Final Paper - The Mass Culture Debates
History 367-010

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, stoking fears that “the Soviet menace” was drawing closer and closer. Also that year, beatnik Jack Kerouac published the novel On the Road, a probing search for intense, authentic experience and a biting critique of social conformity; a scandal over a rigged television quiz show sparked heated debate about truth and manipulation in the mass media; and the U.S. Congress debated legislation to screen rock ‘n’ roll lyrics for obscenity. One should also note that in 1957, the end of World War Two was still quite recent, and the brutality of fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust still loomed large in the popular imagination.

In the era of the Cold War, debates raged over the meaning and character of mass culture in the United States. To some, the very term was inherently negative--raising fears of cultural degradation, anarchy, or the specter of totalitarianism. To others, the term symbolized the unique democratic promise of industrial civilization--a vibrant commercial culture available to all. Others fell somewhere in the middle, sensitive both to the corrosive effects of commercialization and the redemptive possibilities for pleasure and liberation.

In the same year as Sputnik, On the Road, the quiz show scandal, etc., two scholars, Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, published an influential anthology that surveyed the range of views on mass culture at the time. Their book, Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, consisted of forty-eight essays and nearly 600 pages, pulling together a wide range of scholars and critics, from a variety of disciplines and viewpoints. Its contributors came from all points on the political spectrum, and they expressed views both favorable and hostile to the subject mass culture.

I have selected five essays from this anthology and would like you to write a critical comparison of two of them for your final essay for this course. You may choose any two you like. They are listed at the bottom of this page, with links to each text. You will probably want to look over all five of them, maybe reading a bit of each one, before deciding which two to focus on. (Titles aren't always helpful!)

Although based on two essays, your paper should be framed in terms of one unifying thesis. That is, it should do more than say that “Author X talks about blah, blah, blah. Author Y talks about blech, blech, blech. They agree with each other and also disagree.” Throughout your paper, your analysis must, of course, also be supported by specific examples from the text.

Beyond the texts themselves, you can--and should--do a little research to find out who these authors were. Although this is NOT a research paper, a little background may be helpful to you in analyzing the texts and putting them and their authors in context.

Some questions you should consider:
  • What is the main argument in each of the essays? How do these two arguments compare with each other? Do the authors agree or disagree with each other? On what basis?
  • What is each author’s opinion of mass culture? According to the essays, why does each feel the way he does?
  • What assumptions underlie each author’s argument? Do they share assumptions with each other, or do their assumptions differ or conflict?
  • Where does this author stand politically—the left or the right? How can you tell? What significance does this have, if any?
  • What do these essays have to do with the historical context in which they were written?
  • What do theses essays have to do with the themes of this course?
Finally, it is expected that you will cite all sources appropriately. If in doubt, ask. I remind you that this course has a zero-tolerance plagiarism policy (as explained on the syllabus).

Papers are due Tuesday, November 22, at the start of class. Late papers will not be accepted without prior arrangement with the instructor.

All papers should conform to the following specifications:
  • 6-8 pages
  • stapled
  • typed
  • double-spaced
  • page-numbered
  • proofread
  • margins of 1" to 1-1/4"
  • Every paper should have a header on the first page, including (1) your name, (2) the date, and (3) the course name and number.
  • Your paper should also have a title.

The essays:
  • Dwight Macdonald, "A Theory of Mass Culture" - here
  • Gilbert Seldes, "The People and the Arts" - here
  • Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, "Mass Communications, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action" - here
  • T. W. Adorno, "Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture" - here
  • Leslie Fiedler, "The Middle Against Both Ends" - here