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American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century Hardcover – August 10, 1999
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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.
Top customer reviews
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. Kammen also praises disparate artists like Andy Warhol and Ken Burns for their fresh, interpretive approaches to popular art, history, and their ultimate meld, acknowledging criticism of Burns in a chapter among the book's best.
Kammen writes like a professor: dryly, relying on self-reference and prepositional pile-up (ending Chapter 8, for example, with a huge excerpt from social critic Morag Shiach followed by his own terse, "I concur." Yet the sheer weight of his research, opinion collected and examples rendered make "American Culture" a fine companion piece to studying American fad, fashion, and leisure preference, a part of daily American life few scholars have seriously studied. Recommended.