Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World


How is it that American intellectuals, who had for 150 years worried about the deleterious effects of affluence, more recently began to emphasize pleasure, playfulness, and symbolic exchange as the essence of a vibrant consumer culture? The New York intellectuals of the 1930s rejected any serious or analytical discussion, let alone appreciation, of popular culture, which they viewed as morally questionable. Beginning in the 1950s, however, new perspectives emerged outside and within the United States that challenged this dominant thinking. Consuming Pleasures reveals how a group of writers shifted attention from condemnation to critical appreciation, critiqued cultural hierarchies and moralistic approaches, and explored the symbolic processes by which individuals and groups communicate.

Historian Daniel Horowitz traces the emergence of these new perspectives through a series of intellectual biographies. With writers and readers from the United States at the center, the story begins in Western Europe in the early 1950s and ends in the early 1970s, when American intellectuals increasingly appreciated the rich inventiveness of popular culture. Drawing on sources both familiar and newly discovered, this transnational intellectual history plays familiar works off each other in fresh ways. Among those whose work is featured are Jürgen Habermas, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Walter Benjamin, C. L. R. James, David Riesman and Marshall McLuhan, Richard Hoggart, members of London's Independent Group, Stuart Hall, Paddy Whannel, Tom Wolfe, Herbert Gans, Susan Sontag, Reyner Banham, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.


As I neared completion of this book, I turned to Google to track down a quotation. Up on the screen came a 1937 article by Marion C. Sheridan titled “Rescuing Civilization through Motion Pictures.” Right away I wondered if this was the Dr. Sheridan who taught me English in Hillhouse High School. Sure enough, the publication identified her as a teacher in my hometown, New Haven, at my high school, one that employed some teachers with Ph.D.s from Yale. She had earned hers in 1934, and perhaps a combination of sex discrimination, a desire to remain in New Haven, a genuine commitment to high school education, and the Great Depression persuaded her to teach in an urban public school that in the 1950s maintained some aspects of its elite character. the 1960s radical Andrew Kopkind, who preceded me in high school by several years, later described her as “the hated English teacher, Dr. Sheridan, Dr. Marion C. Sheridan, this big, right-wing Irish fascist.” Memory plays funny tricks on us all. Accurately or not, I remember Andy Kopkind living in the only Republican household in our neighborhood and Dr. Sheridan as a slight and severe but not especially political woman, more bluestocking than “right-wing Irish fascist.”

What struck me when her 1937 article appeared on the screen is that almost three-quarters of a century before I completed this book, my high school English teacher had written on a subject central to Consuming Pleasures: how to deploy sophisticated literary theory, in her case that of the British critic I. A. Richards, to understand popular culture. “The way to rescue civilization, by way of the motion picture,” Dr. Sheridan asserted in the year before I was born, “would be to sharpen in every possible way the perceptions of those who attend, so that they will be critical of what they see and cognizant of and responsive to the best when it was projected before them on the so-called ‘silver-screen.’”

Because in Consuming Pleasures I present a series of intellectual biographies through which I explore how writers from a wide range of vantage points found ways of seeing that broke through the prevailing understandings, I wish I could show that this book had its origins deep in my past, perhaps in a class where Dr. Sheridan taught me how to appreciate all those double feature B movies I saw at Saturday matinees. But honestly, I cannot. What I can do is appreciate . . .

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