American Culture, American Tastes; Social Change and the 20th Century

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Americans have a long history of public arguments about taste, the uses of leisure, and what is culturally appropriate in a democracy that has a strong work ethic. Michael Kammen surveys these debates as well as our changing taste preferences, especially in the past century, and the shifting perceptions that have accompanied them.. "Focusing on our own time, Kammen discusses the use of the fluid nature of cultural taste to enlarge audiences and increase revenues, and reveals how the public role of intellectuals ...
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American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 2th Century

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Overview

Americans have a long history of public arguments about taste, the uses of leisure, and what is culturally appropriate in a democracy that has a strong work ethic. Michael Kammen surveys these debates as well as our changing taste preferences, especially in the past century, and the shifting perceptions that have accompanied them.. "Focusing on our own time, Kammen discusses the use of the fluid nature of cultural taste to enlarge audiences and increase revenues, and reveals how the public role of intellectuals and cultural critics has declined as the power of corporate sponsors and promoters has risen. As a result of this diminution of cultural authority, he says, definitive pronouncements have been replaced by divergent points of view, and there is, as well, a tendency to blur fact and fiction, reality and illusion.
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Editorial Reviews

Richard Bernstein
As always with Kammen, the book is prodigiously researched and impressively erudite....The reader will find... brief histories of cultural criticism, of the growth of corporate power in creating the mass culture and the near destruction of the boundaries between the middlebrow culture and the highbrow one. There are also compelling passages that trace the decline of traditional cultural authority, a decline hastened by corporate power...
The New York Times
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 culture--which he distinguishes from mass culture, though not always with great clarity--by 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.--Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Surveys the history of debates on taste, the uses of leisure, and what is culturally appropriate in a democracy that has a strong work ethic. Shows how the post-traditional popular culture that flourished after the 1880s became full-blown mass culture after WWII, and charts the influence of advertising and opinion polling, the development of standardized products and mass marketing, and the commercialization of organized entertainment. Reveals how the public role of intellectuals and cultural critics has declined as the power of corporate sponsors and promoters has risen. Includes a few b&w illustrations. The author is a professor of American history and culture at Cornell University. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Richard Bernstein
As always with Kammen, [the book] is prodigiously researched and impressively erudite....The reader will find... brief histories of cultural criticism, of the growth of corporate power in creating the mass culture and the near destruction of the boundaries between the middlebrow culture and the highbrow one. There are also compelling passages that trace the decline of traditional cultural authority, a decline hastened by corporate power...
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer-winning historian Kammen (Cornell; In the Past Lane, 1997; People of Paradox, 1972; etc.) offers a thoughtful essay on the evolution of leisure in America from the late 19th century to today. In their pursuit of leisure, Kammen estimates, Americans now spend over $1 trillion a year—"far more than they spend on health care, on cars and trucks, or on housing." Kammen proceeds to trace how Americans have spent their leisure time and money, and how critics and other authorities have perceived American culture since the emergence of popular culture in the late 19th century. Distinguishing popular culture (participatory or interactive activities on smaller scales, such as nightclubs or amusement parks) from mass culture (passive activities on a large or societal scale, such as television), Kammen divides America's modern cultural history into three phases: the heyday of popular culture from 1885 to 1935; the period of the emergence of "proto-mass" culture from 1935 to 1965; and the growth of mass culture from the mid-'60s through the present. Within these time frames, Kammen explores such themes as the growing democratization of culture as Americans found themselves with unprecedented time and opportunity for leisure, and the decline of ideals of "high culture"; the growth and transformation of popular culture by advertising and other techniques of mass consumerism; the blurring of taste levels during the heyday of commercialized popular culture between what was formerly known as "highbrow" and "middlebrow" culture, and the decline of the authority of critics and the rise of such authorities as opinion polls, television ratings, and the corporate sponsor. The consequence ofthese phenomena, Kammen writes, is "an increase in cultural populism," a decline in cultural elitism, and the growing cultural importance of powerful economic forces. A stimulating inquiry into the conflicting ways in which Americans have understood their dynamic and influential culture, more valuable for the paradigms and issues it raises than for the answers it provides.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679427407
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/10/1999
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Kammen is the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture at Cornell University, where he has taught since 1965. A past president of the Organization of American Historians, he is the author or editor of numerous works, including People of Paradox, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1973, and he has lectured throughout the world.
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Read an Excerpt

