02.24.10

The End of Really Big

The death of the gargantuan Hummer marks the passing of our obsession with largeness. Tunku Varadarajan on how being big went from a sign of bounty to excess.

“What is more soothing than the pretty hummer,” wrote Keats, words he’d never have penned, one wagers, had he come face-to-face with a certain blustering American car, hyperbole-on-wheels.

The Hummer, we’ve just learned, is to be made no longer, or so General Motors has announced, after its failure to sell the bleeding brand to the very un-American Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machines. How chastening it is for America—and how disconcerting—to be cut down to size, yet again, by the Chinese.

The demise of the Hummer looks like more than the end of an automotive brand. It looks like the start of an age when we need to measure ourselves afresh—and maybe start to resize America.

Is it time for a lamentation? Is this the beginning of the End of Really Big? As a country, a people, a culture, we’ve always been obsessed with largeness, equating it with bounty and success (and equating smallness, in turn, with parsimony and failure). Even Starbucks, that touchiest, feeliest of companies, prefers to impose on us a whole new lexicon rather than sell its coffee in a size “small.”

America was an unimaginably vast, empty space when settlers came to it from crowded Europe. They still come to it from other teeming places—India, Haiti, Mexico, China, Bangladesh, Nigeria—and every wave of immigrants to America keeps alive the cult of largeness that grew with the earliest settlers, the urge to burst free of Old World confines and leave a big footprint (or, in later generations, tire tread), to fill America with the fruits of a supersize ambition.

Americans aren’t shy or subtle, and bigness gets the point of one’s prosperity across to one’s neighbors without artifice or nuance. Big McMansions and cars telegraph “I’m rich and successful” to those not schooled in the snobberies and subtleties of class, to those who lack hypocrisy. Big American breasts are a perfect (if occasionally gaudy) metaphor for the country’s bounty. They are proof, also, of the magnetism of largeness, and of America’s refusal to be hemmed in, or satisfied with what nature gave. (All this manifests itself, too, in those wonderful county and farm shows in the Midwest, which celebrate the earthy sensuality of giant pumpkins, whose amplitude points to American cornucopia.)

Being big and powerful is essential to our national identity. It’s what we feel makes us better than the countries with older histories. So we have the world’s largest Bible, in Abilene, Texas; the world’s largest department store in Macy’s, Manhattan; the world’s largest Laundromat, mall, supercomputing grid, carousel, drive-in fast-food restaurant, public library, brewery, casino… Our bigness also expresses itself in the form of military might, a (now somewhat tarnished) genius for making money, and a gift for innovation (the point of which is to stay bigger and better than the rest). All of this, at least for a long period in our history, found perfect expression in our automobiles—of which the Hummer was the gargantuan, gas-guzzling apotheosis.

But we’ve grown somewhat embarrassed—at least on our jaded, guilt-ridden West and East Coasts—of some of this largeness, and particularly of the physical largeness of so many Americans. In the economic downturn that seems without end—in this Age of Roubini and the Great Recession, of banks Too Big to Fail—we don’t dig big quite as avidly we used to. Where vastness once signaled bounty, it gives off now a whiff—and sometimes more than that—of excess, of self-indulgence. In times like this, the demise of the Hummer looks like more than the end of an automotive brand. It looks like the start of an age when we need to measure ourselves afresh—and maybe start to resize America.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)