- Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940–1960
Judith Smith's book on family stories and the social visions of their authors is a fascinating examination of the ties between politics and media. Smith follows a number of "ordinary family" dramas as they made their way from written word to the stage, radio, and small and large screens, including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I Remember Mama, Strange Fruit, Death of a Salesman, Marty, and A Raisin in the Sun, and in the process demonstrates the voice these dramas gave to liberal ideals of democracy.
Smith describes a fascinating moment of opportunity during and immediately after World War II, when liberal and leftist writers, many of whom had Popular Front connections, were able to present working-class families as representative American families, and in the process to challenge (and, unfortunately, at times reaffirm) contemporary views of ethnicity and race. This moment began when the New Deal and popular anti-fascism made ethnic inclusion more acceptable. [End Page 451] It ended when the aggressive anti-communism of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and its attacks on Hollywood, made anti-fascism and New Deal policies politically suspect (a problem that began having its strongest effects in 1949, in her description, but did not totally eradicate these liberal narratives even then). Like Michael Denning's work on the connections between the Popular Front and mass culture, Visions of Belonging is able to demonstrate the power of political influence on American culture, and even to trace that influence into the 1960s.
One of the most compelling and unifying themes of this book is Smith's discussion of race and ethnicity in the works she follows. Prior to this historical moment, she contends, the depiction of a "representative" American was of a white native-born American, neither rich nor poor, and generally from a small town or the countryside. During and immediately after the war, foreign-born, Jewish, and even (more rarely) African Americans were portrayed as typical Americans, who could represent the problems and the triumphs of all Americans. Smith offers intriguing evidence to support her belief in this change, including both letters written to those involved in the productions of these narratives and reviews of the productions, all attesting to the universality of the stories.
The book is broken into three parts, each discussing a particular narrative form. In the first, Smith discusses "looking back" stories, in which historically-set stories of poor, immigrant families tell of transition from poverty to middle-class stability. She begins with Betty Smith's novel, A Tree Grown in Brooklyn, merging Smith's biography with a cultural history of the book itself, and a close reading of the novel.
In the second, she discusses "trading places" stories, in which racial, ethnic, and even gender boundaries are crossed. She includes a particularly interesting analysis of the tendency of authors to substitute one group of people facing discrimination for another, for example, replacing a gay character in a play with a Jewish character in the film version, or a Jewish character with an African American.
In the third section, on "everyman" stories, Smith examines stories which critiqued the desire for wealth and material acquisition, and questioned the limits of postwar democracy and abundance. Her most remarkable assertion is that A Raisin in the Sun was one such story, in which African Americans stood in for all Americans, though the story is one specifically about racial discrimination and was both performed on stage and shown on screen during a period in which African American civil rights were a distinctly powerful political issue. Smith contends that these readings of distinct groups as universal characters, representing all Americans, had both good and bad results for those seeking the extension of civil rights. In the case of A Raisin on the Sun, for example, those reviewers who universalized the character's problems were able to downplay the specific problems faced by African Americans in a segregated society...