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With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 712
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    With Amusement for All
    Book Description:

    Popular culture is a central part of everyday life to many Americans. Personalities such as Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan are more recognizable to many people than are most elected officials. With Amusement for All is the first comprehensive history of two centuries of mass entertainment in the United States, covering everything from the penny press to Playboy, the NBA to NASCAR, big band to hip hop, and other topics including film, comics, television, sports, dance, and music. Paying careful attention to matters of race, gender, class, technology, economics, and politics, LeRoy Ashby emphasizes the complex ways in which popular culture simultaneously reflects and transforms American culture, revealing that the world of entertainment constantly evolves as it tries to meet the demands of a diverse audience. Trends in popular entertainment often reveal the tensions between competing ideologies, appetites, and values in American society. For example, in the late nineteenth century, Americans embraced "self-made men" such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie: the celebrities of the day were circus tycoons P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey, Wild West star "Buffalo Bill" Cody, professional baseball organizer Albert Spalding, and prizefighter John L. Sullivan. At the same time, however, several female performers challenged traditional notions of weak, frail Victorian women. Adah Isaacs Menken astonished crowds by wearing tights that made her appear nude while performing dangerous stunts on horseback, and the shows of the voluptuous burlesque group British Blondes often centered on provocative images of female sexual power and dominance. Ashby describes how history and politics frequently influence mainstream entertainment. When Native Americans, blacks, and other non-whites appeared in the nineteenth-century circuses and Wild West shows, it was often to perpetuate demeaning racial stereotypes -- crowds jeered Sitting Bull at Cody's shows. By the early twentieth century, however, black minstrel acts reveled in racial tensions, reinforcing stereotypes while at the same time satirizing them and mocking racist attitudes before a predominantly white audience. Decades later, Red Foxx and Richard Pryor's profane comedy routines changed American entertainment. The raw ethnic material of Pryor's short-lived television show led to a series of African-American sitcoms in the 1980s that presented common American experiences -- from family life to college life -- with black casts. Mainstream entertainment has often co-opted and sanitized fringe amusements in an ongoing process of redefining the cultural center and its boundaries. Social control and respectability vied with the bold, erotic, sensational, and surprising, as entrepreneurs sought to manipulate the vagaries of the market, control shifting public appetites, and capitalize on campaigns to protect public morals. Rock 'n Roll was one such fringe culture; in the 1950s, Elvis blurred gender norms with his androgynous style and challenged conventions of public decency with his sexually-charged performances. By the end of the 1960s, Bob Dylan introduced the social consciousness of folk music into the rock scene, and The Beatles embraced hippie counter-culture. Don McLean's 1971 anthem "American Pie" served as an epitaph for rock's political core, which had been replaced by the spectacle of hard rock acts such as Kiss and Alice Cooper. While Rock 'n Roll did not lose its ability to shock, in less than three decades it became part of the established order that it had originally sought to challenge. With Amusement for All provides the context to what Americans have done for fun since 1830, showing the reciprocal nature of the relationships between social, political, economic, and cultural forces and the way in which the entertainment world has reflected, refracted, or reinforced the values those forces represent in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7132-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vi)
    (pp. vii-xxxiv)

    In the brief seven years since I finished writing this book in 2005, popular culture has continued to change at a dizzying pace, vastly expanding the number and variety of options as well as ways to access them. Familiar patterns remain, certainly. Corporate behemoths keep jockeying for position and profits. New technology relentlessly brushes aside old systems and devices. Interactions between mainstream amusements (in the tradition of the circus’s fabled big tent) and riskier, marginalized sideshows continue to reshape boundaries of respectability, acceptability, and controversy. Themes of centralization and homogenization persist. But, more than ever, fragmenting, disintegrating forces are apparent....

