BRIAN LAMB, HOST:Michael Kammen, author of "American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change in the 20th Century," what is your book about?
Professor MICHAEL KAMMEN (Author, "American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century"): It's about the growth of leisure in the 20th century and how Americans use their leisure, the changing ways in which they use their leisure, the changing ways in which the growth of disposable income affected the way they use their leisure, the changing ways in which the relationship between education and socioeconomic status affected people's sense of what books they ought to be reading, what films they ought to be seeing, what musical events they ought to be attending, and the way in which, in the second half of the 20th century especially, the lines began to get very, very blurred.
We're very accustomed to hearing the phrases, `highbrow,' `middlebrow,' `lowbrow,' that were in constant use during the first sort of six decades of the 20th century. They're still in use--they haven't been entirely discarded--but now just a few months ago, there was a very interesting article called The Graying of the Highbrow, because most of the--according to this article, which was pretty well-informed--the highbrows tend to be older, and it's not that younger people have no interest in opera or symphonic music, but they have many, many other interests as well, and you can't--people are increasingly difficult to categorize, and in the book, I love to use the--I love to quote Duke Ellington's phrase `beyond category,' which he was using in a slightly different way, but my belief is that the tastes of most people are now beyond category. And this is a book about changes in taste levels in the United States.
LAMB: All right. Let's say that you and I are going to have a highbrow night or do something highbrow. What's that mean?
Prof. KAMMEN: It means that we might very well go to the opera. We might even sit around and discuss, compare, the performance of--of--that performance of "Rigoletto" with other performances of "Rigoletto" that we've seen, because we are opera buffs. It might mean that we'd go to a reading-discussion group where everyone has agreed to--we meet once a month at different--the homes of different people, and we've all tried to work our way through James Joyce's "Ulysses," let's say, or at least 50 pages of it for that month. And we get together and we try to sort out the uses of language and the allusions and the images. I think those would be representative examples of what we might do together on a highbrow evening.
LAMB: What do we do if we're going to have a middlebrow evening?
Prof. KAMMEN: Middlebrow evening might still involve getting together to discuss a book, but the book would more likely be perhaps a novel by Ernest Hemingway, if this was some years back, or more recently, let's say John Updike. There's a very--there's a broader range of taste preferences in the middlebrow category. We might very well get together to go see, if it's the 1950s, "Kismet" or "South Pacific." We might very well, more recently, go see "Bring on Da Noise, Bring on Da Funk," or--or a lively Broadway musical that--that incorporates rock, but in a fairly sophisticated way, into the musical entertainment.
LAMB: All right, the obvious: What do we do if it's a lowbrow night?
Prof. KAMMEN: If it's a lowbrow, we might go on a pub--pub crawl, but there--there can be upper middlebrow pub crawls, and there can be lowbrow pub crawls. We might very well go to a baseball game in pretty grungy clothes and drink a fair amount of beer, and if--if it's guys' night out, we might use some language that we wouldn't ordinarily use around the house.
LAMB: Who determines what's highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow?
Prof. KAMMEN: Once upon a time, cultural critics in the United States really made a difference, and they were key determinants. So were--so were faculty members at universities that people attended, and in college, people got a pretty clear sense from their professors of what was highbrow and what was not, and there tended to be a cleavage between highbrow and--and virtually everything else. That--that began to change quite dramatically, and now in colleges, you may have courses devoted to aspects of popular culture, and even mass culture, so that the menu that--that students can--can look at when they attend college today is--is vast compared to the menu of 50 years ago or 75 years ago.
But going back to the cultural critics--because culture, the history of cultural criticism in the 20th century is one of the subjects that--that lured me into writing this book. I became quite interested in the history of cultural criticism because I had previously written a biography of a very important cultural critic named Gilbert Seldes, who was one of the very first to argue, in the 1920s, that popular culture should be taken quite seriously, and having done an in-depth study of him, I wanted to get a more panoramic view of who the important cultural critics have been, whether it's George Jean Mathan--Nathan in theater, or H.L. Mencken in literary criticism and social criticism, and one of the things I found is that cultural critics, for example, in the mid-20th century, they could make or break a show. If Walter Kerr on opening night attended a--a Broadway drama and panned it the next day, that show might very well close within two weeks. If he loved it, the subscriptions for tickets would be simply extraordinary.
And one of the things that I argue in the book is that on the one hand, there's been a proliferation of cultural critics in many different areas that--that simply didn't have, didn't enjoy serious criticism half a century ago, but on the oth--for example, The New York Times will now--now has reviews of rock concerts and--and jazz performances and folk concerts that The New York Times would not have imagined reviewing four or five decades ago.
So cultural critics are flourishing, they are numerous, but they don't begin to have the taste-making clout that they did half a century ago, and that, in my view, is because what I call cultural power has increasingly come to trump cultural authority, and so without--whether it's--whether it's Disney or various networks, various sorts of entities ex--that are extraordinarily sensitive to--to sponsorship, to advertising, to ratings, and that are fiercely competitive, are calling the shots, and you can have shows, like "Cats," for example, that receive very negative reviews from critics, but nonetheless flourish incredibly, so that the--the--the--one of the trajectories that I attempt to trace in the book is what has been the role of cultural critics in our society in the 20th century.
