The Pursuit of Happiness: The Politics of Leisure and Pastime in Twentieth-Century America

Tutor: Shaul Mitelpunkt

Module type: Explorations

Module Code: HIS00096I

In 1776 the American declaration of independence defined “the pursuit of happiness” as a key right, just after life and liberty. From the rides of the Disney World amusement park, through the thousands of paintball ranges spread across the country, to the mysterious halls of Hugh Heffner’s Playboy mansion, a glance at the contemporary United States would reveal that Americans have followed their pursuits of happiness in many different directions. At the same time, pleasure was rarely a random or personal matter. Ideas about pastime and leisurely pursuits were often deeply contested, and bound to structural, political, and economic interests.

This module will use the prism of leisure to examine an array of historical problems in the twentieth-century US. The key questions animating our discussions will include: Is there such as a thing as innocent fun? Were Americans encouraged to enjoy certain things more than others, and if so, why? Could work be fun? How did the concept of responsible fun change through the twentieth century? Could one have fun if nobody else knows of it? Who decides which pleasures are perverse, and which are progressive? Was having fun a long-term commitment, and where does depression come into this? By addressing these questions we will also examine how domains of leisure became stages for political and legal negotiation of race, gender, and labour relations.

Seminar sessions will advance chronologically from the time photographed postcards were a novelty, to the emergence of the Facebook “like” button. Weekly readings will revolve both on historical context and on particular case studies of contested arenas of leisure. We will also study a diverse set of primary sources (posters, photographs, songs, movies) that will allow us to assess the place sensory perceptions took in the politics of pleasure.

Seminars will likely cover the following areas:

  • Session 1: Introduction
  • Session 2: Spectacular Secrets - Lynching and Popular Culture
  • Session 3: Buying a Dream - Advertisement and the Politics of Wants
  • Session 4: Forbidden Pleasures - Alcohol and the Age of Prohibition
  • Session 5: Silver Screen - Hollywood and the Birth of the Narrative Empire
  • Session 6: Disneyland - Fun All Around
  • Session 7: The Pill - Sexual Habits and the Politics of Selfhood
  • Session 8: The Best League in the World - Achievement as Leisure
  • Session 9: “Liking” It - Boredom, Guilt, and the Fracturing of American Leisure

In the latter part of the course, students will undertake group project set around a particular practice of leisure in American history. These projects will help elucidate the wider themes and issues of leisure and pastime in the twentieth-century United States. Alternatively, groups may choose their own subject in consultation with the module leader.

For more information, please visit the module catalogue