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The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of Popular Culture in the United States Paperback – January 1, 1996

3.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The connection between yesterday's Victorian dime-novel denizens and today's African American rap fans, Culture Club's sudden rise to fame in the early 1980s and the demise of the Golden Age of Hollywood are just a few of the fascinating topics tackled in this analysis of popular culture from revolutionary times to the present. Cullen, who teaches history and literature at Harvard and is the author of The Civil War in Popular Culture, shows how cultural innovations are often developed by marginalized populations and (after initial rejection by cultural elites) trickle into the mainstream. Juicy details of representative people or events (e.g., the 1849 Astor Place theater riot, the band Los Lobos) accompany each chapter. Cullen's articulate prose is spiced with wicked wit and he loves a good story. He is also tolerant of the ambiguities inherent in popular culture; his treatment of the rise and fall of minstrel shows demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of complex cultural forces. Cullen looks at popular art not as escapism but as valuable work in its own right, an approach that makes The Art of Democracy a thoroughly engaging look at American culture.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This second book by Cullen (following The Civil War in Popular Culture, Smithsonian, 1995), a Harvard professor whose reviews have appeared in Rolling Stone, is an exceptionally well-written and engrossing introduction to the nonelitist art forms of American popular culture. His subjects encompass the history of the chapbook, the novel, and the mass press as well as fascinating coverage of antebellum performing arts, examining African American slave music vs. minstrelsy. Each of the six chapters has an in-depth topic, such as the humor of Bert Williams or a closer look at Chaplin and Billie Holliday, but broader views develop. A central theme to this study of the popular and profane is the frequency of black traditions and imagination revitalizing U.S. culture. The early feminist novel and the movies, Nat King Cole and Elvis, country music and Milli Vanilli, and the PC and popular culture all coexist with ease in this work that will be of considerable interest to scholars and general readers alike. Highly recommended.?Mary Hamel-Schwulst, Towson State Univ., Md.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 346 pages
  • Publisher: Monthly Review Press (January 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0853459207
  • ISBN-13: 978-0853459200
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #7,011,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Having just read the rather critical review posted by another reader, I felt obliged to offer my MUCH more favorable view of Cullen's book. First, I need to say that the critical review is perceptive & informative, but too concerned with what the reviewer thinks it should have said to the point of not seeing it as the very interesting & valid treatment of the subject that it was for me: I learned new things on every page without ever finding factual manipulation intended to control my attitude toward the USA or its history. In short, my reading allows me to recommend The Art of Democracy to anyone interested in what a thoughtful & very knowledgeable researcher has to say about so interesting & revealing a subject.
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Format: Paperback
NOTE: THIS REVIEW IS BASED ON THE FIRST EDITION, NOT THE REVISED EDITION

Trying to present a "concise history of popular culture in the United States" in such a short book as this one calls to mind Samuel Johnson's remark on the dancing dog. You shouldn't focus on how bad it is, it is remarkable that it was attempted at all.

Certainly, large portions of American culture are simply ignored or get just a passing glance. So you get very little on the ante-bellum Northern writers, nothing on twentieth century magazines, only the briefest mention of Broadway musicals - a paragraph about three musicals influenced by African American music(Porgy and Bess [which is more of an opera than a musical], Showboat and On the Town) and so on.

Part of the problem lies in the author's failure to define his terms. When does popular culture end and something else begin? So we get a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald and not Hemingway, ballet and opera but not orchestral music. Interestingly, he criticizes the inventors of movies and television for focusing on the hardware and ignoring the software, but he makes something of the same mistake, presenting a fascinating description of the technological developments of those industries, but his discussion of movies and television shows is much less focused and not very insightful.

And if you are going to discuss the Hollywood communists who were blacklisted, you should also mention that they themselves often used their influence at the studios to blacklist non-communist and anti-communist writers. Two wrongs don't make a right, of course, but you also reap what you sow.
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