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Reviewed by:
  • Making American Culture: A Social History 1900-1920
  • Carol Loranger (bio)
Making American Culture: A Social History 1900-1920, by Patricia Bradley. NY: Palgrave, 2010. xii + 264 pp. Paper, $28.00.

Charting the progress by which American popular culture came to be synonymous with American culture is the task Patricia Bradley sets herself in this wide-ranging treatment of American popular culture of the first two decades of the twentieth century: a time when emerging technologies, new marketing strategies, and exploding urban growth combined with aspirational immigrants, the white urban underclass, and newly mobile African Americans to supplant the genteel, and largely imported, culture that had dominated the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Bradley's thesis is that popular art producers (understood as anything from makers of nickelodeon reels and magazine illustrators to coon shouters, stage actors, and band leaders) bowed to the imperatives of Capital and Patriotism, seeking to entice the aesthetically cautious, moneyed, and politically powerful middle class American audience away from genteel culture and into "the reign of the spectacular" through a "merge to the middle": a process of under-seasoning the earthiness savored by underclass American audiences just enough to make it palatable to more refined tastes. A Ziegfeld girl might appear as lightly clad on stage as any showgirl in gamier surroundings, but packaged as "Glorifying the American Girl" she appealed to the audience members' national pride as well as to their lower sensibilities. This seems an uncontroversial, if somewhat under-theorized, thesis, productive of a pleasant, if not crucial, reading experience for a broad [End Page 94] swath of readers, from academics and students of American culture to lay readers with a taste for turn-of-the-century Americana. Properly handled, this book would have a place on many sorts of shelves. But this book is a hot mess: attractive elements scrambled together without care or forethought. I find myself wanting to offer it a comb and a mirror and cab fare home.

As Bradley has it, what made "American culture different from the cultures of other countries was that American middle classes came to adopt some version of the cheap amusements" favored by immigrant, minority, and white underclass Americans. And while I am uncomfortable with the assumption that American culture is or was so different from other nations' in its nationalistic embrace of the popular—one has only to think of the important work done by the British music hall and British popular song as nationally unifying forces through two world wars—the stories Bradley tells in support of her thesis are engaging, for the most part well told, and often support her thesis, though just as often do not. I say "for the most part" because the whole book, despite its other merits, has the air of being hastily thrown together. It is very poorly edited. Distracting errors of the sort that arise from sloppy cut and paste revising (lost plurals, subject-verb agreement errors, missing words and whole phrases) dog the text from the first pages to the last, sometimes more than one per page. More troubling, errors of fact are scattered throughout, undermining the reader's confidence in the author. Wrapping up her chapter two discussion of the coon song's trajectory through popular culture, Bradley confidently attributes "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man o' Mine" to the Gershwin-Heywood-Gershwin 1935 Porgy and Bess rather than the much earlier Kern and Hammerstein Show Boat (1927) where it belongs, thus missing an important earlier step in the coon song's progress toward "respectability." (Neither cultural touchstone belongs to the two decades identified in the book's subtitle, but let us pass over that.) Not much later, in her chapter five discussion of censorship and class, Bradley neatly elides two thirds of Dreiser's first novel, telling the reader that Sister Carrie opens with "a lower-middle-class young woman [leaving] her hometown, tellingly named 'Columbia,' for New York City" where she hopes to live with her sister and find a job. These are but two of the sort of errors that bespeak either too much, or not enough, reliance upon during composition, and suggest, sadly...


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pp. 94-98
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