LAMB: What part of the world do you live in?
Prof. KAMMEN: Right now, I live in--basically, I've spent my life in three places: Washington, DC; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Ithaca, New York, where
I've been since 1965.
LAMB: What did you do here in Washington?
Prof. KAMMEN: I was born in Rochester, New York, but I was brought here in 1941, and I lived here from 1941, went to primary school, secondar--secondary school, graduated from Calvin Coolidge High School in 1954, went to George Washington University, graduated in 1958 and then went off to graduate school where I pursued graduate study in American history.
LAMB: At Harvard?
Prof. KAMMEN: At Harvard, yeah.
LAMB: And you've been teaching at Cornell since 1965.
Prof. KAMMEN: Exactly.
LAMB: You were, at one point, president of the Organization of American Historians.
Prof. KAMMEN: Correct.
LAMB: What does that organization do?
Prof. KAMMEN: It's an organization of about 12,000 members. It sponsors an annual conference to which members come and present papers and listen to papers on a wide array of sub--subjects in American history and comparative history. It publishes the Journal of Record in the field of American history, which includes both scholarly articles, but also every book that has--bears any relationship to American history, whether it's published in the United States or Mexico or Africa or Asia--any book about American history, they at least attempt to review. There are some--especially published outside the United States--fall between the cracks, but the review section of that journal has gotten quite enormous.
They also publish a--a journal aimed at secondary schoolteachers of history, who--and--and often thematic issues devoted entirely to Chicano history or African-American history or women's history--to bring secondary schoolteachers up to speed on the latest developments in scholarship, so that they can then translate that into the courses that they're teaching in both public and private schools in the United States. So they're--the--variety of functions, the--the organization serves.
LAMB: How much power do historians have to tell us what really happened in history?
Prof. KAMMEN: How much power? If they write reasonably well, they can attract a very considerable audience. If they write on subjects that grab the public's attention, so that--when Stephen Ambrose a couple of years ago published a book on Lewis and Clark, a fascinating subject that--that had a kind of panoramic view of the--of the country and the exploration of the country early in the 19th century, this historian with a PhD, with an academic background made the best-seller list.
There are other historians who, for a variety of reasons, write on subjects of much more limited interest, but it's--it's quite fascinating to watch the way some books that tend to be ignored when they first appear can become building blocks when others on related subjects begin to appear, and eventually will filter down. For example, they'll find their way into--into college textbooks or high school textbooks and profoundly affect the public's awareness of the American past.
LAMB: Of those 12,000 professors that were a part of the Ameri--the Organization of American Historians, how many of them, do you think, would choose, first and foremost, as their featured entertainment, highbrow?
Prof. KAMMEN: Oh, today probably a minority. I'm--I--I know that there are many opera lovers and--and lovers of serious music and lovers of serious drama, but I think I'm fairly representative in the blurring of my own tastes. And I'll--I'll--perhaps it's immodest, but I'll simply indicate that I love to hear a chamber music group play classical or pre-classical music on period instruments, but I also love bluegrass; I also love blues and jazz. I can be a couch potato and watch football and basketball endlessly; the month of March when the NCAA tournament is on is a total loss for me, because I can't stop watching that. And I think--I--I would say that's fairly representative, that--that mix of tastes that are middlebrow, lowbrow, highbrow, I think is--is--is fairly characteristic of most members.
LAMB: A hundred years ago, if you had 12,000 history professors, would it be the same?
Prof. KAMMEN: No. No, I think people were much more--well, first of all, the range of--of entertainment options was incredibly limited 100 years ago, and that's one of the biggest differences. The choices that Americans have in terms of how they're going to use their leisure time is--is dramatically different than it was a century ago, and I hope that comes through very clearly in the book.
In addition, Americans had a very strong sense of what--Amer--the--the educated American historian had a very strong sense of what it was appropriate for him or her to do. A good example that I can cite involves the World Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. That's when Frederick Jackson Turner, perhaps the most famous, or one of the most famous historians in--in the entire flow of American historical writing, gave his famous paper on the role of the frontier in American history. He presented that paper to a counterpart organization, the American Historical Association, in--within the confines of the white--what was called the White City, this spectacular, pristine, elegant but not permanent enclosure that was designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the so-called discovery of America.
Out on the Midway Plaisance, outside of the White City, something else involving the American West was going on, and that was Buffalo Bill Cody doing his wildly popular Wild West Show, but the segregation of that--the--it's an anachronism to use it--but the segregation of that middlebrow or even lowbrow event to the Midway Pleasance outside of the White City and Frederick Jackson Turner giving his speech within the confines of the White City is an indication, I think, of--of how compartmentalized things were a century ago, and I think that your--your prototypical historian that you're referring to would have been very happy listening to Turner, and might have felt a little bit uncomfortable being at the Wild West Show.
