U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Exclusive Book Preview: Lacy’s Dreams of a Democratic Culture

Great-Books-distorted-circularAside from personal weaknesses, one of the reasons for the unevenness of my recent USIH posts has been the fact that I’ve been using every spare moment—burning both ends of the proverbial candle—to complete my book manuscript. Given that, and given the fact that I’m not in the mood to complete a planned post on the Cold War transition from ‘atomic’ to ‘nuclear’ language, I’m going to engage in a little self-promotion provide you an exclusive preview of my forthcoming book.

USIH regulars may know that I’ve been working, for the past two years, on a book about the history of the great books idea focused on Mortimer J. Adler and his community of discourse. The Adler focus makes this a narrative of the twentieth century, particularly the 1920-2001 period. The book is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, and will appear in its “Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History” series. My working title is Dreams of a Democratic Culture: The Great Books Idea, Mortimer J. Adler, and Twentieth-century America.

But what’s the book really about? What’s my argument? Why should you read it?

Those are all appropriate questions. The best way for me to begin to answer them is to give you a rough draft of my chapter abstracts (150-200 words each) and chapter subheadings/outlines. Here goes:

Total Words of Latest Draft: 116, 126
Estimated Publication Date: November 2013

Chapter 0: Introduction

A reader with no prior knowledge of great books or Mortimer Adler should obtain enough knowledge from the opening pages to decide whether she/he wants to learn more. After introducing both topics a discussion ensues of key terms, people, my argument, theory, and historiography. In its simplest form the book’s thesis is as follows: Mid-century intellectuals who promoted the great books idea shared a cosmopolitan dream of cultural democratization. Stated another way, the dream of great books enthusiasts was that all Americans, all Westerners, and all those living in democratic societies would benefit from a strong connection to the “great ideas” contained in great books. To support this argument I offer up my philosophical sources on culture, democracy, citizenship, cultural capital, consumption, communities of discourse, education, cultural politics, and cultural hierarchies. The historiography section addresses a few noteworthy dissertations, plus books and articles by Joan Shelley Rubin, W.B. Carnochan, Katherin Elise Chaddock, and Alex Beam. My acknowledgments conclude the introduction.


a) Teaser: Differences of Opinion on Adler
b) What are ‘great books’?
c) Intro to Great Books Idea and Adler
d) Book Thesis Explained
e) Theory
f) Historiography
g) Acknowledgments

Chapter 1: The Great Books Movement, 1920-1948

This chapter explains the pre-Britannica development of the great books idea in relation to Mortimer J. Adler—before the Great Books set became the dominant representative entity. Adler’s early adult years are explored briefly, especially in relation to his work at the People’s Institute. The focus of this chapter is Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), but it begins by offering brief introductions to Adler’s early influences and community of discourse, especially John Erskine, Everett Dean Martin, Scott Buchanan, Mark Van Doren, Clifton Fadiman, Arthur Rubin, and Robert Hutchins. The chapter thesis is this: The ideas they exchanged, as well as the tone and tenor of How to Read a Book, determined—for better or for worse—the trajectory of the great books idea for most of the twentieth century. Adler’s book exemplified the General Honors Approach to the great books idea. A close look at the construction and reception of Adler’s How To Read A Book (1940) reveals how the great books became a national sensation in the 1940s—a Great Books Movement. Adler’s book and its reviews show how he connected the great books idea to achieving the American dream.


a) Intro (Chicago’s Great Books Week)
b) How to Read a Book: The Inspiration
c) How to Read a Book: The Production
d) How to Read a Book: The Reception
e) Conclusion: The Great Books Movement

Chapter 2: Building Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, 1943-1952

