The Objects Of Everyday Life In a Literary Spotlight

Manhole covers and gas stations take center stage in a spate of university-press books that celebrate the commonplace

AS SEEN ON TV: THE VISUAL CULTURE OF EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE 1950s By Karal Ann Marling; Harvard University Press 328 pp., $24.95 HIGH LONESOME: THE AMERICAN CULTURE OF COUNTRY MUSIC By Cecelia Tichi; University of North Carolina Press 318 pp., $39.95 (including CD) THE VOICES THAT ARE GONE: THEMES IN 19TH-CENTURY AMERICAN POPULAR SONG By Jon W. Finson; Oxford University Press 336 pp., $39.95 THINKING IN JAZZ: THE INFINITE ART OF IMPROVISATION By Paul F. Berliner; University of Chicago Press 883 pp., $85 cloth $29.95 paper EXTENDED PLAY: SOUNDING OFF FROM JOHN CAGE TO DR. FUNKENSTEIN By John Corbett; Duke University Press 342 pp., $17.95 paper SWING CHANGES: BIG-BAND JAZZ IN NEW DEAL AMERICA By David W. Stowe; Harvard University Press 299 pp., $29.95 MANHOLE COVERS Text by Mimi Melnick Photographs by Robert A. Melnick; MIT Press, 272 pp., $39.95 THE GAS STATION IN AMERICA By John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle; Johns Hopkins University Press 272 pp., $32.95 LIVING DOWNTOWN: THE HISTORY OF RESIDENTIAL HOTELS IN THE UNITED STATES By Paul Groth; University of California Press 401 pp., $35 RAILROAD POSTCARDS IN THE AGE OF STEAM By H. Roger Grant; University of Iowa Press 208 pp., $29.95 FOURTEEN FAMILIES IN PUEBLO POTTERY By Rick Dillingham; University of New Mexico Press 289 pp., $75 cloth $37.50 paper AMERICAN INDIAN PARFLECHE: A TRADITION OF ABSTRACT PAINTING By Gaylord Torrence; University of Washington Press/Des Moines Art Center 272 pp., $60 cloth $35 paper DUCK CALLS OF ILLINOIS 1863-1963 By Robert D. Christensen; Northern Illinois University Press 190 pp., $65

FROM duck calls to downtown dwellings, country tunes to cookbooks, the sights, sounds, and experiences of ordinary life are recounted in a wide array of university-press books this fall.

Karal Ann Marling's As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s amusingly appraises popular culture of the past. Marling highlights the impact of television's first influential decade. From Mamie Eisenhower's apparel to the aesthetics of food advertising and cookbooks, she demonstrates the extent to which Americans began to measure their personal lives against what was seen on television.

Similarly, Cecelia Tichi investigates popular music as a significant cultural indicator. High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music and its accompanying compact disc present an appreciative yet critical analysis of country music and its centrality to life in the last decade of the 20th century. Tichi argues that these songs are not simply rural ballads. Country music reflects the complexities of home life and interpersonal relationships in such a way that it reverberates with the dilemmas of the metropolitan and suburban present.

Integrating current events with personal experience is an old formula for popular music. In The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in 19th-Century American Popular Song, Jon W. Finson retraces the significance of old standards like ``The Sidewalks of New York'' (1894) and unfamiliar tunes like ``Girls, Get a Home of Your Own'' (1866) in the context of American social customs and history. He outlines how the growing music industry responded to events like the abolition of slavery and confrontations with native Americans. Chapters on courtship and love give way to less predictable subjects like popular views of technology and the experience of multi-ethnic society.

Although improvisation is at the heart of much popular music, spontaneous creativity is more readily associated with jazz. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, by Paul F. Berliner, examines how, in the mistaken assumption that they are championing jazz, fans sometimes overlook the process that gives the music its remarkable improvisational character.

After having conducted hundreds of hours worth of interviews with jazz musicians, Berliner concludes that a unique and supportive jazz community has informally established forms of mentoring that encourage young musicians to acquire a large storehouse of historical knowledge. Mastery and a personal voice are finally accomplished by experimenting with these received ideas.

Improvisation is also the hub of critic John Corbett's collected essays, Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein. Corbett is unflinchingly upbeat in his penetrating analysis of experimental music and the alternative music industry. Where others might find banality or eccentricity for its own sake, he unceasingly locates originality and invention in blues, jazz, reggae, and rap music, as composed and performed by famous as well as little-known artists.

