“The Lonely Crowd”

In the 1950s you did not have to be living in Levittown or in other New York suburbs to hear cocktail party conversation about national character and about conformity and individuality.  David Reisman, a Harvard University sociologist, generated a lot of that conversation with the publication of his book (with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denny), The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950).

After World War II, many educated people became interested in questions about conformity and whether you could generalize about a national character, whether, for example, the German people tended toward authoritarian personalities.  David Reisman tried to describe changes in the American character that paralleled the larger changes in mass culture and in an increasingly urban, industrial society.  He made a distinction between three types of personalities: the tradition directed, the inner directed, and the other directed personality. Tradition-directed people tend to obey ancient rules and and seldom thrive in a modern, fast changing society. Most of Reisman’s attention focused on the juxtaposition of the inner v other directed personality types. Inner-directed people tended to be more rigid and confident; they embodied certain Protestant ethic values and were motivated by individual aspiration and ambitions. The other-directed personality type aspired to be loved rather than esteemed. They wanted to feel in harmony with the opinions around them.  They fit into a world where large-scale organizations and bureaucracies were becoming commonplace.  The other directed person was largely conditioned by what he thought other people would think of him.

Reisman argued that Americans were shifting from a society where its people were predominantly inner-directed to other-directed; the personality of the other directed person fit more easily into a world increasingly influenced by large corporations and government bureaucracies.  Many sociologists at the time were skeptical about these generalizations because they believed that that the variations in personality types within societies are greater than those between societies, making generalizations about national character misleading.  The skepticism of his colleagues aside, Reisman had a huge following and many admirers.

The great literary critic Lionel Trilling said The Lonely Crowd was “one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.”  Reisman became a household name and the “lonely crowd” a common point of reference.  He appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine on September 27, 1954. His book sold more than 1.4 million copies as of 2002, an unheard of number for a book by an academic social scientist.  He was an uncommon man, who I knew during the 1960s and 1970s. Reisman thought he would become a doctor when an undergraduate at Harvard.  He switched to law and did so well that he clerked for Justice Louis Brandeis.  He worked at law for a while, turned down an offer to become president of Sarah Lawrence College and at the age of 36, with a wife and four children, he turned to sociology.  He was an amazing reader and correspondent.  He communicated with hundreds of young social scientists whose work he found interesting.  He eventually taught at the University of Chicago and then at Harvard for many years.

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