- Series: Haymarket Series
- Paperback: 594 pages
- Publisher: Verso (July 17, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1859841708
- ISBN-13: 978-1859841709
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #770,415 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Haymarket Series)
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The Popular Front, a momentous groundswell of social activism during the Great Depression, was marked by activism among creative artists of all types that called attention to both the ends and the means of the production of art. Later historians would dismiss the socialist and communist elements of this cultural movement as minor sidelines of little if any significance. But, writes historian Michael Denning, "just as the radical movements of abolition, utopian socialism, and women's rights sparked the antebellum American Renaissance, so the communisms of the depression triggered a deep and lasting transformation of American modernism and mass culture, what I will call the laboring of American culture."
Although the early portions of the book, which establish the historical and social contexts of the Popular Front, are interesting, readers may likely find most fascinating the later chapters on some of the artists who took part in the movement, including Billie Holiday, who first began singing "Strange Fruit" at a left-wing cabaret, Duke Ellington, and John Dos Passos. His essay on the antifascist crusading of Orson Welles--"the American Brecht, the single most important Popular Front artist in theater, radio, and film"--is particularly insightful. Like Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty, The Cultural Front is a panoramic history that brings vibrancy and passion to the telling of American culture. --Ron Hogan
“A truly wonderful piece of history.”—Susan Douglas, The Progressive
“An immense achievement ... the most important book yet written on American culture in the age of the CIO.”—Michael Rogin, Journal of American History
“As fresh a synthesis of the distinctive culture of the 1930s and 1940s as you are likely to find anywhere.”—Christopher Benfey, Times Literary Supplement
“One of the 25 best books of 1997.”—Voice Literary Supplement
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Denning writes, “By the mid 1930s, the cultural front was sustained by a movement culture, a world of working-class education, recreation, and entertainment built by the Communist Party, the new industrial unions, and the fraternal benefit lodges, particularly those of the International Workers Order (IWO)” (pg. 67). He continues, “It was the peculiar combination of the corporate liberalism of the media corporations, the internal labor relations of the culture industries, and the working-class audience of the film, broadcasting, and music industries that resulted in a remarkable and contradictory politics of mass culture, producing the phenomena of left-wing ‘stars’ and ‘socially conscious’ nightclubs, radio broadcasts, and picture magazines” (pg. 83). Denning further argues, “The aesthetic innovations of the cultural front wrestled with the cultural contradictions of modernity, and led to a laboring of American culture. The characteristic narratives, tropes, and forms of the cultural front – the satiric newsreels, ghetto pastorals, proletarian grotesques, and cabaret blues – informed the most powerful and lasting works of twentieth-century American fiction, music, theater, and film, as well as the cultural criticism and theory that surrounded them” (pg. 118). He adds, “The politics of the Popular Front social movements were rarely populist; rather, the Popular Front combined three distinctive political tendencies: a social democratic laborism based on a militant industrial unionism; an anti-racist ethnic pluralism imagining the United States as a ‘nation of nations’; and an anti-fascist politics of international solidarity” (pg. 125).
Addressing literature, Denning argues, “The renaissance ignited by the proletarian avant-garde was responsible for two key developments in American literary history: the emergence of a generation of plebian ethnic writers who represented – in several senses of the word – the new working-class cultures of America and who were to transform American letters in the decades to follow; and the creation of a genre – the ghetto or tenement pastoral – that is still at the heart of the American novel” (pg. 201). Of theatre, Denning writes, “The cabaret blues of Café Society was the product of a complex alliance between jazz and the Popular Front that had its political origins in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Nine and its social origins in the working-class musical culture of hot jazz and swing. This alliance between jazz and the Popular Front movement permanently altered the shape of American music” (pg. 323-324). He continues, “Café Society represented a remarkable synthesis of the radical political cabarets of Belgium and Paris with the African American jazz clubs and revues of Harlem” (pg. 324).
Denning concludes, “The Cold War anti-Communist purge of the culture industries and state cultural apparatuses left a deep cultural amnesia, as radical intellectuals were jailed, lost jobs, were deported or went into exile, were unable to publish, reedited their earlier work and downplayed their earlier affiliations, or, in some cases, killed themselves” (pg. 425).