Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950. Edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin.
Burlington, VT: Ashgate, December 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0754665380, $99.95. 296 pages.
Review by Julia Hudson-Richards, Pennsylvania State University-Altoona College
This collection of essays is an excellent contribution to the growing literature on material cultures not only as texts, but also as artifacts in their own rights. Much of the historical literature on women’s roles in the production of textiles in the west has focused on the shift from home-based to factory production, but the scope of this book is far greater. The editors’ selections prove that the production of needlework and textiles—women’s primary entry point into material culture—was a pivotal intersection where the “social, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural facets of humanity” converged (1). The “world of the needle,” however, has been a blind spot for a number of scholars, and the essays in this work enhance not only to the history of material cultures, but also the construction of gender and ethnic identities, feminine culture, and the development of consumer economies.
The collection begins with an essay by Heather Pristash, Inez Schaechterle, and Sue Carter Wood that establishes a solid theoretical basis for needlework and textile production as text—a location for oftentimes coded discourses of dissent or protest, or even of gender and community identity. The discussion culminates in the analysis of the legendary “Willard Dress,” a pattern for a dress with concealed trousers published by the American Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 19th century. The Willard Dress, though we cannot find any surviving examples, represented the ways that the personal – sewing – could take on not only practical but political dimensions, in the ways that women attempted to balance their own political agendas, like suffrage, with appearances in order to maintain a certain propriety in a hostile political environment. These political themes are traced more explicitly in Part III, “Politics and Design in Yarn and Thread.” The editors define politics quite broadly here, to their credit, noting the politics of the private behind knitting for soldiers during wartime (Susan M. Strawn) as well the untold story of Florence Cory as a medium for recovering the history of women in industrial design (Sarah Johnson).
A number of essays trace the ways that textile making shifted from a woman’s necessity—as in making her trousseau, for example—to the creation of material objects encompassing a vast array of meanings. For example, Marcia McLean’s essay “’I Dearly Loved that Machine’” (69-89) investigated the introduction of the home sewing machine into rural post-World War II Canada, allowing women to not only economize their own home’s resources, but also to keep up with the latest fashions for themselves and their families. Women took tremendous pride in their creations, noting the ways that they altered the patterns to make them individual, demonstrating their own professionalism in their craft(s). Beverly Gordon and Laurel Horton’s essay about quilting at the turn of the twentieth century also falls into this category. They argue that quilting, increasingly democratized through an abundance of cheap fabric in the last decades of the nineteenth century, allowed women to stitch family records, records of participation in societies, and even the popular culture of the period. They also served as records of family history, and even of women’s lives—they “embodied” their makers and the cultures in which they lived. Cynthia Culver Prescott tells a similar story through the spread of the trendy “crazy quilts” all the way to the Pacific Northwest, as the daughters of the first settlers from the East adopted middle-class domesticity and Eastern consumer cultures, transforming them to fit their own needs (112-13). In short, these quilts serve as a unique text we can use to read women’s cultures in turn of the century America.
Perhaps most interesting, however, were the examinations of the intersections of race/ethnicity and textiles as discussed by Marsha MacDowell in “Native Quiltmaking” (129-48) and “Mundillo and Identity” by Ellen Fernandez-Socco (149-66). MacDowell notes that Native women’s quilting flew under the radar for scholars, but like in many other contexts, this same quiltmaking, introduced by western missionaries and other do-gooders, served as a record of contact, oppression, and material and cultural expressions for Native women, though nonetheless subjected to similar stereotypes as other Native arts. Similarly, a revival in art of mundillo, “the traditional Puerto Rican art of handmade bobbin lace,” represented a revival in Puerto Rican ethnic identity that has helped spur the island’s tourist industry (149). Interestingly, mundillo also continues to articulate Puerto Rico’s long history of migration and the clashes and relationships between indigenous, African, and European cultures. Further, the creation of mundillo for American consumption indicates the island’s place in a larger history of labor exploitation in the twentieth century, as the creation of market goods began to move to cheaper, and less easily regulated, locales.
Though this review cannot claim to be exhaustive, the work under consideration is an excellent contribution to the expanding field of material culture studies. The contributors represent a wide range of disciplines—the editors’ decisions to include several museum curators in the ranks of these authors, for example, provides the work with a unique perspective. The beautiful illustrations—of quilts, of outfits sewn by interview subjects—also offer an added dimension to each author’s discussion. Though there are certainly stories that still remain—an explicit discussion of the role of women in sweatshop labor in the late twentieth century comes to mind—the essays in this volume would nonetheless serve not only as an excellent additions to upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses in history, folklore, women’s studies, or museum studies. From a scholarly perspective, they offer interesting insights into the vast realm of meaning of women’s work, and the shifts in women’s work over time.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Designing the Modern Interior: From the Victorians to Today. Edited by Penny Sparke, Anne Massey, Trevor Keeble, and Brenda Martin.
Oxford and New York: Berg, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1847882882, $150; paper: ISBN 978-1847882875, $49.95. 320 pages.
Review by Paul Ranogajec, City University of New York
