Publication Date

May 1, 1997

Recognition of the need to understand popular culture in history and historical studies is increasingly energizing and directing the thinking of historians, as it is also the effort of popular- culture scholars who are attempting to understand the present. More and more, we realize, to paraphrase Tennyson's hero Ulysses, we are a part of all that we have met and all that has been before us. We stand in the deep flow of all events of the peoples of the world before and around us. To a greater or lesser extent, we are a part of all that they were, all that has gone before us. The results of all these events have slowly but surely changed our cultural DNA. At any time in the past, the events throughout society that had gone before had altered history to that point. Now, certainly, when democracy strongly influences all elements of at least democratic and would-be democratic societies, cultures are constantly being changed, sometimes almost overnight.

More and more, historians are recognizing the importance of understanding popular culture in their work. To be sure of our territory, let me clear up the meaning of popular culture. Popular culture is the way of life in which and by which most people in any society live. In a democracy like the United States it is the voice of the people—their likes and dislikes, their habits and attitudes—the lifeblood of their daily existence, their way of life. The popular culture is the democracy, democracy speaking and acting, the seedbed in which political and cultural qualities grow. Popular culture democratizes society and makes democracy truly democratic. It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments, diversions; it is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology, politics, and religion—our total life picture.1 It is the way of life we inherit, practice, modify as we please and then pass on to our descendants. It is what we do while we are awake and how we do it; it is the dream we dream while asleep.

Several aspects perhaps need amplification. It is sometimes not easy to convince scholars that popularity in the sense of being widespread has absolutely nothing to do with popular culture definitions. The two similar words mean entirely different things. In our anthropological use, "popular" comes from populus as in vox populi, with no regard to numbers. Large nations have dominant popular cultures; small groups of people—as small as one or two, provided they are to one degree or another separate from other cultures—have their own popular culture as well as the dominant one. All serve the same purposes but are entirely different in means of measurement. It is a serious error to think that only those elements of culture that are disseminated by the mass media are popular culture. Elements that are unaffected by any electronic means of dissemination (coffee-table gossip, for example) are genuine and powerful popular culture. Perhaps the best graphic representation of the levels of popular culture can be the inverted pyramid operating on a horizontal, not vertical, plane.

Each area of culture in this dynamic of diffusion has its own character, which may or may not include some or many of the features of others.

It may be useful also to remind ourselves that the definition of popular culture has nothing to do with time and contemporaneity. We live in ours. But so did our ancestors in theirs. Popular culture is as old as societies. The earliest voices of popular culture were what we commonly called folklore, the voice of the people. But so-called developed societies of the past—Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Incan, Mayan, Aztec, for example—had theirs. In undeveloped western Europe by the 15th century, according to historian Peter Burke's account, the split between rural and urban—village and town—had produced a distinct popular culture. In America, because of the time settlement and development began, there has always been a popular culture, which has become more developed and pervasive as the means of communication have grown.

One other point needs to be emphasized, that popular entertainment is only one aspect of popular culture, though the two are often confused and equated. Popular entertainment is exclusively popular culture, but popular culture is not exclusively popular entertainment. Rather, it is much more. The popular culture of a complex country like the United States speaks many tongues, the result of the 300-plus cultures that have immigrated to these shores, bringing their cultures with them and the scores of others that have entered by other means.

American popular culture is driven by the people's beliefs in the importance of the assertion of individual tastes and actions. It is the most complex and powerful in the world, spread by political and financial independence and the power and the most complex means of development and distribution, the electronic media. American popular culture is the voice of democracy both partially developed and still emerging.

A caveat that needs to be remembered in the definition of popular culture is that, as far as the scholar is concerned, so-called quality has nothing to do with popular-culture studies. Aesthetic quality, like beauty, is in the bias of the beholder. There are, to be sure, varying degrees of aesthetic achievement in popular culture, as there are in so-called elite culture. But it should be remembered that esthetic standards and evaluations often are artificially developed and maintained for other than intrinsic reasons—personal and professional—now as they always have been.

Historians are more and more concerned with popular culture in narrow and broad concepts. Although major and significant historians have always included study of everyday culture in their works, broad acceptance of such inclusions has not been easily achieved. Perhaps three salient reasons have deterred such studies: (1) Historians have not been taught or bothered to learn about the everyday cultures of their subjects. (2) Historians have often despised the everyday culture because they felt it had not influenced the great and major movements of great people and great ideas. (3) They have not wanted to step down from their self-raised pedestals of elitism and be forced to recognize the importance of people less important than themselves. Historians who have taken popular culture seriously have often been pilloried.

