Irresistible Empire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Victoria de Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia University, argues that the Americanization of Europe has been going on for a century and that the Americans have largely conquered the Europeans through a culture of distribution and consumption. She sees the conquest as neither alarming nor desirable, but as the consequence of the irresistible attraction of American ways of doing things. She begins by recalling President Woodrow Wilson's address to the first World's Salesmanship Congress in 1916. In that address, Wilson exhorted the salesmen to go out and sell goods to the world and, in doing so, convert the world to American principles. That, de Grazia suggests in a series of vignettes, is exactly what the Americans did.

In her first vignette, she looks at the spread of the Rotary Club, the American businessmen's service organization, through Europe. She argues that although Europeans often interpreted the service ethic of Rotary in their own varied ways, the idea of the businessman as leading through service was the beginning of the penetration of American-style consumerism. In the vignettes that follow, she examines other steps in the Americanization of Europe. Woolworth, the American variety store, had planted deep European roots by the 1920's. Old commercial traditions of crafts, such as the Leipzig Fair, were supplanted by standardized brand products. By the late-twentieth century, big stores such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart were taking over European markets.

It is not always clear to what extent the events described by de Grazia are necessarily “Americanization” and to what extent they are incidents in a worldwide movement toward a society of mass consumption that simply happened to begin in America. One may also question whether this is really an “empire” because there has been no single place of command in these commercial trends. Still, readers will be intrigued by de Grazia's magisterial account of economic and cultural change.