History of American Popular Culture
Popular culture is a little-understood force in shaping a nation and a society. It is more than just those things that people seek for entertainment or amusement; it can also reshape people’s beliefs and worldviews. It can be a means of self-definition, a nation’s way of forging a national consensus of its identity, history, and accepted mythos, but it can also create false narratives by what it presents. Indeed, it can change a nation’s history by misrepresenting or reinventing the past.
This course will look at the history of popular culture in the United States. It will begin by studying the print, music, and theater culture prior to the Civil War and follow those through the end of the 19th century. One focus will be the works of Horatio Alger and how his rags-to-riches stories helped embed the idea of equality as a defining feature of American democracy, as well as how “dime novels” fixed their version of the history of the West in the minds of readers.
The 20th century saw the advent of radio, movies, and television. These media would go on to become the most important forces in popular culture—the ones that did more than anything to shape America’s vision of itself. Case studies will be made of The Birth of a Nation and how it falsified history and fed racism, how the media was used to unify the nation during the World Wars, and how 1950s television programming emphasized conformity and reinforced stereotypes of women and minorities, as well as how that may have contributed to the fever for change that erupted in subsequent decades. Was television the ultimate “influencer” of American society until the coming of the internet?
Live Classes: Thursdays, 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, from January 14th to May 13th
Student Expectations: Students will read examples of print culture and view important movies and television shows. They also will write brief papers on topics of their choosing.
Student Support: The instructor will be available via email and individual face-to-face online conferences.
Materials: All materials will be available on the internet.