1st Edition

Reading Smile History, Myth and American Identity in Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ Long-Lost Album

By Dale Carter Copyright 2021
    180 Pages 11 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    180 Pages 11 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    First conceived in 1966 but only completed in 2004, Brian Wilson Presents Smile has been called "the best-known unreleased album in pop music history" and "an American Sergeant Pepper." Reading Smile offers a close analysis of the recording in its social, cultural and historical contexts.

    It focuses in particular on the finished work’s subject matter as embodied in Van Dyke Parks’ contentious yet little understood lyrics, with their low-resolution, highly allusive portrayals of western expansion’s archetypes, from Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts to Diamond Head, Hawaii. Documenting their multiple references and connotations, it argues that their invocations of national self-definition are part of a carefully crafted vision of American identity, society and culture both in tune and at odds with the times. Critical of the republic’s past practices but convinced that its ideals, values and myths still provided resources to redeem it, the recording is interpreted as a creative musical milestone, an enduring product of its volatile, radical, countercultural times, and an American pop art classic.

    Of particular relevance to American Studies and popular culture scholars, Reading Smile will also appeal to those interested in 1960s popular music, not least to fans of Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys.


    1 Into the Mystic? The Undergrounding of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, 1964–1967

    2 My Regeneration: The Salvation of "Heroes and Villains"

    3 Uncovering the Cornfield: "Cabin Essence" and the Revision of History

    4 Wonderful Land: Smile’s Child Ballads

    5 Wave Power: Smile’s Renewable Energies



    Dale Carter is Associate Professor of American Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Director of the university’s American Studies Center. Carter is the author or editor of a number of books and scholarly articles on aspects of 20th century American history, society and culture.These include The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State (1987) and (as editor) War and Cold War in American Foreign Policy, 1942-62 (2002). Academic journals that have published his work include Popular Music and Society, Popular Music History, Rock History, Popular Music, American Studies in Scandinavia, the Canadian Review of American Studies and the European Journal of American Culture.