Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture

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Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture, by John G. Cawelti (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), ISBN: 0-299-19630-5, 408 pp., $65 hb; ISBN: 0-299-19634-8, $21.95, pb.

John G. Cawelti's recent collection of essays, Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture, represents far more than the span of a lengthy and enormously successful career. Indeed, the collection stands as a cogent and persuasive history of the slow but steady rise of popular culture as an academic discipline. With great passion and care, Cawelti uses his wideranging interests in such genres as the detective story, the murder mystery, comics, the western novel and the Gothic tale to weave a convincing, and yet still necessary apologia for the study of popular culture as intellectually challenging as the scholarship of more canonical writers and traditional genres. As he suggests in his introduction, his intention initially lay in examining 'works of popular culture' for their own merits and 'not simply as degraded specimens of traditional literature' (xi-xii). For Cawelti, popular forms have their own valid and 'unique aesthetic' (xii). As such, they must be analysed with the same level of attention to detail as one would when explicating more canonical works as Joyce's Ulysses, Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, or Twain's Roughing It. In fact, Cawelti's great gift is the ease with which he can unhesitatingly switch from breezy discussions of Charles Dickens and Henry James to scholarly close readings of Batman and the Beatles, suggesting yet again that he regards the subjects of literary scholarship as a democratic continuum and not as discrete, hierarchical assemblages that valorise 'great art' and depreciate 'popular entertainment'.

To accomplish his objective of mainstreaming popular culture, Cawelti examines the structural properties of literary and non-literary genres, thereby exhibiting a formalist strain that continues throughout his work. Borrowing from Northrop Frye, Cawelti suggests in 'The Concept of Formula' that 'fundamental archetypal patterns' (8) are embedded in all cultural products. Genre thus becomes, in his view, 'a structural pattern that embodies a universal life pattern or myth in the materials of language' (9). By contrast, 'formula' is cultural, 'represent[ing] the way in which a culture has embodied both mythical archetypes and its own preoccupations in narrative form' (9). This distinction allows Cawelti to drag formulaic genres, such as the spy novel and the Western into this theoretical discussion. 'Formula stories' become important psychoanalytic sites in which 'individuals in a culture act out certain unconscious or repressed needs' (11). Whether or not readers agree with this sort of psychoanalytic conclusion, they have implicitly accepted the notion that spy novels and Westerns are worthy objects of literary analysis principally both because of their value to the culture's healthy functioning as coping mechanisms and because they have the explanatory power to reveal a culture's deepest fears, preoccupations and resentments.

Cawelti aims to democratise literary analysis in other essays in the collection as well. Though not debatable in 2006, and especially because of the rise of film studies, Cawelti felt the need in 1972 to argue that despite the 'commercial orientation and artistic limitations of the American film industry' (19), the artistry of Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir, Lang, Ford, Hawks and Cukor require readers to comprehend the significance of their 'individual artistic statements' (19). In his headnote to his essay on these directors, 'Notes toward an Aesthetic of Popular Culture', Cawelti admits, 'It hardly seems necessary, now, to explain the auteur theory at such length' (13). But it was necessary at one time, and Cawelti's essay valiantly defines that 'aesthetic' as the 'artistic dialectic between auteur and convention, the drama of how the convention is shaped to manifest the auteur's intention, that excites our interest and admiration' (25). …