A historical perspective is vital as one embarks on the surprisingly challenging task of trying to understand what entertainment is and the important role it plays in our culture. As one develops such a perspective, the relationships between entertainment and consumption and key developments in our economic, political, and cultural history begin to come into focus. A good starting point for understanding the early stages of these relationships is Colin Campbell’s book The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Consumerism (1987, Basil Blackwell).The book is useful for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially because it ranges over several centuries and outlines the broad connections between the Reformation, later developments in Protestant theology, Romanticism, and contemporary culture. Another very useful place to start in understanding some of these basic relationships is Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self (1989, Harvard University Press).
Another key period for understanding the development of entertainment and consumption is the decades around the turn of the 20th century. There is a lot of excellent scholarship on this period, but most of this work is fairly narrowly focused; I am not aware of any synthetic works beyond Daniel Boorstin’s classic study The Americans. The Democratic Experience. (1973, Random House) Some other works I have relied on:
- T. J. Jackson Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization,” In The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980. ed. Richard W. Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears. 3-38. (1983, Pantheon).
- T. J. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance. (1994, Basic Books).
- Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers. (1980, Pantheon)
- David Nasaw, Going Out. The Rise and Fall of Public Amusement. (1994, Basic Books).
- Susan Curtis, A Consuming Faith. The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture. 1991, The Johns Hopkins University Press).
- Stromberg’s discussion of the history of entertainment and consumption assumes that the development of these institutions needs to be explained. But perhaps human beings will always, given the opportunity, consume as much as possible and try to maximize their entertainment. What do you think? Do we really need a historical explanation of entertainment and consumption?
- What is Romanticism? What, in plain English, is the connection between Romanticism and the contemporary culture of entertainment?
- Stromberg repeatedly argues that some parts of the contemporary culture of entertainment—novel reading, advertising, etc.—developed through a process of secularization of earlier religious practices. Discuss a specific example of this. What are the implications of this claim?
- What economic and social changes occurring in the decades around the turn of the 20th century provided the basis for the emergence of a full-blown culture of entertainment in the early decades of that century?