Modernity, domesticity, privacy, identity, taste, class, consumption—these are key among the major issues that any discussion of interior space is bound to elicit. Designing the Modern Interior engages these and many other issues; indeed, among its strengths is the breadth of its coverage thematically and also geographically. Despite its professed aims, it does not radically alter the design history field’s focus on the domestic interior as the site for modernity’s encounter with interiority—in fact, eleven of the seventeen essays deal specifically with house interiors, and only one (on Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie) deals with an unambiguously public building. Even more, the editors state that one of their chief aims was to treat interior spaces globally, yet over half of the essays deal with one or another of just three Western nations (Britain, Germany, or the United States), and the book’s reach does not extend to Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East. Overall, despite these relative limitations, the volume is a welcome step in the direction of expanding design history’s geographic and theoretical boundaries. The essays, individually and as a whole, can be taken as both models and foundations for further interdisciplinary and more rigorously theoretical work.
Penny Sparke’s introductory essay is a useful summary of the themes outlined above and serves as an introduction to the organization of the book. It could easily serve, as well, as an overview for an undergraduate course on modern interior design history—even a more general cultural history course that touches upon the themes of domesticity, the private realm, and design—because it offers readers a coherent preface to more in-depth study by laying out the terrain of contemporary scholarship and its theoretical concerns. The book as a whole exemplifies this quality of broad reader appeal: it is organized chronologically into four sections (each prefaced by summary introductions) that trace the rise of the interface between interior spaces and the experiences and ideas of modernity, well-suited to a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in modern design and architectural history.
One of the most promising aspects of the collection is its emphasis on popular and non-modernist design. The editors have included a number of essays that move decisively beyond the modernist-dominated discourse—largely borrowed from conventional architectural history in the mid-twentieth century—as described by the introductory essay for part one by Emma Ferry. As she notes, the study of interiors is now marked by increasing interest in the multifarious contexts of design, moving beyond the appeal to aesthetics or the modernist obsession with technology and authenticity (yet not shying from the ambiguities and problems inherent with such concepts). In reflecting on the essays in the volume, Ferry rightly notes how the volume’s studies benefit from interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives that engage a fascination “with an era of high imperialism, emerging nationhoods, religious revivals and crises of faith, contested gender and class politics and public debates on sexuality” (19). Explorations of the ideological basis of interior design are not lacking among the pages of this volume, and this fact is one of its major contributions. One of the perhaps unintended uses of the book is therefore as an anchor for young scholars in particular—as reference, certainly, but also, in the case of many of the mostly well-written and lucid essays, as methodological and theoretical models. Fiona Fisher’s essay on “public houses” in late Victorian London encapsulates these concerns when she writes of interior spaces as “highly controlled, yet permissive of new forms of social activity,” which can be considered “as sites that express tensions between social autonomy and regulation that are characteristic of modernity and which represent concerns for social status and identity that are a distinguishing feature of consumer culture” (51).
Parts one and two are perhaps the most provocative in the volume. Comprising eight of the book’s seventeen chapters, the essays in these first two sections traverse the highly complex and contested period from 1870 to 1940. The essays explore the continued vitality of popular, historicist design and its confrontation with the formulation and institutionalization of modernism. With a broad-mindedness and diversity of perspectives, these essays negotiate this critical period in the development of modern architecture and design—a period of intense eclecticism alongside the emerging forms of modernism. Fisher’s essay on the negotiation of class and identity in the public houses of London and Christopher Reed’s essay on the “Amusing Style” as championed by the magazine Vogue are both especially rewarding for the ways in which they explore, to use Reed’s words, “the productive diversity of modernisms that flourished in the twenties” (90). The plural in the term “modernisms” underscores the volume’s general sympathy to a wider understanding of modernism itself and to a broader conception of the design possibilities available under the conditions of modernity, thus eschewing the long-held modernist bias against eclecticism or historicism.
The two later sections also contain provocative essays covering the post-World War II period. Especially instructive are chapters thirteen and fourteen—an essay by Anne Massey on British nationalism and the design of ocean liners, and one by David Crowley on the ruined house designs of two mid-century artists (from Russia and Germany) that explore “the condition of the house in fragments—decayed and riddled with spatial and temporal uncertainties” (234). Chapter fifteen by Sarah Chaplin also merits special mention for its discussion of the production of popular and transgressive social practices in the distinctively postmodern Japanese “Love Hotel.” These essays dramatically expand the discourse on interiors and design beyond the traditional boundaries of home and bourgeois commercial structures and give indications of future research avenues.
Although the volume is by no means stingy when it comes to illustrations (there are 77), all of them are in black and white, and some are of lackluster quality (for instance, many of the photos in chapter six). Nonetheless, the essays are generally models of concision and clarity—most of the essays are seven to ten pages inclusive of illustrations. As an introduction to and expansion of the field of modern design and interiors history, the volume is a welcome addition to the literature.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution.
By Matthew Sweeney.

