Washington -- Daniel Boorstin is being interviewed. And he' taking notes.
He's seated behind a massive wooden desk in the basement study of his roomy, four-story home in a leafy, well-off part of Northwest Washington. Surrounding this former Librarian of Congress and noted historian are, naturally, hundreds of books. They fill the walls on three sides, occupying shelves from ceiling to floor.
No casual dress here -- he looks spiffy as all get-out in jacket, slacks and bow tie. In one hand is a small note pad; in the other, a pencil.
The question before him: How did he select the subjects in his latest book, "The Creators"? Mr. Boorstin looks at the pad for a moment, then writes quickly, "Characteristics." He answers, after moment of thought, in measured tones:
"First, the novelty -- they did something unique," says Mr. Boorstin, showing a facility for organizing and articulating thought that was honed by 25 years of teaching at the University of Chicago. "Second, immortality. They have survived the test of time.
"And, finally, iridescence -- the quality of seeing new and different lights." After answering the question, he has the pad and paper poised, ready to move on.
There's no small coincidence that Daniel J. Boorstin, a longtime iconoclast himself, chose the last criterion -- and that, at 78, he remains in the dual role of teacher and student, the guy who's still taking notes. "He continues to be very enthusiastic about learning, and that's remarkable for someone his age," says Robert Loomis, his longtime editor at Random House.
That enthusiasm is evident in "The Creators," the massive (811 ++ pages) and ambitious work that is meant as a companion to Dr. Boorstin's enormously popular 1983 book, "The Discoverers." How ambitious is "The Creators"? The author merely delves into the lives of men and women over the past couple of thousand years in the hope of understanding how these people "have brought something new into the arts," as he writes in a "Personal Note to the Reader" at the beginning of "The Creators."
Explorations of creativity
Like much of Mr. Boorstin's earlier work, "The Creators" goes against the grain. How many other people would write a book exploring the creative urge, profiling such disparate persons as the Roman emperor Nero, Rabelais, the early Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi, Virginia Woolf, Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso? How many other historians would open themselves up to renewed charges of writing "popular" books that wander all over the map, covering many topics outside their own specialty?
"I expect it [criticism]," he says in the off-hand manner of someone who has, indeed, taken his share of shots from critics and dissenters. "But I don't write for the critics -- I write for the reader. And I don't worry about how what I write will be classified in some learned journal."
He's gotten generally good reviews for "The Creators." Harrison Salisbury, writing in the Chicago Tribune, complained: "He seemingly darts from one perspective to another, pausing a moment to proclaim a truth and then passing so rapidly and with small emphasis that we almost forget what he has said as we race with him to the next crescendo of belief." But he conceded that Mr. Boorstin "has, for the most part, accomplished his grandiose task with skill and eloquence."
That he tries to do too much in his books, and wanders into areas he's not qualified to write about, is a frequent complaint leveled against Mr. Boorstin. Otto Friedrich of Time concluded in his review of "The Discoverers": "In attempting to cram in everything from ethnography to atomic particles, Boorstin ends by giving the impression of a man trying to repack a suitcase that inexplicably burst open while he was running after a departing bus in the rain."
A true 'amateur'
Mr. Boorstin, though, says that's an offense to which he's happy to plead guilty.
"Some people might call me 'amateur,' but I glory in that name," he says. "Nowadays, that term is associated with someone who is unprofessional. I look at its original meaning, which meant a lover of something. I think that's what the great historians did.
"One of the great parts of writing this book for me was the process of rediscovery by rereading. Because in reading a book, there's always a part of you that has been transformed since the last time you read it."
What's striking about "The Creators" is that despite its length, Mr. Boorstin never gives the reader his own views about creativity.
"You notice that my last history book was called 'The Americans,' " he says, slipping back into his professorial mode. "The next book was called 'The Discoverers.' Now 'The Creators.' They take their name from people. I don't write about American culture, or civilization. I write about Americans."
Seeing things in a different way has been the hallmark of a long career that includes writing several critically received histories, as well as heading both the Library of Congress (from 1975 to 1987) and the Smithsonian's Museum of American History (from 1969 to 1975).
He graduated first in his senior class from a high school in Tulsa, Okla., then headed for Harvard. He was an English major, but a love for history emerged: His senior honors essay was on Edward Gibbon, author of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Mr. Boorstin remains a huge fan of Gibbon: A print of the great English historian occupies a place of honor in his library.
As a Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Boorstin studied law at Oxford University, then got his law degree at Yale. He taught history at Harvard and Swarthmore before moving on to the University of Chicago in 1944.
Finding new perspectives
There, the man who never had been trained in teaching history made his mark as a historian. His histories quickly gained notice for their different perspectives.
