Buyer’s Remorse

Tuesday, August 10th, 2004

In Buyer’s Remorse, Daniel Akst examines Americans’ mixed feelings about wealth:

There are two things at which Americans have always excelled: One is generating almost unimaginable material wealth, and the other is feeling bad about it.

Some stats:

When Princeton University researchers asked working Americans about these matters a decade ago, 89 percent of those surveyed agreed that ?our society is much too materialistic,? and 74 percent said that materialism is a serious social problem.

I remember trying to read an actual Horatio Alger “rags to riches” story, where the protagonist rises through his own pluck, luck, and integrity. It was awful. Anyway, there’s a lot I didn’t know about Alger:

When accusations of ?unnatural? acts with teenage boys — acts he did not deny — forced him from his pulpit in Brewster, Massachusetts, the erstwhile Unitarian minister decamped for New York City, where he became a professional writer. It was in venal New York that he made his name with the kind of stories we associate with him to this day: tales of unschooled but goodhearted lads whose spunk, industry, and yes, good looks, win them material success, with the help of a little luck and their older male mentors. Alger?s hackneyed parables are tales of the American dream, itself an accumulation of hopes that has always had a strongly materialistic component. The books themselves are now ignored, but their central fable has become part of our heritage. ?Alger is to America,? wrote the novelist Nathanael West, ?what Homer was to the Greeks.?

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