- Forgotten Men and Fallen Women: The Cultural Politics of New Deal Narratives by Holly Allen
Over the last half-century, historians of the New Deal have come to a sophisticated understanding of the cultural politics of the 1930s. Whereas many of those who survived the Great Depression recalled the period as one defined by radical experimentation of all kinds, a new generation, those who had been children in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal America, looked back on the era with a stronger sense of continuity. Warren Susman and William E. Leuchtenburg were among the first to capture the introverted nature of Depression-era popular culture as people sought not to establish a new social order but to reestablish, as much as possible, the one that had crashed with the stock market in the fall of 1929. Following Leuchtenburg’s and Susman’s lead, scholars as different as Lawrence W. Levine, Lizabeth Cohen, and Alan Brinkley have, with great analytical acuity and historical imagination, helped us see how traditional and conservative themes in political culture and cultural politics blunted the reach of innovation and reform across American culture—whether in the iconography of daily life, in the administration of federal programs, or in the formulation of economic policies.
Holly Allen brings much-needed illumination into unfamiliar corners of this otherwise well-traveled territory. She does so in ways significant enough that they should alter how we view the entire vista. Allen’s mission here is to recover and distill for us the “‘civic stories’” through which Americans were [End Page 712] encouraged by political leaders, popular journalists, Hollywood filmmakers, and New Deal bureaucrats, all of whom were the human faces of their era’s social democratic reform, to understand and live through times of crisis (p. 3). In these “conventionalized” stories of “forgotten manhood,” the struggles of women, when they were not ignored, were minimized (p. 35). Allen makes a very convincing case that, throughout popular culture and public life, the desire of women to work was presented as a problem because it added insult to their husbands’ injury by replacing men as “‘the controller of the family pocketbook’” (p. 37).
Even more compelling is Allen’s effective demonstration of how the leaders of New Deal–era popular culture treated the physical and economic transience of the most vulnerable workers as sexual deviants with an inability or unwillingness to contribute the stout labor needed to be a breadwinner. Students of the New Deal will learn much from Allen about the masculinism of New Deal policy makers through her treatment of the Civilian Conservation Corps as a nation-building entity in two distinct contexts: as a way of saving the “boys on the loose” in a failed economy and as a model for the War Relocation Authority, which sought to contain the unruly Nisei youth (second-generation, U.S.-born Japanese Americans) whose Americanism could not be counted on (p. 70). Here again, the restless and the transient found themselves stereotyped as comprehensively dangerous, deviant figures who were deserving of official inspection and harassment.
By extending her analysis through wartime mobilization and the relocation of Japanese Americans and their relatives, Holly Allen reminds us of something else that we dare not forget: preexisting structures of harassment and surveillance did not go into remission during these years of depression and war, only to reemerge in the more conservative 1940s and 1950s; such nationalism is always at hand to be mobilized in the name of the “national interest.”