LAMB: How much do politicians have to say about today's cultural tastes?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, they have a fair amount in terms of regulatory responsibilities, whether it's through the FCC or signals that they send to various regulatory agencies. We have--we have a very interesting history, particularly since the 1950s, of periodic concern on the part of politicians with the amount of violence, sexual activity, profanity and so forth, appearing on television. People may think that that's a 1990's phenomenon, but back in the 1950s, a psychiatrist named Frederick Wertham became obsessed with the belief that comic books, which were really quite a new phenomenon at the time--the first Superman comic only appeared at the end of the 1930s--and comic books flourished during World War II, because they--they played on stereotypes of--of Japanese being caricatured in a certain way as the bad guys and the Americans as the good guys--and there was a tremendous amount of violence in comic books during World War II, and then there was even more after, but more of a domestic nature in terms of crime and so on and so forth.
Wertham raised such a hue and cry that Senator Estes Kefauver held hearings, and Frank Stanton, the president of CBS, was called before that--that--that committee to testify and to justify the programming that was appearing on CBS. Other--other network executives were--were called to testify, and that--that has recurred at--at--in a cyclical way at about 15- to 20-year intervals over the past half-century, so the concern that we--we've seen expressed so often, especially by politicians who are running for something in the 1990s, is not a new story by any means.
LAMB: And they're doing it right now.
Prof. KAMMEN: Exactly.
LAMB: And I bring that up, to ask you whether or not when they have hearings on this stuff, on whether Hollywood's creating these problems or television or--does it have any impact on what we eventually see or hear on radio and television?
Prof. KAMMEN: Not in the long term. The--what--what's--what began to happen when the--these first hearings were held in the 1950s is that CBS would cool it for a while. For about six months, things would get toned down, and then they would go right back to--to normal. If we scroll back another 20 years, you get the interesting introduction of the production code in film. The early Mae West films in the early 1930s got a little bit too raunchy for certain segments of the society--the Catholic Church in particular was--was very, very disturbed--and so the production code was brought into effect in 1934, and Hollywood was--did--did an interesting thing.
They were forced to toe the line, and they turned to history, among other things--costume dramas. History was considered safe, because it was something that was happening back in the 17th or the 18th century, people were in costume, and even though there might--might have been a seduction scene or even violence in a Hollywood movie made in the later 1930s, or Clark Gable taking off his shirt and not wearing an undershirt in "Gone With the Wind"--that might have been looked at askance, but because it's--it's set during the American Civil War, and people thought that this was--at the time--that this was a fairly authentic representation of what it might have been like during the Civil War, that passed muster. So we've gone through these endless cycles, not merely with television, but with film as well.
LAMB: What's your reaction to something like the chip that was voted by Congress to be put in television sets to be able to determine what comes into your home?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, as with--as with attempts now to control what's accessible on the Internet, the World Wide Web, there are really interesting First Amendment problems with that. I--as--as a parent and now as a grandparent, I happen to be in favor of the chip, but I--I understand and respect the--the concerns of First Amendment specialists who--who worry about--about this kind of regulation, but I--i--it's a little-known fact that in 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that the film industry was not covered by the First Amendment. That decision insisted or--or declared that this was--that--that film was an expression--a commercial expression of entertainment, and was not covered by the freedom of speech that we associate with the First Amendment.
Needless to say, that changed over time, but again, it's an old--it's an old story, and--and getting a sense of historical perspective, I think, is important.
LAMB: What do you teach?
Prof. KAMMEN: I teach an undergraduate lecture course on American culture from the 1880s to the present, which is partially how I got into writing this book. I had to come to terms with the vast amount that's been written about the history of film, the history of music, the history of--of sports and so forth. So I give that as a lecture course. I give a seminar for honor students pursuing an undergraduate degree in history. I teach a--an undergraduate seminar for juniors and seniors, and the topic changes from year to year. For the last couple of years, the topic has been very closely connected to this book, but it's--next spring, it'll move on to my next project, which is the four seasons. And it'll be a seminar about the four seasons in art and literature.
LAMB: What do you see in your college students you teach that's different from what it was in 1965?
Prof. KAMMEN: Oh, that's a good question. They are--they are wonderfully bright at Cornell University. They are conscientious. They are diligent, hard-working. They are socially far more mature than students were when I began teaching at Harvard and Cornell in the mid-1960s. They are sophisticated. There has been--that's all the good news.
The bad news is that there's been a dramatic decline in the quality of their writing, which is not new news. We've--everyone has heard this before. This is a very visually-oriented generation. They are not asked to write as much as they were when you and I were in high school or in college, and in a seminar, for example, this honors seminar that I'm teaching this semester--20 superb students--it--it'll be another five weeks before I see the first piece of written work, and right now, I have a very, very positive view of these wonderfully engaging students, and I--I know that I will undergo a kind of culture shock when I see their first--their first written work, because it will not match the impression that one has of--of their intelligence.
