Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pells - Radical Visions and American Dreams

Pells, Richard H. Radical Visions and American Dreams; Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.


Pells is sensitive to the inherently conservative argument below the surface of much of radical culture in the 1930s. As much as they called for social change in America, even the radicals resisted the overthrow of American ideals.

Ultimately, their committment to America in WWII, and the associated refigured American Dream, the intellectuals "were laying the foundations for their own postwar emergence as a privileged elite, the tough-minded tacticians of anti-Communist diplomacy, the indispensable experts in a managerial society... the well adjusted servants of the modern state." (361-2)

"Progressivism represented the first response of the 20th century to those transformations in industry, technology, labor, communications, and urban living which threatened to obliterate nineteenth century America." (9) Planning, efficiency, and expertise to deal with disorder and the consequences of rapid growth.
Progressive legacy in 30s - attempts to duplicate in form if not substance: intellectuals have a role in shaping the nation and fixing problems

1920s - Left fares poorly in time of middle class prosperity and individualism
Artists moved into exile within boehmian communities in the city, or to Europe.

Crash of 1929 -Initially, most accepted explanation that this was a temporary adjustment, and so attitudes and behavior remained the same for about a year.

Chapter II Political and Economic Thought, 1929-35 - Debate over a continued faith in the liberal state or a more radical refiguring of America. Those disenchanted with traditional reform increasingly looked to Russia as a potential model. However, Pells notes the idealization of Russia came uncritically; thus, "the attack on liberalism and the parallel attraction to the Soviet Union often ended not in a conversion to radical theory but rather in a commitment to special forms of culture and myth." (68)

Election of 1932 - Intellectuals didn't think FDR offered a radical change to the US that was needed to fix the situation, but the masses elected the only viable non-Hoover candidate. But once the New Deal was unveiled in the first 100 days, most observers sensed that it truly was a social revolution. Eventually, though, many concluded that Roosevelt was merely preserving the economic system in a time of scarcity rather than actually offering a radical solution. The intellectuals on the left remained committed to a socialist perspective.

Chapter III - Search for Community - Intellectuals (specifically John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Robert Lynd, Sidney Hook, and Reinhold Niebuhr) accepted the collectivization of American life into a mass society, and realized that required a redefinition of the American Dream. They failed to fashion a new ideology, but laid the groundwork for later thought by combining traditional liberalism, new socialism, and moral passion. Thus, they joined seemingly contradictory ideas, liberalism and Marxism, morality and politics, private thought and collective action, individual freedom and search for community, critique of industrialism and analysis of capitalism, desire for psychologcally satisfying myths an the need for a coherent social theory. (148-50)

Chapter IV - Literary Theory and the Role of the Intellectual - Writers on all sides of the political spectrum turned back to an engagement with public issues. In the case of some socialist writers, this became a critique of bohemian irresponsibility of the 1920s and a call toward universal brotherhood and cultural solidarity; Pells notes this call has an inherently conservative underbelly. Others began to search for and celebrate proletarian literature (Denning) to serve both the needs of the masses and the intelligentsia. Still others insisted that literature remain separate from politics and class struggle in order to secure its cultural value in the midst of collapse (the goal of both sides - it was the means that differed).

Chapter V - Documentaries, Fiction, and the Depression - Most of the creative artists did not follow the intellectual community, and (except James Agee's articles on Deep South tenant farmers for Fortune) avoided fusing radicalism with art. Literature was abandoned by some in favor of the seemingly more effectual journalism and documentary. Other writers made radicalism second to more traditional values: ex. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath favors patience over revolution, tradition over social change. Major themes included: remembrance of the past, coming of the apocalypse, and the survival of the self (hard-boiled detective remaining himself even as he solves a crime).

Chapter VI - The Radical Stage and the Hollywood Film in the 1930s - The Workers' Theater briefly held the promise of reform through the stage, but ultimately radical theater gave way to more conventional, sentimental plays at the end of the decade. Radical theater failed to invent new styles, and social significance lost its appropriateness and thus failed to draw an audience. Orson Welles' experimentation culminated in his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, but like other radical artists, Welles was offering an uncomfortable view of the world at a time (late 1930s) when Americans were yearning for tranquil and routine.

Chapter VII - The Decline of Radicalism, 1935-1939 - From high hopes, this period saw a retreat from the creativity of art and revolutionary-ness of thought. The decline is most visible in the history of the communist party which joined a common front against reaction (exemplified by Nazi Germany) rather than continuing to pursue their own objectives. Liberals, meanwhile, internalized the New Deal's message of the role of leadership (gov't) to help the masses. Overall, intellectuals sensed the moment for change had passed, and, while more moderate writers like Gilbert Seldes celebrated FDR as an American hero, the left felt a sense of the inevitability of disaster in the approaching war.

Chapter VIII - From Depression to War - The Popular Front and the rest of the intellectual left fragmented at the end of the decade, only to coalesce in a broader alliance in the crusade against Hitler, which would morph after 1945 into a defense of the US in the Cold War.

This book is most similar to Denning's Cultural Front. Pells is discussing the intellectual elite on the left, while Denning is stressing the participation through culture of the labor class along with intellectuals and artists.

Pells also overlaps with McCarraher's Christian Critics, discussing their role and interaction with their more secular counterparts. McCarraher probably does this a bit more delicately, but the varied perspective is interesting.

Why was the New Left of the 1960s a student movement? McCarraher explains why it wasn't a student movement. Pells, as well as Isserman, demonstrate why it arose from young thinkers rather than veterans of the 1930s.

I'm pushing my reading pace now, but this book is one I wish I could spend more time with and might have to come back and look at in the future, if I ever happen to be in a bank vault as an H-bomb blows civilization to kingdom come, leaving me all alone with time...time enough at last. I just have to make sure I keep plenty of sets of contact lenses.

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