The Antebellum Period

The Antebellum Period

The Antebellum Period

The Antebellum Period

Synopsis

The Antebellum Era was a complex time in American culture. Young ladies had suitors call upon them, while men often settled quarrels by dueling, and "mill girls" worked 16-hour days to help their families make ends meet. Yet at the same time, a new America was emerging. The rapid growth of cities inspired Frederick Law Olmstead to lead the movement for public parks. Stephen Foster helped forge a catalog of American popular music; writers such as Washington Irving and Ralph Waldo Emerson raised the level of American literature; artists such as Thomas Cole and Thomas Doughty defined a new style of painting called the Hudson River School. All the while, schisms between northern and southern culture threatened to divide the nation. This volume in Greenwood's "American Popular Culture Through History" recounts the ways in which things old and new intersected in the decades before the Civil War.

Excerpt

Popular culture is the system of attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, customs, and tastes that define the people of any society. It is the entertainments, diversions, icons, rituals, and actions that shape the everyday world. It is what we do while we are awake and what we dream about while we are asleep. It is the way of life we inherit, practice, change, and then pass on to our descendants.

Popular culture is an extension of folk culture, the culture of the people. With the rise of electronic media and the increase in communication in American culture, folk culture expanded into popular culture—the daily way of life as shaped by the popular majority of society. Especially in a democracy like the United States, popular culture has become both the voice of the people and the force that shapes the nation. In 1782, the French commentator Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur asked in his Letters from an American Farmer, “What is an American?” He answered that such a person is the creation of America and is in turn the creator of the country's culture. Indeed, notions of the American Dream have been long grounded in the dream of democracy—that is, government by the people, or popular rule. Thus, popular culture is tied fundamentally to America and the dreams of its people.

Historically, culture analysts have tried to fine-tune culture into two categories: “elite”—the elements of culture (fine art, literature, classical music, gourmet food, etc.) that supposedly define the best of society—and “popular”—the elements of culture (comic strips, bestsellers, pop music, fast food, etc.) that appeal to society's lowest common denominator. The so-called educated person approved of elite culture and scoffed at popular culture. This schism first began to develop in Western Europe in the

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