Once upon a time, you could peg a person's cultural tastes with pinpoint precision. They have Flaubert on the bookshelf? Undoubtedly highbrow. He drinks chablis? Certifiably middlebrow. She watches Archie Bunker? Lowbrow, natch. But in late-20th-century America, specifying one's brow level is no easy feat. We're likely to have Jane Austen on the nightstand, Don Imus on the radio, and a Michael Graves-designed teapot from Target. And everyone, regardless of class or creed, watches The Simpsons.

As Michael Kammen illustrates, cultural distinctions have been bent, blurred, and turned bottom-up since at least the 1950s, when Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller in a symbolic union of low and high. Though the star-crossed marriage may not have lasted, the effect on American culture remained. A post-war generation flush with disposable income and leisure time would fall head over heels for popular culture. More socially mobile than their parents, they could devour crime novels as delightedly as they could parse their Shakespeare. A decade later, when 1960s egalitarianism hit its stride, Susan Sontag could write of a defiantly pluralistic culture smashing the boundaries between gender, race, and social status.

This book revels in the twilight zone of cultural pluralism. Kammen plunders America's cultural history like a savvy thrift-shopper, spotting intellectual treasures where others might see junk. Departing from the decade-by-decade analysis typical of history books, Kammen offers up a grab-bag of observations culled from a tumultuous century of cultural change. There's Walt Disney, boasting in 1942 that Dopey knows more than he does about American tastes. Flash back to Walt Whitman, that curious mixture of New England highbrow poet and big-city rowdy. Then things turn positively surreal when we find a pivotal 1963 issue of Playboy, featuring an interview by the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

What's worrisome about all this, Kammen feels, is that America's lively, home-grown popular culture think bowling and minor-league baseball is being rapidly turned over to a mass culture dominated by corporate interests. The social bonds formed by swinging waltz nights and neighborhood chess matches have dissolved into a couch-potato culture of passive box-watching, with the TV's remote control close at hand.

While other cultural critics have written cynically or disdainfully about lowbrow tastes, Kammen's sensitive inquiry into our cultural landscape is a welcome surprise. A careful scholar and an eloquent champion of democracy, he writes from a conviction that, more than anything, popular culture matters.

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