The Origins of Cool in Postwar America

Joel Dinerstein. Univ. of Chicago, $40 (352p) ISBN 978-0-226-15265-3
Dinerstein (Swinging the Machine) traces the trajectory of the notion of American cool through the cultural milieu of the 1920s through the early 1960s, emphasizing its deep associations with jazz culture. “Keeping cool” originally served as a survival tactic against the many injustices of the Jim Crow era, and it found triumphant voices in the improvisations of jazz heroes like Lester Young and Billie Holiday who refused to cater to the expectations of white audiences. Dinerstein deftly reveals points of convergence between expressions of cool in jazz, film noir, and existentialist literature; each rejected societal constructs perceived as inexorably flawed or corrupt (such as capitalism or the law) and celebrated the “ethical rebel,” always a rugged loner. In the 1950s, this rebel ethic shifted focus, emphasizing instead rebellion against what was perceived as vacuous material culture and consumer society, a sentiment lucidly expressed in Kerouac’s On the Road. Stars like Frank Sinatra (who headlined events for Martin Luther King Jr. and refused to patronize white-only establishments) gave substance to the celluloid rebels of the noir-era, becoming real-life rebels against racial injustice. Impressively researched and broad in its reach, drawing from film, music, theater, philosophy, and literature, this book approaches the subject with scholarly authority while remaining eminently readable. Much more than just a history of cool, this book is a studied examination of the very real, often problematic social issues that popular culture responds to. 40 b&w halftones. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/13/2017
Release date: 05/22/2017
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