New York: Bloomsbury, March 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1596913042, $25. 304 pages.
Review by Amanda Harmon Cooley, North Carolina A & T State University

In The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution, Matthew Sweeney provides a comprehensive and interesting discussion of the often polarizing issue of lotteries in the United States. Peppered with anecdotes that range from the story of the first American lottery winner to woeful tales of the lost winning ticket, Sweeney primarily takes a chronological approach to the structure of his volume. The threads that tie each of the explored eras together are the reiterations of the proponents and opponents of the ideology and actuation of lotteries, as well as an examination of the transformative effect—both negative and positive—that winning the lottery can have on people. By undergirding his narrative in this way, Sweeney provides continuity to his extensive history of the lottery.

Chapters 1 and 2 feature a historical account of the lottery in America from colonial times until the turn of the twentieth century. A key portion of this discussion focuses on the speculative lottery fever of the early 1800s and the backlash against it, which started in the 1830s and which began the process of the outlawing of the lottery in many states until the mid-1960s. Here, the book highlights a primary foundation of lottery proponents’ view, which argues the importance of lotteries as a way to bring needed money into governmental coffers, as well as a conflicting view of lottery opponents, which focuses on the negative moral, ethical, and socioeconomic components of such systems. Chapters 3 and 4 of the book detail the post-Prohibition resurgence of the lottery—first, as an underground enterprise, and, later, starting with New Hampshire in 1964, as a legal, state-endorsed and -run operation. Sweeney illustrates in these chapters the swift resulting rate of state legalization of the lottery and the meteoric rise in potential jackpots among these states, the fueling influence of media coverage of mega-wins, and how all of these factors have resulted in the creation of a bevy of peripheral businesses (from lobbying firms to corporate lottery operators to lottery cash advance companies).

From this macro-analysis, the author then turns to one state’s struggle with the issue of the lottery—that of North Carolina, which provides a microcosmic view into this complicated issue: “The North Carolina Education Lottery nearly tore the state in two on its way to being passed. As it approached its one-year anniversary, the nation’s newest lottery left scandals and recriminations in its wake, along with several hundred million dollars for education” (112). This chapter provides the most compelling discussion of the book’s overriding issues as it hones in on the divisiveness that a lottery can engender within a state and among that state’s stakeholders. Significantly, this chapter details how after eighteen years of resistance, North Carolina, which was surrounded by all sides by states that had legalized lotteries and which had potential revenues flooding out of the state into those neighboring states’ lottery systems, legalized a lottery with the one tie-breaking vote of the lieutenant governor. The discussion of the extensive lobbying efforts throughout the legislative process, the significant political fallout that resulted from the passage of the lottery bill, and the socioeconomic realities of the operation of the lottery in North Carolina cover so many of Sweeney’s themes.

