BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Daniel J. Boorstin, author of “The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination”, what did you have in mind when you started out writing this book?
DANIEL BOORSTIN, AUTHOR, "THE CREATORS: A HISTORY OF HEROES OF THE IMAGINATION": Well, you know, I'm a historian by preference. It was never in my job descriptions, Brian, and if you consider that writing is your vocation, you don't really have a choice. You can't stop. I had the idea about 20 years ago. Ruth and I were on a vacation in the Bavarian Alps, and we went to the top of Zugspitze and there we found ourselves overnight because the train left without us and we had only each other and our thoughts. We had just completed the third volume of “The Americans, The Democratic Experience”, and we had to decide what to do next. My wife's been my closest editor, you know, and my inspiration of course. We thought about it and came up with the idea that it was about time that I should de-provincialize myself -- grow up, reach out and try to write about the world. So out of that came a notion of doing a kind of world history, which would not be about wars and empires and politics, but be about human fulfillment.
How does mankind fulfill itself?, which is a rather large assignment. Of course, it would be from the point of view of Western Civilization which was where I knew the languages. Out of that grew the first volume, which was “The Discoverers”, which is a history of man's search to know the world and himself. That was only the first part, because the search to know is only part of man's quest for fulfillment.
The second part, which has just been published and which I'm glad to see you have a copy of here, is “The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination”, and that is about the search to make the new. That also took about nine years, and it's been a great delight. It was a great pleasure to live with those people, to read and reread the works I had known before, and I also found, among other things, that rereading is a delight for which there is no substitute. Anyone who says that he doesn't need to read Dante or Rabelais or Cervantes or Shakespeare or look again at Giotto or the dome of Florence Cathedral is living in a fool's paradise because the greatness of the experience of having lived these years is to be able to see anew, to see something new in all those works. So that rediscovery was itself a delight -- living with the people and then having some surprises. I did have some surprises.
LAMB: What was a big one?
BOORSTIN: Well, a number of them. I would say the first surprise was that I had assumed that the idea of creation -- making something from nothing -- was a universal idea. It seems obvious. But I found that that was not the case, that in our Western Judeo-Christian culture, we worship a creator God. I'm not a creationist -- I don't need to explain that to you -- but we do accept the dominant metaphor of the creator God who created the world in six days and then needed a day of rest. The idea that just as this God could make something from nothing -- the whole world is made from nothing -- so we, too, made in the image of that God can also create or make something new.
That leads to a premium on novelty, originality. We think that there's something divine in doing something original, but that's not universal. The other great world religions somehow avoid that problem or ignore it or condemn. The Hindus believe in cycles and the Confucians are more interested in family and society and ancestors and the Buddha thought it was a foolish question when anyone came and asked him when the earth was created and by whom. He said, "Go away. That's a trivial question. It doesn't interest me." But in the West we have believed in creation, in the possibility of making something new. Now, of course, you don't have to believe in a creator God in order to make great works of art.
The ancient Greeks, for example, didn't believe in a creator God nor do the Hindus nor the people of China or Japan, so that their works of creation have been made in a traditional mode. Their objective of their works of art is to do something that's been done before and do it better. But in the West, somehow we believe in the possibility of originality -- the genius artist, of whom Michelangelo would be the prototype; the divine Michelangelo, who's called divine because he could create something no one else had ever seen before. So the idea of creation is a characteristic Judeo-Christian idea. You don't have to have it to be creative, but it helps. In the West it has certainly helped us put a premium on the idea of originality, of newness in the arts, and that has been a crucial factor in shaping this book of mine.
I begin with a riddle of creation and creator man and then the different ways in which man has recreated the world. We start, of course, with literature, and the great literary artists have taken whatever was available to them and made something new of it. Boccaccio was confronted with a plague in the 14th century. He didn't give up and retreat. No, he made that the raw material for a hundred tales which we still delight in. When Rabelais was faced with the worst drought in French history, he didn't quit, but he made that the subject for a comic work on dipsomania and the delights of drunkenness, and so it goes. So the belief in creation encourages people to think that they can use anything, that anything can be a resource and nothing can be an obstacle.
That's also something that I found rather tantalizing. The great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. was something that Nero made the opportunity for urban renewal, for doing a lot of new work in architecture, for which he hasn't had enough credit. The fire of Chicago in 1871 sparked the need for skyscrapers and the ambition to make skyscrapers. William LeBaron Jenney, for example, was the hero there. So the catastrophe can be turned into an opportunity.
