13: Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front

Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, for all its weighty historical detail and analysis, centers around a single theme: that the 1930s amalgamation of labor and cultural interests into a “Popular Front” might be little-known now, but it resulted in a “laboring of culture” that is still reverberating, at least in left-leaning circles, today.
What Denning means by “laboring of culture” is the tricky part, because he sees labor and culture as dialectically related parts, which means that each shapes the other and that they’re therefore as difficult to separate as a codependent high school couple.  So he spends the first half of the book tracing their conjoined public appearances, including the shared language of the “labor movement,” the “proletariat,” and the “work,” “toil,” and “struggle” of labor activists and artists; the “proletarianization” of the culture industries, as children of working-class parents increasingly work as singers, artists, novelists, actors, cartoonists and make mass culture more like working-class culture; and the “social democratic” labor politics that influenced (and was influenced by) everything from textile strikes to fiction to dinner-table conversation.

The result of all this cross-pollination between labor movements, the people in the working-class, and cultural production, Denning argues, was a mass movement to permanently connect American labor with American culture.  That way, American culture could represent and be represented by the people, and Leftist and communist social visions could be realized. 

And lest his readers think he’s making all of this up, Denning spends the whole second half of the book proving it by analyzing products of this labor-culture combo: John Dos Passos’ U.S.A, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Billie Holiday’s love songs, experimental musical theater, gangster films, and something he calls the “ghetto pastoral,” of which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is probably the best-known example.  By thoroughly examining each of these cultural productions formally (er, he spends a good 50 pages talking about metaphors and narrative structures in the Dos Passos section alone) and simultaneously situating them in their cultural and historical context, Denning shows that yes, in the 1930s, labor and culture were thoroughly intertwined.

Of course, mass culture is not super communist or particularly pro-Labor today; if anything, the profusion of reality TV shows, re-released remakes of Spiderman movies, auto-tuned pop music, and baby animal YouTube videos that populate mass culture serve more to distract us than to incite us to revolution.  But lest this decoupling of labor and culture prove that the Popular Front didn’t have as much impact on American culture as Denning claims, he closes his book with this quote from cultural theorist Fredric Jameson:


history progresses by failure rather than by success…. It would be better to think of Lenin or Brecht (to pick a few illustrious names at random) as failures – that is, as actors and agents constrained by their own ideological limits and those of their moment of history – than as triumphant examples and models in some hagiographic or celebratory sense.

In other words, while the movement failed to permanently connect labor and culture, the people in it were both ordinary and extraordinary: they were totally human, but we are still trying to figure out the full implications of the things they produced, the ideas they had, and the politics they espoused.  And hey, maybe the most successful movements are those that show us how ordinary humans can create history.

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