Memo - Sept. 20-22

This week focuses on the splendor of the world of goods at the turn of the twentieth century and the way that consumer goods were becoming increasingly embedded in people's sense of themselves and the ways they related to others.

In the first reading, historian Neil Harris studies popular literature from the 1890s to the 1920s to see if he can detect in popular novels subtle changes in how people thought about and related to clothes, furnitures, and other material goods. How important were they in people's lives? How much do people depend on such goods to shape their identities?

The second reading is an excerpt from the novel Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis (one of the books that Neil Harris writes about). The book explores the life of a real estate broker named George Babbitt--solidly middle class, conservative in his politics, tirelessly championing economic growth in the small city he lives in (called Zenith). The two chapters I've assigned are from early in the novel and serve as snapshots of life in Zenith. In the course of an average day, we follow George as he goes to work, has lunch with friends, and goes home at night to have dinner with his family.

The final reading, by Thorstein Veblen, is an excerpt from his famous book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen was an
economist and social critic, and this book was an influential analysis of how purchasing and displaying consumer goods shaped people's social identities, especially among the middle class (whom he calls the "leisure class"). In this excerpt, he discusses his concept of "conspicuous consumption," a term which he coined and is still widely used. This is the shortest of the three readings but also the most difficult. Do the best you can with it, and bring questions to class.

Some questions to consider:
  • According to Harris, what changed in how people related to consumer goods, from the 1890s to the 1920s? What caused these changes? Why were they important?
  • How would you characterize George Babbitt? Do you like him? trust him? admire him? relate to him? Beyond the goofy language he uses ("Gee whiz," etc.), in what ways is he similar or different to people today?
  • In the Veblen reading, why do people buy luxuries? How is consumption important in the formation of social classes? How do men and women differ in their relationship to consumption? Finally, he focuses on the "leisure class," but do any of his ideas apply to the working class as well?
  • In all three readings, what makes people desire the things they buy? What are the effects of the increased orientation around consumer goods in people's lives?