FIFTIES ETHNICITIES: The Ethnic Novel and Mass Culture at Midcentury by Tracy Floreani
In Fifties Ethnicities: The Ethnic Novel and Mass Culture at Midcentury, Tracy Floreani studies ethnicity in the 1950s as a period scholar bringing together a variety of texts such as novels, television programs, magazines, and films. Eager to challenge the common notion of a middle class, white midcentury America, the [End Page 142] author denounces the invisibility of diversity in the mass media of the decade and sets out to investigate the participation of some minority writers in the construction of American identity. In this pre–“ethnic pride” movements period, Floreani strives to bring to light the 1950s ethnicity that “the forces of mass culture have elided […] from much of popular memory” (1).
This endeavor is premised on the deconstruction of the positive/negative binary of ethnic representation in cultural criticism that fatally limits analysis. Floreani’s comparative readings of mass media and literary texts yield a complex picture of a host of identities which, through participation in the national culture, converge in the enactment of citizenship. Indeed, the texts under examination testify to “the expansion of consumer culture and the entrenchment of gender roles” (3) that also characterize the period.
Floreani approaches five novels (Flower Drum Song, Lolita, Maud Martha, Rock Wagram, Invisible Man) in their dialogue with mass culture as textual case studies of the performance of cultural citizenship. In this group, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita naturally stands out, as the novel is hardly seen as belonging to “immigrant literature,” but Floreani justifies her choice underlining the class issue along with the Western origins of Nabokov’s main character. In her comparative reading, Lolita is again surprisingly paired with C. Y. Lee’s Flower Drum Song, but the author demonstrates how “they theorize the role of mass culture as instrumental to postwar American identity formation” in spite of their differences (23). Though “theorizing” is not the novelists’ business, these two novels’ engagement with mass culture becomes quite salient. In her subsequent chapters, Floreani mixes genres, pairing the other novels with TV shows (I Love Lucy), popular narratives circulating in mass culture productions such as sitcoms and magazines, and finally films (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life). Floreani proceeds in an incremental way; while Chapter 2 examines the gendering of the consumer imperative, Chapter 3, “What’s for Sale: Consumer Fantasy, American Women, and Social Mobility in Gwendolyn’s Brooks’s Maud Martha and the I Love Lucy Show,” takes the topic further through the perspective of ethnic womanhood. Likewise, two well-known artists, Ralph Ellison and Douglas Sirk appear last, for their works seem to provide the possibility of change for the models of cultural imitation. Her close readings of the novels mesh with popular media narratives to “force the issue of cultural invisibility into plain sight” (142).
Though studies of ethnicity have almost reached a saturation point, this decade offered Floreani the opportunity to give these studies a new lease on life. And since the author does make clear that her book does not naturally define all the ethnic writing of the period, there is certainly more to come to fill in the picture in the carpet.