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Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde by Lewis MacAdams

The aim to delineate the evolution of a cultural trend that influenced music, painting, letters and other forms of expression seems a good one, and a more serious book about how the various arts influenced each other in the postwar years would be welcome. But The Birth of the Cool actually convinced me that there’s no real way to make many of the connections its author, Lewis MacAdams, takes for granted.

MacAdams seems to think that all uses of the word “cool” are made in reference to one transcendent “coolness,” along the lines of Plato’s belief that there had to be a metaphysical “plateness” and “cupness” somewhere beyond time and space in order for us to apprehend everyday plates and cups. Plato’s idea led that very cool ancient, Diogenes, to remark that he had been to Plato’s house, and had seen his plates and cups, but not his plateness or cupness. I’m afraid that MacAdams’ “coolness” is just as illusory. Perhaps readers of the rock magazine he writes for will buy the self-serving notion that “cool,” as a stance adopted by postwar blacks against a square, white-controlled world, means the same thing as the posturings of the poster boys and girls that sell to those very squares. He does admit that the hip world got very turned off to the mass-media pseudocool of the late ’50s, but makes little attempt to differentiate between the real thing and the marketable imitation.

How can expressionistic, emotionally wide-open artists like Kerouac and Pollock be lumped in with the oh-so-blasé Andy Warhol? Shouldn’t we acknowledge that there was little sympathy between, say, the jazz crowd and Dylan’s milieu, which black poet Ted Joans described as “the squarest-of-the square folkies, with their banjo-shaped asses”? MacAdams doesn’t worry about such considerations, preferring to flit from subject to subject with, of course, a sharp eye out for details of their sex lives, busts and bad behavior. When in doubt he just drops the magic word: In discussing the impact of Buddhism, he informs us that “struggle with a koan is a strong preparation for a life of cool.”

Obviously MacAdams doesn’t care whose mouth he puts the word cool into, but haven’t we kind of widened the scope beyond the American avant-garde here? Or isn’t it cool to ask? The depressingly superficial approach is reminiscent of nothing so much as those 1950s Life Magazine articles about beatniks.

Originally Published