Aaron Lecklider

Professor / Author / Critic

  • 2013
  • University of Pennsylvania Press
  • ISBN 978-0-8122-4486-1
  • Hardcover, Kindle
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Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture

Throughout the twentieth century, pop songs, magazine articles, plays, posters, and novels in the United States represented intelligence alternately as empowering or threatening. In Inventing the Egghead, cultural historian Aaron Lecklider offers a sharp, entertaining narrative of these sources to reveal how Americans who were not part of the traditional intellectual class negotiated the complicated politics of intelligence within an accelerating mass culture.

Central to the book is the concept of brainpower—a term used by Lecklider to capture the ways in which journalists, writers, artists, and others invoked intelligence to embolden the majority of Americans who did not have access to institutions of higher learning. Expressions of brainpower, Lecklider argues, challenged the deeply embedded assumptions in society that intellectual capacity was the province of an educated elite, and that the working class was unreservedly anti-intellectual. Amid changes in work, leisure, and domestic life, brainpower became a means for social transformation in the modern United States. The concept thus provides an exciting vantage point from which to make fresh assessments of ongoing debates over intelligence and access to quality education.

Expressions of brainpower in the twentieth century engendered an uncomfortable paradox: they diminished the value of intellectuals (the hapless egghead, for example) while establishing claims to intellectual authority among ordinary women and men, including labor activists, women workers, and African Americans. Reading across historical, literary, and visual media, Lecklider mines popular culture as an arena where the brainpower of ordinary people was commonly invoked and frequently contested.

Reviews & Praise

"In this groundbreaking book, Aaron Lecklider explains how ordinary Americans used mass culture to stake a claim to 'brainpower'—and then turned it into a tool for social transformation. Based on a brilliantly creative archive, and written with wit and clarity, Inventing the Egghead connects labor history and cultural studies to craft an exciting new interpretation of mid-century America." Christopher Capozzola, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"Ranging across popular culture from Coney Island and Tin Pan Alley to WPA posters and science fiction, Aaron Lecklider's lively and astute exploration of twentieth-century Americans' vexed relationship with 'brainpower' stands as an important complement and corrective to Richard Hofstadter's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." Steven Biel, Harvard University

"From Einstein to the WPA to Oak Ridge, this investigation of popular understandings of 'brainpower' offers a fresh take on the culture and politics of twentieth-century America. Deeply researched and persuasively argued, Lecklider's book is a model of interdisciplinary American Studies scholarship." Anna Creadick, Hobart and William Smith Colleges