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American Cool

Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style

Peter Stearns

Publication Year: 1994

Cool. The concept has distinctly American qualities and it permeates almost every aspect of contemporary American culture. From Kool cigarettes and the Peanuts cartoon's Joe Cool to West Side Story (Keep cool, boy.) and urban slang (Be cool. Chill out.), the idea of cool, in its many manifestations, has seized a central place in our vocabulary.

Where did this preoccupation with cool come from? How was Victorian culture, seemingly so ensconced, replaced with the current emotional status quo? From whence came American Cool?

These are the questions Peter Stearns seeks to answer in this timely and engaging volume.

American Cool focuses extensively on the transition decades, from the erosion of Victorianism in the 1920s to the solidification of a cool culture in the 1960s. Beyond describing the characteristics of the new directions and how they altered or amended earlier standards, the book seeks to explain why the change occured. It then assesses some of the outcomes and longer-range consequences of this transformation.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix

A number of people have contributed to this study. Research assistants have been invaluable, not only in ferreting out data but also in collaborating on thinking through the results. Steve Tripp, Timothy Haggerty, Amy deCamp, Mark Knapp...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-15

Cool. The concept is distinctly American, and it permeates almost every aspect of contemporary American culture. From Kool cigarettes and the Snoopy cartoon's Joe Cool to West Side Story ("Keep cool, boy.") and urban slang...

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2. The Victorian Style

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pp. 16-57

The image of repression has long haunted Victorian culture. Most reconstructions of twentieth-century Victorianism assume a blanket repressiveness. Partisans of the civilization-of-manners schema developed by Norbert Elias assume that Victorianism simply...

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3. Evaluating the Victorian Emotional Style: Causes and Consequences

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pp. 58-94

Major features of Victorian emotional culture have been well described in recent years. Despite persistent and erroneous oversimplifications about blanket repressiveness and hostility to spontaneity, in fact the picture painted in the previous chapter...

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4. From Vigor to Ventilation: A New Approach to Negative Emotions

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pp. 95-138

Beginning clearly in the 1920s, with hints a bit earlier, middle-class advice literature began to move away from the Victorian standards. Writers seemed sometimes aware of their innovation, sometimes oblivious, yet even in the latter case the change...

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5. Dampening the Passions: Guilt, Grief, and Love

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pp. 139-182

Growing hostility to the emotions labeled as negative was an important development, involving rejection of several basic emotional reactions that Victorians had regarded as functional and motivational if properly handled. To be sure, twentieth-century emotional...

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6. Reprise: The New Principles of Emotional Management

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pp. 183-192

The articles, pamphlets, advice materials, and stories that articulated the emerging twentieth-century emotional culture redefined Victorian standards in virtually every area. Specific approaches varied with the emotion, and even individual emotions like grief or motherlove...

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7. "Impersonal, but Friendly": Causes of the New Emotional Style

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pp. 193-228

Victorian emotional culture was not replaced by accident. Beginning in the 1920s or a bit before, a variety of factors combined to undermine the nineteenth-century synthesis and build up a new aversion to emotional intensity. Simply put, the combination...

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8. The Impact of the New Standards: Controlling Intensity in Real Life

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pp. 229-263

Most of the disciplines that study emotion in social contexts note the relevance of norms to emotional reality.1 The evidence from the Vicorian era yields the same conclusion: standards count, even though individuals vary around the norm...

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9. The Need for Outlets: Reshaping American Leisure

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pp. 264-284

Some societies may manage almost complete control of at least one strong emotional category, like anger. The Hutterite religious sect in Canada discouraged aggression by providing no rewards for angry behavior and no examples of adult...

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10. Pre-Conclusion: Prospects? Progress?

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pp. 285-299

Two issues inevitably arise from analyzing recent changes in emotional culture. Neither permits a definitive answer in the context of this study, but both warrant comment before we return to the more definitive findings for a real, if brief, conclusion...

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11. Conclusion: A Cautious Culture

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pp. 300-310

The argument that runs throughout this study can be summarized briefly. An emotional culture that developed deep roots in the nineteenth century, affecting a variety of behaviors in the family and in public life, yielded to a decisively new style during the second quarter...


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pp. 311-359


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pp. 361-368

E-ISBN-13: 9780814771037
E-ISBN-10: 0814771033
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814779965
Print-ISBN-10: 0814779964

Page Count: 378
Publication Year: 1994

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century -- Psychological aspects.
  • Middle class -- United States -- Psychology.
  • Emotions -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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