LAMB: I've seen these books in the bookstores of your past works. You referred earlier to the “The Americans” series and also “The Discoverers”. You've been doing this for a long time. Where did you get the idea to write and to transfer knowledge to others?
BOORSTIN: Well, you know, Brian, I don't know, but being a writer I consider my vocation, partly because I can't explain why I want to do it. But as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't start out by studying how to be a writer. My father was a lawyer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he loved the law and played a role, as you can do in a small city, sort of like that of a parish priest. He advised people on their problems. He never got rich, but he loved the community. He was a booster for Tulsa. He wanted me to be a lawyer. He would have been happy if I'd come back to Tulsa and join him in Boorstin & Boorstin law firm.
I didn't do that. I became interested in words I suppose mainly in high school, because in those days people had what they called oratorical contests. You memorized the great American speeches of the past like Patrick Henry's plea or Zola's plea for Dreyfus. Then you had a feeling for the spoken word and the nuance of the word. Then I went away to college -- I went to Harvard -- and I spent much of my time there in studying English history and literature. But in my junior year my grandfather died, and that was a shock to me because I loved him. He'd lived with us. I thought maybe one should try the sciences. Could you prevent death somehow by finding a cure for diseases? So for about half of my time at Harvard as an undergraduate I studied biochemistry, which proved to be a useful thing because I had studied all the elementary courses in the sciences. I finally graduated in English history and literature, and I wrote my honors thesis on Edward Gibbon, which was a great good fortune for me because he became my idol and my model of what a great historian should be.
LAMB: And he wrote, besides the . . .
BOORSTIN: He wrote “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which is still read and should be more read, and I commend it to all those who are hearing us today.
LAMB: It's huge, though, isn't it?
BOORSTIN: It's in many volumes, but you don't need to read it all. You can read the parts on the rise of Christianity, the 31st and 32nd chapters, you can read the opening chapter. But in Gibbon you have a taste of the greatness of the historian, and that inspired me. I still have on my wall in my study here in Washington an 18th century etching of Gibbon with his triple chin. He also stood for something else that became important in my life, and that is the great amateur. You know, we misuse the word "amateur" in our time, and we think of it as a synonym for that job which is not well done, an unprofessional job. But really we should think of the amateur in relation to the origin of the word, from amore, to love. The amateur is a lover, and it has that meaning more in the French language than in the English. I have found that being a writer for me was something I just loved to do, and it was not in my job description, as we say here in Washington.
Well, anyway, I was introduced to Gibbon and had a very inspiring tutor, F. O. Matthiessen, who was a pioneer of American literature among the critics of American literature and who really had much to do with bringing T. S. Eliot's works to the United States and encouraging people to read them. Anyway, I then went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and still had thoughts of being a lawyer, so I studied law. I did two degrees in law, the B.A. in Jurisprudence and the Bachelor of Civil Law. At Oxford, the law program is very much historical and philosophical. In fact, almost half of the program when I took it was in Roman law, and I had a chance to use my Latin, which I enjoyed, and to learn about Roman history, which I especially enjoyed. Then at the same time, I did what was very unusual for an American. I became a barrister at law so I could wear a wig. Now unfortunately I need one, but I didn't so much then. At the same time I was studying at Oxford, I went up to London, ate dinners in one of the inns of court and did all the things necessary, including taking the examinations, for being a barrister.
LAMB: What is a barrister?
BOORSTIN: In England, there were two branches of the bar. There still are, although it's being somewhat changed now. The solicitor is the person -- what we would call the ordinary office lawyer -- who arranges for the purchase of property, who draws up your will and advises you on all current legal matters. But the barrister is the person who appears in court, and if you get in bad trouble and need someone to plead your case in court, that would be the barrister. That's called the upper branch of the bar, or it was then. But the barrister is not hired by the client; the barrister is hired by the solicitor. I wasn't quite clear on that when I decided to become a barrister. So to have a clientele as a barrister, you really need to be known in England and have friends among the solicitors -- be at home in the English life, which, of course, I wasn't as an American student at Oxford. So the barrister is the person who then can become the judge. The judges are drawn from the bar, as it's called. Anyway, I was admitted to the Inner Temple, which is one of the medievally founded associations of lawyers.
LAMB: What year?
BOORSTIN: I was called, I think, in 1937, which is a while ago. But being at Oxford was a great experience for me, and, among other things, it gave me a chance to read. When I did law, I tutored privately with a master and read philosophy with him. He was a great expert on Immanuel Kant and I read Immanuel Kant and William James and Bergson and other philosophers with him. But the great thing about Oxford was the time when you were not at Oxford. There was a six-week Christmas vacation, a six-week Easter vacation, and I spent all those times traveling and much of it living in Florence, a place which I came to love, and some of that affection is reflected in The Creators where I describe the great works of the Italian painters.
