The OAH Magazine of History

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Popular Culture

from the editor

Learning from Popular Culture, by Carl R. Weinberg

“Popular culture” is a deceptively simple phrase. Its meaning, at first glance, seems self-evident: culture that is widely popular, like singer Lady Gaga, the movie Avatar, and the television show American Idol. On deeper examination, though, the plot thickens. Are these forms of amusement popular because they spring from the authentic interests, fears, and desires of the people? Or are they manufactured to create, deepen, and play upon (and prey upon) those wells of emotion? Are they created, in any realistic sense, by ordinary people or are they, rather, created for them by powerful corporate elites looking to rake in profits and distract the majority from more potentially subversive concerns than what Lady Gaga is wearing (or not wearing) or who will be voted off the show next week? Or, is it possible that popular culture is a kind of “contested terrain” in which the interests and perspectives of various social groups contend for dominance? As LeRoy Ashby notes in his perceptive Foreword, historical scholarship on popular culture has included all three of these viewpoints: a “culture industry,” popular culture as the voice of the “folk,” and the dynamic interplay between these two. Read more >


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Not Necessarily Swill Time: Popular Culture and American History,
by LeRoy Ashby
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The Rising of Popular Culture: A Historiographical Sketch,
by LeRoy Ashby
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“Freedom of the Theater” and “Practical Censorship”: Two Theater Riots in the Early Twentieth Century,
by M. Alison Kibler
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Civil Rights and Rock and Roll: Revisiting the Nat King Cole Attack of 1956,
by Brian Ward
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The Rom-Com Genre and the Shopping Gene,
by Thomas Doherty
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teaching resources

Cap, Jackie, and Ted: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow Baseball,
by Mark Harnischfeger and Mary E. Corey
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The Lion Sleeps Tonight . . . And Teaches Today,
by Robert E. Zieger
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Additional Materials

Superhero History: Using Comic Books to Teach U.S. History,
by Katherine Aiken
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special feature

History of Popular Culture Online,
by Jennifer Fujawa and Tanisha Ford
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on the cover

This image shows Captain America—the ultimate one-man army—in battle with Hitler and a band of Nazi soldiers. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzburg), Captain America was a patriotic crime fighter who defeated enemies both foreign and domestic. Published by Timely Comics, predecessor of industry giant Marvel, Captain America went on sale in December 1940, a year before the United States entered World War II. Young Jewish artists and writers like Simon and Kirby, eager to strike an early blow against Hitler, were pivotal in the rise of superhero comics. This historic comic book cover nicely captures the links between popular culture and history.

Detail from cover of Captain America Comics #1, (March 1941), Timely Comics, New York, NY. (Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment, LLC) (For full cover, see illustration on p. 42.)