For example, in 1970 Russel B. Nye, 1944 Pulitzer Prize winner for his George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel, published The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America, a sweeping survey of American popular arts and society, thus demonstrating the need for historians to study such subjects. Yet four years later in his Society and Culture in America 1830-1860, one of the volumes in the New American Nation series, he had insisted to the two general editors of the series that he should include a chapter on popular culture. According to Nye, he was not allowed to because one of the editors told him the subject did not merit inclusion.

This condescending attitude was hamstringing some historians two decades later. An excellent example of the old and new attitudes is nicely described by Robert C. Davis in The War of the Fists:

A few years ago, shortly after I had discovered the pleasures and challenges of the Chronicle in the pugni in Venice's Museo Correr, I mentioned to a more experienced colleague how much I would enjoy the chance to write my own history of the city's battagliole. His immediate response was, in so many words: Why? Who would ever want to read about such a tasteless topic? …

Happily, as I have explored and worked out the principal themes of The War of the Fists, I discovered that my colleagues in Venetian history, and indeed in social history generally, were as likely to be as fascinated and attracted as I was by this cult of popular violence and public disorder that flourished for so many centuries in the heart of the world's Most Serene Republic. It is largely due to their constant encouragement, support and criticism-their understanding of the central role of popular culture in an absolutist society-that this book has been possible.2

Alongside the historians who stood for the conventional study of the past, museums have stood close to the established and recognized, realizing that past ages could be manipulated to support whatever attitude one desires. Historian Mike Wallace, among others, has tried, sometimes with success, to abandon the policy that has always driven them to be doorways to the past rather than windows on the present. Commenting on the effort of museums of the past to maintain an artificial distinction of esthetic quality to support their positions, Wallace makes his point at some length:

They did so, first, by presenting particular interpretations. Of course, the museums cannot be faulted for having viewed the past selectively. There is, after all, no such thing as 'the past' [or the present]. All history is a production—a deliberate selection, ordering, and evaluation of past events, experiences, and processes. The objection is rather that the museums incorporated selections and silences on such an order that they falsified reality and became instruments of class dominance. The museums generated conventional ways of seeing history that justified the mission of capitalists and lent a naturalism and inevitability to their authority. And, perhaps more importantly, they generated ways of not seeing. By obscuring the origins and development of capitalist society, by eradicating exploitation, racism, sexism, and class struggle from the historical record, by covering up the existence of broad-based oppositions, traditions, and popular cultures, and by rendering the majority of the population as invisible as shapers of history, the museums inhibited the capacity of visitors to imagine alternative social orders—past or future.3

In other words, consciously or unconsciously, museums by and large have been carrying out the exercise of power and control feared 200 years ago by James Madison, "master builder of the Constitution." "I believe," he said, "there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations" (speech in the Virginia Convention, June 16, 1788). Regrettably, museums and academic historians often have joined forces to keep people's eyes on objects and subjects of their choice, thus protecting their own positions, rather than on using the past to enlighten the present.

Unfortunately the issue is fraught with political and ideological hazards. In a Perspectives (vol. 34, October 1996) forum dedicated to the question, “Who Owns History: History in the Museum and in the Classroom,” Spencer Crew, director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History, points out that many people want “their belief systems reinforced, not questioned” by museums. “If museum professionals can accustom visitors to encountering new ideas in museums, they will negate the question ‘Who owns history?'” Maybe he is correct, but many people would like museums to be yet bolder. Gary B. Nash, UCLA historian generally falsely damned for having created the new National History Standards, insists that more people have been instrumental in shaping American history than we care to admit, and that they deserve their places: “Will not Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, as well as African Americans and ordinary people who toil in mills and mines, on farms and assembly lines, be more likely to feel less alienated from the American past when they see that their own predecessors contributed in important ways to the nation’s development? And won’t that benefit all Americans who believe in e pluribus unum?”4

History, it should be obvious, belongs to us all since we the people, especially we Americans, create it and live in and with it. History and history in the making are us and we are it.

So both Crew and Nash, and most others in the museum and history business, stop short of articulating what should be evident. Cultures record their history in their artifacts. Art historians properly insist that every such artifact contains the essence of, a distillation of, the civilization in which it was created and served its purpose. But they must be read properly to reveal this distillation. To be read properly, they must be made available. It would seem imperative, therefore, that the museums and historians work in tandem, the former making the artifacts—and all other aspects of popular culture—and the latter setting about understanding and explaining them.

