The strands of American popular culture have remained essentially the same from Colonial days to the present because they have always responded to and reflected life in this country.
Among the most important of these have been a sense that America is special, a belief in equality, a penchant for violence and the concept of a melting pot. But above all has been the desire for entertainment.
From almost the earliest days, this cultural response was determined by the fact that this country was the New World. It held, for whites, at least, the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - because, it was believed, God had willed that the people make it their Promised Land, the place where dreams could come true.
This attitude has been strengthened through the years because the American genius for technological growth was fostered by a poltically amenable atmosphere and by a country incredibly rich in natural resources and blessed with a generally moderate climate.
There have been changes in points of view and emphasis, to be sure, as changing physical and intellectual conditions have modified the ways of life. But throughout the years, the amalgam of the people, the political system and the land a general and constant "American point of view" has developed with various themes we call "The American Way of Life."
One of the strongest of those themes was an insistence from almost the earliest days - when the Puritans came to worship as they pleased - that this country was special.
People knew instinctively that Americans were different, as the 18th Century French philosopher Crevecoeur noted in "Letters from an American Farmer" (1782). Benjamin Franklin, considered by many the prototypical native of this country, completely, though painfully, gave up his early allegiance to the king and thereafter thought and self-consciously acted like an American.
The Revolutionary War forged a new nation, and the Civil War fought, as Lincoln said in his "Gettysburg Address" (18630, so this new nation should "not perish from the earth."
This same feeling of special mission justified, in the people's eyes, their drive across the continent, as they pushed the Indian ever westward and took land from the Mexican. This sense of purpose inspired the sacrifices necessary to "make the world safe for dmocracy" in two world wars. It is revealed today in President Carter's emphasis on "human rights" throughout the world.
The belief in equality and equal opportunity for all has constituted a second, overriding theme in American popular culture. It was implied in the Mayflower Compact (1620), was stated explicitly in the Declaration of Independence and was guaranteed by the Constitution, though only after the addition of the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. It is the basis of the American Dream - the belief that in this country any person is free to achieve any goal, to accumulate wealth, to live in any life-style. The rise of the common man in national politics - Davy Crockett to Congress in 1827; Jackson, the common man's candidate, to the presidency in 1829, and Lincoln to that same office in 1861 - was proof to many people of the dream's reality.
Ironically and tragically, the dream has become a reality for many WASP Americans but has been denied to millions of others, who have suffered discrimination and have been wracked by the violence that often accompanied the inequalities. The discrimination and violence is not a modern occurrence: The Puritans assaulted the Indians and other whites - the Quakers, for instance - who disagreed with their philosophy; in the 19th Century continued to reflect discrimintation in "No Irish Need Apply" signs and songs and in the campaign against the "Yellow Peril;" the "Whites Only" signs over drinking fountains and toilets in the South did not disappear until the 1950s and 1960s.
But violence was not restricted to use against minorities. It has constantly been a major muscle in the body of American popular culture. It was always a grim companion on the Frontier. The penchant for violent physical action can be traced throughout American literature, but especially in Western novels, pulp magazines, combic books, television, and movies.
Historically, much of the popular culture in America has been centered on a conflict between ruralism and urbanism, the country and the city. From the time of the first settlements, when people huddled together for protection, there has been fear of the Out There, the unknown. But to many of the earliest Americans, who came from poverty-riden urban ghettoes of Europe, the countryside represented freedom and dignity, the Garden of Eden.
Articulated by Jefferson and embodied in the movement of millions of pioneers and settlers, this feeling of the superiority of the country has persisted. The rural-urban conflict is revealed in the writings of most 19th Century authors, especially Hawthorne and Melville, and in our day by numerous authors, for example, William Goldman and Irwin Shaw.
The pro-country mood is perhaps best demonstrated today by the exodus from the city to suburbia and exurbia. On the other hand, the city, with its theaters, parks and museums, has always been acultural magnet for many people. This attractivness undoubtedly accounts for the current return wave from the suburbs to the city.
Another important theme has been the concept of America as a melting pot of cultures. Although Indians, blacks and, to a lesser extent, other minorities were excluded, Americans generally have prided themselves on their diversity. The Statue of Liberty became a symbol of refuge, inviting the world's tired and hungry to this country, where diverse people and cultures would be melted down into "The American Character."
Lately, however, this assimilation drive has been reversed. America now is encouraging, instead, a pluralism that urges people to rediscover and treasure their origins and identities. The power of this drive was seen in the extraordinary reception of the Alex Haley's "Roots," (1976) and the television program made from it, which attracted the largest audience ever for any television show.
Perhaps the single most overriding theme in American popular culture from the 17th Century on has been the desire for entertainment. Though the Puritans opposed to much pastime activity, Americans generally have been not only hard-working but also hard-playing, encouraging all known kinds of diversion and creating others.
From the earliest Colonial days, jugglers, tumblers, parades, pageants and celebration flourished. The first permanent theater in America was built in New York in 1767. The time of the Civil War, and vaudeville, by 1880. The girlie show, introduced in 1866 joined with the Minstrel Show and developed into the first musical comedy, "The Wizard of Oz" (1904), giving birth to one of our favorite forms of theater today.
Numerous other pastimes developed through the years. Magazines and "bestsellers" started in the 17th Century. Baseball and football began in the mid-19th Century. Dime novels started after the Civil War comic strips at the turn of the present century and comic books in the 1930s. Wister's "The Virginian" (1902) set the pattern for Western friction; detective stories, "created by Edgar Allan Poe, came of age in the pul magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, and science fiction began with Poe.
Music came with the Colonists and proliferated and diversified into the numerous kind with us today. By the 1890s, a movie industry was born. After 1920 radio became a saturating element in our culture, to be superseded by television after 1947.
Our popular culture reflects the American experience and our strong drive to democratize our society.
Though we may rightly despise some aspects of it, on the whole we ought to take pride in it as a rich expression of our democracy. For, to paraphrase Pogo, we have created this culture and it is us.
Ray B. Browne is director of the Center for Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The founder and editor of the "Journal of Popular Culture," he is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including "Icons of Popular Culture," "The Popular Culture Explosion," "Popular Culture and the Expanding Consciousness" and "Dimensions of Detective Fiction."
This is the fourth in a series of 15 articles exploring "Popular Culture: Mirror of American Life. "This series was written for Courses by Newspaper, a program developed by University Extension, University of California San Diego, and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.