin. Long ago, some Roundhead had lopped her off like a suburbanite lopping off a toadstool with a nine iron. How briskly righteous, how chillingly petty, I thought. How philistine.

But how easy for me to think so. Like the best minds of my generation, I’ve acquired the curious belief that art (along with sex, nature, and various liberations) can be sacred and harmless at the same time. So the destruction of the little statue had the special unpleasantness summed up in the word “gratuitous.”

But assume that the statue was like the peculiar mix of art and religion we think of in our time as advertising. Assume that the Roundhead was thinking about the York Minster statue the way we think about ads—profane, seductive, subversive, powerful. If so, the lopping seems less philistine and gratuitous, in the manner of our latter-day puritans lopping away at ads for cigarettes, war toys, sugar-coated cereal, and the other party’s candidates; taking a swing at all of television for that matter; grumbling at magazines full of neo-fascist men’s underpants ads; snorting at Guess jeans spreads in which jeans hardly appear because what’s being advertised is not a material object but a mood, an idea.

Things get complicated fast when we talk about advertising. Now, with Jackson Lears’s long-awaited Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, they will get more complicated still. Along with the late Warren Susman, whose position he now holds at Rutgers, Lears is one of cultural history’s masters of linking popular moods and ideas with arts, philosophies, industries, and commodities, those queer things “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” as Marx said.

Lears’s last book was the brilliant No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, about the shock of changes in technology and communications, and how they pitted the old WASP upper class against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, calling into question the nature of reality.

In Fables, the subject is advertising, seemingly simpler but ultimately far more abstract. Usually advertising gets described as a subliminal brain-washing technique, or a pop-ironic art form. Lears, however, attempts to meet the challenge offered by Daniel Boorstin, who said that advertising is “the omnipresent, most characteristic, and most remunerative form of American literature…a gross national influence without parallel in the history of sacred or profane letters.”

Lears describes this unparalleled influence with much detailing, intellectual fretwork, and historical scrimshaw: Lévi-Strauss, EI Dorado, Talcott Parsons, Ogilvy & Mather, D.H. Lawrence, Benjamin Franklin, Aunt Jemima, Ayn Rand, Partisan Review, Mad magazine, Campbell’s soup, Frank Capra, Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn; and long passages on Edith Wharton, William Gaddis, and Frederick Exley. He is as much critic…

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