LAMB: And on the cover is actually an Italian painter.
BOORSTIN: That's right. That is the work of Michelangelo. That is the "Libyan Sibyl," which is taken from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It's also interesting, you know, Brian, because the picture we have there is very bright because it is the picture which was cleaned as the result of the expenditure of Japanese Television Broadcasting and has been restored to that brilliant yellow and orange.
LAMB: You mean the Japanese . . .?
BOORSTIN: Yes, the Japanese cleaned the Sistine Chapel under a contract by which they were allowed to have the exclusive use of the photographs on it for some period. I just illustrate that because that's an example of the afterlife of works of creators. I don't know how Michelangelo could have imagined that the Sistine Chapel would be made more brilliant and diffuse by the works of Japanese television, but it was.
LAMB: Did you decide on this cover? This is what you wanted?
BOORSTIN: Yes. Ruth and I decided this was what should be on the jacket. We had a beautiful jacket for The Discoverers, which was a different tone.
LAMB: Is this the same cover you had with the hardback?
BOORSTIN: Yes, that was the jacket design.
LAMB: Where did this cover come from?
BOORSTIN: That was a reproduction of a 15th century drawing. That's been slightly amended, but it shows someone breaking through into a new world, into the heavens. Anyway, the opportunity to travel and to see the works of the great painters, especially the great Italian painters and the great works of architecture. I visited the architectural monuments in Rome and the Vatican and the great churches. Then, of course, I went to Greece, and I had the incomparable experience of walking over the Parthenon, which figures, of course, in “The Creators”. Those experiences inspired me with a love for the works of art and an awe of the kinds of works that Western civilization have produced.
LAMB: Let me ask you this, because in all your books -- at least the ones that I've seen; I've got five books here -- if you open it up, right in the front section of the book -- I don't think I've seen an author do this, but every single one of your books that I've seen is "For Ruth." When did you decide to do that and why?
BOORSTIN: That is one of the conspicuous understatements in the book. The book is dedicated to her. All my major books are dedicated to her because she was not only dedicated to the books, but we had a wonderful, companionable life together exploring these subjects. She's never been my research assistant or never typed or done any secretarial work for it, but her editorial advice has been incomparable. Among other mottos, she has the motto, "If in doubt, cut it out," and that has helped make the books, I think, a little more readable than they otherwise might have been. But that companionship has been very important and her encouragement, her willingness to go with me -- these are long projects, you know. The Americans took 30 years, and each “The Discoverers” and “The Creators” took nine years, and so Ruth has not only been patient, but she's enjoyed it with me and that's been a wonderful thing.
LAMB: Her maiden name was Ruth Frankel?
BOORSTIN: Yes, that was her maiden name.
LAMB: And you say in your book here, "Ruth F. Boorstin, my wife, has been, as always, my principal and most penetrating editor." Then you say, "Her poetic feeling for words . . ." When did you discover she had a poetic feeling for words?
BOORSTIN: She loves poetry, and she's much more at home in modern literature than I am. But among other things, she has a great wit with words and she's written quite a number -- I don't know; perhaps a hundred -- of the little pepper-and-salt items that you see on the op-ed page in the Wall Street Journal. She's a very witty person and I would say underestimates her own poetic talent, but she's helped lead me to the great works of literature and helped me. We've enjoyed them together. That was especially true with The Creators, of course, where literature plays a major role because that's the world that I've lived in most -- the world of words.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
BOORSTIN: That also came out of a book, because when I first went to teach law at Harvard Law School, legal history, the dean called me into the dean's office and said, "Boorstin, I've got a project here and I wonder if you want to do it." I was the lowliest member of the law faculty then, and he had a big pile of manuscripts. They were the manuscripts of Delaware judges in the late 18th, early 19th century. He said, "Do you want to edit these?" Well, in my position, that was the kind of offer I couldn't refuse, so I agreed to do it. My research assistant was a young man, a brilliant young law student just graduated by the name of Bennett Frankel. Christmas time came and he said, "I've got a sister. Would you like to meet my sister?" I said, "Sure." So that Christmas I met Ruth Frankel and we married early the next April. That was the wisest thing I ever did.
LAMB: How many years have you been married?
BOORSTIN: I think it's 52 now this year.
LAMB: Do you have children?