Jazz has endured so long in the American experience and has proved so malleable that historians like David W. Stowe contend that the American cultural experience has been jazz-shaped. In Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America, Stowe proposes that jazz, like country music, has been a reliable gauge to wider social concerns. The big-band era, roughly 1935 to '45, witnessed a turn away from the open-ended jazz style of the 1920s to swing's more orderly modes. That transition corresponded to the growth of government and business bureaucracies as well as the national unity required in times of war. When the war ended and the civil rights movement began, swing was superseded by bebop, which restored dissonance, individuality, and improvisation.

Books like ``Swing Changes'' point out how much of our encounter with everyday life remains unnoticed. Beneath us, literally, is a procession of industrial-era objects. In Manhole Covers, due out in November, Mimi and Robert Melnick direct our attention to those lowly metal circular plates that give access through the city streets to sewage, gas, and electrical lines.

Manhole covers originated in the middle years of the last century, when cities increased in size and services. Their characteristic surface patterns betray a former function - providing traction to horses' hoofs. In succeeding years, the artwork on manhole covers was influenced by Victorian, Art Noveau, and Art Deco motifs. Today, as the book points out, the manhole cover is likely to be called a personhole cover, and to be embossed with with an unassuming design.

Like manhole covers, gas stations are so omnipresent that we give them little thought. John A. Jackle and Keith A. Sculle, in their book The Gas Station In America, maintain that the evolution of gasoline-station design tracks the 20th century's increased mobility and the growth of a consumer society. The first chain of look-alike gasoline stations, begun in 1914, sold only automobile-related products and services. For the next several decades, companies worked to maximize their visibility through unique designs. By 1960, the flashy colors of earlier eras gave way to the subdued ranch-style or even rustic-looking gasoline station.

Ultimately, the cost-cutting convenience store and unattended pump models materialized. Where earlier automobile-service stations targeted male consumers, the contemporary gas-and-groceries version is aimed at both men and women.

Another routine urban architectural experience is recounted by Paul Groth, in Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. People have been living full-time in hotels for more than 200 years. In his chapters, Groth delineates the history of luxury residential hotels and mid-priced hotel residences. Still, most residential hotels are ``SROs,'' that is, inexpensive hostelries favoring single-room occupancy. Groth recounts the national debate about the civic effects of cheap shelters, asserting that well-run SROs verifiably serve their tenants' needs. He concludes that if urban planners recognized how families at the margins actually live and work, they would attempt to rehabilitate existing residential hotels and build new ones.

Like residential hotels, railroads have long been symbols for the quality of American life. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, railroads signaled material progress and the rapidity of technological change.

The railroad era coincided with the turn-of-the-century popularity of post cards. In his Railroad Postcards in the Age of Steam, H. Roger Grant shows how the railroad's centrality to industry, commerce, and everyday life made it a popular subject for postcards. Images of railroad workers, locomotives, depots, tracks, bridges, tunnels and the locomotives themselves, all from the period 1907 to '12, show the pervasive encounter with the railroad.

Two new and superbly illustrated books on native American art accentuate how art making can be integrated into the experience of everyday life. Fourteen Families in Pueblo Pottery, by Rick Dillingham, includes family trees and comprehensive artists' statements, emphasizing how succeeding generations of potters have diversified traditional designs and added their own expression.

For each generation of potters, learning has been integrated with daily life. Likewise, the makers of native American parfleches, the geometrically decorated rawhide containers that date from nomadic times, produced objects that were simultaneously aesthetic and utilitarian. The American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting, by Gaylord Torrence, offers an intriguing and thorough introduction to this seldom seen craft. Parfleche-making dwindled in the early 20th century, with the decline of a traditional native American lifestyle. Correspondingly, pueblo pottery has expanded its original purposes and is largely produced today for appreciative collectors.

An analogous transition has happened to the humble duck call, which has transcended its practical beginnings in waterfowling and become an entertaining and affordable regional folk art in the Midwest, especially in Illinois. As Robert D. Christensen points out in Duck Calls of Illinois, 1863-1963, whether these distinctive objects are plain or extremely ornate, they preserve their unusual sound, even if they are destined never to leave the collector's shelf.

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