Nancy Bentley

 

On her book Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920

Cover Interview of August 31, 2009

In a nutshell

My book looks at what happened to American literary culture when a new world of mass culture—tabloid newspapers, amusement parks, early cinema, Wild West shows—began to dominate public life.  Most writers and intellectuals reacted with alarm.  Mass culture seemed to offer only novelty and sensation rather than reflection.  It valued profit over refinement or learning.  And the American population was far more interested in these new kinds of mass entertainment than in serious literature.  In the 1890s, for instance, showmen began staging live train wrecks that sometimes drew upwards of 150,000 people.

But I discovered there was more to the story than just writers’ phobic reaction.  Even though literary writers criticized things like racy dime novels and staged train wrecks, they also borrowed some of the same energies of shock, speed, and danger for their own literary works.  I realized that the polished novels of Edith Wharton, for instance, return again and again to the image of a car crash or a train wreck—right at the time that film studios were churning out movies featuring high-speed smash-ups.  And some of the most cerebral works by authors like Henry James, Henry Adams, and W.E.B.  Du Bois share a surprising resemblance to the “aesthetics of astonishment” that characterized vaudeville and early cinema.

Why did writers partly imitate what they decried?  I’m convinced it’s because they recognized that mass culture was tapping into new kinds of human experience that literary culture had previously ignored or dismissed as meaningless.

Early cinema, for instance, captured a wish for mobility and a hunger for sensory pleasures that were especially strong among groups like immigrants and women.  Spectacular events like large-scale accidents or disasters (whether staged or real) turned out to create unexpected solidarities among strangers.

Even though mass culture was attuned to sensation, then, it was still responsive to deep human concerns and interests.  And these were interests that literary culture, with outdated definitions of public opinion and the common good, had no way to address or understand.  So when writers began to combine cerebral styles with literary versions of shock and sensation, they were trying to uncover the possible meaning behind the strange new landscape of mass culture.