BOORSTIN: Yes, we have three children, all married. We have four grandchildren and another one coming in December, so we're looking forward to that, too.
LAMB: You've been the librarian of Congress, but for 25 years you taught. Where?
BOORSTIN: The last 25 years before coming to Washington I taught at the University of Chicago where I left free to teach what I wanted, which was history. I started there teaching law and then for the last years was in the History Department and taught history. I had leisure to write what I wanted to write, and most of The Americans was written there -- of course, with the aid of my own personal library and with the aid of the Library of Congress, which I used, which everybody can use, of course, by interlibrary loan, and that was very important for that work.
LAMB: If I remember right on The Americans, it was written in `58.
BOORSTIN: That was quite some time ago, yes. That was The Colonial Experience. But, you see, there, too, I had the advantage, Brian, of being an amateur. I hadn't been trained in the ruts because I never had a graduate degree in history and had never taken a course in American history in college. So I had to do what interested me, and that proved, I think, to be lucky. Since I didn't know what the ruts were, I didn't have to be very smart not to stay in them, you see.
LAMB: What was your point on The Colonial Experience?
BOORSTIN: I was interested, in the work as a whole, in trying to describe what had been distinctive about the the American experience. You'll note that I am wary of ideologies, of grand theories that are supposed to explain history or anything else, so the titles of those books are “The Americans”. They're not "American Civilization" or "American Culture" or anything like that. They're “The Americans”, and my focus again and again has been on the individual, on the person and how the individual person could shape experience by reacting to it. The word "experience" is one that I love, too, because it's an emphasis on fluidity and on novelty and on the possibility of growth. You'll note also that when I came to write the world history, I didn't write about discovery or creativity. I write about the discoverers, you see, and I write about the individuals, the Galens and the Ptolemys and the Columbuses and other great heroes of discovery. When I come to “The Creators”, it's the same thing.
LAMB: The new World Almanac has a short essay by you on Christopher Columbus. How did that come about? What's your point in that piece?
BOORSTIN: I was asked to write it. It was the idea of the editors of the World Almanac, and that piece, you may note, has the title "A Man for That Season," and I think that suggests a consciousness that we much need these days where some of the ill-tempered and vulgar and crude attacks on the heroes of the past have expressed what I would call the arrogance of modernity, the belief that only we, only modern times have been virtuous and are worthy of respect in the sciences or the arts. In that very brief essay, I describe the experience that Columbus had, how important it was that he had the skills of seamanship, his ability to command and inspire the confidence of his crew, and also the other fact, which was very important, the coincidence of feedback.
It happened that just about the time that Columbus made his voyage, the first printed books were beginning to be available in Europe. His letter De Insulis Invendes about islands found was spread around Europe. It was the feedback that made that work significant. See, the Vikings had been over here before, but there was no feedback, so, in effect, there was no discovery from the point of view of the peoples of Europe, and, of course, that discovery refers to the experience of the Europeans. But one of the great significances of that, which impresses me and which I suggest also in that essay, is that it isn't just the increase of knowledge.
One of the themes of “The Discoverers” is that the great obstacle to progress has not been ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge. The great significance of Columbus's discovery, for Europeans, of America and Vespucci and the others was that Europeans were awakened to how ignorant they were about the world, how little they knew about the number of continents. If there were two continents they'd never heard of, how much else was there in this world that they didn't know of? It was that shaking-up experience that then led to the Renaissance and led people to reach back into the past as well. That is a characteristic of the movement of science forward, the idea of progress. Now, one of the interesting things, of course, about the arts is that there is no progress in the arts. We don't read Aristotle for his science, nor do we read Galen for physiology, but we still admire the Parthenon, we still read Sophocles and we still read Homer. That's because there is no progress in the arts. In science, yes. But in the arts, there's only possibilities.
LAMB: No progress in the arts? Does that mean that what we create today cannot transplant what was done 200, 300, 1,000 years ago?
BOORSTIN: That's right. Every artist invents an artist, and every artist adds. While the great works of science displace the theories that people had before or modified them in some significant way, the artist only adds.
LAMB: You said earlier that you weren't much of an ideologue or you didn't believe much in ideology. Have you formed strong political beliefs in your life?
BOORSTIN: I've not been very much interested in politics, I must confess. I'm interested in society and in culture and so on, but I've never in my mature life been very active in the political world. That suggests the reason for my consuming interest in science and the arts.
LAMB: You were named by Richard Nixon the head of the Library of Congress?
