The Origins of Cool in Postwar America
The University of Chicago Press, 2017
Hardcover. iv+541 p. ISBN 978-0226152653. $40
Reviewed by Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université Le Havre Normandie
In 2003, Joel Dinerstein gave us Swinging the Machine : Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars. An intriguing and mostly convincing piece of cultural studies, it argued that 1930s African American culture (mostly music and dance) was pervaded by a “technology-driven” aesthetic, indeed even a “techno-dialogic” aesthetic. Sometimes too virtuoso for its own good, Dinerstein’s writing is afraid of nothing and goes very far indeed in its analyses.
So naturally some of us were wondering if the same kind of boldness would characterize his book on cool, but The Origins of Cool in Postwar America is as a matter of fact much less risky. The Introduction already makes a convincing case, announcing the chapters that follow. Dinerstein illustrates: “Cool is clarified through its icons: Astaire and Rogers in the ‘30s, Brando and Elvis in the ‘50s, Dylan and Hendrix in the ‘60s, Madonna and Prince in the ‘80s” . One sees why he would not offer an example of ‘40s cool, because an entire chapter on Humphrey Bogart is coming, but why should he refrain from proposing a ‘70s example? What is wrong with David Bowie?
The Origins of Cool in Postwar America is cultural studies at its best. Even wider-ranging than its author’s previous work, it moves from music to cinema to literature, and back again, taking in anthropology and biography, without missing a beat (jazzy pun intended). It sees cool (in the meaning that is still used today among urban youngsters, really) as beginning with musician Lester Young, who became a “world famous hipster” and before that with West Africans.  Young, we are told, is the first jazzman who used the expression “I’m cool” in the sense that he was relaxed, or calm, nonchalant, in control, and the master of his own particular style [19, 37]. Being the stylistic bridge between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker , he “generated excitement without getting excited” . Such jazz musicians were not there to smile for the benefit of white audiences. Among African Americans in the 1930s, cool meant all that—and still does, to a large degree . William Carlos Williams spoke of the poise of African Americans “in a world where they have no authority” . Cool is a non-violent way to react against “Uncle Tomming.”
But of course, as Dinerstein acknowledges, that kind of cool was not strictly black in nature; it incorporated white male Anglo notions of self-control, which brings us to the second chapter. After Young, Dinerstein moves on to Noir cool, with the study of the fascinating Humphrey Bogart star persona (though this is not exactly the way he presents it). One of the qualities that are constantly displayed in The Origins of Cool in Postwar America is its constant contextualization. Some might find it occasionally verbose, but the abundance of information is never uninteresting. In the ‘40s, masculine Noir cool meant “a guy who doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks of his actions” . Naturally, gender studies specialists tend to think that the extreme reserve found in white Anglophone heterosexual men who never express their feelings is a form of emotional autism, but that does not necessarily prevent them from being captivated by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Ryan Gosling. The same gender studies scholars might have wondered about the fluctuation of what people see as sexy throughout the ages and are bound to appreciate the passage when Dinerstein asks whether Bogart was ever “objectively” sexy. “Is an icon ever objectively sexy? Of course not: an era’s icons are always historically bundled.” He then gives a couple of very relevant examples . What people remember as Bogart Noir cool is perhaps more Marlowe Noir cool, but the author is perfectly aware of that. Looking at other loners of the same variety (such as Robert Mitchum), he discusses American masculinity in the Depression, during and after WW2, and handles notions of social class.
Bogart incarnated a “new American type, the ethical rebel loner” . Dinerstein puts a lot of work in it, but he does convince when he concludes a development with: “It is this self-conscious sense of living in a failed civilization that creates the crosscurrents of cool” . The book then moves on to case studies, notably looking at a specific Bogart vehicle, High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941), before a convincing evocation of Robert Mitchum’s existential cool in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947). Dinerstein does mention that some opportunities to better exploit female cool were missed in the 1940s (think Veronica Lake).
Chapter 3 is entitled “Albert Camus and the Birth of Existential Cool from the Idea of Rebellion (and the Blues).” It is more ambitious and perhaps a little less convincing than Chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 4 tells us about “Billie Holiday and Simone de Beauvoir : Toward a Postwar Cool for Women.” Duke Ellington called Billie Holiday “the essence of cool” . She was neither the first nor the last junky to be called cool. Come to think of it, most of the members of the 27 Club have been seen as cool. Interesting rapprochements are made, with the likes of Nina Simone, Diana Ross, or even Diana Krall—even the comparison between de Beauvoir and Holiday works, to a degree (existential blues). The female cool examples this chapter provides are not all equally convincing. It is easier to see Dorothy Parker and Giorgia O’Keefe as cool than Mae West and Louise Brooks, one might argue. Chapter 5 is entitled “Cool Convergences.” It links jazz, movies and philosophy in a subtle manner. The titles of the following chapters speak for themselves: “Kerouac and the Cool Mind : Jazz and Zen” (Chapter 6), “From Noir Cool to Vegas Cool : Swinging into Prosperity with Frank Sinatra” (Chapter 7), “American Rebel Cool : Brando, Dean, Elvis” (Chapter 8), “Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis Sound Out Cool Individuality” (Chapter 9), “Hip versus Cool in The Fugitive Kind (1960) and Paris Blues (1962)” (Chapter 10), and finally “Lorraine Hansberry and the End of Postwar Cool” (Chapter 11). Chapter 8 is my personal favorite, and not only because of my own strong appreciation of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley. Some readers might be tempted to stand behind the door with a critical club, waiting for Dinerstein to fail transposing his definitions of cool of the 1940s to these new heroes, but it actually works, because of “how deeply psychoanalysis had penetrated artistic and intellectual communities” . The mask is still there, but the raw neurosis may not be felt right below the surface.
“Cool requires emotional self-control and stands for the aesthetic expression of detachment” . It is not just about dealing with one’s daddy issues, and it is still linked to forms of rebellion and to artistic endeavors. Today, of course, many tend to think “hipster” and “cool gay” are synonymous, but, thankfully, things remain more complicated than that. Although occasionally a tad far-fetched, his book is recommended for anyone who is interested in cultural studies or any library that has cultural studies shelves. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery to define cool.
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