    (pp. xxxv-xl)
  5. PROLOGUE: Popular Culture on the Brink
    (pp. 1-10)

    In November 1829, some twelve thousand people, many of whom had paid for a good view, watched the famous falls jumper Sam Patch leap off a scaffolding and plunge 125 feet into the roiling waters at the foot of Genesee Falls in upstate New York. It was his last jump. Drunk before he leaped, he did not survive. He could hardly have guessed that his jump from that platform marked a symbolic moment in the history of American popular culture. When Patch bounded into the void, American entertainment was in the process of stepping into a turbulent new era.¹


    (pp. 11-40)

    In 1832, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a young former carpenter’s apprentice wearing blackface, electrified his boisterous working-class audience by spinning around on a Bowery stage with a curious, jerky motion and singing: “Weel about and turn about, / And do jis so; / Eb’ry time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow.” A year later, the newspaper publisher Benjamin Day, age twenty-three, launched a newspaper that was about one-third the size of other papers, sold at the incredibly cheap price of one cent, and highlighted sensational murders, tragedies, and gossip. And, in mid-1835, Phineas Taylor Barnum, a twenty-five-year-old refugee from the...

  7. 2 TAMING ROUGH AMUSEMENTS, 1840s-1860s
    (pp. 41-72)

    A pivotal antebellum development was the emergence of a middle class with an expansive set of values and beliefs. That development profoundly influenced popular culture. For the burgeoning amusement sector, this middle class was both an obstacle, swelling the ranks of social and cultural reformers who targeted “immoral” diversions, and a boon, enlarging the pool of potential, and relatively more affluent, customers. Popular culture proved remarkably adaptive, accommodating dramatic social changes, yet never completely losing its oppositional and resistant features. While important amusement pockets (including such blood sports as boxing) continued to provide refuges from the spreading dictates of middle-class...

    (pp. 73-106)

    In the early 1880s, audiences from New England to the Midwest and the Great Plains took turns packing themselves into a massive traveling canvas tent to watch “the Greatest Show on Earth”—the circus extravaganza of P. T. Barnum and his new partner, James A. Bailey. In town after town, excitement would build for weeks about the show’s impending arrival: “circus day,” when performers, trainers, and animals, in sixty or more special cars, rolled into the local railroad station. Communities came to a standstill for the unloading of the cars, parades down main streets, and the performances themselves, which featured...

  9. 4 “THE BILLION-DOLLAR SMILE”: From Burlesque to Vruoeville and Amusement Parks
    (pp. 107-142)

    During the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, the entertainment industry expanded at a furious rate. Joining circuses, enlarged minstrel shows, and sports were burlesque and vaudeville. Like their amusement counterparts, burlesque and vaudeville reflected the industrial trend of consolidation. Yet they followed contrasting audience trajectories: burlesque moved from several lavishly staged spectacles in respectable theaters to “leg shows”; its initially clever satires, which drew large, mixed crowds, increasingly featured seminude females who danced for largely male audiences in seedy surroundings. Vaudeville, on the other hand, worked steadily to shed its questionable reputation, courted family audiences, and gave voice...

    (pp. 143-175)

    “‘Looping the loop’ amid shrieks of stimulated terror or dancing in disorderly saloon halls are perhaps the natural reactions to a day spent in noisy factories and in trolley cars whirling through the distracting streets,” wrote Jane Addams in 1909, “but the city which permits them to be the acme of pleasure and recreation to its young people, commits a grievous mistake.” Addams was no reactionary. She was an advocate for women’s suffrage, an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a defender of immigrant America and beleaguered workers, and a founder of the helping...

    (pp. 176-218)

    Edgar Rice Burroughs was bored. As the son of a successful entrepreneur whose company made storage batteries, he had grown up during the late nineteenth century in a middle-class Chicago family. “Nothing interesting ever happened to me in my life,” he recalled. “I never went to a fire but that it was out before I arrived .... The results were always blah.” Uninterested in academics, he dropped out of prep school, suffered through the rigid discipline of a military academy, and sought excitement in brief stints as a cowboy, gold miner, railroad police officer, and member of the U.S. Cavalry....

