Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture

Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture

Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture

Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture


Throughout the twentieth century, pop songs, magazine articles, plays, posters, and novels in the United States represented intelligence alternately as empowering or threatening. In Inventing the Egghead, cultural historian Aaron Lecklider offers a sharp, entertaining narrative of these sources to reveal how Americans who were not part of the traditional intellectual class negotiated the complicated politics of intelligence within an accelerating mass culture.

Central to the book is the concept of brainpower --a term used by Lecklider to capture the ways in which journalists, writers, artists, and others invoked intelligence to embolden the majority of Americans who did not have access to institutions of higher learning. Expressions of brainpower, Lecklider argues, challenged the deeply embedded assumptions in society that intellectual capacity was the province of an educated elite, and that the working class was unreservedly anti-intellectual. Amid changes in work, leisure, and domestic life, brainpower became a means for social transformation in the modern United States. The concept thus provides an exciting vantage point from which to make fresh assessments of ongoing debates over intelligence and access to quality education.

Expressions of brainpower in the twentieth century engendered an uncomfortable paradox: they diminished the value of intellectuals (the hapless egghead, for example) while establishing claims to intellectual authority among ordinary women and men, including labor activists, women workers, and African Americans. Reading across historical, literary, and visual media, Lecklider mines popular culture as an arena where the brainpower of ordinary people was commonly invoked and frequently contested.


It is the glory of America that it believes that all that anybody
knows everybody should know.

—Joseph Cook

George W. Bush’s presidential election in 2000 left American liberals dumbstruck. the shame of defeat was one piece of the election’s humiliation: that Bush had been awarded the presidency in spite of losing the popular vote was troubling, and the unprecedented role of the Supreme Court in his victory was difficult to reconcile with American ideals of democracy. But it was not simply the fiasco of the election itself that was so unsettling. It was also what the newly elected president represented: wealth, political power, avarice, and—perhaps most important—mind-numbing stupidity. Following Democratic contender Al Gore’s concession, American liberals mourned the defeat of their candidate, but they also loudly bemoaned the death of intelligence in American culture, society, and politics. “The presidential campaign ended, effectively, in a tie, but it did speak clearly about the value accorded intellectuals and intellectuality in American culture,” complained Todd Gitlin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “What it declared is, to say the least, inauspicious.”

The 2000 election transformed the United States into a cultural combat zone of red against blue. the new map divided the country by regionsectional division between North and South experienced a renaissance—but also by degree of cosmopolitanism, lifestyle, taste, and gender. Overwhelmingly, though, the nation appeared to be divided by intelligence. Books began appearing that exposed with humor or with horror the gross incompetence of the new commander-in-chief. Late night television unleashed a torrent of bon mots about dim-witted politicos. a cavalcade of pundits battled over the pros and cons of installing an idiot in the Oval Office. Celebrities attacked the stupid president; politicians assailed vapid celebrities. a short-lived . . .

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