BOORSTIN: No, it was President Ford who named me as the librarian of Congress. He nominated me. Remember, the librarian of Congress has to be confirmed like an ambassador. He's an officer of the United States, which means you have to have hearings and be confirmed, which, indeed, I was.
LAMB: How does someone who is not very political then get a high profile position like that from a president?
BOORSTIN: I had written “The Americans”, which was fairly widely known and which had won various prizes and had been widely read and people thought it was an interesting interpretation of some of the distinctive features of American culture. So once again I became an amateur, was enjoyed the delights of the amateur as a librarian. I'd never been trained as a librarian, and when I was nominated, the librarians said that American culture would collapse if the Library of Congress was run by someone who was not a professional librarian, but I don't think it has collapsed. The librarians became good friends of mine, you see, when I showed my respect for them and for the techniques of the library.
LAMB: Which librarian of Congress were you in sequence? What number?
BOORSTIN: The 12th librarian of Congress.
LAMB: There haven't been that many, have there?
BOORSTIN: No, there haven't been very many, and many of them have had long tenures. When Archibald MacLeish, the great American literary figure and poet and dramatist, was nominated, the librarians also said that culture would collapse if he were nominated and it didn't collapse and he was a very effective librarian. I believed in the amateur spirit, the spirit of the person who does something for the love of it, not because it's in his or her job description, so I've had the opportunity to delight in whatever caught my fancy.
LAMB: How many years were you librarian?
BOORSTIN: Twelve years. It's a lifetime job. There's no retirement age for the librarian of Congress, unlike almost all other jobs in Washington. When Ruth and I decided that we'd had enough and I wanted to spend more time -- I loved that job. I really enjoyed the opportunity which it offered to help people enjoy the world of books and of knowledge and expand our knowledge, our reach across the world. But we were trying to figure out when we should leave that job. I wanted more time for my writing, and we decided, which I think proved not to be such an unwise decision, that I should leave the job just before people starting asking me when I was going to leave. It turned out that we picked that moment, and Congress was very generous and passed a law creating a new post for me, librarian of Congress emeritus, with no salary -- which I didn't want -- but with an office and assistants and a parking place, which, of course, is very important in Washington. So I use the library and I enjoy the library more than ever now. Of course, I draw on it. I could not have written The Creators without the advantage of the books in the Library of Congress.
LAMB: This is about 800 pages. How did you put this together physically? Where did you write it? Do you write every day when you write? When did you finish it?
BOORSTIN: I've always done my writing at home and mostly in the mornings -- in the early mornings actually. When I was fully employed as the librarian of Congress, I had to do my writing very early. I would get to my desk at 6:00 or before and put in a good half day's writing by the time I arrived at the library. I've never written except at home, and I write on what I call a human typewriter, which I still do.
LAMB: Is it a non-electric?
BOORSTIN: It's an Olympia manual typewriter. I'm not the only person who does that, either. Some of my other friends like David McCullough, who is a brilliant writer, and Robert Massie and others still use a human typewriter. I'm not against the technology. That's fine, but writing is a personal thing, you know, and I'm at home with this and so that's what I do. I do my writing at home.
LAMB: You write better in the morning?
BOORSTIN: Early mornings especially are the best time for me.
LAMB: Do you write from notes or do you pull it off the top of your head?
BOORSTIN: Of course I take notes, and I have my own way of taking notes on 5x8 pads oriented toward the book that I've been reading, so that then I have a very complete system of files for the outline. But, you see, the most important thing -- the most important thing -- in making a big book like this is the outline, seeing where you're going. I spent, I would say, almost as much time on the outline and revising it -- I have a whole file cabinet full of outlines-as I spent on the actual reading and writing, for a number of reasons.
In the first place, a nonfiction book, especially if it's on a complicated subject, must have a dramatic structure. You see, if you're writing a novel, the author has the advantage over the reader because the reader doesn't know whether this figure's going to be a hero or a villain, so you can do what you want with him. But if you're writing a non-fiction work about famous and important people and about the major events in history, people know how it turned out. They know that Michelangelo was a great painter and that Picasso was going to be one of the most famous painters in the world and so on. So the writer has to create what I would call a willing suspension of knowledge and make a drama of the facts of the past.
LAMB: This is Part III. Inside there are some sketchings and drawings and photographs. It says "The Power of Stone;" then you have a little quote below that. How much of your time was spent doing these kinds of things? Did you choose the photos and the titles for this?
BOORSTIN: Yes, Ruth and I had a role in that, of course. That's the kind of thing that we selected together.
LAMB: Do you enjoy that part of it?