In the final chapters of the book, which slightly pale in comparison to Chapter 5, the author explores the workings of GTECH, the largest corporate operator of lotteries in the United States; the issues surrounding gambling addiction; some of the actual statistics, rather than the marketing claims, of the revenues generated by state lotteries; and the fact that several states have begun regarding the allowance of private lotteries. In this final area of coverage, Sweeney concludes that if states adopt this type of lottery system, then it will result in “history repeating itself” (Ch. 9).

This book provides a fascinating look at an issue that has generated, and will likely continue to generate, a tremendous amount of conflict. Like any complex issue, the lottery is a substantial one to take on in a single volume. Sweeney does an effective job of providing broad coverage to this thorny subject matter, but his prose is at its best when the author dedicates an entire chapter to the complex intricacies of one state’s debate over the lottery. The themes in this detailed discussion can be significant precedent for future state lottery issues. As such, given how prevalent lotteries currently are in the United States—with all but 8 states having legalized them in some form—and the gravity of the derivative issues that can arise as a result of the adoption and implementation of a lottery, this is an important volume for policymakers, consumers, business professionals, and academics.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture.

By Fabio Parasecoli.

Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-1845207625, $115; paper: ISBN 978-1845207618, $31. 192 pages.

Review by Rossella Ceccarini, Sophia University, Japan

Food studies is an interdisciplinary field into which Bite Me by Fabio Parasecoli fits cozily. The book delves into representations of food in popular culture and is divided into six chapters, looking at the relationship between food and: 1) brain, memory, and senses; 2) ingestion, digestion, and refusal; 3) politics of production, distribution, and consumption; 4) body and diet; 5) body and race; and 6) tourism. Issues of consumption form the common thread throughout but, having gone through the introduction, readers can read each chapter independently according to their main interest. In fact, portions of the chapters have already been previously published in academic journals and edited books. Therefore, those curious about neurosciences can read the first chapter; readers interested on the social and cultural construction of what can be or cannot be eaten can focus on chapter two and three; those interested in issues of body shaping can read chapter four; readers interested in race stereotypes represented through food in popular culture can jump to chapter five; and those interested in culinary tourism can go directly to chapter six.

Parasecoli draws for the most part on theories from semiotics and media studies, and introduces theoretical frameworks from other disciplines as well (e.g. sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, etc.). Some theories are described in the introduction and taken up later in each chapter. Other theories are presented little by little as the reading progresses. However, while explaining some theories in depth in the introduction, Parasecoli neither quotes nor explicitly mentions them later in the book, as in the case of Antonio Gramsci’s theory. Certainly, glimpses of Gramsci can be caught in the book and in the final afterword, but because of the importance given by Parasecoli to the concept of cultural hegemony in the introduction, the readers would expect to find Gramsci’s name mentioned again in the volume.

The outstanding feature of the book is that popular culture examples such as movies, magazines and novels always support the theories. For instance, the author analyzes the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (chapter one) and the Atkins diet (chapter two) through the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Pierre Bourdieu’s and Marcel Mauss’s theories fit well with Marvel Comics and science fiction (chapter three). Some chapters are more prone to give detailed examples than others. For instance, chapters one to three give meticulous plots of movies (e.g. the Matrix, Island, Woman on Top, Chocolat) and novels (e.g. Interview with the Vampire, The Man in the High Castle, and 1984). Chapter four details the Atkins diet with quotes from Dr. Atkins’s book. However, the final chapter devoted to tourism seems somehow detached from the rest. Though rich in number, the examples lack the detail of the preceding chapters. Parasecoli often mentions special dishes, authentic food, and localities attractive to the gourmandizing tourist, but details remain sketchy. Focusing on an example that tourists crave by detailing one particular cuisine and/or one specific culinary destination would have been appropriate. Moreover, focusing on food representations in travel magazines, travel novels, and documentaries would have made the chapter consistent with the rest.

The book ends with the author’s afterword on food studies, more examples, and a short research agenda. According to Parasecoli, food studies could benefit from the tools of media studies. The impact of communication on the way we perceive, consume and produce food should not be underestimated. In doing so, not only acclaimed films centered on food (e.g. Babette’s Feast or Like Water for Chocolate) but also B-movies and cartoons could be fertile case studies.

