Consuming Pleasures

Between 1950 and 1972, American and European writers came to envision consumer culture in fresh, provocative ways. Across national boundaries, they shifted attention from condemnation to critical appreciation, critiqued cultural hierarchies and moralistic approaches, and explored the symbolic processes by which individuals and groups communicate.

Consuming Pleasures
Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

Daniel Horowitz

2012 | 504 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Understanding Consumer Culture in the Post-World War II World
Chapter 1. For and Against the American Grain
Chapter 2. Lost in Translation
Chapter 3. Crossing Borders
Chapter 4. Reluctant Fascination
Chapter 5. Literary Ethnography of Working-Class Life
Chapter 6. Pop Art from Britain to America
Chapter 7. From Workers and Literature to Youth and Popular Culture
Chapter 8. Class and Consumption
Chapter 9. Sexuality and a New Sensibility
Chapter 10. Learning from Consumer Culture
Conclusion: The World of Pleasure and Symbolic Exchange

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


As I neared completion of this book, I turned to Google to track down a quotation. Up on the screen came a 1937 article by Marion C. Sheridan titled "Rescuing Civilization through Motion Pictures." Right away I wondered if this was the Dr. Sheridan who taught me English in Hillhouse High School. Sure enough, the publication identified her as a teacher in my hometown, New Haven, at my high school, one that employed some teachers with Ph.D.s from Yale. She had earned hers in 1934, and perhaps a combination of sex discrimination, a desire to remain in New Haven, a genuine commitment to high school education, and the Great Depression persuaded her to teach in an urban public school that in the 1950s maintained some aspects of its elite character. The 1960s radical Andrew Kopkind, who preceded me in high school by several years, later described her as "the hated English teacher, Dr. Sheridan, Dr. Marion C. Sheridan, this big, right-wing Irish fascist." Memory plays funny tricks on us all. Accurately or not, I remember Andy Kopkind living in the only Republican household in our neighborhood and Dr. Sheridan as a slight and severe but not especially political woman, more bluestocking than "right-wing Irish fascist."

What struck me when her 1937 article appeared on the screen is that almost three-quarters of a century before I completed this book, my high school English teacher had written on a subject central to Consuming Pleasures: how to deploy sophisticated literary theory, in her case that of the British critic I. A. Richards, to understand popular culture. "The way to rescue civilization, by way of the motion picture," Dr. Sheridan asserted in the year before I was born, "would be to sharpen in every possible way the perceptions of those who attend, so that they will be critical of what they see and cognizant of and responsive to the best when it was projected before them on the so-called 'silver-screen.'"

Because in Consuming Pleasures I present a series of intellectual biographies through which I explore how writers from a wide range of vantage points found ways of seeing that broke through the prevailing understandings, I wish I could show that this book had its origins deep in my past, perhaps in a class where Dr. Sheridan taught me how to appreciate all those double feature B movies I saw at Saturday matinees. But honestly, I cannot. What I can do is appreciate the continuities and contingencies of my life as a student. More salient to my project is the subject I have been working on since the early 1970s, the story of how intellectuals have responded to affluence and consumer culture. This book thus continues an exploration I began with The Morality of Spending: Attitudes toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 and continued in The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979. In those books I traced shifts in moral stances toward consumer culture.

In the United States, I argued, traditional moralism was the pervasive approach until the 1920s. Writers in this vein positively valued self-restraint and criticized the supposed immorality of workers and their families, who, it was assumed, relied on alcohol, gambling, and permissive sexual expression as they pursued problematic pleasures. In the 1920s a different approach, the new moralism, developed among intellectuals. Owing much to a Protestant jeremiad tradition, new moralists argued that consumer culture weakened the moral fiber of citizens, tempting them to excess. They focused more on how capitalism generated consumer goods than on the reception of those goods by ordinary Americans. They relied on a sense of moral superiority, a belief that critics of shopping were wiser than shoppers themselves. Intellectuals, they believed, participated in a high culture that was more intriguing and enriching than the debased low culture in which consumers indulged. Fears of declension, excess, and pleasure suffused the writings of those who found mass culture problematically degrading. For many intellectuals, consumer culture raised questions about authenticity and the political implications of defining American superiority in terms of the increased acquisition of consumer goods. Above all, they believed, commercial culture threatened to undermine the stability, character, and restraints necessary to sustain American values. This tradition culminated beginning in the late 1930s, when New York intellectuals, influenced by the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, set the terms of debate in ways that made it difficult for cultural observers in the immediate post-World War II period to talk seriously and analytically, let alone appreciatively, about popular culture.

The new moralism was influential well into the 1960s, when the alternative that this book traces began to take hold. Postmoralism, not unrelated to postmodernism, underwrote an embrace of pleasure and symbolic exchange, often avoiding or transcending moral issues that bothered earlier generations of intellectuals. With its arrival, American writers shifted their attention from an emphasis on self-restraint to the achievement of satisfaction through commercial goods and experiences, a change this book explores.

Sometimes I think my timing is exquisitely off. The Morality of Spending and The Anxieties of Affluence, explorations of the tradition of moralistic scorn, appeared in the middle and at the height of the postwar boom in consumer culture. Work on this book, which explores the emergence of ideas about the pleasures of consumerism, began in 2004 as that boom reached it apogee and neared completion when, in response to the economic crises of the century's first decade, talk of a return in public discussions to thrift, prudence, and simple living reappeared. Perhaps Dr. Sheridan would have appreciated the ironies.