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With Amusement For All: A History of American Popular Culture Since 1830

by LeRoy Ashby
University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 2006
648pp., 36 illus. b/w. Trade, $39.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


Studying popular culture might have seemed like a trivial pursuit to many social scientists in the past, but this is largely no longer the case. Fortunately for those seeking an overview of the phenomenon in America, LeRoy Ashby’s historical narrative, With Amusement For All: A History of American Popular Culture Since 1930 is written in a highly accessible fashion and in fact, reads like a bible of American popular culture. It deserves to become a basic text for those interested in the big picture unburdened by theory and yet intellectually informed. It is a triumph of plain speaking and a historical tour de force.

As popular culture has long been America’s leading export, as it is the nation’s Most democratic art form and as it has helped define and create identity at home and across the globe, it is an essential topic for studying modernity at large. As such With Amusement For All will be of great use especially to students and scholars around the world who are interested in popular culture and cultural studies. Without ever falling prey to the winds of fashion and theory, Ashby paints a wide screen of changing popular culture and thus identity and cultural struggle in America since 1830. His challenge has been how to synthesize such an enormous body of history into a single study. It achieves this end by providing an immensely readable narrative which manages to find an appropriate balance between providing sufficient historical detail and approaching the complexity of the phenomenon in an engaging manner.

Ashby carefully details how contemporary American popular culture has its origins in the American Revolution of 1787 and how the market for popular culture constantly commoditizes radical ideas. With a prodigious historical reach, he systematically reveals how contemporary paradoxes and unintended consequences are rooted in class-related ambivalence, especially regarding the public expression of lower class tastes and expectations. In so doing he first takes us back to Wordsworth’s antipathy to popular culture as a "Parliament of Monsters" -- that "vast mill vomiting" held dear by Shakespeare. Five hundred pages later, he concludes his engrossing encyclopedic review in the post-9/11 world just prior to the chaotic attenuation of America’s greatest celebration of disorder and role reversal - Mardi Gras. In tackling such a daunting task, his common sense approach consistently holds true to his topic.

For example, early in the book, Ashby provides an insightful and interesting review of how the scaffolding for modern American popular culture was erected in the 1830’s by P. T. Barnum when he first opened his revolutionary show. In a fascinating and necessarily brief account he considers how popular culture has always drawn its energy from its subversive potential -- its shadowy urban marginality which relentlessly colonizes the imagination and provokes raucous laughter rather than the hush and awe of the symphony or the urbane nodding and knowing glances of sophisticated audiences pontificating on Baudelaire. Popular culture celebrates fantasy and gossip, sex and murder and especially fraud in high places. Herein lies its mesmerizing appeal, its radical democratic tendency and the fact that it continually reverberates with the rhetoric of democracy in the unfolding and always contested context of modern history. One of Ashby’s major contributions here is to relate at length how popular culture has been a critical component in the emergence of the market economy and the triumph of middle class values. In all this popular culture provides an outlet for dreams, a vehicle for fantasy, dissent and its commoditization.

Ashby relates how popular culture and political conflicts constantly define American life and identity. This is especially the case during the war eras and the emergence of new mass media such as radio, film and television. In exploring this relation, one of his most powerful sections focuses on the Cold War era and the contradictory forces of the sense of America as a free, family centered, classless society and the reality of intensifying xenophobia, censorship and surveillance, which he situates as inclusionary versus exclusionary tendencies. Thus we can look back on film-noir in terms of the memorable quote as a "distress flair launched onto movie screens by artists working the night shift at The Dream Factory" (Miller 1998:10). Country music also turned to the dark side as shown in the post-war popularity of songs that dealt with cheating, loneliness and suffering, broken relationships and failed love.

From P. T. Barnum’s climatic and "Greatest Show on Earth" in the 1870’s and 1880’s to the new media marketplace in which a mere fleeting glimpse of Janet Jackson’s left breast made history, Ashby teases out a fascinating history of family values and cultural politics. He concludes by reflecting on how family values and the war on terrorism have suddenly come together in a way which reminds one of the cold war attacks on the Hollywood Left. Herein, he details how conservative reactions to developments in popular culture are some of the best measures of contemporary ideological conflict in which evangelists and extremist ideologues around the world find themselves on common ground.

From Texas to Tehran, people believe that American popular culture is sowing moral ruin through the mass media. Yet as Ashby concludes, popular culture is largely inspirational and instructive -- it promotes diversity and victories by the "little people". In essence, the predominant pro-popular culture sentiment across the globe can be simply summed up with these simple few words — "Don’t take my dreams away from me".

As a dream machine, popular culture is democracy’s cultural flagship. It is also a gateway through which "trash" has repeatedly been elevated to wealth and fame, not merely to being King for a Day but Queen for the World. In all this it is in short a celebration of the democratic spirit, of the potential for liberation, success and excess, as well as the commoditization of that experience.



Updated 1st October 2006

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