Parasecoli leaves the reader without a strong conclusion to wrap up the numerous cases and guiding theories found in the volume. In addition, a glossary of food and unique dishes would have been useful for readers not familiar with every ethnic and local specialties mentioned. On the other hand, he succeeds in making available complicated theories to a more popular audience. The variety of examples (movies, novels, magazines etc.) and topics (race, gender, tourism, masculinity and femininity, etc.) makes Bite Me interesting for a broad and heterogeneous audience. Finally, the volume is useful in at least two ways: as a tool to approach social science theories through contemporary popular culture (and vice versa); and to grasp the many facades of the interdisciplinary nature of food studies.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

9/11 Culture.

By Jeffrey Melnick.

Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, April 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1405173728, $79.95; paper: ISBN 978-1405173711, $19.95. 200 pages.

Review by Waleed Mahdi, University of Minnesota

As its title suggests, 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction advances a framework that captures the ongoing formation of the U.S. cultural landscape, which has been primarily triggered and shaped by the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001. With an awareness of the interwoven complexity of the social, the political, and the personal in the U.S. cultural fabric, Jeffrey Melnick offers an interdisciplinary reading of various genres in the U.S. post-9/11 popular and literary repertoire in light of the discourses of grief, memorialization, nationalism, race, gender, and religion. This is expressed in the span of two hundred pages, and layered in seven chapters, structured thematically to reinforce the post-9/11 narratives that continue to construct the U.S. cultural products, namely, rumors and the search for 9/11 truth, appeals to the rhetoric of national healing and unity, practices of censorship, and attempts to commodify “9/11.”

In this work, the author articulates a critical argument that significantly contributes to the current attempts to theorize, if not guide, the post-9/11 cultural production. He emphasizes that stressing the singularity, or what he calls “the exceptionalism,” of 9/11 is conducive to generating a “reflective” rather than a “reactive” mode of thinking that translates into works of arts, both popular and literary, which are mainly contingent on the resonance of the 9/11 attacks. This, he argues, severely limits the construction of “9/11 culture” as it threatens to eventually hinder the continuity of producing cultural works appealing to 9/11 and to perpetuate the parameters of several dominating narratives that render the many “9/11 cultures” into a homogenous one. Reflecting on 9/11, therefore, serves as an important approach to generate works of arts that continue to re-examine 9/11 in view of the socio-political and even racial composition of the United States.

Alongside the strengths of 9/11 Culture, which include its use of jargon-free language, profundity of argument, and in-depth of analysis, there are two concerns that may require more attention. First, the subtitle “America Under Construction” raises the question of accuracy in using “America” as a proper descriptive term of the United States of America. This is particularly important as scholars in the field of American Studies continue to reflect this concern in their works. Second, Melnick’s analysis, though broad in perspective, seems to blur the lines between popular culture and arts. Considerations of the distinction between the two components of the U.S. culture may help the reader to further comprehend the complexity and limitations of approaches that each presents.

Those concerns, however, can be considered as part of the significance of 9/11 Culture, which lies in its power to inspire future research, inquiry, and instruction. In this book, Melnick sets a broad scope for analysis, but chooses to reflect only on certain genres across the cultural spectrum, though he does claim that his analysis of music, film, photography, and fiction does not imply their primacy. Future research is needed to dwell on other cultural genres such as television drama, painting, and even photoshopping. The work opens doors not only for scholars, but also for creative artists and others involved in the cultural production arena. Following the central argument necessitates continuity of a re-consideration of 9/11 culture and its interrelationship with the social and political dimensions. And finally, the work is written by a professor experienced in teaching the U.S. since 9/11. The book can serve as an excellent primary text assigned to students taken courses related to the same field. The “Note to Teachers” letter attached at the end of the book, and the bibliography as well as the appendixes listing many 9/11 films and music, are good resources that would help guide both prospective teachers and students.

The Late Age of Print.

By Ted Striphas.

New York: Columbia University Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0231148146, $27.50. 272 pages.

