Daniel Boorstin Dies at 89

WaPo reports,

Daniel Joseph Boorstin, 89, the prizewinning and bestselling author and historian who had served as librarian of Congress and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology, died of pneumonia yesterday at Sibley Memorial Hospital.

Boorstin was author of two dozen books, which were translated into at least 30 languages. Millions of copies have been sold around the world. The best known include a trilogy on American history, a trilogy on world history and a 1962 social and cultural commentary titled “The Image.” In this book, Boorstin coined the phrase “pseudo event,” which he described as a staged happening with little or no purpose other than to generate publicity. He also postulated that some celebrities were famous chiefly for being famous.

He won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for his 1973 book “The Democratic Experience,” which was the third volume of his trilogy “The Americans.” The first volume, “The Colonial Experience,” won the Bancroft Award in 1959, and the second, “The National Experience,” won the Francis Parkman Prize in 1966.

“I’m an amateur historian,” Boorstin once said. “One of the advantages of being an amateur is that you don’t get trained in the ruts, so it doesn’t take any originality to stay out of them. I write about what interests me, like packaging, for instance, or broadcasting.”

In the course of a writing career that spanned more than 50 years, Boorstin also covered subjects ranging from the evolution of clocks to the first use of elevators and the impact of mail order catalogues. He once described books as humanity’s “single greatest technical advance.”

He said good history also should be good literature. He was known for an ability to synthesize and for writing, with an eloquence that many professional historians lack, about how strands of history came together.

He taught at the University of Chicago for 25 years, but he never identified with academic historians. He had been criticized for oversimplification and overlooking the more complicated moments of American history, from McCarthyism to Vietnam, and for overlooking the more complicated movements of American scholarship, from multiculturalism to feminist studies.

Good for him.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. cbk says:

    One of my favorite books is Boorstin’s “The Discoverers”.
    In it, he chronicles the evolution of man’s technology as societies came together and exchanged ideas and information.


  2. Mark Hasty says:

    Boorstin is still my favorite amateur historian, though I’m partial to Bill Bryson as well, though he’s worked mostly in the history of language.

    My favorite pro is Williston Walker, without whom I would have flunked patristics in seminary.