American Literature Mass and Popular Culture
Kinohi Nishikawa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0011


A relatively young tradition in world letters, American literature matured over a period that coincided with the rise of industrial capitalism and the birth of consumer society. While the study of American literature became a respectable vocation only after critics had insisted on its formal complexity (particularly in work by the great poets and novelists of the American Renaissance), the field has always had to tarry with mass and popular culture in positing the uniqueness of the national tradition. Simply put, no American literary text emerged in isolation from individual and structural recognition of the politics of the marketplace and the existence of mass-cultural phenomena. Even among the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Henry James, the business of professional authorship was identified with the need to sell their work to as wide a readership as possible. In that sense, the individuals we now deem authors of classic American literature had more in common with everyday consumers than previous scholars have acknowledged. Indeed it is among everyday consumers themselves that the study of mass and popular culture has expanded our view of “literature” to a welcome degree. No longer confined to the classics, the field now considers bestsellers, genre fiction, and a range of nonprint media to be valid, and necessary, objects of study. Although the best scholarship in the field continues to stress the importance of textual analysis, the shift in presumed quality and quantity of texts has enabled more historically situated accounts of literature’s expansive domain in American culture.

General Overviews

Studying mass and popular culture in tandem with American literature is by definition a task that calls for interdisciplinary analysis. In addition to literary criticism, scholars have drawn extensively from social and cultural history as a means of fleshing out what books meant for different classes of readers in their time. But critics have also adapted methods from sociology, art history, feminist studies, and the history of the book (not to mention a variety of media studies) to situate literature at the intersection of commercial and cultural interests. General overviews that move across these paradigms of inquiry make important interventions in several disciplines. Davidson 2004 and Hart 1950 offer noncanonical, popular histories of the origins of American literature. On the topic of gender, Douglas 1977 and Tompkins 1985 highlight the “feminization” of popular culture during the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. Examining the same period, Baym 1984 and Levine 1988 track the formation of literary and cultural taste as the “high” arts sought to distinguish themselves from the “low.” Fiedler 1982 and Nye 1970 reject such boundary making and urge scholars to see the value in reading the classics alongside their less illustrious counterparts.

  • Baym, Nina. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

    Empirical study of magazine reviews of eight hundred novels published between 1840 and 1860. Baym’s recasting of the American literary tradition highlights the disjuncture between critics’ affirmation of “seriousness” in the novel and everyday readers’ desire for entertaining fiction.

  • Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Wide-ranging survey of popular reading practices in antebellum America, with special attention to sentimental fiction by women. In Davidson’s account, mass publication in the early republic democratized literature and thus empowered readers to locate social and political meaning in popular texts. Originally published in 1986.

  • Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1977.

    A groundbreaking feminist intervention in literary and cultural history. Douglas examines how popular culture of the 19th century reinforced the division between public and private spheres. In the process, she laments the stereotype of women as mindless consumers and critiques the gendered framing of melodrama and sentimentality.

  • Fiedler, Leslie A. What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

    An iconoclastic defense of the popular in American literary studies. Fiedler uses his own career as an academic and public intellectual to work though the implications of studying popular culture with and against the classics.

  • Hart, James D. The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.

    Bucking the trend of midcentury criticism’s focus on the writings of a handful of classic authors, this book unfurls a history of American literature that takes popular circulation seriously. An essential work both for research and reference purposes.

  • Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

    In the 19th century, Americans began to define taste by navigating the cultural politics of distinction in the fine and performing arts. Levine’s cultural history tracks the congealing of high art as distinct from low art from Broadway to the opera house, and from Central Park to the museum.

  • Nye, Russel. The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America. New York: Dial, 1970.

    Encyclopedic view of commercial culture in the United States, with sections devoted to literature, theater, music, and visual media. A pivotal source on the development of mass culture out of popular folkways, Nye’s study is a model for interdisciplinary scholarship.

  • Tompkins, Jane P. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    A landmark reinterpretation of the American Renaissance that departs from New Critical models of formal complexity to advance the popular novel’s claims on readers’ everyday lives. Special attention to the sentimental tradition and authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne who saw it as a threat to their art.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.