David Riesman Reconsidered

David Riesman Reconsidered

The only review of Individualism Reconsidered by David Riesman (The Free Press, 1954) which I have seen up to this writing is a dithyrambic piece of Granville Hicks’ in The New Leader of July 19, 1954. He concludes his appreciation by saying, “What I am sure of, however, is that this culture of ours, even if it should vanish from the earth, would survive in men’s minds as an example of what the human race can accomplish. Among the forces which have forged that conviction must be included the writings of David Riesman.”

As I say, this is the only review I have read, but I can imagine the others, and it takes no talent for prophecy to assume that Hicks’ review is typical. For there is no mistaking that Riesman is the professional liberal’s liberal, and while I happen to have met no particular person who has been influenced by him, I have seen his name in many references, blurbs, and occasional columns, all exceptionally laudatory, by such intellectual deacons of the liberal body as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Max Lerner.


After such a preface, it is little embarrassing to say that I found Individualism Reconsidered more boring than impressive. A book of five hundred odd pages, it is a collection of thirty essays which were published in various magazines in the last seven years with the emphasis on those articles written from 1950 to the present; there has been a certain movement, and, from my point of view, regression in Riesman’s thought since the Forties; as he says himself, “…. my later writings are less acrid and satiric; there is a somewhat more sanguine attitude toward American Culture.”

The essays vary in quality and in subject matter; Riesman embarks upon such separate topics as the character of law review students, the political implications of Freud’s thought, and a socio-historic survey of the growth of football. His variety is to be praised if his treatment can not be, yet despite the gamut of the articles, and ignoring his ideas for the moment, what is distressing in Individualism Reconsidered is his style, overburdened with modern sociological jargon (individuate, marginality, personality ideals, and pluralistic), and what compounds the boredom is that Riesman says so little in so many words and like so many sociologists gives little feel or sense of life itself. With the exception of his article on the legal profession which contains fascinating observations about the social character of lawyers, the life and elan of law review students, etc., I believe I can say with no conscious smugness that I learned almost nothing else in these five hundred pages. There are essays on popular culture, on individualism and its values, on minority problems, on totalitarianism, on the problems of method of the social sciences; the text of a long speech on the relationships between technical progress a...