Jackson Lears. Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1994.

In Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, William Leach shows how the creation of a “service” sector at stores like Macy’s, systematically strove to remove any traces of hard work from the selling floor. By 1910, more and more people were less and less aware about how things were made and who made them. In Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, Jackson Lears elaborates on that divide between producer and consumer, which he calls “disembodiment of desire.”


Before the late 19th century, Americans viewed “abundance” as tied to natural abundance. Abundance included farting and eating pigs during festivals in the German Land of Cockagine (1535) or mass murdering pigeons and bass, thousands of which were left to rot as described by James Fenimore (1823) in The Pioneers (37). Peddlars facilitated the relationship between this “carnivalesque” of abundance and the marketplace by selling, among other things, “dream books” which early 19th century Americans used to allay anxiety and sustain a dream of instantaneous change in their economic condition (45).

However, thanks to the burgeoning scientific rational thought  of Hermann von Helmholtz and Charles Darwin, Puritan self-control, Calvnist dualism of a solitary soul in a disenchanted universe, and :The Other Protestant Ethic” which championed emotional excitement as a means of grace (47), the peddler became more or less a bygone merchant. By the 1820s, nearly all Northeastern states had passed laws requiring peddlers to procure licenses and prohibiting them from trafficking in foreign goods. As a result, American abundance deflected human gaze upward, away from direct contact with bodily existence toward the “machine” which would replace the nurturant earth as the cornucopia (38). Best highlighted in Currier & Ives’s popular print Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1868) female figures were rendered less formidabel and less voluptuous. Protuberant bellies, breasts, and buttocks gave way to firmer, tighter, more youthful figures; men became more boyish, women more girlish (117). The American Ceres (1900) became the girl next door in (1907) when Kellog’s introduced the Sweetheart of the Corn. After 1900 the sheer amount of flesh on display decreased; the grotesque body of Carnival virtually disappeared except as a warning of what might happen if one failed to heed the morning exercise instructions from Metropolitan Life or refused to reach for a Lucky cigarette instead of a sweet. As Roland Marchand describes in Advertising the American Dream, controlling the body’s natural function became away for Americans to enter modernity.


A few movements attempted to return to the “carnivalesque.” In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionist painting sought to grasp experiences that would never appear even in the most outré corporate imagery: from insoluble sexual conflicts (Arshile Gorky) to impossible spiritual yearnings (Mark Rothko). In a culture dominated by mass production and the division of labor, he observed, paintings were among the few remaining artifacts that still bore the marks of an individual self seeking communication with others (366). Joseph Cornell (1902-72), a semirecluse in Flushing, New York, made surreal boxes filled with the paraphernalia of everyday life - stuffed birds, buttons, toys, fragments of old the- atrical posters - jux-taposed and treated with the moral authority of religious icons, similar to the animism in Alonso Cano’s The Vision of St. Bernard (1660). He attempted to counter modern advertising's drive for mastery over nature and revived an irrational, "magical" outlook that valued apparently useless objects and attempted to reconnect dreams and reality, "matter and spirit, thoughts and things.

But Lears ultimately calls these efforts moots. In the 1970s and 1980s, political pollsters either found or created a “Silent Majority” which met the countercultural challenge head on.

Advertising agency and self regulation. Ecstatic tradition. Both Protestantism both move into advertising. Commerce surpassing christianity.


Antimodernism at the turn of the century. Looks at the rise of manly pursuits/non modern pursuits by elite Americans. Fascination with mideval sword fighting to counteract dizzying alienation of modernity.