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Off the page: Charles McGovern on "Cost and Consumption"

  • Charles McGovern off the pageMcGovern talks about his book "Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship."

    Charles McGovern off the page

There are valid arguments against reading Charles McGovern's Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945 during the holiday giving season. The danger is not that McGovern's arguments will turn a reader into an Ebenezer Scrooge, it is that they will reinforce the difference between giving from the heart and spending.

 Indeed, McGovern, associate professor of American studies and history at the College, opens the book with reference to the 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life," which, he notes, is "ritually repeated at that most sacred feast of consumption, Christmas." In the film, the struggling Bedford Falls banker George Bailey argues on behalf of the institution's working-class customers, "Is it too much to ask to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?" When that moral argument fails, McGovern points out, Bailey helps the creditors equate working-class consumption with their own self-interests as merchants of commodities. Opposition then folds.

The book's premise is that between 1890 and 1945 the United States became a consumer society in which citizens began to identify themselves in terms of commodities acquired and, likewise, to define their citizenship, their sense of belonging, in terms of freedom to "get more stuff," McGovern said. In the opening chapters, the book traces the growth of national brands and the ways in which the emerging profession of advertising convinced purchasers to adopt new products and behaviors. Subsequent pages consider how those brands were used to create a common culture for an America that comprised multiple immigrant groups, how advertisers and consumerists clashed over questions including the meaning of goods and how the view of each professional group regarding the middle- and upper-class housewives who were the targets of their early efforts changed from one of competence as household administrators during good economic times to one of incompetence and irrationality during the Great Depression. By the outbreak of World War II, consumerism was so pervasive in the American mindset that many soldiers viewed the freedom they fought for as abundance, the right to enjoy American prosperity. "In the imagery and practices of nationalism and wartime patriotism, Americans came to see consumption as an integral part of American culture and to experience it as citizenship," McGovern wrote.

To underscore America's complete transformation as a culture of consumption, McGovern alluded to President George Bush's instructions following the terrorist bombings of Sept. 11, 2001. "Nobody was surprised that he said, ‘Go to the mall.' He didn't say go have earnest civic debate, nor everybody volunteer for the military," McGovern explained.

McGovern said he wrote the book as a means to understand that transition, not to condemn it. He does caution that whole classes have been left out of the general prosperity and that the related social costs are extensive if seldom acknowledged. He also remains concerned about the social impacts. "Although consumption has offered up a new form of citizenship, at best it has changed and at worst undermined civil society," he said.

In a sense, writing the book has made its author a better consumer. McGovern explained: "Do I clip coupons? No. Do I look for sales? Yes. … Do I have too much? Yes. Am I looking to get rid of things? All the time. … You spend half a lifetime accumulating stuff and, if you're not careful you'd better dis-accumulate because you will choke on it in the end."

The writing has not soured him on the year-end season of giving. "Doing this project has made me think a lot about Christmas," he said. "It is a moment when the abundance of our lives is expressed in the people we care about. As the Grinch story says, it came without boxes, it came without tags. My boys love it, but they understand that they don't need presents to know that they're loved. That may be one of the most hopeful signs of living in an abundant society."