The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New Edition) by Michael Denning (Verso)
A panoramic history of the culture of Depression-era America and the Popular Front, The Cultural Front, written by Michael Denning who teaches American Studies at Yale University, charts the extraordinary upsurge of cultural activity and theory in America that began during the Great Depression. Spawned by the Popular Front of the Communist Party, it grew to encompass virtually every aspect of high and popular art in the U.S., instigating one of the most culturally rich and exciting periods in American history.
Three groups the young plebeians, the radical moderns, and the anti-fascist émigrés came together in New York in 1935 in the cultural front, this extraordinary flowering of arts, entertainment, and thought. At the end of the century, what is left? For most critics and historians of American culture, not much.
"To this day," one of our finest historians has written, "when I hear the words Pop Front I think of atrocious art." The post-war Red scare and anti-communist purge combined with the Cold War to eradicate much of the radical culture of the Popular Front. The thirties became an icon, the brief moment when politics captured the arts, when writers went left, Hollywood turned Red, and painters, musicians, and photographers were social-minded. The left turn of the depression is usually seen as a detour if not a wrong turn. But were the 1930s merely a Red decade or were they, as Michael Gold claimed, a second American Renaissance?
In The Cultural Front Denning hopes to persuade readers that the cultural front reshaped American culture. Just as the radical movements of abolition, utopian socialism, and women's rights sparked the antebellum American Renaissance, so the communisms of the depression triggered a deep and lasting transformation of American modernism and mass culture, what he calls the laboring of American culture.
What is the laboring of American culture? What does it mean to labor a culture? In The Cultural Front, Denning uses the phrase to sum up a number of interrelated arguments, and he outlines those meanings and those arguments. First, the laboring of American culture refers to the pervasive use of labor and its synonyms in the rhetoric of the period. Second, it refers to what a more technical usage would call the proletarianization of American culture, the increased influence on and participation of working-class Americans in the world of culture and the arts. Third, the laboring of American culture refers to the new visibility of the labor of cultural production. Fourth, the phrase reminds us that the culture and politics of the Popular Front were not simply New Deal liberalism and populism. It was a social democratic culture, a culture of industrial democracy and industrial unionism. Finally, the laboring of American culture connotes a birthing of a new American culture, a second American Renaissance. To labor is to plod, to be hampered, to pitch and roll in a storm. In all these senses, the cultural front was a laboring, an incomplete and unfinished struggle to rework American culture, with hesitations, pauses, defeats, and failures.
The Cultural Front is a history of the cultural front and an interpretation of the artistic and intellectual formations it fostered. Denning begins with the question that has long dominated the cultural history of the depression: Why did the left have a powerful, indeed an unprecedented, impact on US culture in the 1930s?
The broad social movement known as the Popular Front was the ground on which the workers theaters, proletarian literary magazines, and film industry unions stood: it was a radical social-democratic movement forged around anti-fascism, anti-lynching, and the industrial unionism of the CIO. The Popular Front emerged out of the crisis of 1929, and it remained the central popular democratic movement over the following three decades, the years he calls the age of the CIO. Denning takes issue with most accounts of the Popular Front, sympathetic or hostile, which have seen it through a core-periphery model, in which the core was the Communist Party and the periphery was the surrounding circles of fellow travelers with greater or lesser degrees of affiliation to the Party. Party membership was not that central; many people passed through the Party at different times, and the large majority of Popular Front radicals were never members. Indeed, many figures thought of themselves as generic communists, using the term with a small c, the way earlier and later generations thought of themselves as generic socialists, feminists, or radicals.
Thus, in part one of The Cultural Front, "The Left and American Culture," Denning sketches an alternative view of the Popular Front, seeing it as a historical bloc: he begins with its base in the industrial unions of the CIO, then move to its political superstructures, and finally turn to its cultural formations. He then outlines the history of the Popular Front, its rise and fall through the age of the CIO. He concludes part one by arguing that the modern cultural apparatus not only found its audience among the ethnic working classes of the modem metropolis, but recruited its artists and intellectuals from those urban working classes. With the emergence of the Popular Front social movement, these hacks and stars of the cultural apparatus became the moving spirits of the cultural front.
