Culture As History

Divided into four sections that follow an essentially chronological order from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, this book discusses important issues (American socialism and conservatism, reform movements, the “consumer society”) and periods of time (the 1920’s and 1930’s).

Focusing on the way a culture transforms itself by adapting to technological inventions, to mass communications, and to other forms of work and leisure activity, the author writes a history that is shaped by the concrete experiences of the American people.

How has the advent of motion pictures, the automobile, and great national sports like baseball helped to fashion the American self? In raising this question, Warren I. Susman maintains that Mickey Mouse may be as important as Franklin D. Roosevelt in an understanding of the 1930’s.

Susman argues that the very concept of culture as “the inescapable interrelatedness of . . . things,” a concept that first gained wide currency in the 1930’s, has destroyed the fixed distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow that were commonly made in the nineteenth century. For example, the plot and themes of the film IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) are explored in order to demonstrate how the characters’ relationships with one another hinge upon their experience with “communications icons” such as telegram, railroad stations, buses, planes, and so on.

The essays on the 1920’s and 1930’s are the best part of a book that is sometimes repetitious. Susman is a synthesizer of academic research rather than a creator of new ideas. His comments on the development of American business in relation to the country’s frontier history are provocative.