[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America,' by Richard M. Fried

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'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

    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 
evangelists. No
    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 
    the 1920's.

    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 
celebrity. In
    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 
term for
    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. 
Fried, a
    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" 
but to
    what purpose.

    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 
drops of
    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 
of the
    forthcoming book "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan."

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