Part two, "Anatomy of the Cultural Front," is an overview of the cultural politics and aesthetic ideologies of the cultural front. The cultural front referred both to the cultural industries and apparatuses a front or terrain of cultural struggle and to the alliance of radical artists and intellectuals who made up the cultural part of the Popular Front.
The notion of the cultural front itself was an attempt to theorize the relation of culture to politics. Chapter two, "Marching on May Day," explores the ways the cultural front inflected the movement culture of the CIO, the state cultural institutions of the New Deal order, and the studios of the culture industry. But if these allegiances and affiliations represent the social consciousness of the cultural front, the works produced by the communist artists and intellectuals also bear the traces of a political unconscious. Chapter three, "Ballads for Americans," looks at the popular aesthetics and ideologies that informed the cultural front, their revolutionary symbolisms, ethnic Americanisms, and labor feminisms.
Part three, "Formations of the Cultural Front," takes up the exploration and specification of distinguishable cultural formations. Each of the chapters of part three explores an artistic form that was also a social location: the narrative of the decline and fall of the Lincoln republic in John Dos Passos's U.S.A.; the literary class war of the proletarian literature movement; the genre of ghetto or tenement pastorals that came to dominate American literature through the works of novelists like Richard Wright and Tillie Olsen; the migrant narratives of California's factories in the fields composed by Woody Guthrie, Carlos Bulosan, and Ernesto Galarza; the experiments in musical theater represented by Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, the Labor Stage's Pins and Needles, and Duke Ellington's Jump for Joy; the cabaret blues of Billie Holiday and Josh White; the theater, radio, and film of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre; the strikes and cartoons of Disney's radical animators; and the encounter between American culture and socialist theory that reshaped American thought in the works of figures like Kenneth Burke, Carey McWilliams, and Elizabeth Hawes.
Although the Popular Front was defeated by the forces of the American Century, and the thirties seemed to be over by 1948, the works of the cultural front had a profound impact on American culture, informing the life work of two generations of artists and intellectuals. For the first time in the history of the United States, a working-class culture had made a significant imprint on the dominant cultural institutions. Both high culture and mass culture took on a distinctly plebeian accent. Black and ethnic writers, descendants of the proletarian avant-garde, dominated twentieth-century American literature. Vernacular musics like jazz, blues, and country resonated around the world. Gangster movies and films noir had founded the American look in film. According to The Cultural Front, the cultural front had begun a laboring of American culture.
Although the early portions of the book, which establish the historical and social contexts of the Popular Front, are interesting, readers may likely find most fascinating the later chapters on some of the artists who took part in the movement, including Billie Holiday, who first began singing Strange Fruit at a left-wing cabaret, Duke Ellington, and John Dos Passos. His essay on the antifascist crusading of Orson Welles "the American Brecht, the single most important Popular Front artist in theater, radio, and film" is particularly insightful. Like Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty, The Cultural Front is a panoramic history that brings vibrancy and passion to the telling of American culture. Ron Hogan, Amazon.com
The breadth of his study is stunning, ranging from the compositional innovations of Duke Ellington and blues popularizations of Josh White to the Marxist critical theorizing of Kenneth Burke, from Orson Welles's Shakespeare adaptations to Tillie Olson's feminist-labor stories. But this is not a work of popular history in any sense; it is a model of currents in cultural studies. Denning has produced a work that will sit alongside Warren Susman's Culture as History (Pantheon, 1985) as the deepest contemplation of Depression-era popular (and high) culture. For scholars and cultural studies enthusiasts. Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., Pa., Library Journal
Denning appears to have read, heard and seen it all. Adam Shatz, The Nation
A truly wonderful piece of history. The Progressive
An extraordinary book ... it offers to turn upside down our most dearly held understandings about how American culture has evolved. Van Gosse, American Quarterly
As fresh a synthesis of the distinctive culture of the 1930s and 1940s as you are likely to find anywhere. Times Literary Supplement
Denning's archaeological dig redefines as it reclaims the music, novels and movies of the Popular Front ... he is restoring a perspective that has been almost totally erased. Village Voice
An immense achievement ... the most important book yet written on American culture in the age of the CIO. Michael Rogin, Journal of American History
Providing both depth and breadth, this fresh analysis persuasively argues that the cultural front reshaped American culture. An important work, The Cultural Front reclaims a perspective on the American story, explaining to a new generation the reshaping of American culture by the working class, a perspective which in recent times has been virtually lost.
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