Something wonderful may be happening in literary and cultural studies concerning the early Cold War years. New voices are arising as a critical counterweight to the liberal anti-communist and neo-conservative political writers who dominate a potent journalistic and academic industry about post-Second World War social movements. The older cohort, including some defectors from the New Left, has been fashioning the topic for several decades so as to limit the discourse about U.S. radicalism in late modernity largely to its most unsavory manifestations. The signature move in books by Harvey Klehr, Ronald Radosh et al is to cherry-pick a complex history in the service of prosecutorial briefs against Marxist activists, artists, and intellectuals as deluded apologists for totalitarianism. With the aid of articles in The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, and worse, the cultural life of the late 1940s and 1950s is cropped and edited to provide endless source material for uncovering Soviet espionage activity. What we used to call the “Age of Conservative Conformity” is now the “Age of the Dupes of Stalin”; both need to be recognized as vulgarizations.
Much of the antiradical argumentation is redundant, generating ritualized wrangles about the “guilt” or “innocence” of individuals who made a range of bad choices for good reasons. Cold War studies was in danger of turning into a dreary subject, picked over like carrion on a battlefield; not to mention that readers were also being indoctrinated [End Page 1017] with a Manichean perspective on the intricacies of social change more likely to reinforce than shatter the ruthless and repressive politics of Stalinism, McCarthyism, and colonialism. Then along came the new millennium and the arrival of an increasing number of open-minded younger scholars willing to revisit old sites with fresh research and innovative theoretical equipment.
The result, of which these three books are only a small sample, is that academics in the humanities are becoming the ones who are bringing the disparate facets of the period together with the complicated awareness that history and social science require. The desired makeover is far from complete, but the signals are assuring. Departing from the partisan narrative of communism as pathology, these faculty, many in English departments and American studies programs, are not quite at the point of articulating a well-defined alternative perspective on all aspects of the attendant ambiguities of Cold War modernity. But they are shifting the playing field away from the dualisms of jaded, mean-spirited predecessors, whose polemics short-circuit the possibilities for the so-badly-required full, frank, and candid revision of the era. The antiradicals may be unhappy with these books, but there can be no basis for charges of ideological sniping, shaming of “Dead White Males,” or excessive fulmination in regard to the behavior of adversaries.
On the other hand, the virtue of the recent books is certainly not neutrality; it is their inclination to entertain complex layers of negotiation, enabling one to look through the old dogmatic formulae. The struggle to dominate with one’s “correct” opinion, which is too often a cover for a repertoire awaiting its next performance, has frequently set the agenda by forcing those who protest into a parallel, monochromatic argument. This is what is thankfully absent in the present volumes. Although the authors now and then succumb to the temptation to bring their stories of Cold War modernity to too-tidy conclusions—always a bad sign in the face of the messiness of political and cultural studies—each advances distinctive ideas and points in a different interpretative direction.
American Literature in an Age of Cold War is something of an appetizer. It includes eight essays, edited by Steven Belletto and Daniel Grausam, both authors of...