In part, they simply don't take the pains with their writing. The papers are often written in the last 24 hours before they're due. In some instances, they rely excessively on Spell-Check and you get some very weird--because so much is being composed on the computer--you get some very, very odd glitches, or--or peculiar pieces of phrasing, and so on. So the students are--are basically a delight, but--but writing is a serious problem.
LAMB: You have a quote in--well, it's not actually a quote, but it's--you--you--all right, maybe it is. We're talking about Irving Crystal, and it does start with the quote marks: It says, "Some--someone has to be able to say with assurance and a measure of authority what is culture and what is not, what is decent and what is not. There must be some group or class that is mit--admittedly competent to decide, not without error, but more wisely than anyone else, questions of moral and cultural value." You have any idea what year he said that?
Prof. KAMMEN: I can look it up in the...
LAMB: It doesn't say here what year it is.
Prof. KAMMEN: There's--what--what page is it on?
LAMB: It--it refers to--it's on page 147.
Prof. KAMMEN: There should be a footnote. I think he--I think he said that in the 1960s, I'm pretty sure, but...
LAMB: I'm not sure it matters, but let me read that again: "There must be some group or class that is admittedly more--that is admittedly competent to decide, not without error, but more wisely than anyone else, questions of moral and cultural value." And my question to you is do you agree with that?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, I--I'm pretty sure, by the way, he wrote that during the--during the 1960s, when sort of all--What's the right phrase?--no holds barred or--or the rules were--were dramatically changing in terms of--of determining taste. At first, people were horrified by Elvis--by Elvis Presley or horrified by The Beatles, and then all--there was a--a remarkable swing.
I certainly agree with him in the sense that there--there ought to be a place for cultural critics of every conceivable kind. I think they fi--they fill a very, very useful function in our society. I cannot--I cannot watch or attend all of the things that I would like to watch or attend: concerts, films, dramatic productions, this recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony as opposed to that performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. So it's very useful to have--to have people with expertise rendering judgment.
But there are--there are problems of two sorts. First, often one's--one--one--one--one--one man's meat is another man's poison, and what one person likes, for very idiosyncratic reasons, may not necessarily be the best reasons for preferring that performance. The other--the other problem that I have with--with Crystal's statement, which many others--William Bennett and others--would certainly agree with, is that there tends to be an intolerance with--with modes of cultural expression that they regard as degrading or vulgar--for example, hip-hop and rap.
I do not know Mr. Crystal, but my guess is that he probably does not care for it. There's a--a very wonderful scholar named Tricia Rose, who's done a terrific book a couple of years ago called "Black Noise," in which she explains, socially and culturally, where hip-hop and rap came from. She--and she devotes her last chapter to female rappers--there are many more than I ever imagined. One of the criticisms of rap is that it's--it's--it's misogynist, and Tricia Rose, who is a feminist, explains--at least she tries to understand--why the male rappers say some of the things that they say about the sisters, and I am sure--well, put it thi--let's just put it this way: I would not want William Crystal to be the last word on the cultural value and significance of rap and hip-hop.
LAMB: Would you want Tricia Rose to be?
Prof. KAMMEN: Yeah. Yeah, because she understands it. She's gotten inside of it. She's grown up with it. She know...
LAMB: Does she...
Prof. KAMMEN: She knows what it's all about.
LAMB: Does she make excuses for the men and what they say?
Prof. KAMMEN: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. She--well, that's in the eye of the beholder. She makes excuses in the sense that she--she points out the number of young black males who have been in prison or have been abused by white police authorities. She--she tries to explain the socioeconomic circumstances that some of these people have grown up in, but by no means does she thereby condone some of the most misogynist lyrics that one finds in rap.
LAMB: On this same page, you also bring up Stewart Alsop, who died in 1974...
Prof. KAMMEN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...used to write for Newsweek, used to do a column with his brother Joseph, and you say here that `Stewart Alsop, a respected and widely syndicated columnist who is the American aristocrat incarnate, educated at Groton and Yale, bemoaned near the end of this life in 1974 the decline of the old WASP elite, because it has meant the--the loss of political and cultural authority in general. He believed that their clout had started to wane in 1953 under Eisenhower, when non-elite people began to run the American government. Alsop hated to contemplate his beloved country as a society without authority, meaning, of course, authority as he had known it in the guise of men like Dean Acheson.' There's a lot in that paragraph. What--what does it say to you?
Prof. KAMMEN: What it says to me is that--I--I grew up reading The Washington Post every day, and reading Joe and Stewart Alsop's column--and I--I found them very engaging on politics; I did not find them very engaging on the subject of culture. They were two extremely well-educated and thoughtful men who were incredible snobs, Joe more than---more than tewart. They were absolute cultural snobs, about people as well as various aspects of cultural performance, and what's interesting is that--or--or I think ought to be pointed out, is that that is one perspective that one finds in the old WASP elite, but there are other people like George Plimpton, or a man named Trow, T-R-O-W--there are other members of the old WASP elite who have sort of gone with the flow and are much more discriminating. They--they, too, can be critical of--of newer phenomena in--in popular culture, but they don't reject it all, and--and Plimpton, whether it's--it's playing hockey or trying to play football or trying to experience what popular culture is all about--that's what--what Joe and Stewart Alsop couldn't do. They--they cloistered themselves away in their Georgetown enclaves, only seeing the right people, going to the right things, and I prefer the--the George Plimpton route for--for members of the old WASP elite.