The focus here is on Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World (1943-1952). The reader will see the thought processes and practical decisions behind the conception and production of the first edition of the set. Thesis: Exploring Adler’s thinking reveals the roots both of the set’s popularity and later criticism—many paradoxes and ironies inherent in the Great Ideas Approach to the great books idea find their home in Adler’s philosophy of history. The chapter opens by analyzing the rhetoric of the 1952 kick-off banquet for the set. Before getting there, Senator and Britannica publisher William Benton is introduced. Although Robert Hutchins was the set’s chief editor, Adler has been widely acknowledged as Hutchins’s chief intellectual advisor. The deliberations of the Advisory Board and the work of the “idea index,” or Syntopicon, show how philosophy, friendship, history, and collective hopes for America’s future went into the production of the set. Adler’s philosophy of history is then explored in relation to the Syntopicon’s construction. The first at-large thinking about the set is explored via reviews by intellectuals. The chapter closes by returning to the kick-off dinner’s rhetoric.

a) Prologue (1952 Waldorf Astoria Banquet)
b) Introduction and thesis
c) The Conception
d) The “Non-historical Study of Ideas”: Adler’s Philosophy of History
e) The Proposal
f) Production and Appearances: The Advisory Board and the Idea Index
g) The Reviews
h) Conclusion (Return to Banquet)

Chapter 3: Making “Seventy-Four Corpses…Pay Off”: The Context and Commerce of the Great Books, 1952-1968

Thesis: These years constitute something of a high point for Britannica and the great books idea in terms of access and positive publicity. To understand how and why, the larger cultural context is covered first: the Cold War, cultural politics, family and social norms, and education. The Western cosmopolitanism of the Britannica set remained relevant (if not more so) in the Cold War context, and this attracted conservatives in a conservative age. Next one must explore very public intersections of culture and commerce enabled by the set. One of the important points is that, in these years, the story of Britannica’s set becomes the story of the great books idea, for better or for worse. Exchanges between William Benton, Britannica’s sales force (particularly Kenneth Harden), and Adler reveal how the Great Books were commodified—how they were promoted, marketed, and sold in the fifties. After a brief, three-year lull, sales skyrocketed in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. Adler’s role in this context is reduced, but he’s still active with Britannica.

a) Intro (Boom Times, Forbes, and Playboy)
b) Context: Early Cold War Political Culture and Politics
c) Context: Education
d) Context: Social Norms
e) Britannica’s Sales Efforts: 1952-1956
f) Britannica’s Sales Efforts: 1956 and Beyond
g) Conclusion (Harden and Fadiman)

Chapter 4: “Mixing Vice and Virtue”: Adler, Britannica’s Cottage Industry, and Mid-century Anxiety

Here the Britannica story turns toward its ongoing effort to transform the larger great books project into a sustainable commercial venture. Although Adler’s involvement in Britannica’s 1950s sales efforts was minimal, in the Sixties he becomes an active player in the creation a great books cottage industry (even while the Great Ideas and General Honors Approaches coexisted). The argument for this period is that the vices and virtues, of both Adler and Britannica, coexisted with the solidification of the great books idea in America’s educational and cultural life. Adler’s personal life is explored (affairs, divorce, remarriage) because that it sheds light on his movements related to Britannica. He was a part-time gadfly who never ceased talking about the great books’ virtues, even while his work lay primarily in promoting a public philosophy through his Institute for Philosophical Research. The articles Adler wrote for Playboy symbolize his unsteady personal life, engagement with consumer culture, and continued support for the great books idea. Finally, analysis of a 1962 Great Books “Awareness Study,” commissioned by Britannica and conducted by Marplan, reveals much about the audience and future prospects of the movement.

a) Intro (Adler and Playboy, 1965)
b) Adler in the 1950s
c) The Cottage Industry: Great Books Subgenres
d) The Audience: High-Profile Criticism, Notoriety, and Admiration
e) The Audience: Middle-Class Anxiety, Conformity, and Intellectual Life
f) Conclusion (Fadiman, Adler, and Playboy, 1966)