BOORSTIN: Yes, of course, everything. I mean, we enjoyed very much also selecting the jacket, which you've shown.
LAMB: How much freedom does the publisher of the book give you to choose this kind of thing?
BOORSTIN: I've been very fortunate. I've had a brilliant editor at Random House, a wonderful editor by the name of Robert Loomis, and he has taken an interest in my work in these books, and they've done a beautiful job of bookmaking. I think it would be ironic if you wrote a book about beauty and the history of the arts if it were not elegant, well-designed, as I think this book is, and well-composed.
LAMB: Do you write for a certain kind of a person, a certain -- this is probably not the right thing to ask -- IQ level? Do you have somebody in mind as you sit at that typewriter.
BOORSTIN: No. You see, I think one of the weaknesses of modern historical writing is that too much of it is a byproduct of the growth of the profession, I suppose; that is, that historians tend to write for other historians. I want to write for the human race. That's what I try to do. That's what I think all the great historians have done. Gibbon, for example, was not a member of a professional organization, didn't attend meetings of the historical association, and he wrote because he loved it and that work has lived for that reason. So I try to write for everybody, and I hope everybody who sees us will have a try at “The Creators” and see whether I've succeeded or not. I hope so.
LAMB: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I did not know about your admiration for Edward Gibbon. When you go into a bookstore -- I've got in my hand here The Americans and The Discoverers and all that -- you can find in rack in a bookstore these books just stacked up just like this, all of your works. You could also in the same bookstore find the Edward Gibbon work stacked up. Is this a thrill for you to go in there and see that this is your life's work right there like this?
BOORSTIN: You never know as an author whether it's more thrilling to see your book in the bookstore or out of the bookstore, because you hope that those books will get out of the bookstore. But it is always reassuring that they're there, and my publisher, Random House, has been very effective in getting them both in and out of the bookstore.
LAMB: Which one of all the books you've written -- and I know there are others besides these -- sold the most?
BOORSTIN: I think probably “The Discoverers”, but they're all selling. The Discoverers is in 20 languages now. That also is a very gratifying thing to have, to reach people you'll never know whose language you don't even know. That has done well really across the world. It's in two different editions in Japan and it's been even pirated in China in two different editions, which the Chinese think is a compliment. But it's nice to reach people anyway, even if it's necessary to do it through pirates. So I think “The Creators” has already done very well. It's on the bestseller list and has already sold lots of copies. But my favorite book is the next one, and I'm not at liberty to disclose what it is.
LAMB: Can't even give us the direction?
BOORSTIN: No. The danger, you see, the great peril, I think, is -- “The Discoverers” reached a world audience much more than The Americans did because people outside the United States are not as much interested in American history. But “The Americans” has done well, too, for example, in France where it still sells very well. The object is to reach people.
LAMB: Let me go to “The Creators” for a moment. I counted 70 chapters in this and roughly a focus on your part on 70 different human beings. Not many Americans in the group. One of them that popped up was Benjamin Franklin, and not many women in the group. One of them, if there is more than one, is Martha Graham. How come not many women?
BOORSTIN: And Virginia Woolf.
LAMB: Virginia Woolf, yes.
BOORSTIN: One of the reasons is, of course, the fact that women have not been given the opportunity to fulfill themselves and to reach out in world affairs. Women have done brilliantly as queens -- Queen Elizabeth and Victoria, for example -- because no one could keep them from it. But for the most part, in Western culture, women, although they've been given more opportunities than in other parts of the world, still have not been given a chance in the world of politics and world affairs. I've been rigorous in my standards. I have only put in this book the people who were great creators, whose works have lived, whose works have been immortal and a part of our heritage. I've not put anyone in there because of race or sex or religion or anything of that kind.
LAMB: Is that a tough decision?
BOORSTIN: You have to set your standards. One of my purposes here is to correct some of the stupidities of the P.C. fashion of our time and encourage people to judge the works by their own merit. Now, in the case of women, you'll note toward the end of the book one of the things I describe, which surprised me, too, as I have mention, was the discovery of the self as a subject. Biography comes very late, and it is only very late that writers write about themselves in biography and autobiography and so on. When that happened, the way was open for women.
You see, before that, Jane Austin, who was a brilliant writer, and George Eliot had written mostly about the affairs of the countryside and the parsonage and the marriage market and so on. But when the self was created as it began to be by Montaigne and his successors, Rousseau and Franklin and Proust and Joyce, then the way was open for women. Everyone has a self, and Virginia Woolf brilliantly showed that women could do just as well as men if they had the talent. Her writing is a testimony both to the talents of women and to the obstructions that had been put in the ways of women as artists in the age before. You may note that the title of the chapter on Virginia Woolf is "I, Too, Am Here," which is a phrase from one of Mrs. Carlyle's letters to her husband, who dominated her in a rather unpleasant way.
