American Culture American Tastes: Social Change and the Twentieth Century

Michael Kammen

Published by Basic Books
ISBN 10: 0465037291 / ISBN 13: 9780465037292
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Synopsis: In American Culture, American Tastes, Michael Kammen leads us on an entertaining, thought-provoking tour of America's changing tastes, uses of leisure, and the shifting perceptions that have accompanied them throughout our nation's history. Starting at the point in time that late-nineteenth-century popular culture began to evolve into post-WWII mass culture, Kammen charts the influence of advertising and opinion polling; the development of standardized products, shopping centers, and mass marketing; the separation of youth and adult culture; the relationship between "high" and "low" art; the commercialization of organized entertainment; and the ways in which television has shaped mass culture and consumerism has reconfigured it. In doing so, he draws from sources as varied and rich as the work of esteemed cultural theorists, "The Simpsons," jigsaw puzzles, Walter Winchell's gossip columns, Whitman's poetry, Warhol's art, "Sesame Street," and the Book-of-the-Month Club.With wit and ingenuity Kammen traces the emergence of American mass culture and the contested meanings of leisure, taste, consumer culture, and social divisions that it has spawned.

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

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Title: American Culture American Tastes: Social ...
Publisher: Basic Books
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