    (pp. 219-262)

    The cataclysmic events of the Great Depression constituted a major turning point in U.S. history, but they also tested and, eventually, strengthened popular culture’s place in the nation’s life. Virtually all areas of mass entertainment reeled during the early 1930s as the economic crisis deepened. Ultimately, however, commercial amusements flourished, producing what one writer later characterized as “the first great period of American popular culture.” The entertainment business rebounded as citizens sought to escape dispiriting realities by attending athletic events and movies, listening to the phonograph and the radio, reading magazines and comic books. Such amusements enlarged the shared experiences...

    (pp. 263-301)

    In early December 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor promptedTimemagazine to displace its originally scheduled cover story regarding Walt Disney’s new cartoon movie creation, Dumbo. After the December 7 attack on the Hawaiian Islands and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States a few days later, Americans immediately focused on the spreading horror of World War II. The fate of the big-eared circus elephant in Disney’s feature-length cartoon suddenly seemed trivial.¹

    Quickly, however, popular culture’s place in the nation’s life became stronger than ever. Indeed, over the next twenty years or so, during World War II...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 302-347)

    “The streets were dark with something more than night,” the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler wrote in 1944. While mass entertainment during the 1940s and 1950s was packed with the reassuring images and rhetoric of the postwar consensus, Chandler’s comment attested to another perspective, one full of danger, unpredictability, and striking reminders of popular culture’s power to disturb and unsettle. Amid the triumphal mood of World War II and the early Cold War, a kind of guerrilla culture flourished on the social margins in areas such as radio thriller dramas, film noir, pulp fiction, comic books, comedy, and music. “Things are...

    (pp. 348-393)

    During the 1960s, the United States entered a fiercely tumultuous era of social and cultural unrest. The civil rights movement became a powerful force, breaking down racial barriers and galvanizing both a larger “rights revolution” and fierce resistance. The United States and the Soviet Union faced off for thirteen terrifying days in October 1962 over missiles in Cuba, bringing the world to what President John Kennedy later described as a fifty-fifty chance of nuclear war. Assassins killed Kennedy, his brother Robert, and a number of people in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. Bloody urban riots launched...

  17. 11 UP FOR GRABS: Leaving the 1960s
    (pp. 394-440)

    As the United States entered the 1970s, popular culture provided wildly different signals about where the nation was headed. In 1970, a ninety-three-page novel with a bland title,Jonathan Livingston Seagull,came out of nowhere to become whatTimedescribed as “the decade’s pop publishing miracle.” According to the author, Richard Bach, the story was about “one little sea gull’s search for freedom and his striving to attain perfection.” The seagull separated himself from the mundane routines of the other birds, becoming their inspiration, simply because he “loved to fly.” Several publishers had rejected the book, and Macmillan released it...

    (pp. 441-494)

    With Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, politics and entertainment were increasingly intertwined, yet popular culture served as a political punching bag. Such paradoxes were legion. Business consolidation accelerated as audiences fragmented. New technologies such as cable expanded television’s offerings while placing the networks’ future in doubt. Reagan-era upbeat triumphalism vied with reminders of serious problems and considerable unease. Even the end of the Cold War in 1989 and an improved economy by the mid-1990s could not conceal signs of disquietude in places such as horror fiction, movies, and prime-time television drama. Athletes such as Michael Jordan climbed new heights...

  19. EPILOGUE: Pop Culture in a Post-9/11 World
    (pp. 495-517)

    During the several months and years following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Super Bowl advertisements and halftime shows provided a good guide to popular culture’s varied responses to a frightening new world. In January 2002, less than five months after hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, parts of the Pentagon, and a remote Pennsylvania field, a solemn mood prevailed. “Maybe no Super Bowl will ever be as important as No. XXXVI because this one is about national confidence,” proclaimed an editorial inNew Orleansmagazine. The game’s initially planned Mardi Gras theme gave way to another:...

  20. NOTES
    (pp. 518-586)
    (pp. 587-612)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 613-648)