[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America,' by Richard M. Fried
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Sun Jan 1 23:12:09 UTC 2006
'The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America,' by
Richard M. Fried
[I read this bestselling book about how Jesus was a master salesman about
thirty years ago and remember it fondly as a lesson that each generation makes
Christ over into its own image. I am glad the book is being remembered. I
should not be surprised if Mr. Mencken had the same reaction as I did, but I
haven't found any trace of his commentary.]
Review by MICHAEL KAZIN
THE MAN EVERYBODY KNEW
Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America.
By Richard M. Fried.
Illustrated. 286 pp. Ivan R. Dee. $27.50.
IF consumerism is our secular religion, then copywriters are its
one in the golden days of the American advertising industry preached the
more fervently or effectively than Bruce Barton. The affable son of a
Protestant minister, he created much of the copy that propelled Batten,
Durstine & Osborn, the agency he helped found, to the top of its industry
Barton always believed the best ads were ones that depicted corporations as
fount of services that transcended the particular product on offer. For
Motors, he composed the inspiring tale of a doctor whose reliable auto sped
to the bedside of a failing young girl. One historian has labeled such ads
essential to "creating the corporate soul," and Barton pursued it with a
But it was his selling of Jesus that transformed the ad man into a
1925, Barton published "The Man Nobody Knows," which quickly became an
best seller - and one of the most easily ridiculed examples of pop theology
written. He urged readers to banish the image of the long-haired,
figure who gazed woefully from Victorian lithographs. Barton's Jesus was a
muscular "outdoor man" and a "sociable" fellow in demand at Jerusalem's best
banquet tables. More to the point, he was a masterly entrepreneur. Hadn't
humble carpenter "picked up 12 men from the bottom ranks of business and
them into an organization that conquered the world"? From his father, Barton
learned that a "preacher is really a salesman." The son simply reversed the
On the wings of his prosperity and fame, Barton rose to the inner circle of
Republican Party. He helped to write major speeches for President Calvin
and to devise the campaign of his successor, Herbert Hoover. Barton refused
become depressed in the months after the stock market crashed. "Anyone who
gloomily at the business prospects of this country in 1930 is going broke,"
In the late 30's, Barton proved that he could also sell himself. He was
elected to the House, by huge margins, from the East Side of Manhattan. Down
the Capitol, Barton warned, in a tone of atypical grimness, that a third
Franklin Roosevelt would mean "the end of freedom." In return, Roosevelt
sink his 1940 campaign for the Senate. Barton retreated to his agency. Until
death a quarter-century later, he surfaced mostly as an elder statesman for
anodyne causes like fighting heart disease and urging brotherhood between
Christians and Jews.
It is surprising to learn this is the first biography of Barton, whose name
indeed once familiar to any American who read a daily paper. Richard M.
professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, provides a
suitably brisk, anecdote-filled account, which focuses on how the master
publicist's clever optimism suffused his words - whether they were designed
promote Christ, a corporation or the Republican Party.
Fried concludes that Barton was a more ambivalent figure than he seemed to
contemporaries. He extolled consumerism, yet fretted about the loss of the
"values of work and self-restraint." He wrote homilies to big business, yet
increasingly viewed ads as superfluous and banal. Unfortunately, Fried
attempt to make sense of these contradictions or to justify the cliché of
subtitle. The question is not whether Barton helped "make modern America"
Perhaps the absence of a previous biography reflects the fact that those who
succeed at advertising and public relations merely hold up gilded mirrors to
society rather than helping to improve it. Bruce Barton contributed his
wisdom to an onrushing tide. The man whom everybody once knew may also have
someone neither business nor politics nor religion really needed
Michael Kazin, who teaches history at Georgetown University, is the author
forthcoming book "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan."
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