His 1953 work, "The Genius of American Politics," argued that American democracy was based not on ideology but a "combination of historical circumstances." His influential "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America" predicted in 1961 with almost eerie precision the advent of media events, photo opportunities and other occasions that were created only to be reported.
Mr. Boorstin won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1973 for "The Democratic Experience," the third and concluding volume in his series "The Americans" (the other two books were 1958's "The Colonial Experience" and 1965's "The National Experience"). In them, he showed an affinity for taking the small and drawing out larger significances.
As Mr. Boorstin acknowledges, "Often, my subjects have not been popular. In 'The Americans,' I wrote about packaging, because I thought it was a very important part of people's lives -- that it invaded their reality. But some academics thought it was not a respectable subject for historical research."
Dr. Boorstin's histories also were a reaction to the then-popular "progressive" histories written in the 1950s and 1960s that stressed conflicts in America, says Lou Galambos, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.
"Boorstin's synthesis is one of the boldest attempts since the progressive or liberal synthesis to give meaning to all of American history," Dr. Galambos says. "It developed new themes in the analysis of the past and emphasized the things that held Americans together rather than their conflicts. It represented major reinterpretations of the past. The breadth of vision in 'The Americans' is its great strength -- he sees the whole of American history."
Still, he notes that Mr. Boorstin's books aren't as influential among historians now as they were a generation ago. "There's now a great deal of emphasis on diversity in history," Dr. Galambos says. "There's more interest in local social history, cultural history. None of those histories try to encompass the whole, as Boorstin says. That leaves history without a common ** structure."
Mr. Boorstin readily admits that he enjoyed teaching but grew to dislike intensely the world of academia, finding it "incredibly narrow-minded." He says he took the job as head of the Museum of American History in 1969 mostly because of the challenge but partly because of the fractious, politically charged atmosphere at the University of Chicago. As a supporter of the Vietnam War, he was a frequent target of the left.
Looking for civility
"One of the reasons I took to Washington was that it's a very different kind of life -- very open," he says now. "When we came to Washington, we found things much more civil, in the literal sense of the word. You could go out to dinner, and there would be people who disagreed violently with what you said on the war, or domestic politics. But it wouldn't get out of hand."
When he got to the Smithsonian, he found working at the Museum of American History -- then the Museum of History and Technology -- "like working in a toy store," he says. "I was never interested in just history -- I had as many friends at the University of Chicago in the fine arts department as I did in my own department. It was very liberating to work there."
After six years, his name came up as a surprise candidate to succeed L. Quincy Mumford as Librarian of Congress. Mr. Boorstin's nomination by President Gerald Ford was criticized by librarians who wanted a full-time librarian for the job, and by black employees at the library who disagreed with his views against affirmative action (then, as now, he opposes it). But his nomination was confirmed anyway.
"It was just so vast," Mr. Boorstin says of his initial impression of the library. "I guess I would characterize it as a multimedia encyclopedia. People don't realize that in addition to the millions of books, there are recordings and films as well. It's an absolutely awesome, intimidating place."
After 12 years as librarian, he retired in 1987 -- "Nobody asked me to leave, but I decided it would be good to go just before they did," he says wryly. "Besides, I really wanted to finish this last book."
Believing in possibilities
"The Creators," like his other books, offers readers many interpretations but few conclusions, and Dr. Boorstin's explanation is revealing. "I think one of the reasons I don't fall into weariness and cynicism is that I don't expect too much," he says. "Who was it that said, 'I love life more than the meaning of it'? I always said that the Puritans could never be disillusioned because they were never illusioned. Maybe that's why I remain an optimist -- I believe in possibilities. . . .
"That's why all my major books don't end by saying, 'There are five major characteristics in American culture,' or 'There are three major characteristics in the discoverers.' That's why I ended 'The Discoverers' with that quotation from Einstein ['The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility']. I could very well try to sum up, but I don't believe in summing up because I believe that the meaning -- if there is a meaning -- is in the story itself."
THE BOORSTIN FILE
Born: Oct. 1, 1914; Atlanta.
Current home: Washington.
Family: Wife of 51 years, Ruth. Three sons: Paul, Jonathan and David.
Education: B.A. in English, Harvard College, 1934; Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University, 1934-1937; law degree, Yale University, 1940.
On selecting "The Creators": There were lots and lots of people I hated to leave out, especially among the modern painters. I chose Monet, and Picasso, and there are so many others I could have taken."
On what causes creativity: "There's no resource, no experience that cannot be made into the raw material of an artist. Rabelais could exploit the worst drought in recent French history. The fire in Rome in 64 A.D. that destroyed a good part of the city was an opportunity for Nero to try out some of his architectural ideas. Proust's asthma, which confined him to his bed, actually stimulated him into his 'Remembrance of Things Past.' "