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American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century Hardcover – August 10, 1999


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (August 10, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679427406
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679427407
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,566,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Intellectuals are often accused of viewing mass entertainment with contempt, fear, or condescension. The rise of cultural-studies programs in prestigious universities, however, reveals that this perception couldn't be further from the truth. In American Culture, American Tastes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael G. Kammen explores the origins and implications of this new way that academics and critics celebrate, rather than condemn, popular tastes.

In principle, Kammen supports recent scholarly forays into the effects of mass production and consumerism on Americans' leisure time. He is concerned, however, that the audience's relationship to contemporary media is greatly underappreciated. In attempting to distinguish "popular" from "mass" culture, Kammen argues that with films, music, radio, and popular fiction, certain "highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow" levels emerged, targeting specific social classes or communities. These levels were quite permeable, however, and certain works, such as Shakespeare's plays and Charlie Chaplin's slapstick comedies, allowed audiences to transcend rigid categories of taste. In the television era, Kammen believes, leisure has become more passive and homogenized, however, and the era of democratic consumption that many modern intellectuals champion may be near an end.

To combat this trend, Kammen, like Russell Jacoby, longs to resurrect "public intellectuals," such as H.L. Mencken and Dwight Macdonald, who pointedly combined a learned appreciation of popular culture with a genuine concern for preserving the vivacity of public life. In a field dominated by Marxists and feminists, this call for liberal cultural "authority" will raise some hackles in academe, but praise among general audiences. --John M. Anderson

From Library Journal

The prize-winning Kammen (American history, Cornell; Mystic Chords of Memory) is first among equals of academics devoted to American intellectual and cultural history. In his 15th book, he considers the rise of popular culture in the last century and how it has been created, received, and altered by consumers, producers, and opinion-makers. He rejects conservative jeremiads against popular cultureAwhich he distinguishes from mass culture, though not always with great clarityAby such contemporary figures as Hilton Kramer but is equally troubled by neo-Marxist condemnations influenced by the late Herbert Marcuse. Though the writing is surprisingly dry at times, given Kammen's long record of accessible scholarship, he casts a wide net in his consideration of popular culture. In the end, Kammen's liberal reasonableness counts as a new contribution to the school of consensus, an unfashionable approach in American historiography for decades. Recommended for public libraries and required for academic collections.AScott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By AgnisBee on May 18, 2007
Format: Paperback
If you enjoyed this book, try also a recent hit, "From Lowbrow to Nobrow," which provides a state of the art and revolutionary analysis of popular fiction (sort of a la Herbert Gans), and does it in an engaging, colourful and witty way. Peter Swirski, the author, is a literature specialist but his also ranges into sociology, leisure studies, aesthetics, economics, and many other aspects of the socio-cultural function of popular fiction, as well as a new socio-aesthetic category which he dubs "nobrow."
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Anthony G Pizza VINE VOICE on August 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Historian/author Michael Kammen's "American Culture, American Taste" exhaustively, deliberately examines 120 years of American leisure preferences: their classification, exploration, homogonization, and finally, exploitation. He recalls, charts, and deconstructs lines of "high," "low," and "middlebrow" taste (defined over time by everything from furniture choice to favorite "Simpsons" character). He also strengthens the divide between "popular" culture (often regional and participatory) over "mass" culture (homogoneous and sedentary), criticizing their interchangability in American society.
Kammen doesn't adhere to timeline (although he includes one to start the book) prefering to make points era to era, country to city, weaving critical opinions often 50 years apart. He cites the years 1880-1930 as when popular culture gained its footing (with increased leisure time) and inspired some of its finest (often bristling) national conversation from journalists such as Walter Lippmann. He finds unique angles in cultural hegemony (sports equipment and rule books, Walt Disney's and Charlie Chaplin's films, radio's "Amos n'Andy", and syndicated newspaper features all preceding television's ultimate conquest). Then again, Kammen also includes Timothy O'Leary's dimbulb quote that the Nintendo phenomenon is "about equal to that of the Gutenberg printing press." Uh huh.
Kammen reveals, then bemoans, the gradual shift from active to passive, social to private amusement, from reliance on cultural leadership ("tastemakers") to public opinion easily manipulated by advertising and slavishly served by mass media.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Valentine on May 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Kammen once again delivers the goods in this well-researched and timely discussion of how American popular culture has changed over the past century into mass culture. Popular and mass culture are terms often mis-used, so he starts with a discussion of their differences and how their meaning has changed. Kammen's range is broad and his commentary sharp. Enjoy! (I've read the library's copy, now I'm buying something I can mark on.)
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful By LuelCanyon on September 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I picked this book up on a whim, and found it an interesting mix; a somewhat anti-academic treatise written by a flourishing academic, filled with tremendous flashes of genuine insight into the perennial American ethos as it sifts out in our culture. Written in an engaging style, Kammen is clearly devoted to his own intellectual gifts but not overcome by them. His dissection of the impact of television on modern culture is particularly adept, if only the creators of TV programming possessed this much understanding of the medium in which they work! The pace of the book is invitingly brisk, and while it is thick going in a few places, it's mostly quite readable and makes its arguments in a manner that is concise, cogent, and to-the-point. Despite the somewhat dry title (although the Reginald Marsh painting on the cover really cinched my purchase of the book!), this is a penetrating and important look at the direction of American culture. Kammen's take on multi-culturalism in America seems somewhat bleached, and his occasional ruminations on cultural life played out vis-a-vis the increasingly virulent class war that rumbles just under the surface of American life seem conservative and not always informed, perhaps closeted a bit by his academic background. One other thing- the illustrations in the book are beautifully chosen, including Rockwell, Benton, and a positively magical drawing of Warhol by Jamie Wyeth. I'd never seen it before and it alone is worth the price of the book!
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