Sunday, May 16, 2004

The simple life

I've been enjoying reading David Shi's The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, a history of the idea of simple living since the time of the Puritans in America. I'm into the chapter on "Progressive Simplicity," from about 1900 to 1920, which covers the Arts and Crafts movement; Frank Lloyd Wright; Edward Bok, the twenty-six year old editor of the Ladies' Home Journal; John Muir; and others. Each chapter begins with a general description of the time period covered and how the ideal of the simple life was defined and lived out (or not). Then Shi highlights individuals who lived out (or attempted to live out) that ideal.

The theme of the simple life ties together a number of strands of American history, including domesticity, economic policy and legislation, the establishment of political and civic institutions, and religious and intellectual life. It's fascinating to trace how compelling the vision of the simple life has been in American culture and yet how often it has remained an ideal rather than a lived reality. Shi's history is helping me understand some of the reasons I'm so attracted to that way of life, as well as my ambivalence.

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