Daniel Joseph Boorstin, a distinguished historian who served as the Librarian of Congress for more than a decade, was born in Atlanta on October 1, 1914, to Dora Olsan and Samuel Aaron Boorstin, Russian- Jewish immigrants. His father was an attorney who served on Leo Frank’s defense team. After Frank’s lynching in 1915, Boorstin’s father moved his family to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in part to escape anti-Semitism.
Boorstin attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of fifteen and graduated with the highest honors. He received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England and graduated with two degrees in law, both of them with honors. He also received a doctorate of law from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
What most interested Boorstin, though, was history. After returning to the United States, he joined the history department at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, where he spent the next twenty-five years. In 1969 Boorstin became director of the National Museum of History and Technology (later the National Museum of American History) of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He became Librarian of Congress in 1975, serving until his retirement in 1987.
Boorstin wrote more than twenty books and is one of the few historians to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Parkman Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1974 for the third volume of his Americans trilogy, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973).
In The Americans trilogy Boorstin portrays America’s historical ideals and values as growing from the encounter with the New World. He views the development of American character (self-reliance, inventiveness, pragmatism) as a response to the demands of territorial expansion, including life on the frontier. Boorstin was also drawn to technology and its influence. Jefferson was his hero because Jefferson worshipped all that was new. In the later years of his life, Boorstin continued to explore themes of human achievement by examining the paths of scientists and inventors (The Discoverers, 1983), artists (The Creators, 1992), and religious and spiritual thinkers (The Seekers, 1998).
In the 1930s Boorstin briefly became a member of the U.S. Communist Party. He later repudiated that choice and, over the course of his career, became increasingly conservative. Boorstin sharply criticized the liberalism of the 1960s for what he saw as its excesses. But his critique was not limited to political beliefs. The 1960 televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy moved him to write a scathing assessment of modern culture. In The Image (1962), perhaps his most influential work, Boorstin contends that modern culture had shrugged off pragmatism and truthfulness for “image,” the “non-event,” “celebrity” (defined as a person who is known for being well known), and “spin.” The “dark arts” of advertising and public relations created a world of illusion, according to Boorstin.
Boorstin possessed an extraordinary intellect and curiosity. Having a great affinity for the achievements of “the amateur” in history, he naturally gravitated to writing for a general audience. For Boorstin, experience was the great teacher and transmitter of values, and he had no patience with theorizing or lofty abstractions. For this reason he believed that the book was humanity’s greatest single invention. It is from the book’s grounding in the reality of experience and everyday life that one might grasp the threads of wisdom.
Upon his retirement from the Library of Congress, Boorstin reflected on the role of the historian: “The Librarian of Congress is supposed to help people learn, and not preach to them or even teach them. . . . I’m very wary of people who give us the lessons of history or the laws for the future of cultures. But I do think one thing the historian can do is to warn us against the overgeneralizations of social scientists, politicians, preachers, all those who think they’re in on the secrets of the future.”
Boorstin died in Washington, D.C., at the age of eighty-nine on February 28, 2004, survived by his wife, Ruth Frankel Boorstin, and three children.