LAMB: Did you and your wife Ruth have any disagreements over who you ended up writing about when you talked about it?
BOORSTIN: We discussed all these figures. I would say perhaps I admire some of them more than she does. There are Americans in here, you see, but the Americans had to earn their way. They're not there because they're Americans. Among the Americans here, you may have noted, is Benjamin Franklin, who happened to be a particular favorite of mine because I think he invented a kind of literature -- shall we say the self-promotional literature, which is halfway between biography and an autobiography. I call that chapter "The Art of Seeming Truthful." But also Melville is given a chapter, and I think he was a very important figure and one of the leading figures in what I call the wilderness within. He illustrates the movement of the artist toward the inner self. Whitman is also there. T. S. Eliot, of course, whom I still consider an American, although he ceased considering himself that way.
LAMB: What about Stravinsky? Is he considered an American?
BOORSTIN: Well, he became an American, so, yes, I'd be glad to consider him an American since we welcome everybody here.
LAMB: Why Benjamin Franklin and who was he?
BOORSTIN: Benjamin Franklin was a self-made American who grew up and became one of the leading citizens of Philadelphia and represented the American colonies in England and did everything he could to prevent the Revolution. He had a son who remained loyal to England. That was one of the great tragedies of his life. But he loved to write, and he was a very witty person and in his Poor Richard's Almanack he gave bits of wisdom which are still useful to people. For example, he mentioned when someone came to him and said, "I'm thinking of marrying this young lady. How can I learn her true character and especially her faults?" Poor Richard says, "Praise her to her female friends." Now, that kind of subtle wisdom. And then he wrote his autobiography, which is one of the most widely read American works, sometimes called the first American literary work to be read outside of the United States widely.
That work was incomplete, but it was the tale of a man trying to make a good impression, trying to make his way in the world. His was one of the first modern self-help books. He had made a list of 12 virtues and assigned one to each month, and he kept a little book and tried to perfect himself in one virtue each month. There was one virtue that he finally omitted, and that is humility. That would have been the 13th virtue: "Imitate Jesus and Socrates." But he decided to leave that out because quite sensibly he said, "If I ever did that, I would be proud of my humility, so that's an impossible virtue for me." So he wisely put that one aside. But the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin I think was something new and it lives and is reread and has new meanings in all generations. It lacks some of the subtlety but appeals to the people who like Proust and Joyce, but it has a straightforward, simple wisdom that I think we would do well to share today.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier and I don't want to put words in your mouth so explain it yourself -- I don't know whether you said the idiocy or the ridiculousness of the P.C. period. What do you mean by that?
BOORSTIN: I mean the belief that a political test can be applied or a test of modernism can be applied to any of the products of the past. Columbus is a very good example. Now these people are attacking Thomas Jefferson. For me they're heroes -- not because they share all of my beliefs or would live among all the institutions that we share, but because they had a vision of something and a way of pushing on the frontiers of their time. I think that the kind of charity of the kind of breadth of understanding that history is a process of change and that other people, earlier people, were wise in ways that we may not be wise in. That kind of charity is something that I think the vogue of political correctness defeats. Also it deprives us of our sense of heritage.
I believe in the Western heritage. My grandfathers were not raised in the English by I and my children and my grandchildren have the opportunity to share the language of Shakespeare. The Western heritage is something that our institutions have been shaped around, and if we understand it, which I hope The Creators will help us do, I think that our lives will be richer. We'll be more tolerant of people in all times and places.
LAMB: Where does your family go back to originally?
BOORSTIN: They came from Poland or Russia. It had been Poland, but then it was Russia, and they came as immigrants. My grandparents came, and my father was brought as an infant and grew us as a lawyer and went to the University of Georgia Law School and loved the law, as I've already mentioned here.
LAMB: How did he get to Tulsa?
BOORSTIN: My father and his wife's family decided to emigrate from Atlanta, where I was raised, to Tulsa. There were a number of reasons. I suppose on the reasons was that there was a Leo Frank case, which was a blot on the life of Atlanta and the South when there was a kind of a pogrom against Jews in Atlanta. It was not very comfortable there at that time.
LAMB: What year was that?
