Friday, August 31, 2007

HAD HE BEEN AROUND, FABIO WOULD HAVE BEEN ON THE COVER: OK, kids, let’s fire up the flux capacitors and head back in time to begin our survey of American pop-culture history. Your assigned reading for today is Chapter 1, "In the Beginning," in the textbook Popular Culture in American History. Colonial America wasn’t exactly a hotbed of pop-culture activity, what with the business of clearing land, burning hanging witches, and cheating the Indians. But once printing presses arrived in the mid-17th century, publishers began producing a wide range of materials for the growing colonial audience, and America soon had its first best-sellers. The textbook includes an essay by historian Victor Neuberg on chapbooks -- small, inexpensive works of popular literature that ran the gamut from children's stories to temperance parables.

The runaway hit chapbook of the late 1600s and early 1700s was Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her three-month captivity among the Wampanoag Indians, titled (significantly) The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. First published in 1682, it went through 31 editions and sold thousands of copies. As the title suggests, Rowlandson intended her narrative as a demonstration of God's power to rescue afflicted believers. At the same time, though, she offers rather gory descriptions of Indian attacks and keeps the reader wondering if she'll be able to resist her captors' advances. Did readers gobble up captivity narratives for their moral lessons, or for their exciting accounts of violence and sexual danger?

By the late 1700s, American middle-class readers were clamoring for novels, not just chapbooks, and publishers were happy to oblige. And despite the concerns raised in pamphlets like “Novel Reading, a Case of Female Depravity,” women were often the prime target audience, especially for sentimental novels of seduction and betrayal, modeled on the popular works of the English novelist Samuel Richardson. By far the biggest American success along these lines was Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth, published in 1794. Rowson's 15-year-old heroine ignores parental warnings about protecting her virtue and is seduced by a dastardly soldier; she winds up pregnant and penniless in New York, where she dies in childbirth, just as her grieving father finally locates her. As with Rowlandson, though, it's hard to figure out why Rowson's book became such a huge success (indeed, the most popular American novel until Uncle Tom's Cabin). Did readers focus on the novel's didactic messages of faith, chastity, and obedience? Or did they thrill instead to the titillating tale of a good girl gone bad?

This conflict between moralism and sensationalism recurs throughout pop-culture history, as does the difficulty of separating producers' and authors' intention from consumers' reception. I imagine you all could come up with other examples of pop-culture products that exhibit these same tensions.

Next week: Shakespeare, Stephen Foster, and minstrel shows. Enjoy the holiday weekend; school's out until Wednesday.

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