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Eric Avila, American Cultural History: A Very Short Introduction

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1Eric Avila, American Cultural History: A Very Short Introduction

2Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 168. ISBN-13: 978-0190200589. Paperback

3Evangelia Kyriakidou

4Eric Avila undertakes the difficult task of offering a concise overview of American Cultural History for the Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions Series. The Very Short Introductions Series has long been praised primarily for filling in an empty space in the field of the history of ideas. It kick-starts the readership’s research into various topics ranging from religious studies to American Cultural History and, more recently, Poetry. On top of that, the book series has been extolled by media sources as varied as New Yorker Magazine, The Independent, Greenwich University, The Guardian, The Times and book review blogs as a comprehensive book series that offers readers information on a good number of topics in a compelling manner. Avila’s preoccupation in the particular book is to deal with American Cultural History which he does in a masterfully invigorating manner from the first pages of the book. Honestly, I did not expect less from Eric Avila, urban cultural historian and professor of Chicano Studies and History at UCLA. Avila has also authored two other critically acclaimed works: Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, published by the University of California Press in 2004 and The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2014. His research interests, among other things, include 20th century American History, Historiography, Ethnography, Culture, American Culture, Chicano Culture, Race and Ethnic Communities.

5Interestingly enough, Avila opens his book with a historic anecdote about Abraham Lincoln’s meeting Harriett Beecher Stowe for the first time and exclaiming that he was pleased to meet the “little woman who wrote the book that made this great war” (1) alluding to how a work of fiction—Uncle Tom’s Cabin—could have an impact on the most acrimonious conflict in American History, namely the American Civil War. Avila explains that Lincoln’s observation defines “culture as a driving force in history” (1) and he moves on to explain how cultural history is the history of stories “their origins, transmission, and significance in time” (2). He also warns us that, as Raymond Williams had done before him, the word culture might be one of the most difficult words to define in the English language and while etymologically it can be related to a living organism, in nineteenth century Europe the word culture became associated with an ensemble of everything that was elevated in life as in Mathew Arnold’s definition of culture according to which culture was “the best which has been thought and said.” Contrary to Arnold’s definition, Avila in his American Cultural History Introduction leaves no stone unturned: he talks about television, mass culture, mariachi bands, the strip culture of Los Angeles along with urbanization, urban design, Olmsted and Central Park. Avila underlines that although American cultures has ultimately been the sum of very diverse cultural practices it has not been contained in geographical borders exactly because of “the transnational flow of American capital, enabled by domestic and foreign policy” (7).

6Avila’s work consists of six chapters each dealing with a specific cultural era of American culture. The first chapter titled “American Culture in Red, White and Black” expounds on how various Americans contributed in the creation of American identity ever since the Colonial era. People from the Americas, Africa and Europe contributed in the creation of what is America today, while the writer also mentions the significant contribution of women of the time who despite the limitations imposed to them because of their social role, they managed to aid in the creation of American identity and culture. An interesting case in point is the figure of Phillis Wheatley but overall Avila brings in statistics to corroborate the fact that colonial America was a white patriarchy and as such the first institutions of higher learning did favor white males throughout New England not to mention the rest of the continent. Bright cases such as that of Samuel Davis, the Virginia minister who worked to educate slaves “convinced that literacy was essential to Christian devotion” (18). An important contribution to the network and development of communication was, Avila observes, the growing print culture that started thriving in colonial America not only thanks to innovations in printing technologies but also to the development of a very basic postal network. At this time, the novel provided some cultural space for women to step out of their invisibility and emerge in the American world not only as authors but also as readers, characters and symbols of the new nation (21).

7In his second chapter, “Mass Culture and Mass Politics, 1800-1860” Avila’s research finds the nation after the American Revolution at a culturally peculiar era, as the people who framed the Constitution are faced with the task of forging a new cultural identity for the country. Avila, thus, describes a nation between the Revolution and the Civil War in a surging phase of technological advances in transportation and communication. He outlines the rapidly growing working class and a new middle class created out of market revolution. At the same time, new form of theatrical expression, the cultural influence of African American people on Southern culture as well as the discovery of western lands turned the tables of the cultural production in America in the era described and marked it as particularly distinct.

