Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Denning - The Cultural Front

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. The Haymarket series. London: Verso, 1996.

Argument/Key terms
The period from the Sacco-Venzetti execution (1927) and the Crash of 1929 to the Cold War blacklisting and McCarthyism is best described as the Age of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) because for the first time the left had a significant effect on American culture and society as a whole. The Cultural Front describes Denning's argument: that intellectuals, artists, and lower class workers were united - or at least connected - in a conscious efforts to shape society through mass culture. This period thus saw a "laboring" of American culture, as not only did culture begin to reflect lower class interests, but the lower classes themselves became active participants in the creation, performance, and consumption of culture. (xvi-xvii)

Historiographic Importance
Denning refutes the common-held belief that the Popular Front was made up of the Communist Party at its core with other sympathetic participants on the periphery ("fellow travelers"). Instead, he argues party membership was much more fluid and the specific ideologies of the Popular Front were much more varied than the core-periphery model might suggest. He thus proposes that the Popular Front be viewed as a historical bloc, with a base in industrial unions.

Taking issue with the New York school's claim that the Popular Front was an utter failure because of its central Communism, he also attempts to demonstrate both the contribution to American culture made during the period and the lasting influence of these works after 1948 (eventually inspiring the New Left of the 60s).

Key Examples

Ch. 4 Dos Passos's USA - Didn't have the lasting influence of contemporary works of fiction because it was so rooted in the time. Triology tells of the decline of the Lincoln Republic. Unites history, fiction, and memoir through four types of writing - Newsreels (unauthored accounts of historical events), Camera Eyes (autobiographical accounts of Dos Passos own experiences), biographical portraits (of real figures, and fictional narratives about 12 disconnected characters.

Ch. 6 Ghetto Pastorals - Importance of ghetto as setting for immigrant lower class tales.

Ch.7 Grapes of Wrath - Most successful of numerous migrant worker texts. Elevated the Okie migration despite the existence of other examples of migrant workers at that moment, primarily because Okies were white. Denning discusses other less well-known migrant worker stories about non-whites (Mexicans, Chinese, blacks)

Ch. 8 Popular Front Musical Theater - Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock is an allegory of the middle class eforts to usurp the power of labor unions. Harold Rome's Pins and Needles was a musical revue which had a success that has confounded Broadway historians. Most write it off as appealing through its political consciousness, but Denning argues that the songs about working-class romance are what made it successful. The cast was made up of New York laborers - amateur performers (until the show became increasingly popular). Anti-fascist sketches.

Ch. 9 Caberet Blues - Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington (discussed in Ch. 8) were thought in retrospect to not be particularly politically conscious (and often claimed as such after 1948), but Denning shows they are underestimated.

Ch. 10 Orson Welles - Denning argues Anti-Fascism was the core ideology of Welles' work from Julius Caesar to War of the Worlds to Citizen Kane.

Ch. 11 The Disney strike of 1941 - breaking Disney's paternalism

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book. On one hand, the case studies are interesting, in-depth, and often engrossing. The overall conclusions seem, historiographically, significant. However, great portions of the book were a real slog. Denning often repeats himself. I had a strong sense that the text could have been at least 100 pages smaller to the same effect. He often quoted secondary sources that agreed with his points. He also freqently uses long lists of names. Whole paragraphs are dedicated to listing examples. Those kinds of things, it seems to me, could either be edited out or stuck in a footnote. (This uses endnotes.)

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