LAMB: In you acknowledgement section, you say, `During 1997 and 1998, I enjoyed the good fortune of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.' What was the fellowship for?
Prof. KAMMEN: The fellowship was to--was--each year, the Endowment awards--I--I forget the exact number--fellowships to college and university professors to pursue their research or to bring the research to fruition in the form of a book, and in my case, the re--I had been doing research for this project ever since the late 1980s, so '97-'98 was a year--a writing year for me, and it was--it--it provided me with the--I had a sabbatical leave from Cornell that year. Cornell paid half my salary, NEH paid less than half, but in--but it made it possible for me to take the entire year off and--and bring the book to completion.
LAMB: It also says here that the--you had--you were a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center--to do what?
Prof. KAMMEN: Right. To--to--that made up the rest of my salary, so that I'd--it was not a money-losing year, and I was able to both--to use that time to complete this book and also to complete a book, a biography of an artist named Robert Gwathmey, whose--whose art has fascinated me for a long time, and in fact, I worked on the book about Robert Gwathmey during basically the same time period, and I would move back and forth between the two projects.
This--this book was--was terribly difficult to do for a variety of reasons. The Gwathmey book, at least by comparison, was relatively easy, so when I was working on this book and I would get stuck, absolutely stuck, and didn't know what to do next, I would turn to the Gwathmey project, and then come back to this with some fresh perspective.
LAMB: Also, I thought I saw--I really can't pull it up right now--to something you did for the Smithsonian Institution.
Prof. KAMMEN: I've done a number of things--I--well, I served for six years as a member of the Smithsonian Council, which is a kind of oversight body that annually visits several components--the S--the Smithsonian has 16 bureaus, and each year, we--the--the secretary, which is the title of the director, would select perhaps the National Zoo and the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum, and the council would spend three days meeting with curators, historians, zookeepers, talking about--getting a--a sense of--of--of challenges, problems, opportunities, and then we would write a--a lengthy report and set of recommendations for the director and for the board of regents of the Smithsonian. So that was a six-year commitment to the Smithsonian.
In addition, I was fortunate enough to hold a regent's fellowship from the Smithsonian in 1990, and that meant that I was housed at the National Portrait Gallery, which is actually considered a history museum, and that provided me with the opportunity to complete a book called "Mystic Chords of Memory," a very, very long book about a number of major shifts in American culture that--that occurred largely in the 19th and 20th centuries.
LAMB: In all those cases, it's institutions that have some taxpayer underwriting.
Prof. KAMMEN: Yes.
LAMB: And the reason I bring it up is to ask you what do you think of the process where the taxpayer brings money into the pot and then they give it out to different historical projects? And are you comfortable that we're getting a balanced presentation by the people that are writing history through government grants?
Prof. KAMMEN: Yes, I am comfortable with it, because they're--first of all, they're--it--what many people do not understand is that there's a very scrupulous peer review project--process, I'm sorry, that occurs and the applications for any given year come in, and then a panel is brought to Washington. I served on one of those panels this summer. It's sort of a--I guess it's the price you pay for--for having a grant. They get you the next year. And so I--I served on a panel that reviewed 48 applications. And we spent--ea--each member of the panel took about--it took us about four days to go very, very carefully through each of those applications.
Then we came to Washington and spent one full day going over them and--and--and evaluating them. And not once--not--not--not once during the course of the meeting of the five panelists did anything ideological or political enter into the discussion. It's purely on the merits, the significance, the ability--or the ability of this particular applicant to bring that project to completion. Was it too grandiose and, therefore, not likely to ever seek fruition? Was it too micro to really be significant to more than four other individuals? How original was the proposal? Ideology and politics never, ever entered into the discussion. And I think that's the way...
LAMB: Were the--wa--was the panel itself balanced politically?
Prof. KAMMEN: I can't answer that, because I don't know the politics of--I knew--I knew one of the panelists previously. I had never met the other three and I have no idea what their politics are. It never--it never surfaced.
LAMB: And who decides who decides who decides who decide--in other words, how did...
Prof. KAMMEN: The panel--the panel makes recommendations. We essentially rank them. And those rankings go to a national council. Both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts have councils of--I think it's, like, 26 members. And the--the staff members of NEA and NEH, who themselves are usually people with doctorates in--in--in an array of--of fields, or at least at NEH. In NEA, they're perhaps less likely to, in some ser--in some instances, to have doctorates. And they review our recommendations. They may add explanatory or contextual material for presentation to the national council. And then, ultimately, it's up to the chair of--of NEH--now William Ferris; previously Sheldon Hackney--to make the final call on--on who receives a fellowship.
