Review- Denning, “The Cultural Front”

Michael Denning, “The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century” (1997) – More like the “be-laboring… of the point!” Just kidding- this book is pretty long and detailed but I wouldn’t call it belabored. It describes the titular “cultural front,” the loose coalition of artists — writers, filmmakers, painters, photographers, etc. — who attached themselves to the Popular Front in the 1930s and who had an outsized effect on American culture.

Like a lot of big books in American Studies, this one makes a big deal out of excavating lost Americana. I read this book over twenty years after it was published, so Denning’s posture that he’s recovering lost history is somewhat lost on me, but I can see what he means. Critics and artists in the decades after the thirties often pooh-poohed the period as one of stagnant politicization, the following of party lines. The liberals who created the midcentury critical establishment in America specifically snubbed any Popular Front writers who didn’t, at some point, turn on it (as John Dos Passos did) in favor of the less political modernism of the teens and twenties.

Denning argues gamefully both for his subject’s cultural creativity and its relevance. More than following a party line — either the Communist Party or the New Deal Democrats — most of the cultural front (and the Popular Front more generally; their relationship, and both’s relationship to the broader labor left and the New Deal, is foggy here) got involved for fairly straightforward reasons. They saw a coalition dedicated to carrying forward the labor militancy of the depression era, as well as fighting racism and fascism at home and abroad, and went for it. The sort of drama of sectarianism that fixated later critics was just that- mostly a thing for critics. As for relevance, such figures as Dorothea Lange, Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, and Dashiell Hammett were all involved, which on the one hand is a group of heavyweights but on the other hand largely worked in established genres and forms. Still, they and the thousands of other Popular Front cultural workers brought their own sensibility to things which was influential for a long time, and arguably still is.

Denning makes a larger point about the “laboring” of American culture, a movement from the thirties to the end of the fifties that put the concerns and expressions of working class Americans — many of them migrants or children of migrants, either from abroad or internal migration — at the center of culture and politics. I’m not sure about this claim, or rather think it seems a bit big and broad. I could buy it for the period of the CIO’s strength in the thirties and arguably during the war, but after the war, the Cold War and consumerism take over. In all, this is a big book full of fascinating detail (just enough to merit the “belaboring” joke) but that suffers from some overly-ambitious theoretical aims. Still, probably better to aim high. ****

Review- Denning, “The Cultural Front”

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