A comprehensive, witty look at American popular culture

The Lively Audience, by Russell Lynes. New York: Harper & Row. 489 pp. $27.95. I had always wanted to read a book that would explain why Americans liked a certain kind of music at a certain point in time; why one style of painting was all the rage one year and not the next; why houses varied so much throughout history; and what all these likes and dislikes revealed about our collective consciousness.

I think I've found the book. ``The Lively Audience'' tracks the visual and performing arts in America from 1898 to 1950 in a well-researched and gracefully written way. The price is pretty steep (the book is part of the New American Nation Series, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris), but it's comprehensive enough to be used by those studying American history or popular culture -- or by anyone interested in how the United States got from nickelodeons to drive-ins.

Russell Lynes traces the history of architecture, fine arts, painting, photography, ``legit'' theater and musical theater, music, and public art. The various areas overlap each other, so by the end of the book, one has a multi-layered understanding of how the disciplines are related.

In the half-century that Lynes covers, America grows from a country trying to break out of its genteel culture derived from European roots to one that embraces the splatterings of Jackson Pollock and welcomes Duke Ellington to the White House. During the journey, the America he shows us is eager and thirsty for the arts. This is what he has to say about Chautauqua, the turn-of-the-century summer culture ``camp'':

``Not just townspeople but farmers with their families in buggies and Model T Fords came to sit and wonder at the elegant music, the rotund oratory, the importance of the visiting personages, the wit of the humorists, the learning of popular scholars, and the citified beauty of the actresses. To millions of Americans this was their only exposure to `culture' that walked and talked and sang. . . .''

As eager as the American audience was, however, it was also fickle. Each new technological invention altered an aspect of the face of culture: The gramophone did more than bring Caruso into one's parlor, it ``changed the nature of recreation from active to passive.'' It also put the manufacturers of player pianos out of business. Moving pictures killed off Chautauqua. Photography put many portrait painters out of work.

Lynes captures the feel of the times: ``[Ragtime] was an expression of an exuberant era, of optimism, of an increasing reaction against the gentility and surface restraints of the Victorian age. . . . It was a fanfare for the twentieth century, and a great many Americans felt it in their bones and in the tapping of their toes.''

As a chronicler of popular culture, Lynes has fine credentials. An essayist and columnist, he was also an editor at Harper's Magazine for 20 years and has written 11 books on the social history of the arts in America. ``The Lively Audience,'' which he started working on in 1971, is filled with information obtained from dedication ceremonies, public records, biographies, and firsthand accounts. The scholarship is comprehensive. Statistics and stories are woven together with elegance and wit. And the fr equent anecdotes are telling:

``The original Metropolitan Opera House in New York . . . was built by a group of miffed millionaires who were unable to buy boxes in the Academy of Music and felt that they were socially ostracized by families of older wealth who had got there first.''

Some are downright impish: When Clark Gable took off his shirt in ``It Happened One Night,'' revealing that he wasn't wearing an undershirt, ``the effect on the undershirt business,'' says Lynes, ``was catastrophic.''

Lynes brings to life a few events that had great impact on the course of culture. The 1913 Armory Show in New York, which was formed to promote the talents of American artists, instead whetted audience appetites for the foreign avant-garde artists whose work was also displayed there. The gallery was mobbed, but in the end only 51 American paintings were purchased -- a third of the number of European paintings bought. The show had a disastrous effect on the public's perception of American art for years: European artists ``captured the imagination of the art world in America . . . and were to hold it for nearly half a century.''

``The Lively Arts'' is as humorous as it is well researched; Lynes conveys with affection the innocence of early filmgoers who fled in panic at the sight of locomotives coming at them from the screen, and who walked out in disgust at the first, huge, on-screen kiss. He puts these details into perspective, shows how they all fitted in with the national thinking of the time, and leaves the reader with a greater understanding of the process by which America has forged its cultural identity.

Catherine Foster is the Monitor's arts editor.

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