One of the most effective teachers and displayers of history to the American public, as we all know but many do not want to admit, has been Walt Disney. In speaking of the impact of Disney theme parks on Americans, Mike Wallace points out approvingly: "As tens of millions of people visit their attractions each year, one might fairly say that Walt Disney has taught people more history, in a memorable way, than they ever learned in school."5

The school of life, as most people and many historians have long recognized, is the teacher of first, last, and most powerful recourse. A splendid verification of this attitude comes from James M. McPherson in his Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (Oxford, 1991), when he speculates about how Lincoln was the more effective president of the United States than Jefferson Davis was of the Confederacy. McPherson feels that the classroom of daily experience, in which Lincoln matriculated, was far more valuable than the “excellent training in the classics, in rhetoric, logic, literature, and science” that Davis enjoyed. Lincoln “worked on frontier dirt farms most of his youth, he split rails, he rafted down the Mississippi on a flatboat, he surveyed land, he worked in a store where he learned to communicate with the farmers and other residents of a rural community” (p. 94). Those experiences gave him a rhythm of natural expression in key with natural life and an understanding of that natural life.

Perhaps the new and necessary attitude toward history is best exemplified and explained by Pete Daniels in his new edition of Standing at the Crossroads, Johns Hopkins, 1996). In a reissue of this 1986 publication Daniels states that in the decade since the original publication, historians have made significant contributions to the study of the 20th-century South, and, he might have added, all history. He cites developments in gay and lesbian history as two necessary and fruitful fields. Daniels, working as a curator in the National Museum of American History, has concentrated on “agricultural transformation, music and &0 social history of the 1950s.” Currently, he and others are working on a proposed exhibit on the origins of rock ‘n’ roll music. It does not matter that he may discover what rock music scholars have long known about the origins of this popular music; the important thing is that historians are formally coming to the study. Daniels suggests other areas that historians need to investigate: fundamentalist religions, segregationist ideology, African Americans’ coping in a world without the regular social services, and “the relationship between the end of labor-intensive agriculture and the civil rights movement.” He might have named all other aspects of Southern (and American) history because, he says, “For years historians have often studied elite South them whites as well as moderates but have ignored many workers and damned all segregationists.” Now, however, attitudes are expanding and changing.

Perhaps the degree to which attitudes are expanding and changing can be demonstrated in the latest public statements of the historical profession. Of the 154 sessions of the program at the 111th annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 1997, 50, or practically 33 percent were on popular culture subjects. In the December 1996 issue of the American Historical Review (vol. 101, no. 5), the five essays included a all on popular history: the importance of understanding changes in artistic conceptualizations of peasants harvesting crops in the past; the significance of the Jibaro (Jarive peasant) masquerades by privileged writers in subaltern politics in Puerto Rico, 1810–25; the complex clash of clock time and diurnal (“God’s”) time during the slavery era in the South; the clash of two political ideologies, English liberalism and Polish nationalism, in late 19th-century Warsaw; and the value of storytelling in revealing and understanding history.

The new insights into the value of "stories in history," outlined in the last of these articles by Sarah Maza, begin to plumb new depths into relatively unplowed fields of concern for historians: such as feminism, myth, romance, sentimentalism, domestic behavior, and dominance and subordination, as well as the literature—especially the narratives in which they are expressed.

These papers at the AHA annual meeting and the five articles in the Review are indications that historians increasingly are reading the popular side of human existence and casting the full light of their research and interpretation on the popular culture of the past. Both historical and popular culture studies can only benefit.


1. Admittedly some aspects of culture seem, at least to some people, to be of relatively less than earth-shaking importance and therefore objects of derision. For example, Dial-A-Pick toothpick dispensers or the new wrapping on Band-Aid adhesive bandages are scorned by Paul Lukas in Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at tile Stuff from Everyday World to the Obscure (New York: Crown, 1997) in his embarrassed and amusing account of such items—and many more Significant ones. But before dismissing them or laughing them off the board, think of life without them. Big life is made up of small things. In effect, in the Western world it begins with a wet diaper and ends with a handkerchief.

2. Robert C. Davis, War of the Fists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), vi.

3. Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays Oil American Memory (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1996), 169.

4.Perspectives, 34 No. 7, October 1996, 10.

5.Mickey Mouse History, 30.

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