The disposition to confuse or conflate the two phenomena is due, at least in part, to disciplinary allegiances and ideological commitments. Because, for example, the phrase "mass culture" is commonly perceived as carrying pejorative connotations, many of those who really enjoy it and write positively about it prefer to use the term "popular culture," almost as a synonym, when they actually do mean mass culture: record-breaking attendance for films and television shows, compact discs that sell in the millions, apparel like jeans and sneakers, fast-food chains, standardized products sold at Wal-Mart and Kmart, and so forth. The use of euphemism in this context has increased in recent years, but it certainly is not new. More than a generation ago an astute young cultural critic, Robert Warshow, casually used "popular" and "mass" interchangeably, but also referred with almost clinical care to a transformation given explicit recognition following World War II. "The mass culture of the educated classes," he observed, "the culture of the 'middle-brow,' as it has sometimes been called--had come into existence."

A British cultural critic has called attention to a similar paradox in the realm of film reviews. It is not unusual for writers to praise intellectually unpretentious popular movies for reasons that are not merely unrelated to their apparent appeal but even seem inimical to it. According to C. W. E. Bigsby, "Popular culture, then, can apparently be transformed into 'high' art by a simple critical act of appropriation. Indeed so insecure are these categories that the popular culture of one generation can become the high culture of the next and vice versa--a fact whichapplies not only to individual artists but to genres (theatre, novel, film), subgenres (farce, science fiction, detective fiction) and styles (romanticism, realism)."

Needless to say, popular culture not only existed but thrived for centuries prior to the period from 1885 to 1935 that I shall highlight. I draw a marked distinction between what British scholars refer to as "traditional" popular culture (flourishing in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries) and the considerably more commercialized and technologically transformed popular culture that emerged at the close of the nineteenth century and then blossomed exuberantly early in the twentieth. Traditional popular culture has also been called pretechnological and preindustrial. A fine example from the United States is the dime museum, which flourished during the nineteenth century but disappeared after 1900 because of the emergence of nickelodeons, film, and mechanized amusement parks.

When we turn to folk culture and contemplate its advocates over a historical span of, say, seventy years, notable changes and even more diversity become apparent. Back in the 1930s Constance Rourke made an ardent yet isolated case for folk culture as the very essence, not merely of popular culture, but of national identity in the United States. Despite the plaudits her work received, her particular emphasis did not gain many adherents for more than a generation. In recent years we have professional students of folk culture deeply concerned to maintain a clear distance between handwrought folk traditions that they cherish and a mass consumer culture that they dislike. And we have historians of popular culture who perceive its roots deeply embedded in folk culture, who find agency rather than victimization in popular culture because they do not believe that consumers are helpless in the hands of producers and entrepreneurs.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Selective Chronology
1 Coming to Terms with Defining Terms 3
2 Culture Democratized: Distinction or Degradation? 27
3 Consumerism, Americanism, and the Phasing of Popular Culture 47
4 Popular Culture in Transition - and in Its Prime 70
5 Blurring the Boundaries Between Taste Levels 95
6 Cultural Criticism and the Transformation of Cultural Authority 133
7 The Gradual Emergence of Mass Culture and Its Critics 162
8 Mass Culture in More Recent Times: Passive and/or Participatory? 190
9 Historians and the Problem of Popular Culture in Recent Times 219
10 Meetings of the Minds? Moving Beyond Customary Categories 242
App Symposia on Twentieth-Century Perceptions of Culture in the United States 261
Notes 263
Acknowledgments 305
Index 307
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