restricted access The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s (review)
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Reviewed by
Rita Barnard. The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995. viii + 271 pp.

Rita Barnard’s The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance, in addition to presenting important new approaches to the work of Nathanael West, has the distinction of being the first book-length publication [End Page 837] on the poetry of Kenneth Fearing. Barnard’s sustained attention to Fearing’s poetic achievement is timely, coming as it does in the midst of the general reconstruction of American literature and culture between the wars undertaken by Cary Nelson, Alan Wald, Barbara Foley, Paula Rabinowitz, and Alan Filreis, among others. It also has the virtue, in my opinion, of recovering the cultural context of that era in ways that link it to how we are now dealing with the political economy of postwar consumer society and its specters of pervasive commodification, spectacle, and simulation. Thus in Barnard’s project, Fearing is properly joined, not to the productivist ethos of the Comintern’s Third Period and not to the proletarian semiosis of the Soviet Union, but to the emergence of what Warren Sussman has theorized as the “culture of abundance.”

Part 1 of this study, entitled “Context,” provides a thorough-going analysis of the roots of mass culture in the United States and theorizes its implications for literary production and reception across the modern/postmodern divide. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Comintern’s agitational strategy of promoting class identification among oppressed proletarians was effectively countered by capital’s own campaign to interpolate workers as consumers. Here the Fordist techniques of factory production meshed with the print, radio, and film media to popularize an abundance of new products, celebrity idols, and simulated lifestyles. According to Barnard, it is within and against the foundational context of what Guy Debord theorizes as the modern society of the spectacle that Fearing’s and West’s writing has its force and its continuing purchase on the contemporary critique of advanced capitalism. Drawing from the “flexible Gramscian conception of hegemony as a terrain of contestation,” Barnard analyzes the ways in which Fearing and West intervene in what Lizabeth Cohen characterizes as the “shared culture” of the emerging consumer society.

Part 2 comprises three chapters that provide a biographical framing of the poet’s career, an overview of Fearing criticism, his own theories on poetry and mass culture, and, finally, close readings of his major works. Barnard’s discussion of Fearing’s essay “Reading, Writing, and the Rackets” (which introduces his 1956 New and Selected Poems) reveals the poet as a discerning cultural critic. In its analysis of the mass media’s influence on everyday life and the public mind (as well as in its pessimism), this piece resembles the Frankfurt School’s bleak vision of [End Page 838] administered culture. “News, commonsense, good literature,” Fearing writes, “these are whatever the voices of communication unanimously, and often, say they are. Conversely, distortion, false reasoning, base and degenerate writing, these, too, are whatever the concerted organs of communication repeatedly denounce as such. Still more conveniently, those topics and views not mentioned in the forums of communication at all do not exist; certainly, if some unpleasant subject does win a momentary, unauthorized interest, under the magic eraser of silence it soon dies.” For her own part, Barnard negotiates between, on the one hand, the kind of one-dimensional version of the culture industry witnessed, say, in the early Herbert Marcuse or Theodor Adorno and, on the other hand, a more contemporary attention to the chances for popular contestation and cultural articulation theorized by Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. In comparing and contrasting Fearing’s work with high modernism, Barnard lays out a convincing critique of T. S. Eliot, focusing on “American Rhapsody”‘s “retort to Eliot’s comment on the undesirability of ‘free-thinking Jews.’” Noting their mutual embrace of poetic impersonality, mass cultural citation, and cosmopolitan experience, Barnard distinguishes Eliot’s poetic push to “unify and resacralize the ruin of the present” from Fearing’s refusal of any “redemptive recourse to the mythic...