Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Origins of Cool in Postwar America
by Joel Dinerstein (Univ. of Chicago, $40)
It may be square to say so, said David Kirby in The Wall Street Journal, but Joel Dinerstein’s lengthy new history of cool is “the kind of book that makes learning enjoyable.” Dinerstein, a cultural studies professor at Tulane University, has assembled a gallery of mid-20th-century exemplars of cool to explain where the concept came from and why it has lasted. The story begins in 1949 Paris, with “a sizzling collision between two avatars of male and female cool.” When jazz trumpeter Miles Davis meets French chanteuse Juliette Gréco, it’s love at first sight, and the presence of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in the audience establishes a strong link between cool’s artistic and intellectual branches. With that, Dinerstein is off, explaining how all four figures exuded a calm self-possession that represented a powerfully appealing response to a culture that had just been shaken off its foundations by World War II.
Though Dinerstein clearly wants to renew our enthusiasm for coolness, his book has “quite the opposite effect,” said Joseph Epstein in The Weekly Standard. To be sure, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Davis, and other black jazz musicians who first popularized the idea of cool really were, as Dinerstein argues, defying oppression when they wore a mask of confident self-detachment. The loners played by Humphrey Bogart in film noir classics of the early 1940s meanwhile exemplified an ironclad personal integrity. But culture’s cool baton quickly passed to less admirable figures, like the cruel, bullying Frank Sinatra, the “needy” Allen Ginsberg, and the blowhard Norman Mailer. After its solid start, “cool turns out to have been the preoccupation, chiefly, of less-than-first-rate writers, shoddy thinkers, and poseurs generally.”
True cool, though, has a lasting impact on society, said Megan Volpert in PopMatters.com. One of Dinerstein’s most powerful insights is that coolness is a quiet mutiny against injustice and oppressive social standards. In the postwar 1950s, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Elvis Presley, Paul Newman, and others like them were true revolutionaries—artists who conveyed a disdainful aloofness to conventional opinions. Their message was that those who preserved their integrity in a crazy, unjust world could help bring about “a seismic shift” in our culture. That’s why their timeless art has power even today. “Cool is that self-confident and emotionally understated mode of rebellion that made America what it was in a time of unprecedented anxiety— and what it will be again.”