Riesman and the Age of Sociology:
Critic of “Groupism” and the Zeitgeist
William Saroyan once wrote a story about an ugly little man who tried to overcome his feelings of inadequacy by searching Time magazine for photographs of men as homely as himself. According to this simple criterion of worldly success, people who get their pictures not just inside, but right on the cover of Time must be veritable giants. Yet when the “giant” happens to be an American intellectual, his fellow intellectuals are less likely to identify with him than to start re-evaluating his achievements—if you are that successful, something must be wrong! There are signs that a revaluation of the work of David Riesman, who was enshrined in 1954 on Time’s cover, is already under way. Perhaps this is the moment, now that the original gloss and novelty of Riesman’s ideas are beginning to wear off just as they reach a wider audience, to take a fresh look at his methods and some of his leading themes.
Riesman’s fame rests chiefly on his first book, The Lonely Crowd, originally published in 1950 and now a best-seller in a paperback reprint. A later book, Faces in the Crowd, consists for the most part of personal interviews with an oddly assorted group of Americans, and serves to illustrate rather than document the theory of American character developed in The Lonely Crowd. The year before last the appearance of a collection of Riesman’s essays, under the title Individualism Reconsidered, became the occasion for laudatory review-articles in leading periodicals.
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