Old notes on Michael Denning's monumental book The Cultural Front:
The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1998)
Summary of Denning’s argument I have to write for class.— Overarching argument: Corresponding to the Popular Front of the 1930s was a “cultural front,” a broad alliance of radical artists and intellectuals that permeated the cultural industries and apparatuses. This front reshaped American culture. (He refers to a second American Renaissance, the first being in the 1840s and ’50s.) “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.” (Why “laboring”? (1) Pervasive use of the term “labor” and its synonyms; (2) proletarianization of culture, integration of the working class into culture and the arts, resulting from the huge expansion of secondary and higher education and also the industries of entertainment; (3) unionization of the new masses of cultural laborers, including screenwriters, actors, journalists, teachers, and so on; (4) the Popular Front was not simply New Deal liberalism and populism but a social democratic culture, “industrial democracy” and “industrial unionism.”)
Why did the left have an unprecedented impact on culture in the 1930s? Most historians invoke the image of the “fellow traveler,” the individual intellectual attracted to the Communist Party, but this is misleading and inadequate. It’s a manifestation of the typical individualistic thinking of the bourgeois social scientist, the methodological individualism. The historian’s focus in this case shouldn’t be on the momentary political commitments of individual writers and artists, or on the hackneyed narrative of their “seduction and betrayal” by the Communist Party. Rather, the cultural front resulted from social-structural forces, viz. “the encounter between a powerful democratic social movement—the Popular Front—and the modern cultural apparatuses of entertainment and education.” The Popular Front wasn’t just the Communist Party with its periphery of “fellow travelers”; it was a vast social-democratic movement “forged around anti-fascism, anti-lynching, and the industrial unionism of the CIO.” It was a historical bloc, based in the CIO’s industrial unions. And it wasn’t merely a brief historical episode, an accidental detour which led nowhere, as historians have argued ever since the 1950s. Summing up its significance, Denning says that this unique constellation of social forces in the ’30s informed the life-work of two generations of artists and intellectuals. “For the first time in the history of the United States, a working-class culture had made a significant imprint on the dominant cultural institutions. Both high culture and mass culture took on a distinctly plebeian accent. Black and ethnic writers, descendants of the proletarian avant-garde, dominated twentieth-century American literature. Vernacular musics like jazz, blues, and country resonated around the world. Gangster movies and films noir had founded the ‘American’ look in film. The cultural front had been a laboring of American culture.”
Thus, Popular Front = social movement, not mere political alliance or “sentimental façade.” It can also be seen as a “structure of feeling,” in Raymond Williams’s phrase, a concept that denotes “forms of practice and social and mental habits.” (Each generation can be said to have its own structure of feeling.) In a way, then, the Popular Front was “a political and cultural charter for a generation”; and it didn’t end with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, as historians tend to think. It really lasted until after the war—even, in a vague way, until the early 1960s, when a new structure of feeling took over. It was coextensive with “the age of the CIO,” which lasted from the ’30s to the ’50s.
“The cultural front is the terrain where the Popular Front social movement met the cultural apparatus [i.e., the whole apparatus of culture, from education to the media] during the age of the CIO. From that conflict and conjuncture came the Popular Front ‘flavor’ of American mass culture.”
Denning admits, though, that in the end the laboring of American culture was a failure, “pummeled by the new postmodern forms of commodity fetishism.” But, as Fredric Jameson has said, history progresses by failure rather than success. And it’s better to think of a given historical figure as more of a failure than a success, “an actor or agent constrained by his own ideological limits and those of his moment in history.” (Peter the Great, Napoleon, Marx, Lenin, John L. Lewis, etc.)
“The Literary Class War”: Rethinking Proletarian Literature (Chapter 5)
Review of Denning’s goal: to establish through a number of examples that conventional interpretations of the Popular Front (in the second half of the 1930s) are wrong. The Front’s culture was neither a passing fad without long-term significance nor a selling-out of the more radical cultural and social movements between 1930 and 1934. Instead, proletarian literature left a “profound and lasting mark” on American literature/culture (making it more working-class) and, secondly, the Popular Front’s literature was actually a continuation of the radical avant-garde of the early depression rather than a repudiation of it. It was, to a large extent, the avant-garde’s institutionalization.
Denning starts by criticizing the common attempt to define “proletarian” literature. The problem with this attempt is that genres are not abstract and ahistorical ideal-types. They have “grown out of particular social formations and must be understood not as a class of objects but as the products of those formations.” (His criticism of this ahistorical literary thinking therefore ties into his implicit criticism of methodological individualism.) A better question to ask is “What was the proletarian literary formation?” What kinds of writers and writing did it produce?
Definition of a “cultural formation”: the combination of a cultural politics and an aesthetic ideology. (Useful distinction.) The former denotes cultural infrastructure (publishers, galleries, patrons, reviewers); the latter is the “conscious and unconscious ways of valuing that a cultural formation develops and inculcates, its ‘aesthetic,’ its sense of what is good, true, and beautiful.” Denning proceeds to examine these two things in the context of proletarian literature, looking first at the variety of little magazines and literary circles it produced.
Hundreds of short-lived leftist literary magazines popped up around the country in the early 30s. Many clubs too, especially the John Reed clubs (for artists and intellectuals but also ordinary working-men). Important bohemian subculture. Engaged in cultural events and supported labor struggles. Denning describes in detail the lives of these clubs and of the intellectuals who took part in them, like Richard Wright, Michael Gold, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Cowley, Jack Conroy, and Kenneth Burke, showing how their early experiences informed their later careers. He eschews abstract analysis of radical literature; concentrates on the concrete, especially “cultural politics” but also aesthetic ideologies, showing how they spread and colonized the broader culture. Examples of these ideologies or styles: the blues vernacular and racial romances of Langston Hughes; gangster melodrama; worker narratives and industrial lore; the surgical experimentalism of William Carlos Williams; lyric feminist regionalism; the migrant narrative; and the “ghetto or tenement pastoral,” a new and lasting genre, like the migrant narrative. (“By the time of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, the story of the ghetto had become quintessentially American.”) A common thread through all this is an emphasis on social and economic exploitation.
All in all, Denning’s argument is fairly persuasive. A working-class perspective in much literature and culture persisted through the 1940s and afterwards. His methodology is also sensible—focusing on social formations and ways of life rather than abstract analysis of texts. He does the latter, though, (sort of) in other chapters, and the two approaches are complementary. This is actually a criticism I have of his rejection of methodological individualism: holism and individualism are complementary, or should be. He prefers to think in terms of social forces, but the flip-side of these forces is their manipulation of the individual, in other words of his “political commitments.” Thousands of intellectuals were indeed attracted to working-class ideologies for a few years, and many of them subsequently moved to the right. The language of “seduction and betrayal” is tendentious, but the broader narrative it’s used to describe obviously has some truth to it. Denning’s main point is still sound, though: even if most individuals ended up repudiating the radical sins of their youth, it’s undeniable that the social/cultural formations of the ’30s and early ’40s influenced culture into the ’50s and ’60s, and beyond. It’s hard to “prove” that statement, but on some level it’s surely a truism. (Is Denning’s argument ultimately truistic? No, but it probably isn’t as original as he thinks.)