Thursday, December 14, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: With Amusement For All - A History Of Popular Culture Since 1830 by LeRoy Ashby

It’s Dumbo, on the home front, and to the rescue…

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and Germany’s declaration of war a few days later may have understandably knocked the endearing elephant star, Walt Disney’s newest cartoon creation, off the front cover of Time magazine, but that wouldn’t last long. As detailed in the voluminous critical compendium of all things Pop Cultural, With Amusement for All: A History Of American Culture Since 1830, Americans, as focused as they were on the unfolding events of World War II, ultimately didn’t make a insurmountable distinction between entertainment and reality.

And neither did Time, who sensed a collective clamoring not for all-out escapism as much as for enlistment of all forces in times of trouble. And so the weekly featured in their December 29 issue a well-received article on the enormous-eared cartoon character, gauging the underdog-turned-hero star of Dumbo -- in an aptly recognizable and paralleled plight against injustice and attack -- as “the most appealing new character of this year of war.” Indeed, “Among all the grim and forbidding images of A.D. 1941,” Time speculated, “Dumbo’s “guileless, homeless face is the face of the true man of good will.”

As author LeRoy Ashby notes in this pertinent chapter on “Building a Wartime Consensus in the 1940s and 1950s,” the entertainment industry bolstered throughout World War II and into the Cold War a “victory mystique” that provided temporary respite in a bleak world, and “profoundly influenced Americans’ perceptions of themselves and their country.”

In this regard, it is much too simplistic to assert the purely diversionary aspect of popular culture, and Ashby doesn’t acquiesce to the easy temptation to provide a mere trivial pursuit and or produce a piling-on of hit-and-run factoids as he chronicles -- with analysis that couches his topics in incisive sociological and historical terms -- the advancement of such fixations and affairs as radio, comic books, movies, music, and sports.

You’ll find elsewhere in this engrossing and ambitious 600-plus page book (with copious notes and bibliography), the oft-mentioned fact that movie-going during the Great Depression increased - period, end of story. But it wasn’t so much that poor folk found a fantasyland refuge in watching carefree cosmopolitan dandies like Fred Astaire trip the light luxurious in top hat ‘n’ tails, or in a Busby Berkeley extravaganza-for-the-sake-of extravagance -- though there is that escapist aspect. Ashby digs deeper in mining other explantions - the economic factors at play, say, that led to real life gangsterism and crime movies which “tapped into a growing vein of public anger and disillusionment.” Or the moral climate among the public and producers that led to sensationalism in the “sin-ema,“ before the censorship clamp-down constituted in the Production Code and the Hays office.

Similarly and more recently, in the chapter “Popular Culture and 1960s Ferment,” Ashby’s systematic exploration of the Beatles’ overwhelming popularity goes beyond the standard right-time right-place reasoning which posits that, in coming along in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination and national mourning, the group struck a much-needed chord. True, the author agrees, “Timing was important in the Beatles’ explosive impact in the United States,” but in addition to the bracing music and refreshing personalities that complemented such welcome optimism and energy, the fab foursome's emergence also coincided, we are reminded, with the post-war baby boomers coming of age in the mid- ’60s.

Moreover, Beatles manager Brian Epstein was certainly instrumental, carefully orchestrating the Beatles arrival in America with various promotional pushes that had gotten “the American media to turn the Beatles’ U.S. arrival into a major event.” Great first impression, and the rest is history - and not just pop cultural, considering the Beatles as an ongoing galvanizing catalyst for many social, political and artistic changes.

But these seemingly disparate forces are inextricably linked. As Ashy contends, pop culture cannot be considered strictly and discretely in isolation from these other considerations. The celebrity of the Beatles, for example, may have started out with a considerably commercial side to it, but that is what, in part, defines pop culture. “What separates it,” Ashby notes, “from noncommercial neighborhood and family games, for instance, is that its creators and/or disseminators seek to profit from it; they are in the business of merchandising entertainment.”

This has been the case in the United States at least since the mid-19th century when the 1830s saw the burgeoning of blackface minstrel acts and the rise of P.T. Barnum’s circus. But popular culture has been and continues to be malleable and resilient as such impulses as new technologies, economic and political conditions, changing values and demographics alters the business and its products.

This impetus transforms the enterprise in unpredictable ways, too, as popular culture both reflects and shapes the larger
society, as Ashy points out:

    It can refract as well as mirror, breaking the larger society into a wide range of images and meanings. It can follow well-worn paths and set new directions. American entertainment has never comprised a neatly homogenized set of diversions. Instead, it is full of contradictions and speaks in many voices, some louder and more influential than others. Its messages can be liberating and confining, reassuring and unsettling.

For a good taste of this complex subject’s multifarious nature and potentially visceral impact, you need go no further than the pop culture fever dream that is With Amusement’s index, consisting of 35 pages of wide-ranging subjects from Hank Aaron to Adolph Zukor. It's all here -- sports, movies, music, television, comics, pulp fiction -- and everything in between, subjectively favorable or not.

Ashby, with With Amusement For All, has written an invaluable interpretive history and comprehensive reference tool, good for methodical types to immerse themselves in page by page, cover to cover - or for the more restless to flip through or plunge in purposefully or randomly. Either way, you’re going to get an education and some history, and a lot of opinion and perspective.


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