Book Reviews -- the Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History Edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears

Article excerpt

The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History. Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, editors. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

This book is energized by a commendable goal: to understand the degree to which the power of culture drives society. In some ways the answer seems obvious, but since culture and society are not quite the same thing, the subject is valuable.

There are nine essays in the volume, most of them insightful and useful. One of the most useful because it deals with a fundamental of humanity is "The Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror" by Karen Halttunen. She examines the changing use Americans--and people worldwide--have put the act of death and dying to, especially murder. She points out that in early American society ministers and society at large used murder-the act of depriving someone else of life---was deliberately used to point out the evil nature of mankind and the need to purge oneself and society of this devil. To that extent, one might almost say that if murder had not existed someone would have had to invent it. But that treatment of murder was personal and internal. The act and punishment held up a mirror for individuals to see and in which to read their own lives.

But times were a changing and with the increase of murders and the loss of the church in its hold on society, the internal reflections on murder were externalized, with added emphasis on the gruesome details, the instruments and the body of the victim. Thus murder was enlarged into horror and externalized. As such it became not a personal affair but a societal phenomenon, no longer the responsibility of individuals but now that of society. As such it has grown into what Js now almost an obsession with horror, real and imagined, and thus, maybe the public's fascination with crime fiction. …


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