Cool Story: What does “cool” even mean in 2013?


Part 1 of a monthlong series on the history and future of cool.

Excerpt: Cool has come a long way, literally. In a 1973 essay called “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” art historian Robert Farris Thompson traced the concept to the West African Yoruba idea of itutu—a quality of character denoting composure in the face of danger, as well as playfulness, humor, generosity, and conciliation. It was carried to America with slavery and became a code through which to conceal rage and cope with brutality with dignity; it went on to inform the emotional textures of blues, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and more, then percolated into the mainstream...

But most analysts agree it only became widespread after World War II. As Dick Pountain and David Robins wrote in their 2000 book Cool Rules, it “took the collapse of faith in organized religion and the trauma of two world wars to turn it into a mass phenomenon,” one that thrummed with the paranoias of the atomic age and the Cold War as well as fantasies of cross-racial convergence. (See Norman Mailer’s mostly regrettable essay on the “White Negro.”) ...

Elvis and James Dean introduced cool to Middle America, but it was the Beat movement that revered it most, putting its queer shoulder to the wheel, even as black poet Gwendolyn Brooks was warning that “We Real Cool” was coming to mean “we die soon.”




Sept. 30, 2013





Carl Wilson, “Cool Story: What does “cool” even mean in 2013?,” Antiracism Digital Library, accessed June 25, 2024,