Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Labouring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century presents a historical and cultural analysis of the Po...moreMichael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Labouring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century presents a historical and cultural analysis of the Popular Front social movement of the 1930s in America. Through his multiple approaches, Denning is able to demonstrate an understanding of the Popular Front movement as not just a political movement but also a multi-ethnic, multi-centred social movement in a period of transition.
Denning clearly outlines his overarching argument in The Cultural Front, stating that the Popular Front was more than a Communist inspired political movement, but was also a social movement, influencing the creation of the American cultural industry and leaving a lasting impact on American modernism and mass culture. In order to accomplish this, Denning divides his book into three sections, each with its own sub-argument. The first section, “The Left and American Culture” aims to display the Popular Front as a historical bloc which through its relations to the Congress/Committee of Industrial Organizations and other union organizations created a generation of artists who were both from and found an audience within the ethnic working classes and then carried on to become instigators of the cultural front. Here Denning does not hone in on any one specific individual or organization as a cornerstone of the movement, but instead provides a historical accounting of the movement as a whole, the reasoning behind it, how it began and why it ended.
Denning uses the second section, “Anatomy of the Cultural Front,” to overview cultural politics and the aesthetic ideologies of the cultural front, emphasizing the relationship between culture and politics. In this section, Denning explores the political motivations surrounding the culture that came out of the Popular Front. Here, he analyzes the politics of form as aesthetic ideologies through an exploration of agitprop, which is “a contraction of agitation and propaganda...the name for a variety of directly political art” (57). The final section, and largest of the book, “Formations of the Cultural Front,” explores various art forms, such as literature, music, theatre, and animation, that were also “social locations” of the movement. This is where Denning links to his overarching argument the most; through a study of how trends that emerged during the Popular Front movement became a part of the American narrative. One such trend he focuses on, for example, is the migrant tale; the narrative of Steinbeck’s widely known Grapes of Wrath, which emerged during this period due and worked its way into mass culture as “an emblem of depression era populism” (259) that represented the people. While he pursues largely literary conventions in this final section, Denning also explores music, film, and even the field of American cultural studies. In order to pursue these arguments, Denning relies heavily on historical analysis and sources, especially in the first section of The Cultural Front. These historical sources used could almost be seen as a Who’s Who of the Popular Front era as he outlines the biography of many prominent artists, writers, musicians, and photographers who played a role in the movement; Denning also delves into the history of organizations, unions, committees, and magazines, among many others. While these are largely used to provide a historical backdrop and overview of the era, they are also employed to demonstrate the extensive spread of the Popular Front. Rather than chronologically chronicling this history though, Denning inserts and uses them based on the cultural viewpoint he is focusing on at any one time. This is especially useful for Denning, because, as he states, the American Popular Front was not a united movement, but took place in three major arenas across the country: New York, California, and the Midwest (CITE). While Denning relies largely on historical material to inform his analysis throughout the text as a whole, in the final section he focuses more on literary analysis and critique when studying specific primary texts such as John Dos Passos U.S.A. and literary movements like the “Ghetto Pastoral” (230) genre. Denning also applies similar methods unto other mediums and genres, such as film, theatre, music, and photography. With The Cultural Front, Denning is successful in demonstrating the cultural movements of the Popular Front and their lasting impact on American culture. To provide a stand out and accurate cultural analysis of the Popular Front, Denning eschews a study of the economic and political factors of the movement, instead focussing on the union organizations, working class society, and artists of the period. By removing his analysis from the political sphere, Denning is able to highlight aspects of the movement that could otherwise be overlooked, such as the contributions by individuals and groups that were not affiliated with political parties like Lewis Corey/Louis Farina. However, Denning’s omission of the political sphere does also work against him. In the onset of the text, he states that most members of the movement viewed themselves as a communist in some manner, even those who were not affiliated with the Communist Party officially, and that previous studies of the period have focused on the political links, especially the communist ones, of individuals and organizations (xviii). While Denning is stressing this in order to differ his account from others and to note that he will not be examining these politics as deliberately, it does seem a disconnect for him to ignore these links near entirely and instead to briefly refer to political leanings as “left” or, a more focussed but still general, “Red” when they do crop up within the main text.
Denning’s main strength in The Cultural Front is his ability to approach the subject matter and the period from multiple angles. While I did not find that Denning succeeded in his argument as he had laid it out, I still found that based on the book as a whole he did succeed. For example, Denning intends to use the first section of his text to demonstrate an alternative view of the Popular Front movement. However, the first section of the text reads as an extensive historical background of the period that was necessitated so that the reader could follow his many of historical references later in the text rather than an argument. On the other hand though, this first section still, especially when combined with the rest of the text, conveys Denning’s intent. This was a trend that I noticed a few times throughout the text and have chalked it up to an issue on my part rather than Denning’s. Despite his argument being laid out clearly at the onset of the text, it was still open to some interpretation; meaning that I had expected Denning to approach his points in different manners than he did, yet both approaches still yielded the same results. This is successful, I believe, based on Denning’s insistence on charting the Popular Front as four movements of culture: an avant garde movement, a social movement, a state movement, and a mass culture movement. By analyzing the Popular Front in this way, rather than chronologically, Denning is able to focus on the complexity and variety within the movement. As stated above, The Cultural Front makes it clear that this was not a singular movement located in a singular space; Denning highlights how these movements proceeded in the three main centres, New York, California, and the Midwest, and aspects of the movements that were central to each one more so than the others, such as California’s migrant narratives. This is important as Denning also examines the groups of individuals involved in the same manner. That is, he explores the history of the movements and impacts it had not through a black/white racial binary, but through an exploration of the multiple ethnicities of those involved. Aside from the general ethnic population of America he also makes a special note of émigrés, the artists and intellectuals who fled fascist regimes in Europe, Asia, and Latin America (60), and the Jewish members of the burgeoning film industry. By acknowledging the multitudes of peoples involved in the movement, Denning further highlights the diversity and complexity as the movement as a whole, rather than confining it to a singular united front.
While I believe that Denning clearly outlined his arguments and executed them, I did have trouble following his thought process in parts. This was due to a writing issue rather than a problem with his thoughts themselves; often throughout the text Denning would broach a point related to the current thought he is formulating. When he brought up these related points, Denning would begin to provide background information and lead into an argument involving them, but then, as they were off topic, state that he would continue the idea further in the text and return to his original point. This is perfectly reasonable, especially in a book of this size. However, I found that his lead in to the secondary argument was so well formulated that he often spent multiple pages on these tangential thoughts, causing the reader issue when returning to his original point. Then, when he later returned to the tangential argument within its own section of the text, it was often difficult to recall the points he had made previously since he did not repeat the earlier explanation and instead just continued from where he had stopped in the previous chapters. This switching of gears throughout the book made it difficult to follow his intended points and to connect parts of the argument across the book as a whole. Though, while it was frustrating to read, it did not affect the clarity of his arguments as a whole.
Overall, The Cultural Front, succeeds in demonstrating the cultural atmosphere of the Popular Front and the history of the people and organizations behind it through Denning’s use of history, literary criticism, and theoretical analysis. By using a variety of approaches, it challenges others to view the movement in a new and different way. (less)