LAMB: I--I don't know if I'm going to make clear about this, but l--let me th--th--then take--based on your book talking about who decides in this country what's right and wrong, and up and down, and highbrow, the number-one rated television today in cable week after week is wrestling. It's the newest--it's a fairly new phenomenon, where almost anything on wrestling that goes on cable...
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, it's a revived phenomenon. It--it--it...
LAMB: ...will go up to the top of the rating.
Prof. KAMMEN: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: And--and I would--I just wonder if--what do people in academia--and you talk about academia a lot in here--think about that? And what is that--what's that trend mean, do you think?
Prof. KAMMEN: It's a good question.
LAMB: And if people, by the way, who went to those Monday night and Friday night wrestling events were at your table deciding who would write the history, would it be different?
Prof. KAMMEN: Oh, sure. Sure it would be. There are--there is no consensus among academics in response to the question that you have just raised. There are populist academics, very strongly anti-elitist who would say to you, `If that's what those people want to watch, it's not for us to tell them that they should be watching the--the New York Philharmonic or listening to the New York Philharmonic or watching Baryshnikov or--or whatever. If that's what gives them pleasure--they know it's hokey. They know it's staged. It's not as though they're being duped. They know it is a form of staged entertainment. And if that's what they enjoy, they're entitled to--to watch it.'
There's a very different perspective that you would get--and I'm--and there are more than two perspectives, but--but for reasons of time, let's just concentrate on two. There's also a perspective which--which i--is--is o--quite old, goes back at least 40 or 50 years, that--that urges that we ought to try to level up, that we ought to--to try to achieve in our culture what any number of people called `democratic distinction.' That is to say that culture should be of the people, by the people, for the people, but the people really would like and want better entertainment than hokey-staged wrestling, if they wer--if it was offered to them. And those people are likely to be accused of being elitist by the populists that I've just referred to, but those are perhaps two--two ends of the spectrum.
There's one other angle, which I don't entirely agree with and I--I talk about at some length in the book. There's another strong emphasis that the populists have and that is that programs that many people might not approve of as being culturally valuable or significant or worthwhile are not necessarily swallowed whole and digested in their entirety; that people--the--the fashionable word in academe now is appropriate. People take from soap operas or situation comedies, "Dallas," "Baywatch," whatever. People take--whether it's within the Hispanic community or the African-American community or different--different subcultures in the United States, people take aspects of what they watch and they rework it into their own lives in--in meaningful ways.
You also get this argument from people who spend a lot of time studying fans, like Trekkies who have "Star Trek" conventions, and they collect "Star Trek" memorabilia, and they communicate with one another about particular "Star Trek" programs that didn't end the way these individuals felt they should have ended, and they actually rewrite--they write alternative scripts. So the argument is that there is--there's--there's a populist engagement with mass and popular culture, and it's not just passively swallowed whole. So that's--that's one response that you would get to--to your question about--you're--you're--you're taking wrestling as--as--as a symptomatic example of something that we might consider, of course, vulgar-stupid. And--and--and one response that you would get is, `Well, people know that,' and they'd react--respond to it in different ways.
LAMB: You have different graphics, arts, photographs. You've got this painting in here by James Wyeth. I assume that's Jamie Wyeth.
Prof. KAMMEN: That's Jamie Wyeth, who now likes to be--to be called James now that he's not--he's not so young anymore.
LAMB: The purpose of this in your book?
Prof. KAMMEN: Oh! The purpose of it is that I--at that point, I've actually talked about Andy Warhol a couple of times in an earlier chapter and now in this chapter. And even though I'm not particularly a Warhol fan, after reading a lot about Warhol, I've come to the real--to the--to the realization that there is no figure in--in American pop culture more influential--pop culture and especially in the arts--in the graphic arts, no--no figure more influential than Warhol has been since the late 1960s, early '70s. And the number of artists whose names really don't mean very much to us, because they're still fairly obscure who in one way or another directly, indirectly, secondarily have--have had their careers, their--their objectives, their agendas shaped by Warhol, opportunities opened for them by Warhol, the very idea that consumerism and commodification could be a subject of art--a proper subject for art--so the mass production of Brillo boxes and so on could be a subject of art has had an enormous impact on--on American artists.
LAMB: And there's this Norman Rockwell painting, "The New Television Set" 1947. Why is this...
Prof. KAMMEN: Huh! Forty--'49, I think it is.
LAMB: I'm sorry.
Prof. KAMMEN: Isn't it '49? Yeah.
LAMB: Yeah, it is. You're right, '49. Why is this in here?
Prof. KAMMEN: It's there because I--I've b--I'm--I--I do argue in the book that television is the single-most pivotal turning point in terms of the impact of technology on American leisure, on American advertising and that its impact changed quite swiftly during the--during the first decade of its existence. At first, it was quite expensive and only the elite could afford it. If you owned one, most of the folks on your block would probably come to your house on--and ask if they--`C--can we please come to your house at 8:00 on Tuesday night so we can watch Milton Berle?' or--or whatever. By the late '50s, the saturation of American homes with one television set, at least, was quite remarkable. And television went, within a decade, from being a luxury to being considered a necessity f--ser--baby-sitting purposes and so on.