Chapter 5 : The Common Sense of Great Books Liberalism, 1965-1970

Alongside his work with Britannica in the late 1960s, Adler also conceived of his own philosophy of common sense. Three of his books—The Conditions of Philosophy (1965), The Time of Our Lives (1970) and The Common Sense of Politics (1971)—reveal the main and subordinate points of Adler’s system of common-sense philosophy, as well as his views on contemporary philosophy, politics, race, and education. Although The Time of Our Lives contributes to this system, in that book Adler prescribes a dose of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as a cure for wayward, radical youth. The Common Sense of Politics, however, links Adler’s mid-century liberalism to liberal education and reveals his Great Books Liberalism. Reviews of these books are briefly examined, as well as Adler’s reputation among philosophers in relation to the same. The chapter concludes with a look at Clifton Fadiman’s pessimistic reactions to both Adler’s project and the state of American society and culture.

a) Intro (Editing Lives with Charles Van Doren)
b) Common Sense: General Considerations
c) Adler’s Philosophy of Common Sense: The Conditions of Philosophy
d) Common Sense in Lives and Politics
e) Common Sense “Socialism”
f) Common Sense, Race, Cultural Differences, and Justice
g) Common Sense and Education Reform
h) The Reception of Lives and Politics
i) Conclusion (Fadiman and Seventies Pessimism)

Chapter 6: Diminished Dreams: Great Books in an Age of Crisis, Fracture, and Transition, 1968-1977

Even while Adler solidified a philosophical system behind his great books activities, by the mid 1970s the great books idea had experienced a precipitous reversal in fortune. This decline begins with declining sales of Britannica’s set. But the larger decline in interest for the idea is related to larger political and ideological shifts. The shift was from mid-century liberalism (with conservative overtones) to what has been alternatively called multiculturalism, postmodernism, or just personal liberation. America’s democratic culture existed in a period of crisis and fracture—accompanied by economic and cultural dislocations. Between all these phenomena, the dreams of great books promoters were diminished. Even so, Adler’s great books liberalism is clearly evident in new publications such as The Negro in American History and the 1972 rewrite, with Charles Van Doren, of How to Read a Book. A kind of Great Books Pluralism, or even relativism, is evident in both and other 1970s Adler writings. Britannica’s corporate activities in the mid-1970s are again explored, demonstrating how the great books idea became “sacralized” and “ossified” via the Franklin Library. The chapter ends with an examination of “EB 20,” the reception of Adler’s Philosopher at Large, and the passing of Robert Hutchins.

a) Introduction (Rubin’s Seventies Sales Strategies)
b) “Negro History” and Great Books Liberalism
c) How Read a Book, Revised
d) Gilded, Sacralized, and Ossified: The Franklin Library
e) The Britannica-Adler Symbiosis: “GB 20” and the Vicissitudes of Promotions
f) Epilogue: Hutchins’ Passing and Postmodern Pessimism

Chapter 7: “The Poobah of Popularizers”: Paideia, Pluralism, and the Culture Wars, 1978-1988

In this period the popularity of the great books idea increased, ironically, alongside a wider awareness of the idea’s weaknesses as a democratic cultural form. The great books idea was alive, paradoxically, because “the multiculturalists won the canon wars.” Even so, expanded great books reading lists were less a part of the center of America’s broader shared culture. Adler’s personal contradictions were woven into the fabric of the great books idea itself, and his trajectory in the 1980s embodied the trajectory of the idea. Interest in his popular 1978 book, Aristotle for Everybody, aided by interviews on shows like William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, helped Adler became something of an ‘Educator for Everybody.’ In this era one clearly sees competing, though sometimes complementary, forms of the great books idea in Adler’s thought. Even so, it is a Great Books Liberalism-Pluralism that appears in the Paideia education reform group. Paideia was implemented by a number of public schools, in spite of criticism about the Group’s goals. Adler spent a significant amount of time in the 1980s promoting and explaining the program. Finally, during this period an increasing number of higher education institutions began to utilize great books curricula.

