- The Suburb of Dissent: Cultural Politics in the United States and Canada during the 1930s
In standard accounts of twentieth-century American literature, the 1930s and the 1950s define opposite ends of a continuum, with the earlier decade representing the high-water mark of politicized writing and the latter the return to a presumably apolitical formalism. Although one might immediately come up with half a dozen examples from either decade that undermine this dichotomy, the 1930s and the 1950s have become inextricably intertwined in the academic literary historical imagination. Thus it is not surprising that Caren Irr’s new study of North American literary politics in the 1930s “begins explicitly where many others have begun implicitly—in the polarized climate of the Cold War” (1).
Irr contends, rightly, that the link between the 1930s and the 1950s was first forged in the post-World War II era by intellectuals intent on disavowing politics under pressure of cold war anticommunism. Hence her title, a line from W. H. Auden’s “We Too Had Known Golden Days,” which also provides her book’s epigraph: “ . . . where should we find shelter / For joy or mere content / When little was left standing / But the suburb of dissent?” As Irr reminds us, Auden’s 1950 poem about the 1930s—with its “self-effacing and ironic” tone (239), its nostalgia for the “Golden Days” lost in the fall to mere “dissent,” and, finally, its aestheticizing transformation of this event into poetry—neatly recapitulates cold-war intellectuals’ rejection of politics. In the process, these intellectuals reduced the 1930s to a cliché of art’s capitulation to politics: for Auden and his peers, Irr writes, “‘the 1930s’ [became] not the name for a historical period also known as the Depression, but rather a political shorthand for Communism, socialism, or ‘Stalinism’” (2). Irr might have gone on to note that this stereotype remains curiously intact, albeit with its values reversed, in many recent studies of cold-war culture, where the justified critique of anticommunist political correctness goes hand in hand with nostalgia for the 1930s as a golden age of politically committed writing. These accounts, like those that they critique, perpetuate an oversimplified model of the 1930s as purely political and the 1950s as purely apolitical: they give us a 1930s in which authors did nothing but write prolabor polemics and a 1950s in which the Montgomery bus boycott somehow could not have occurred.
The Suburb of Dissent focuses exclusively on authors with left-wing political commitments, and to that extent it gives us the 1930s we have come to expect. What makes Irr’s book refreshing and important, however, is her belief that our understanding of political art is best served by attending to its complexities. Her 1930s are neither a cheerless leftist Levittown nor a progressive Eden, but rather a complex field of diverse and often contradictory aesthetic and political commitments bound in a process of transformative dialogue. Drawing on recent theories of national identity, Irr goes beyond accounts of internal leftist dissensus such as Paula Rabinowitz’s Labor and Desire by giving us a Left that is defined by debates over key issues: the role of national culture, the centrality of the proletariat, and the uses and dangers of mass culture, to name those that Irr foregrounds. In her chapter on Richard Wright, for instance, Irr portrays Wright’s racial and marxist concerns not as irreconcilable competitors but rather as the basis for the proletarian novel’s characteristic gesture of translating local concerns for a larger audience—a move that reorients our understanding of both Native Son and its genre.
Irr’s attention to the differences within 1930s leftist culture shows up most clearly in her decision to focus on the literary Lefts of both the United States and Canada. Reminding us that the Left was an international subculture, Irr highlights key differences between movements [End Page 178] north and south of the border, pointing out, for example, that the Canadian Left’s...