Review by Vicky Gilpin, Millikin University, Illinois

An exploration of the lauded power of Oprah’s Book Club, the intricately planned scarcity of the Harry Potter series, and the concept of controlled consumption might appear to be disparate topics for a single book. Even some bibliophiles might pause when confronted with a book concerning the recent history of the book industry and book culture’s relationship with consumer capitalism. However, Ted Striphas’ compact The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control elegantly presents concepts of potential interest to most readers. He uses the evolution of book culture as a lens through which he examines readers as consumers and the power behind book-based capitalism. Neither nostalgic nor pedantic, Striphas documents how books became everyday objects, the industry behind publishing, and the transformation of consumerism.

The book examines and sometimes challenges commonly-touted beliefs, such as whether or not big-box bookstores truly have an impact on independent book sellers and whether Oprah’s Book Club has revolutionized the way people read. The work also includes a behind-the-scenes perspective of the exact process of ordering a book from Amazon.com as well as the security involved in the transportation of the final volume of the Harry Potter series. The combination of historical elements, scholarly analyses of cultural mores in regard to books, and interesting snippets of information create a tone of accessibility throughout the book.

The sources used to explore and promote the concepts of the work range from the seminal to the trendy. Striphas delves into a variety of source styles, from juried journal articles to television excerpts to policy contracts, in order to examine the nature and power of book culture. The work takes an almost phenomenological approach, as no source is lauded as being of higher worth or with more importance to the discussion than another, and all resources serve to further the book’s exploration. The meld of sources from popular culture with works of scholarly inquiry sets an inviting and accessible tone that does not devolve into unfocused pabulum.

Striphas presents concepts that lend themselves to future research in the form of questions within the chapters. The work serves as a succinct introduction to consumerism’s evolution as viewed through the lens of the book industry, but it also provides a persuasive goad for continued research on multiple topics. Potential research includes concepts of global cooperation in industry and in regard to intellectual property, the ebb and flow of the use of e-books, and increased research into the effects of big-box bookstores on independent bookstores. Another area for further exploration includes what literature classes could learn about understanding of readers and potential readers from the canny methods of Oprah’s Book Club. Finally, also relevant to the concepts in The Late Age of Print would be an analysis of what Stephenie Meyers’ choice to expose her partially-finished fifth book in the Twilight series online after a leak indicates about the relationship among created scarcity, authors, and readers.

Although the potential pedantry of the topic might be off-putting for some readers, the chapter introductions and summaries maintain a tight focus to ease a wide variety of stakeholders into the discussion. Readers adept at maneuvering through cerebral non-fiction, journal articles, and other scholarly works might find the repetition of focus within the chapters an unnecessary reliance on a traditional presentational style and redolent of academic submission formats. However, the repetition constantly hones the topic to provide a tighter emphasis on the topic while maintaining readability for a wide audience. Campus librarians, literature instructors, and recreational readers may find the work as beneficial as those readers involved in multiple facets of the book industry or researchers of popular culture, industrial trends, and the effects of cultural shifts on consumerism. The concise accessibility of the language invites readers to ponder the questions posited within the chapters as well as enjoy what might have become bland historical details in a lesser work; for example, the depiction of the development of the ISBN is fascinating.

The Late Age of Print allows readers to join Striphas in his examination of book culture, the transformation of modern consumption, and the desire among corporations for increased methods of awareness of book buyers as consumers.

Tabloid Valley: Supermarket News and American Culture.

By Paula E. Morton.

Gainesville: University Press of Florida, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 0813033640, $24.95. 224 pages.

Review by Amarnath Amarasingam, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

In Boca Raton, Florida, stands the main office of American Media Incorporated (AMI), the owner of the six major supermarket tabloids in the United States. The mention of supermarket tabloids produces mixed reaction from many individuals: they are thought to be run by sleazy, invasive, aggressive, liars producing stories that ought to float to the seabed of low culture. Paula Morton, however, is not concerned with how these tabloids are viewed. Rather, her book is a fascinating romp through the world of supermarket tabloids, providing a mixture of history, sociology, and gossip. Chapter 1 provides a short, and fairly sloppy, introduction to the world of tabloids. Tabloids do not pretend to compete with the more respected producers of news like The New York Times or The Washington Post. Instead, they aim to tell a story that cannot be found elsewhere, focusing on who did what, rather than why they did it. They appeal to emotions, seek to provide a provocative photograph, and write headlines that invite curiosity. Chapter 2 tells the story of Generoso Pope Jr. who, in 1952, purchased the New York Enquirer and promised that it would not “become a tabloid.” Pope, however, was “an underdog in the crowded urban newspaper market,” and many of his editorial choices had been unsuccessful (24).

