- Popular Culture and the Popular Front
In this encyclopedic study, Michael Denning recovers the left-wing culture of the 1930s from critics like Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe and historians like Warren Sussman, who described it as sentimental and shallow, as empty agitprop produced by fellow travelers misled into serving Stalin. From Billy Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” to Orson Welles making Citizen Kane, to John Dos Passos writing U.S.A., Popular Front culture, Denning shows, had a breadth, depth, and significance that its critics have failed to see or understand. Denning enlists Gramsci to argue the left had cultural hegemony in the thirties for the first time in U.S. history, and that the Popular Front brought a “deep and lasting transformation of American modernism and mass culture” (p. xvi).
One of the book’s central arguments is that Popular Front culture did not begin and end with the Communist party. Denning denies that the antagonism between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists on the left formed the center of thirties left culture, that it provides the starting place today for analysis and criticism. That antagonism, he argues, was important in New York, but not so important elsewhere; and, even in New York, the two sides had more in common than they perceived at the time. Here Denning cites an excellent authority-Richard Hofstadter, who grew up in the thirties Left, and then during the fifties shared the Kazin-Howe critique. But in the 1967 preface to The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter wrote that “the differences that seemed very sharp and decisive to those who dwelt altogether within [the thirties Left] had begun to lose their distinctness” in retrospect, and that “men on different sides of a number of questions appeared as having more in common, in the end, than one originally imagined” (p. 25). Even those who broke with the CP continued to produce work with the same “structure of feeling,” Denning argues, pointing to Elia Kazan and Richard Wright.
The antagonism of Stalinists and anti-Stalinists, Denning argues, was not just a matter of ideological commitment and critique, as the participants [End Page 625] wanted to believe, but also of ethnic distrust: immigrant Jews like Howe and Kazin looked suspiciously on native born WASP Communists like Malcolm Cowley, F. O. Matthieson, and Granville Hicks, who they saw as middlebrow and out of touch with the currents of European modernism; while some of the native-born Reds, like John dos Passos, looked down on the immigrant intellectuals (as Edmund Wilson wrote, “the Jews have no sense of the American revolutionary tradition,” quoted, p. 62). Thus the story of the Popular Front requires studying independent leftists, noncommunist Socialists, and others who were neither CP members, naive fellow travelers, nor New Deal liberals.
Denning calls the book’s central theme “the laboring of American culture” (p. xvi), emphasizing the centrality of labor in the rhetoric of the era, the increased significance of working-class people in the production of culture, and the new awareness of cultural production as a form of labor. He refuses to label the thirties and forties “the New Deal era,” preferring instead “Age of the CIO.” The book’s opening section, outlining the history of radical movements of the thirties against the background of the social and political transformations of the decade, is the best short (50-page) introduction to the era I know. That is followed by a 100-page overview of the Left’s political and aesthetic ideologies. The heart of the book comes in the 300-page section examining in detail the cultural productions of the era in different genres: literature, popular music, theater, drama.
Orson Welles takes center stage in the book as the greatest single figure of Popular Front culture, dominating stage, then radio, then screen, engaged with many of the big left-wing issues of the day, a man whose work as an artist was widely appreciated even by those disdainful of the rest of Popular Front culture. But it is hard...