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With Amusement for AllWith Amusement for All

A History of American Popular Culture since 1830

LeRoy Ashby

Narrated by Kevin Pierce

Approximately 34 hours

Unabridged


Downloadable edition:

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Book published by University Press of Kentucky


With Amusement for All is a sweeping interpretative history of American popular culture. Providing deep insights into various individuals, events, and movements, LeRoy Ashby explores the development and influence of popular culture—from minstrel shows to hip-hop, from the penny press to pulp magazines, from the NBA to NASCAR, and much in between. By placing the evolution of popular amusement in historical context, Ashby illuminates the complex ways in which popular culture both reflects and transforms American society. He demonstrates a recurring pattern in democratic culture by showing how groups and individuals on the cultural and social periphery have profoundly altered the nature of mainstream entertainment. The mainstream has repeatedly co-opted and sanitized marginal trends in a process that continues to shift the limits of acceptability. Ashby describes how social control and notions of public morality often vie with the bold, erotic, and sensational as entrepreneurs finesse the vagaries of the market and shape public appetites. Ashby argues that popular culture is indeed a democratic art, as it entertains the masses, provides opportunities for powerless and disadvantaged individuals to succeed, and responds to changing public hopes, fears, and desires. However, it has also served to reinforce prejudices, leading to discrimination and violence. Accordingly, the study of popular culture reveals the often dubious contours of the American dream. With Amusement for All never loses sight of pop culture’s primary goal: the buying and selling of fun. Ironically, although popular culture has drawn an enormous variety of amusements from grassroots origins, the biggest winners are most often sprawling corporations with little connection to a movement’s original innovators.

Popular culture is a central part of everyday life to many Americans. Personalities such as Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan are more recognizable to many people than are most elected officials. With Amusement for All is the first comprehensive history of two centuries of mass entertainment in the United States, covering everything from the penny press to Playboy, the NBA to NASCAR, big band to hip hop, and other topics including film, comics, television, sports, dance, and music. Paying careful attention to matters of race, gender, class, technology, economics, and politics, LeRoy Ashby emphasizes the complex ways in which popular culture simultaneously reflects and transforms American culture, revealing that the world of entertainment constantly evolves as it tries to meet the demands of a diverse audience. Trends in popular entertainment often reveal the tensions between competing ideologies, appetites, and values in American society. For example, in the late nineteenth century, Americans embraced “self-made men” such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie: the celebrities of the day were circus tycoons P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey, Wild West star “Buffalo Bill” Cody, professional baseball organizer Albert Spalding, and prizefighter John L. Sullivan. At the same time, however, several female performers challenged traditional notions of weak, frail Victorian women. Adah Isaacs Menken astonished crowds by wearing tights that made her appear nude while performing dangerous stunts on horseback, and the shows of the voluptuous burlesque group British Blondes often centered on provocative images of female sexual power and dominance. Ashby describes how history and politics frequently influence mainstream entertainment. When Native Americans, blacks, and other non-whites appeared in the nineteenth-century circuses and Wild West shows, it was often to perpetuate demeaning racial stereotypes—crowds jeered Sitting Bull at Cody’s shows. By the early twentieth century, however, black minstrel acts reveled in racial tensions, reinforcing stereotypes while at the same time satirizing them and mocking racist attitudes before a predominantly white audience. Decades later, Red Foxx and Richard Pryor’s profane comedy routines changed American entertainment. The raw ethnic material of Pryor’s short-lived television show led to a series of African-American sitcoms in the 1980s that presented common American experiences—from family life to college life—with black casts. Mainstream entertainment has often co-opted and sanitized fringe amusements in an ongoing process of redefining the cultural center and its boundaries. Social control and respectability vied with the bold, erotic, sensational, and surprising, as entrepreneurs sought to manipulate the vagaries of the market, control shifting public appetites, and capitalize on campaigns to protect public morals. Rock ‘n Roll was one such fringe culture; in the 1950s, Elvis blurred gender norms with his androgynous style and challenged conventions of public decency with his sexually-charged performances. By the end of the 1960s, Bob Dylan introduced the social consciousness of folk music into the rock scene, and The Beatles embraced hippie counter-culture. Don McLean’s 1971 anthem “American Pie” served as an epitaph for rock’s political core, which had been replaced by the spectacle of hard rock acts such as Kiss and Alice Cooper. While Rock ‘n Roll did not lose its ability to shock, in less than three decades it became part of the established order that it had originally sought to challenge. With Amusement for All provides the context to what Americans have done for fun since 1830, showing the reciprocal nature of the relationships between social, political, economic, and cultural forces and the way in which the entertainment world has reflected, refracted, or reinforced the values those forces represent in America.

LeRoy Ashby is Regents Professor and Claudius O. and Mary Johnson Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University. He is the author of several books, including Fighting the Odds: The Life of Senator Frank Church and Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect, and Abuse in American History.

REVIEWS:

“Without question, the author...has researched and written a masterpiece. The book is a tour de force in its field and has made popular culture—once thought to be a frivolous area for academic study—a serious field of inquiry.”

USA Today

“Combines being a remarkably quixotic endeavor with being something of a monumental achievement of scholarship and pure perseverance.”

Belles Lettres

“When regarding this book's comprehensiveness, the richness of its detail, and the strength of its interpretation of the specifics of popular culture, I stand in awe. What an achievement! Majestic!”

—Benjamin G. Rader, author of Baseball: A History of America's Game

“This intelligent, energetic book has the ability to appeal to historians and scholars without distancing the general reader. The easy linear narrative is punctuated by songs, comic anecdotes, and rich descriptions that bring each era to life.”

Charleston Post and Courier

“No single author has tackled popular culture with so much breadth and depth and managed to strike a balance between the popular and scholarly approaches. Ashby's absorbing and hugely informative study will appeal to a wide audience. Highly recommended.”

Library Journal

“LeRoy Ashby draws on the substantial volume of historical scholarship on American popular culture produced since the 1970s to present a survey of impressive breadth on two centuries of American amusements. ”

Journal of American History





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