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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 653-665

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Downwardly Mobile for Conscience's Sake:

Voluntary Simplicity from Thoreau to Lily Bart

In broadest terms, this essay is about a counterculture of self-imposed moral and economic limits, or rather cultures (plural), running through and against mainstream American liberalism from the early colonial era down to the present, at some points more strongly than others. At rare moments, it's shown signs of becoming a dominant culture, or at least a dominant cultural imaginary: at certain points in Puritan and Quaker history, in the cult of republican virtue during the early national period, and most especially in such religiocentric communitarian movements as those of the Shakers and the Amish—or, for that matter, as Puritanism and Quakerism once were.

All these sects, of course, were transplanted from abroad, not native born. What I am attempting to describe is not a propensity unique to the US. Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Albert Schweitzer might all be worthier prototype cases than any I'll be examining here. But the formation arguably has special pertinence to US culture, which is stereotypically a culture of capitalism, of consumption, of plenty, and of individual upward mobility, relative to most of the rest of the world. Under such conditions the mere existence of countercultures of restraint take on a special interest. As David Shi writes in the best history of national simplicity ethics to date, the myth of the simple life "has, in a sense, served as the nation's conscience, reminding Americans of what the founders had hoped they would be and [so] providing a vivifying counterpoint to the excesses of materialist individualism" (278).

1. Voluntary Simplicity Lives?

Writing 20 years ago, Shi is unequivocally confident that "the simple life will persist both as an enduring myth and as an actual way of [End Page 653] living" (279). Today some would disagree. Not for nothing was the Bill Clinton era called a New Gilded Age, which the George W. Bush administration, for all its attempts to distance itself from its predecessor, effectively has sought to sustain with large tax cuts for the wealthy in the face of recession. In recent years, US presidents have famously refrained from calling upon American citizens to accept restraints in their standard of living. This has not escaped notice by Americanists. In a recent article ironically titled "What Is So Bad about Being Rich?" Winfried Fluck of the Free University of Berlin contends that representations of wealth in US fiction and film have become increasingly unabashed during the past two decades, indeed that the critique of "the hunger for riches" as an "adolescent wish for self-aggrandizement" that we find in (say) Howells and James "gradually loses its influence at the end of the 19th century" (61).

Still, as ethos if not as majoritarian practice, voluntary simplicity continues to thrive. As Shi suggests, the dominant culture of materialism assures both its marginalization and its persistence as a voice from the margin. Indeed, voluntary simplicity does a brisk business these days. Anyone with an internet hookup and a little spare cash can subscribe in two or three clicks to Simple Living Magazine, or tune in to "The Simple Living Network" (at to view and order some of the many self-help manuals. These include, for example, The Simple Living Guide (1997) by Janet Luhrs (who also edits Simple Living Magazine); Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity (1981), still a popular item after almost a quarter century in print; Linda Breen Pierce's Simplicity Lessons: A 12-Step Guide to Living Simply (2003); and Elaine St. James's trilogy Simplify Your Life (1994), Inner Simplicity (1995), and Living the Simple Life (1996)—each of which takes the form of 100 microessays on topics such as "Cut your grocery shopping time in half," "Get rid of your lawn," "Sell the damn boat," "Take time to watch the sunset," "Stop carrying a purse the size of the QE2," "Practice detaching," "Practice dying," "Saying no in the workplace," "Get out...


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