a) Introduction (Adler’s renewal)
b) The Culture Wars: An Overview
c) “Flogging the Great Ideas”: The Popularizer on TV
d) Building Towards Paideia: The Background
e) Paideia: The Group, The Proposal, The Schools
f) Paideia’s Critics
g) Paideia’s Expansion
h) Conclusion: Great Books Renewed in Higher Education

Chapter 8: “The Most Rancorous Cultural War”: Bloom, Adler, Stanford, and Britannica, 1988-2001

Adler played only a bit part in the Culture Wars until 1988. At that point Adler reacted negatively to a series of public controversies related to the great books idea. Those reactions caused a reversion; Adler went from espousing Great Books Pluralism in relation to Paideia, to hi being a defensive Great Books Ideologue who advocated only the Great Ideas/Syntopical Approach. The chapter opens with an examination of Adler’s reactions to, and thoughts on, Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Despite Bloom’s advocacy for great books, Adler connects an “elitist” Bloom to Leo Strauss and finds much fault with both. Then the story shifts to the controversial “Stanford Debates.” The high-profile, intellectual conflict of ideas at Stanford put the Culture Wars about the canon on full display. Adler attended to those events, but responded to them indirectly, and poorly, with the publication of Britannica’s second edition of the Great Books (1990). Substantial attention is given here to Adler’s defensive, borderline racist rhetoric, and reactions to the same. After Adler’s death in 2001 several thoughtful reflections addressed Adler’s strengths, weaknesses, inconsistencies, and complexities.

a) Intro (Adler’s accruals of conservatism)
b) Bloom, Adler, and the Straussian Approach
c) The Rhetoric of Reactionaries: The Stanford Debates
d) Revising Britannica’s Great Books
e) The Release and High-Profile Reactions: The Beginning of the End
f) Lower-Profile Consequences: Avoidance, Denial, and Adler’s Passing

Chapter 9: Conclusion

The breakdown here says it all here:

a) Earl Shorris
b) Big Picture Reflections
c) Personal Epilogue

Appendices (14 total)

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Can’t wait to read this, Tim! Please let us know when it’s available for pre-order.

    • Mark: Thanks! The November publication date is tentative. I suppose that means, if all goes well, that pre-orders could occur in late Sept or Oct. – TL

      • Brief follow-up: Do you discuss Adler’s involvement in the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion (in Regards to the Democratic Way of Life)? Alot of Union Theological Seminary people were involved. Seems Adler’s idea of democracy was quite different from Hook and Dewey, who attacked the Conference as “The New Failure of Nerve.”

      • Mark: I don’t, though I’m pretty sure that Fred Beuttler did in his dissertation and in many subsequent conference papers/publications. Fred’s your guy on that. But yes, the 1940s saw Adler write several Thomistically-influenced articles on the idea of democracy. This is one of the key omissions from my book—due to space considerations and my focus on building the great books idea. Given my title you would think I would’ve explored those articles, but I just couldn’t. That said, I do get to Adler’s views on democracy via his 1970 book, *The Common Sense of Politics*—as well as through other articles.

  2. After finishing up MSS revisions I was disappointed to see that I had neglected a section for my Introduction that would’ve been tentatively titled: “What This Book Is NOT About.” As it is, I guess I will wait to address that in the only book talk request I’m likely to get: the obligatory one from your family. – TL

  3. I think it was about 25 yrs ago that I was first exposed to Adler on the PBS series hosted by Bill Moyers, maybe it was 30 yrs ago. Do you discuss this episode in your book? I recall in the program that Adler had a strident defense of great books canon that certainly ran counter to the pluralism of the times as you document above. Even though there was a distinct rigidity to his position he was so enthusiastic and absorbed in the subject that it made for a fascinating program. I’ve read a couple of his books and I’m really looking forward you yours.

