American Cool -- A Review

American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style

Peter N. Stearns, New York University Press, 310 pp. (1994)

So you think "cool" started in the 1960s as a part of the counterculture? According to Peter Stearns, you're about 40 years too late. Stearns, an emotional historian, promotes the idea that during the 1920s Americans began to slough off their old Victorian intense emotional style and emphasize a new, detached system of emotions. American Cool uses comparative analysis of primarily children's literature and behavioral manuals during the past 150 years to debunk some popular myths about both Victorian and contemporary cultures.

Cool Fact No. 1: The Victorians weren't repressed. One should not confuse their physical restraint with a parallel emotional subjugation, Stearns reminds us. Victorians channeled their emotions into particular areas of expression, while maintinaing passionate intensity. Spiritual love was encouraged as an intense experience. Grief, likewise, was both personal and immediate. To feel anger and fear was natural -- to allow such emotions to control you is unhealthy, but controlling them makes you chivalrous and courageous. Boys especially were encouraged to stand up for themselves, and even beat up bullies if need be.

Cool Fact No. 2: The 20th century is repressed. While sex and behavioral standards have loosened, emotions have shifted from intense to bland, from channeled to avoidance altogether. Guilt, fear and love are no longer useful in today's society. Parents may advocate a greater tolerance in child-rearing, talking over a particular emotion with the child, but the ultimate goal is its total suppression forever afterwards. There are three reasons for this shift, according to Stearns: consumerism has allowed individuals to displace their emotional attention into dolls and other objects, bureaucratization has reduced the emphasis on individuality, and homogenization has emphasized Americans' similarity to one another, largely as a reaction against immigration. And how do we release this repression? Often through increased sexual behavior, cursing (usually among men), shopping (usually among women) literature, movies, and of course, sports.

Stearns realizes that models are only rough outlines of reality, and that they can neglect recent movements that may stray from his thesis. He therefore notes a number of aberrations from the norm, pondering the possibility that we could be entering into a new stage of emotional history.

The idea of emotional repression in the modern age might seem anachronistic until one begins to study personal behavior around others. How often do we restrain from engaging in an arguement, for fear of hurting someone's feelings? Teenage aloofness mixes effortlessly with corporate America's nameless, faceless culture in which "fitting in" is the most important factor in maintaining one's position among peers. Staying cool has survived not only as a buzz phrase in the modern age, but as one of its central tenets.

--Michael Anderson