Steve Goodson. Highbrows, Hillbillies, and Hellfire: Public Entertainment in Atlanta, 1880-1930. 191pp. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. 978-0-8203-2930-7. Review by Samantha Pratter, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
In Highbrows, Hillbillies, and Hellfire: Public Entertainment in Atlanta, 1880-1930, Steve Goodson discusses the growth of Atlanta in the post-bellum period through the lens of debates over public entertainment. Goodson calls Atlanta the Gate City because of its status as a city attempting to appropriate the mores of both the North and the South. This position created tension as the city's residents jostled over their vision for Atlanta's future. City boosters argued Atlanta should embrace northern popular culture in an effort to lead the New South into the modern age. Atlanta's clergy, however, viewed the Gate City as a "city on a hill," a bulwark against northern immorality creeping into the South. Goodson claims these two impulses created a split personality where the city "grasped for 'progress' and 'cosmopolitanism' with one hand while vigorously pushing away with the other" (7). He contends popular culture was a key location where Atlantans debated their city's future. Goodson also argues that historians such as Lawrence Levine who claim that popular culture across the United States was essentially unified around the turn of the century fail to take into account important regional factors. The author suggests that a range of different factors such as immigration, religion, and white supremacy made the southern experience with popular culture very different from that of the North. Goodson relies heavily on newspapers in his work, examining the Constitution, the Georgian, and the Journal, which all promoted New South ideology and white supremacy. He also examines the city's African American newspaper the Independent, which was more unpredictable in its coverage of the city's amusements. Goodson organizes the book chronologically and thematically, devoting each chapter to one form of popular entertainment and one roughly ten-year period.

Chapter 1 examines the legitimate theatre during the late 1800s in order to explain how the South differed from the North regarding popular culture. For example, when importing entertainment from the North, theater owners like Laurent DeGrive had to worry about the South's uncertain economic future, high rail rates, local tastes, and a vocal clergy organized as the Evangelical Ministers Association (EMA) who claimed theatergoers committed the "sin of worldliness" (23). While the theater became respectable in the North and divisions there occurred between "high" and "low" culture, in Atlanta white supremacy to some extent supplanted class considerations and issues of morality created the most conflict. Chapter 2 discusses how the city's growth at the turn of the century ushered in a more "cosmopolitan" era where cheaper amusements such as dime museums, vaudeville, and burlesque to varying degrees gained a foothold in the city's amusement business. The motion picture industry of the early 1900s is explored in Chapter 3, where Goodson argues that debates between Atlanta's clergy and boosters did not merely revolve around the movies themselves, but over the future of the city itself. In the end, as motion pictures became more commercialized, Atlanta became less culturally distinct as it was pulled into the national mainstream. Atlanta's elites are examined through a study of classical music and opera from 1880 to 1920 in Chapter 4. Goodson claims that although many elites did not enjoy "high" culture, they used it as a means to bolster the image of their city nationally as well as to solidify their own social standing within the Gate City. Goodson then examines Atlanta's African American elite in Chapter 5 and concludes that while elite African Americans tried to use "high" culture as a means of distinguishing themselves from lower-class African Americans and negative black stereotypes, they were unable to create class distinctions in the minds of white Atlantans of all classes. Finally, in Chapter 6 Goodson looks at black and white working-class culture to explore the complex ways in which race and class interacted in the Gate City. Goodson is careful to warn the reader "it would be simplistic to portray working-class citizens of either race as thinking, feeling, or behaving uniformly" (169). He examines the rise and fall of Atlanta's record industry to show that, even in the Jim Crow South, music allowed for a successful melding of black and white culture on some level.

"Goodson's book paints an entertaining and informative picture of the struggles that occurred in Atlanta over the place of popular culture and the city's destiny."  


Goodson does an excellent job of including class, race, labor issues, and gender in his argument. While this can become distracting in some works where authors try to include too much, Goodson integrates these perspectives seamlessly by providing vignettes from the lives of many different Atlantans, not just the city's white elite. The reader feels the tension between elites and the working classes, whites and blacks, men and women, and church and secular authorities. Goodson's book is both entertaining and informative. Its strengths are that it is organized clearly and provides its readers with entertaining details about popular culture. It would be an excellent addition to both undergraduate and graduate reading lists to gain a southern perspective in courses dealing with American popular culture. The only weakness in Goodson's argument is that a reader who is not well versed in the rise of popular entertainment in the North might need more information on amusements there, since northern culture is only referred to in passing. This book would be an excellent companion to other pieces that focus on popular culture, religion, and Reconstruction like Edward J. Blum's Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (read the JSR's review of this book) or similar books on the American North or West in order to help readers gain a fuller picture of popular culture throughout the United States. Overall, Goodson's book paints an entertaining and informative picture of the struggles that occurred in Atlanta over the place of popular culture and the city's destiny.

Samantha Pratter
Graduate Student in History
San Diego State University
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