    • Paul: Thanks for the comment. I do discuss Adler’s appearances on *Bill Moyers Journal*—once for *Aristotle for Everybody*, and once for *Six Great Ideas*. I don’t discuss the contents of either episode due to space considerations. I use both to build toward Adler’s popularity in relation to promoting the *Paideia* school program. The focus of that chapter is education.

      As for Adler stridently defending the canon, well, yes and no. In the book I detail two (of four or perhaps five) approaches he had to the great books idea—Great Books Liberalism and Great Books Pluralism—that were much more liberal than the late 1980s dogmatism (near racism) for which is mostly remembered. He was rigid except when he wasn’t, and he wasn’t in the mid-1970s when he had public period of greater flexibility (even near relativism). – TL

  4. Tim,
    This looks like a great addition to the literature of twentieth-century intellectual history! Congratulations!

    I may have missed it, but how long is the book expected to be? How much are they pricing it at? It sounds like it could be a great supplemental text for upper undergraduate courses, especially as the topic seems to cross and combine a number of areas, including popular culture, intellectual history, marketing/business history, and many others. And could help jump start faculty discussions on the larger role of humanistic learning in a pluralist culture.

    • Fred: I mention you in a comment, and here you are! I think the book will be about 280 pages, but I have a strong suspicion that the book won’t be affordable for course use *unless* I can get it into paperback. One thing at a time. But, as you note, I do sincerely hope the variation in topics covered will make the book attractive to different audiences. We’ll see. My Magic 8 Ball isn’t giving me too many hints–except that the future is cloudy. – TL

      • First, to T Lacy, congrats.

        Second, I’m not expert on the ac. publishing industry but my impression is that Palgrave Macmillan hardcovers tend to be priced in the $80-120 range [sic], unless they think they can sell more by pricing it lower, which, with a title like this — simply b.c of its somewhat specialized focus — they prob. won’t. (A paperback, shd it come, wd be less expensive, of course.)

      • LFC: I guess I should’ve gone with “Great Bookie” instead of Dreams of a Demo-blah-blah-blah.

  5. Prepare to be footnoted in this dissertation that truly exists in the Ideal Realm of Forms but has yet to cast its shadow across a page.

    • Had I a title for your forthcoming diss (Dec. 2013, right?), you might’ve been added to a discursive footnote about more sources related to the Stanford Affair. – TL

  6. December 2013?!?! If only!

    I am still reading for my qualifying exams, and must also get my dissertation proposal past the graduate studies committee of my school so that I can switch over to dissertation hours. Then I have to write the damn blessed thing.

    I am aiming for a defense early in spring semester of 2015, which would be five academic years after I started the PhD program. But whenever I write the dissertation, I guarantee you that it will be engaging your work at several points.

    • My date was given in jest, but I couldn’t find a way to easily insert this: 😉

      • Ah. Sorry. It’s the end of the semester, and my senses of humor, irony, wit, social nuance, etc. are gone. I am running on fumes.

        And now I’ve just read Arne Duncan’s brilliant idea of creating MOOCs for high school students to learn algebra — an idea he was speaking about at Stanford just now, judging by the university’s Twitter feed. As if I wasn’t mad and mean enough already.

  7. TL: Sorry, my comment above was badly put. I meant to refer not to your title — ‘Dreams of a Democratic Culture’ is perfectly fine; rather, what I meant was I suspect Palgrave will likely see any book on Adler as specialized, hence price it in that range. That’s what they do, isn’t it, mostly? They publish scholarly bks at high prices. But I could be wrong…

    Also, and you probably know this already, I wouldn’t count, unless you get lucky, on a great copy-editing job from that press or many others these days — so you will have to be yr own careful copy editor when you get the proofs. (Again, simply a semi-informed guess on my part. Take it fwiw.)

    • LFC: I was taking you literally on the word “title” for the fun of it. Otherwise, you’re most likely right on the specialized nature of my book—though the ‘great books’ topic might save it from total obscurity. – TL

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