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The Land of the Free and the Home of the Cool

By: Alexander Khan
August 29, 2018

n 2012, Keith Richards tweeted out a photo of himself backstage in 1975, guitar in hand, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The tweet read, “If you've gotta think about being cool, you ain't cool.” Cool, as a cultural force, dominates the modern American psyche. To be “cool” is to occupy the exalted status of rebel musicians, iconoclastic artists, and paradigm-shifting thinkers. What is “cool” and how did it come to hold its elevated place in American life? Joel Dinerstein explores this question in The Origins of Cool in Postwar America.

“Cool” for Dinerstein is understood through the figures who embody it—each generation’s pop culture icons represent and reflect their concept of cool. Dinerstein presents a series of iconic historical figures who represent cool’s different aspects as it progressed from 1943 to 1963. Not simply a mental state or way of acting, “cool” also involves aesthetics and self-presentation.

An image of Miles Davis and his horn confronts you on Dinerstein’s first page. America’s obsession with cool begins, he argues, both linguistically and conceptually, with jazz. Jazz cool grew out of 1940’s Black America’s two great needs: expressing individuality and surviving with style in a segregated country. Cool was, Dinerstein argues, “synonymous with authenticity, independence, integrity, and nonconformity; to be cool meant you carried personal authority through a stylish mask of stoicism.” It involved both mastery of technique and mastery of self. Control was key to the style and attitude of the cool jazzman expressing an improvised story on his horn every night on a dimly lit stage.

Black America, “having been dehumanized at every level…practiced cool through rituals of self-affirmation.” They wore a mask of cool “as invisible armor to hold off the prejudice, irrationality, and hostility of the society.” This mask, often hard or grizzled, but always aloof, allowed for the expression of individual personality, experience, and style. They played cool and shared their story with an audience. This paradox of disconnection and intimate connected expression is central to America’s cool.

Starting with Lester “Pres” Young and his dark shades and unique playing style, Dinerstein recognizes in cool an organic American existentialism. Jazz attempts to answer existential questions: how to survive, be a man, and express the self in a forbidding world. Cool’s controlled mask of smooth, effortless individual expression of a subjective experience and thought are the answer.

This is the cool of Humphrey Bogart’s “Noir Cool” born out of the despair and hardships of the great depression, and even the cool of Albert Camus and his understanding of Western Civilization’s post-World War II failures. Cool indicts the post-war world and attempts to transition to a new way of living. Cool was men—detached, disenchanted, and rebellious—living by their own code of morality, having experienced deep hardship, struggling to survive and to be themselves in a changed world. This model, influenced by more than a healthy dose of French existentialism, Dinnerstein argues, is the model of cool men and women up through the 1950s.

The image of cool as men who were “beat but not beaten,” begins to change after 1953. For Dinerstein, “a new figure of cool embodies the unspoken, unconscious emotional needs that have not yet reached consciousness in young people” and arises in each generation. In the 1950s, American prosperity and positivity start to crack cool’s stoic mask. The Cold War was ever-present for suburban America’s new postwar teenage youth, and the noir “ethical rebel loner[s]” became rebels without causes. The cool figures of “Postwar II” were alienated, younger, and more emotional than those of the late ‘40s, yet still trying to figure out how to express themselves in a world of tensions. Postwar II cool reflects both cool’s continuity and its nature as a reflection of the emerging desires of each generation.

Postwar II cool maintained the existentialism, the need for individuality and individual expression, and the rebellion against larger societal forces. It, however, was far more emotional and centered around the necessity of physical freedom as part of the cool life. The icons of this era are readily familiar—James Dean in his sports car, Marlon Brando on his motor cycle, Jack Kerouac’s exploits on the road, Elvis’s wild music, and even Charlie Parker’s boundary pushing jazz. The mask was still present, but the rebelliousness and emotion of postwar II icons of cool allowed for the inner man to show through the cracks.

Dinerstein sees cool as “perceived authenticity in any era.” A “cool” man creates, through his singular expression, a new paradigm reflecting the needs and hopes of each generation. Dinerstein convincingly uncovers the desire for individual expression and organic existentialism as central to postwar cool, but he does not recognize that cool seems to be connected to the larger historical concept of American individualism. Individuals who are defiant, rebellious, adventurous, and dedicated, have marked and driven the history of America, challenging norms and shaping its destiny. Washington and Lincoln, Billy the kid and Wyatt Earp, pioneers of the west, aviation, and art, were all American individuals who reflected the needs of their generations. Many of these figures might not be considered “cool” by Dinerstein’s standard, but it seems that the figures who mark the birth and progression of cool are part of the larger history of American individuals who rebel against the status quo and change the world through their individual expression.

Dinerstein’s book provides a unique historical analysis of postwar cool’s birth and progression, but it does not adequately answer the question: why is cool uniquely American? He notes that cool is connected to the national myth that, quoting Norman Mailer “every man was potentially extraordinary,” but this differs significantly from the idea that individualism drives the American spirit and has shaped our history. Dinerstein does not see the connection between cool’s expression of individuality and American individualism.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis wrote “Jazz music is America's past and its potential, summed up and sanctified…. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement.” Jazz cool, noir cool, the rebel cool of Brando and Elvis, all of these iterations of cool are part of that singularly American concept of individualism. Dinerstein’s work thoughtfully relates and unfolds the nature of cool, and his love of the era’s cool figures provokes us to think about a concept that has become a dominant force in American life.