- Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture
John G. Cawelti, professor emeritus of English and humanities at the University of Kentucky, is no folklorist, but his pioneering work on genre and formula in popular culture should be of great interest to anyone who has ever looked for tale types or narrative motifs in folk literature. For instance, The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970), Cawelti's structural and psychological study of the Western film and novel, was one of the first scholarly studies to analyze the popularity of this vital genre. Similarly, his book Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1976) is one of the best for understanding and interpreting the universal story types that are commonly found in popular film and fiction.
Cawelti's latest contribution, Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture, is a collection of twenty-five of his essays written between 1968 and 2003—most of them previously published in journals and anthologies. The volume is divided into four sections: "Evolving Views of Popular Culture," "The Role of Violence in Popular Culture," "Multiculturalism and Popular Culture," and "The Mystery of Mystery." The result is a very handy introduction—almost a "best of " Cawelti—that covers the author's wide-ranging scholarship on fiction, film, music, and television.
Like other members of his generation, Cawelti (born in 1930) came to the study of popular culture and genres indirectly. His 1960 dissertation, "The Ideal of the Self-Made Man in Nineteenth Century America" (University of Iowa), included an analysis of Henry James; when a colleague at the University of Chicago suggested the application of Bakhtin to a particular text, Cawelti was perplexed. "Since the only Bactine I had ever heard of at that time was an over-the-counter antiseptic it struck me that this was a very strange comment, indeed" (p. 378). Fortunately, Cawelti quickly assimilated some of the new critical theories into his own work, most notably in The Six-Gun Mystique.
One of the highlights of this volume for me is Cawelti's essay "Formulas and Genre Reconsidered Once Again," published here for the first time. Seeking to expand upon his previous work, particularly "The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature" (Journal of Popular Culture 3:381–90, 1969), Cawelti cooks up an intriguing analogy for the interrelationship of formula, convention, genre, and experience. He bases the analogy on the logic of recipes, ingredients, and culinary styles. Equally rewarding is Cawelti's essay "Generic Transformation in Recent American Films" (1979), in which the inversion of traditional genres in many 1970s films—such as Chinatown and Young Frankenstein—is explained by his idea of "a life cycle of genres" (p. 208). According to Cawelti, popular genres often "move from an initial period of articulation and discovery, through a phase of conscious self-awareness on the part of both creators and audiences, to a time when the generic patterns have become so well-known that people become tired of their predictability" (p. 208). Whether folk genres ever encounter this same process of "generic exhaustion" is a topic that might be profitably explored (p. 208), particularly with regard to some of the cycles of narrative jokes and riddle jokes collected by folklore scholars over the past half-century.
Cawelti observes that formulas are important in popular culture because "they can serve as a [End Page 235] sort of shorthand for speeding up the communication between writer and reader" (p. 134). Similarly, folklorists who study epics, ballads, sermons, and other narrative texts may benefit from Cawelti's ideas in understanding how the formulaic helps to facilitate the artistic and dynamic process of communication among members of small groups.