While driving by a car accident one day, Pope realized that the sight of blood tended to transfix onlookers. This insight would lead the tabloid into what became known as its “gore years.” Pope began publishing stories of gory murders and accidents, and by the mid-1950s had enough financial leverage to expand distribution, and rebrand the tabloid as the National Enquirer. The Enquirer, famous for its gore, began to change in the 1960s. As the supermarket began to replace the corner grocer and the newsstand, Pope decided to transform the Enquirer from “a gory tabloid into a uniquely American one suitable for suburban supermarkets and the women who shopped at them” containing “rags-to-riches stories, hero awards, animal rescues” and medical breakthroughs (35). By 1970, the Enquirer was selling around two million copies per week. Even though the magazine was selling well, it was only after moving the entire operation to South Florida that the Enquirer truly prospered.

Chapter 3 explores Pope’s relocation of the Enquirer to South Florida. As Paulson states, Pope’s phenomenal success in South Florida made it a “mecca for tabloid journalism” (44). With success grew Pope’s jealous guarding of every aspect of his tabloid: “Pope demanded competence, productivity, and allegiance as he aimed for his dream goal of making twenty million circulation sales in a week” (45). Pope had a sharp business sense, did not mind paying good money to good writers and reporters, and kept workplace competition at a high to spur productivity. Pope also did not spare any expense when looking for a story: reporters travelled first class to far-flung parts of the world and “the funds available for confidential information and exclusive contracts were seemingly inexhaustible” (54). A reporter named Bob Temmey, for example, scaled the Himalayas to find evidence of the Abominable Snowman, while other reporters situated behind the Iron Curtain investigated the Soviet Union’s studies of the paranormal.

Such “checkbook journalism” was considered to be unethical by most mainstream journalists, but it easily “ties up an exclusive interview and builds the critical list of confidential contacts that is hoarded by each reporter and editor” (66). The National Enquirer held a virtual monopoly on tabloids until 1974, when Rupert Murdoch introduced National Star. The main battle between the two tabloids had to do with the death of Elvis Presley in 1977. The National Enquirer and the National Star dispatched dozens of reporters to Memphis, Tennessee with tens of thousands of dollars which were to be used to buy exclusives. The Enquirer eventually won the battle with an exclusive photo: a picture of Presley in his casket. The Enquirer never revealed its source for the photograph, only admitting that it was a distant relative of Elvis. The issue, published on September 6, 1977, sold a record breaking 6.5 million copies.

From June 1994 until October 1995, the mainstream media and the tabloids in the United States were transfixed with the O.J. Simpson trial. As David Perel, the lead editor on the story for the National Enqurier, says, “Within a few hours it became clear O.J. Simpson himself was a suspect. I immediately put eight reporters on the story and we were at O.J.’s house before the coroner arrived” (115). The Enquirer, at least when it came to the Simpson case, was putting traditional news media to shame. As Morton states, “The Enquirer was by far the leading news-gathering team among both mainstream and tabloid media covering the Simpson case. Frequently, the mainstream media looked to the Enquirer for accurate inside information” (118). Even after September 11, 2001, some tabloid reporters travelled to Afghanistan and interviewed ex-members of al-Qaeda.

The subtitle of Tabloid Valley is Supermarket News and American Culture. However, the book contains more supermarket news than reflections or insights on American culture. As this review should make clear, much of the content of the book is filled with gossip, some history, and some information about behind-the-scenes bureaucracy. While telling a compelling story from when the tabloids dealt with the death of Elvis to the trial of O.J. Simpson, with a slew of minor stories in between, Morton never gets around to adequately answering the “so what?” question. Why, if indeed they are important, should we care about tabloids? What do they contribute to American culture? Or, more importantly, what do they say about American culture? None of these questions, aside from cursory mentions of certain stories having a “national impact” and a short discussion in chapter 7, are explored in any great depth. However, the book could serve as a very basic introduction to some aspects of American culture in undergraduate courses, but only if it is supplemented with more scholarly material.