Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture

By Fishwick, Marshall W. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2005 | Go to article overview
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Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture


Fishwick, Marshall W., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture John G. Cawelti. Madison: Popular Press, 2004.

John Cawelti is both a founding father and seminal figure in the popular culture movement. When he retired from the University of Kentucky in 2000, after half a century researching and "writing about popular culture, his work was known and admired far and wide. This volume is his compilation of a collection of his essays, all part of an attempt to use the concept of formula to suggest that works of popular culture were not degraded specimens of traditional literature, but had formal patterns and thus a unique aesthetic.

His work proceeded in two main directions. One was finding a way to manage the formal analysis of popular culture, and the other was toward discovering how to use this richer and more complex idea of the form of popular culture for the purposes of cultural or historical analysis.

Perhaps his most famous essay, published in the Journal of Popular Culture in winter 1969, was entitled "The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Culture." It is the first essay reprinted in this volume. There are four sections:

1. Evolving Views of Popular Culture

2. The Role of Violence in Popular Culture

3. Multiculturahsm and Popular Culture

4. The Mystery of Mystery

There is no easy way to summarize the rich and provocative ideas in the twenty-five essays, but one can detect Cawelti's concern with three main areas of problems. The first is the tragic predominance of violence in American life. Indeed, this theme runs throughout the book. The second is the increasing importance of multiculturalism. For better or for worse, we are creating a global village. The third is the worldwide fascination with mystery stories.

Ever since being hooked on Sherlock Holmes in his early teens, Cawelti tells us that he has loved mystery stories. He sees the literature of mystery as reflecting a central aspect of modernity. The last section of essays traces the evolution of this interest. In 1999, he published an essay called "The Literature of Mystery: Some Reconsiderations." He explores ways in which mysteries have entered the postmodern canon in works by authors like Robbe-Grillet, Kafka, Caddis, Gates, Morrison, Amis, and Ackroyd, using themes and plots derived from gothic, horror, mystery, and spy stories.

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