But there are other social changes that--that came along as well. For example, initially, television brought families together, because televisions were not portable, they were big console things. They sat in a room that now became the--the focal point of the home, the family room, and families--mommy, daddy and the kids--would all sit together in the 1950s and watch a program. But with the passage of time, as we get into the '60s, '70s and '80s, and it became normative for a family to have two and sometimes even three televisions, Mom and Dad might be in the family room watching their program and 16-year-old sis is in her progra--her room watching a program of her choice, 12-year-old Johnny is in his room. And what that exemplifies is what we call the privatization of culture. And for me, one of the big differences between popular culture and mass culture is that popular culture was interacted and participatory, and mass culture has this privatizing effect.
LAMB: This is "Hollywood (1937)" by Thomas Hart Benton. What's this mean?
Prof. KAMMEN: It's a wonderful example of the contest between cultural authority and cultural power. Benton was brought to Hollywood, or was invited to come to Hollywood. He was a very well-known--one of the leading, most prominent American artists of the day. He was invited to come to Hollywood and sort of hang out and paint something. And he painted this picture in 1937. Jean Harlow, the flashy blonde movie star, had died earlier that year, and so she is--she's the scantily clad figure in the very center, although they're--actually, in the foreground--it's hard to see, but in the foreground, there's a woman whose breasts are entirely bare, but she's a little bit more discreetly presented.
And Life magazine had intended, originally, to print what Benton painted as a result of his experience in Hollywood. When they saw this picture in 1937, they decided, `Well, this is not an appropriate image to appear in a family magazine,' and so they killed it. About six months later, that painting won a major juried competition in Pittsburgh put on by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and it sort--it suddenly became the painting of the year. At that point, Life magazine reversed itself and said, `Well, if the critics say this is really good art, and it is, after all, by Thomas Hart Benton, we'd better run it.' So they ran it in a huge double-paged, bleeding-off-the-sheets spread. And that was an instance in the 1930s of cultural authority trumping cultural power, which couldn't happen or is much less likely to happen 50 years later.
LAMB: "Me, The People, H.L. Mencken," 1949, by Al Hirshfeld, who's still alive.
Prof. KAMMEN: Very much alive.
LAMB: Not Al--H.L. Mencken, but Al Hirshfeld.
Prof. KAMMEN: '94 or '95--and this was done by a relatively young Al Hirshfeld. Mencken was wonderfully caustic. He was a wonderfully engaging curmudgeon, but--and--and during the 1920s, he was the most respected and the most engaging, the most eagerly awaited, in terms of his--his columns in the American Mercury, cultural critic in the United States. During the 1930s and '40s, he became increasingly conservative. He was pro-German. He was from a German-American family. And he became increasingly curmudgeonly and increasingly egotistical. So what Hirshfeld is doing with that caricature in the 1940s is saying H.L. Mencken may be a very smart man, and he did make an extraordinary contribution to American culture by--by compiling his five-volume history of the American language and of American language usage, but Hirshfeld is saying, `Despite all that, he's become the horse's ass.'
LAMB: One of the most quoted men in your book, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Prof. KAMMEN: Yeah.
Prof. KAMMEN: Because he anticipated a lot of things that turned out to be true. Among them, for example, the privatization of culture in the United States. He was--he was very concerned that in a society where individualism was so prized, eventually that could lead to a kind of atomization and fragmentation of society and culture. And not everyone, but many social critics in our own time lament precisely that.
On the other hand, Tocqueville's other great emphasis was upon equality. And he was--as--as a French aristocrat, he was--he was rather ambivalent about what he considered the American obsession with equality and where it would lead. Would it lead, for example--would--would an emphasis upon equality lead to a diminution of liberty. And that's one of the great, great debates of our own time. For example, with regard to affirmative action, if--if we try to absolutely level the playing field, does that mean that certain white males are not going to be able to get into medical schools? So Tocqueville was prophetic on many scores and--and he--he--he is eminently quotable.
LAMB: This man also, probably, is as much quoted as Alexis de Tocqueville in your book: Russell Lynez (pronounced LINZ)?
Prof. KAMMEN: Lynez (pronounced LYNZ).
Prof. KAMMEN: Russell Lynez.
Prof. KAMMEN: Yeah.
LAMB: Highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow? What'd he do?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, all of the above. He was the associate editor of Harper's magazine. And in February of 1949, he published an--an essay in Harper's in which he divided Americans into four--not three, but four taste-level categories: highbrow, upper middlebrow, lower middlebrow, and lowbrow. Life maga--that--that--that essay attracted a lot of interest. It was fun. Lynez usually wrote tongue-in-cheek. And Life magazine decided, `Hey, let's--let's run with this.' So they commissioned Tom Funk to create this chart based on Lynez's essay.
