The Corner

Daniel Boorstin, Rip

The great historian Daniel Boorstin has died. He was a small-c conservative–not a card-carrying member of the movement, but a man whose life and work exemplified many of the things movement conservatives cherish. He wrote about American history because he loved America; he had a strong and contagious admiration for the traditions of Western civilization, and wrote about them as well. The modern academy distrusted him for these habits and affections. The professoriate was also secretly jealous of his success–he was probably one of the most-read historians of his generation. Boorstin knew a good story and how to tell it. His best books are not dry textbooks that chronicle familiar events, but memorable pieces of storytelling and pithy analysis. I’m flipping through one of my favorite Boorstin books right now–The Americans: The Colonial Experience, the first book in an acclaimed trilogy. On the first page of chapter one, I read a sentence I underlined years ago: “Puritan New England was a noble experiment in applied theology.” Isn’t that a perfect summary in ten words? Here’s another: The colonial era “was not an age of genius so much as an age of liberation. Its legacy was not great individual thinkers but refreshed community thinking. Old categories were shaken up, and new situations revealed unsuspected uses for old knowledge.” Sentences like these appear throughout his books. Boorstin was a great writer, a great historian, a great man. We are fortunate to have had him for 89 years.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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