BOORSTIN: I think it must have been about 1912 or something like that. But the real reason, I think, was that my father was an outgoing, outreaching person. He loved the adventure of the law, and he came to Tulsa, Okla., in about 1916 or so when the streets weren't paved and you could only see the future of the city, which within 20 years had sky-scrapers and had enlisted the loyalties of all the people who had come. His life was a saga, really, of the outreaching American who was not reaching for money but who loved community, who loved to build a community, which he felt he had helped do in Tulsa, and who loved to help his fellow man by the use of the ancient craft of the law.
LAMB: We've talked a little bit about your experience at the University of Chicago where you taught for 25 years and Harvard where you went to school and Oxford where you spent some time and also the librarian of Congress. Of all those different institutions, which one of them had the most impact on you?
BOORSTIN: It would be hard to say. I would say the most impact has been had by not an institution, but by my wife Ruth. I give her the primary credit. The other thing is I've been very lucky, you see, in having the association with great institutions which let me do what I wanted to do. They let me be an amateur. They let me write because I loved it and didn't insist on fitting into some particular pattern. That sense of adventure, of reaching out for the new because you love it, that's what I've enjoyed most and which I think can inspire the works of art.
LAMB: Maybe this is stretching a bit, but you write about the music of the Germans and the painting of the Italians and the writing of the English, and you can go on down the list. Is there anything that you discovered about why the Germans were particularly good in music or why the Italians were particularly good in painting?
BOORSTIN: I wouldn't presume to. That would be getting into ideology more than I would like, but, you see, among the curious things that you find, that if you want to find out how you could make a society which would promote the arts, how would you do that? It's very dangerous to make a prescription for a government to make that possible, but one thing you do discover is that the artist is unpredictable. For example, look at the great works of fiction in Europe in the 19th century, which were a byproduct of the oppression of the czars. The great Russian writers who are still read -- Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and so on -- came into being under the czars, but we certainly don't want to have a czarist regime in order to produce works like that. You can't be sure of that, either, because the times of freedom also, especially in English literature when the urban life and the English theater opened the way for someone like Shakespeare, that openness also created great works of literature.
LAMB: Would you tell us your favorite in these categories, if you had to go pick one of them that you would most like? Try music.
BOORSTIN: I don't like to have favorites. Well, I do have personal have personal favors and it just happens that I particularly love Verdi, but that doesn't mean that he is necessarily the greatest.
LAMB: I understand, and I'm not trying to pin you down.
BOORSTIN: But what impressed me, in response to your question, is my awe at the range of creation. That is what has impressed me more than the emergence of favorites for me. The possibility of an architecture that could reach from the pyramids through the Parthenon and Pantheon and Isle Sophia to the skyscraper, that imagination could reach up and up in so many different ways, that inspires me more than the reach for a favorite. I have difficulty in finding favorites, although I would say, if you insist, among the writers of modern times I particularly admire Joyce, who I think had a feeling for words that is unexcelled.
LAMB: Where would you travel to? I know you travel a lot, but would you go back to Florence?
BOORSTIN: Well, yes, of course.
LAMB: I mean, is that your favorite stop for art?
BOORSTIN: Yes, that would be one of the places surely. Yes, I love Florence and Venice, of course, which has a different kind of iridescence.
LAMB: How about in the United States? Is there a place where you think they create better than other places?
BOORSTIN: It's unpredictable, you know. Look at the people who created American literature. T. S. Eliot came from St. Louis, W. H. Auden came from England and became a great contemporary poet. Faulkner, of course, wrote about the South and so on. I don't think that it's possible to -- I think that the ability of a person to make something new of whatever he encounters. Whitman is a very good example. He wandered around the country and found poetry in people who were working on the docks or in any commonplace experience.
LAMB: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about what you're seeing happening to our society when it comes to creators?
BOORSTIN: I'm optimistic, partly because I believe that the creation of arts is unpredictable and I think that we have, on the whole, created a society which is hospitable to the unexpected. That's the most we can do to encourage the growth of the arts because the future of the arts will be in areas, not only inside the self, but there will be realms of creation which we can't even imagine.
LAMB: You want to tell us anything at all about your next book and when it'll be out?
BOORSTIN: I think it will have something to do with the unpredictable, with how we can encourage ourselves and our society to be friendly to all kinds of unpredictability, to novelty that we can't imagine. That is what I think we should aim at.
LAMB: When's it coming?
BOORSTIN: I hope before too long.
LAMB: This is the book that's currently in your bookstores written by Daniel J. Boorstin called “The Creators.” Thank you very much, Dr. Boorstin, for being with us.
BOORSTIN: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1992. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.