And Life magazine, in April of 1949, ran this 44--these 44 items categorizing people by what they like to drink, what they like to wear, how they like to furnish their homes, etc. And that--that chart and that piece in Life magazine that was really the--the result of a collaboration between Russell Lynez and--and Tom Funk, who is still alive, became the most popular parlor game in the United States for about a year and a half. And people--you asked me much earlier what would we do tonight if we were such and such? Well, people would sit around after dinner and they would devote an entire evening saying, `Oh, you like bourbon and ginger ale? Then you must be a lower middlebrow,' and--and so on.
And at--at colleges, plays were written based upon Russell Lynez's brow-level categorization and so forth. And what's--what's--what's so ironic is that all of the attention that Lynez's chart received would give you the impression that this was sort of a high proun--high point of rigid categorization of Americans by taste levels, when in reality the 1950s was exactly the decade when things began to blur, when--when pe--when it became l--less and less possible to categorize people because, as I was saying earlier, they may have liked some highbrow things, some upper-middlebrow things and so forth.
LAMB: To paraphrase George Bush in an interview on this network back in January, he decided to run for president--or the first time he thought about running for president was in 1997, when his press secretary brought him a poll that showed that he was number one in the poll. And you suggest here that polls have changed everything.
Prof. KAMMEN: They--in--in--in many, many ways, I use polls a great deal. I had a--a--a--sort of found--struck gold at the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, which is the finest archive of American polls dating back to the later 1930s when polling began. And so I was able to find polls on everything from taste preferences in--in--in forms of entertainment to attitudes towards science and children's education and so on. And on the one hand, the--the polls, especially ones that are carefully crafted, can demonstrate remarkable inconsistencies. An en--enormous amount depends on how the questions are phrased, what's included and what's not included in the question. Nevertheless, there's--a tremendous amount gets revealed when 3,000 people are surveyed. With this--this margin of error, let's say, of plus or minus 4 percent, you can learn a great deal. And, in fact, in 1948, of course, with the presidential race between Dewey and Truman, the polls were dead wrong. But in 1996, with Clinton's overwhelming lead over the senior Mr. Bush, the polls were incredibly accurate.
LAMB: What's the difference between mass culture and popular culture?
Prof. KAMMEN: That's a controversial issue and--and I'm sure--I know that--that many readers and--and fellow scholars won't agree with my view, but what--what--what I have found, after going through a ne--a tremendous amount of material, is that popular culture is--is more likely to be act--interactive and participatory, and mass culture is more likely, with some exceptions, to be passive and privatized. To give you--to--to make that a little bit more concrete, sheet music sold in tremendous quantity early in the 20th century, and with sheet music, you needed someone who could play the piano and people would gather around and sing. So that sheet music lent itself to--to sort of festive, socially interactive gatherings.
When--when recording devices were perfected--they obviously go back to the turn of the century, but there were dramatic improvements in about 1920, '21 and then the long-playing record emerges in--in 19--in 1948. And anyone can turn on a phonograph, but not anyone can play the piano. And anyone can sit in his or her room and listen to a record, but that's different from a group gathering around to--to sing or going to an amusement park together as a group, which--or--or going to the county fair, or going to the state fair, or going to a wild west show, so there's--one--one--one difference is certainly a difference of scale. With popular culture, we're talking about thousands--even hundreds of thousands of people. With mass culture, we're talking about hundreds of millions of people. And we're also talking about a degree of standardization and a degree of homogenization of culture that's almost unprecedented in--in our history.
LAMB: In our final moments, tell us about this dedication.
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, I have been blissfully married to Carol Kammen for going on 39 years now. She also is a historian and she is a playwright. And she has been--she's my best critic. She has been a wonderful help with many, many projects that I have pursued. And without her, I would not have two wonderful sons and a marvelous daughter-in-law and granddaughter. So she's played a--a very crucial role in my life over the more than 40 years that I've known her.
LAMB: What's this piece of art on the cover?
Prof. KAMMEN: That is Reginald Marsh's "Twenty Cent Movie." It's owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art and it's a--a wonderful example of--of what I call in the book `protomass culture,' this transitional phase during the '20s and '30s from--from popular culture to mass culture, when the scale of people attending an event was still not massive. It's not like "Monday Night Football," or the Super Bowl, but it is electronic. It is--it does involve films that are being distributed all over the country. But at the same time, in the early stages of film, most Americans who were middle class and above disdained film. It was for immigrants. It was for lower-class people. And it was only starting in the 1920s with the very luxurious movie palaces that the middle class began to go to film--to--to--to watch films.
But from--from the beginning of solid film, for almost a quarter of a century, there was a real class segregation in how people responded to film. And early silent films, we now know from very recent scholarship, was exceedingly interactive. The immigrant audiences, the working-class audiences would scream and hiss and boo and yell and throw things and get very, very agitated so that it was--silent film was exceedingly participatory. You didn't just sit there wearing your 3-D glasses, the image that we have from the early 1950s, possibly wa--watching the show. In that--that famous movie from--What was it?--"Bwana Devil," I think, was the--the film with the 3-D glasses.
LAMB: Michael Kammen, we're out of time. Thank you. Author of "American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century." Professor Kammen can be found at Cornell University. Thank you.
Prof. KAMMEN: Thank you.
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