8In “The Age of the City, 1860-1900,” Avila’s third chapter, illustrates the concentrated efforts of such capitalist giants as Rockefeller and Carnegie who undertook the task of urban beautification in post-Civil War era by erecting magnificent monuments, parks, cemeteries, universities, museums and hotels. Avila observes that this lavish display of new wealth in the urban landscape had a clandestine side of squalor and poverty. A spatial example of this duality is Central Park. Avila cites Olmsted and Vaux’s original purpose in sculpting “an idealized picturesque landscape with meadows, woods, rolling hills, ponds, lakes, fountains, and meandering roads, an idealized setting that would” in the words of the two Central Park architects “enable men to better resist the harmful influences of ordinary town life and to recover what they lose from them” (49). Nevertheless, the park reflected the class stratification that existed in the city of New York and thus became, as Avila points out, not one, but many parks “with ample ground to partition the recreation of separate and unequal social classes” (49). In this unbridled milieu, Avila stresses, a new, diverse set of cultural experiences—on the one hand foreign language performances in the Metropolitan Opera House and on the other the Wild West Show, a stage drama of pioneer women and children trapped inside a burning hut circled by “wild” Indians—gave the illusion of order in the midst of what was in fact social chaos.

9At the turn of the century, America’s focus shifts on “The New Mass Culture, 1900-1945” as elucidated in chapter four of the book. Avila explains that American society rapidly moves away from the Victorian ideals of the industrial era and toward a new set of values structured by a corporatizing economy. In the dawn of the twentieth century, Avila elucidates that as more and more goods spill outward from industrial centers, American culture also becomes a culture of desiring more and more; a consumerist culture. Men and women, he explains, indulge their spending power and leisure time. Even the working class could now afford “cheap thrills” in the form of the Coney Island Ferris wheels, rollercoasters, shooting galleries and fortune tellers. Another new form of entertainment that saw the light during the first years of the twentieth century was the cinema industry. Moreover, because of the flourishing of the sound and vision technologies advertising and radio also dominated the cultural landscape of the era.

10In the next chapter, Avila focuses on the era of prosperity for American culture. He very cleverly dubbed this period “The Suburbanization of American Culture” and it is the time after World War II spanning until the 1960s. The key words characterizing this period is prosperity, financial and cultural dominance of the U.S globally, as well as comfort and optimism. Avila stresses the fact that this optimist attitude was only skin deep as this era registered multiple social tensions. The Americans who had seen the War and the Depression were wondering if they were going to see this destruction or the bread lines again in the future. Moreover, the racial and gender upheaval brought about by the War—it brought women into the workforce, it brought blacks into the cities of the Northeast and the Midwest—had created an unprecedented confusion verging on revolutionizing American society. Avila explains this cultural confusion through the genre of the film noir: on the one had it exhibited marked misogynistic feelings towards the viragos who were overstepping their socially constructed roles and on the other hand they also overrepresented the sordid charms of the black side of city life, thus addressing contemporary urban worries. Alongside the popularity of the film noir, Avila lists the growing development and ensuing approval of television as well as the impact it had on the American nuclear family. Another great development of the time was Disneyland, which was the theme park family entertainment for the middle class family that moved radically away from the values and way of life propagated in the theme parks in the style of the Coney Island funfair. The biggest advent of the era though, was the creation of big Malls and the increasing automobile culture. Avila concludes his fifth chapter with a mention to SDS and the student radicalization movement by the Vietnam War.

11Avila’s last chapter “The World Wide Web of American Culture” could be described in one sentence: if the sixties is the decade that radicalized American culture then the nineties is the decade that managed to revolutionize its form. Before getting into the miracle of the internet, Avila explains what impact 1970s counterculture had on American culture and he then proceeds to talk about the excesses of the eighties. He sheds light on the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and its impact on culture and society of the time, he gives a wonderfully nostalgic overview of music and art of the time before he moves on to the creation of the internet. He briefly explains how the digital revolution of the internet started in California and spread around the world, changing cultural patters and self-expression. Concluding, Avila concedes that America culture continues to unite even the most disparate parts of the population even if it is still an arena rife with micro conflicts and cultural tensions that ultimately define the nation’s history and identity.

12Finishing this comprehensive book, I got the urge to go back and re-read some parts. Not only is Avila a compelling writer with a lot of punchy parts into his book, but he also offers a rich amount of references for people of the “trade” to search into. It is a book that functions as a wonderful introductory reading for students and as a nice, pleasant read for lay people alike. Enjoyable, informative, rich and highly interesting at the same time.

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« Eric Avila, American Cultural History: A Very Short Introduction », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2019-4, Online since 11 December 2019, connection on 28 February 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/15350

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