Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869–1922
This study of the impact of American mass culture on the rest of the world examines the "mobilization of cultural and ideological resources on a scale unimaginable in a preindustrial society," which lacked mass transportation and communication facilities (4). The authors note that the tensions between the powerful and seemingly powerless inhibit the ability of rulers to maintain cultural hegemony. People of all races, classes, genders, and value systems select those aspects of mass culture that appeal to them and, conversely, reject those they found less attractive. Thus analyses of mass culture need to take the audience response to a particular product into account, a process which was and is informed by the recipients' own culture.
The authors observe that the period from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I was the time when the United States first existed as a unified nation, its regions brought together by the first transcontinental railway and the speed of communication made possible by railways, telegraphy, and telephones. The study ends with radio, quickly commercialized in the United States as background music (Muzak), which the authors believe is a fitting metaphor for the pervasiveness of American mass culture, if not its banality.
The study begins with an examination of the ante-bellum origins of mass culture in Phineas T. Barnum's American Museum shows. Variety shows attracted large audiences after the Civil War. In emulation of the new industrial giants, the Theatrical Syndicate of the 1890s owned over 500 theaters across the nation and ensured a mass market across [End Page 152] for entertainment. Wild West Shows and circuses not only amused their audiences but also gave them a national vocabulary of shared interests and visions of America, as did the popular dime novels of the late-nineteenth century, the rags to respectability stories of Horatio Alger, and popular western novels such as The Virginian. Inexpensive photography further democratized the nation's recreation as even quite modestly-circumstanced individuals could capture their own private and not so private Kodak moments.
Some American intellectuals of the World War I era (the Young Americans) rejected mass culture as corroding cultural sensibilities and dehumanizing. Others embraced it as liberating and democratic. Some European commentators such as W. T. Stead, Matthew Arnold, Max Weber, Maxim Gorky, and Johan Huizinga aired their concerns over the Americanization of culture and its presumed debasement. Others, including Antonio Gramsci, defended American culture and pointed to the Babbitts in European society. For most, however, Americanization had negative connotations threatening European art forms.
The authors conclude their examination of the development of mass culture in the United States and its reception in Europe by calling for a second volume which would consider the importance of the Marshall Plan in exporting U.S. values to war-torn Europe. This book is less about Buffalo Bill in Bologna than about the development of new cultural forms in the United States. There is little on Africa, Latin America, or Asia, so perhaps the authors could consider post-World War II cultural dispersion. [End Page 153]