Pining for the union halls

The Cultural Front
November 21, 1997

North American and British historians continue to feed off each other's methodology and theories, not least in the field of working-class history. Michael Denning, an American, now of Yale but once of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, has studied Gramsci, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall and has been prompted into a reinterpretation of American culture in the period of the 1930s to the 1950s. His basic assumption is that the new militancy and solidarity displayed by the workers of San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo made 1934 "one of the lyric years in American history" and inaugurated a period in which a defined and massive working class was the most fundamental reality in American society. For Denning the Congress of Industrial Organisations was the chief symbol of that working class and consequently these decades "were the age of the CIO", and an age, too, that saw what a memorable subtitle sums up as "the labouring of American culture".

The author's awareness of how deeply rooted trade unions were in communities of steel, textile, auto and waterfront workers allied with his understanding of Raymond Williams's notion of cultural formations, encourages a refreshingly broad examination of the role and influence and of the working class within the national culture. We are urged to abandon traditional preoccupations with the initiatives of Washington-based New Dealers and the strategies of Communist party members, and rather to reflect on how many artistic and literary manifestations were inspired by an awareness of labour. The very simple corrective of reminding us that many writers and artists, whom we normally discuss in terms of being blacks, Jewish, slaves or women, were working class in origin, substantially changes our perspective. Denning's time-frame also crucially refines judgement of some vital texts, such as Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep and Tillie Lerner Olsen's Yonnondio, which were only fully appreciated in later decades, while the best working-class films were made in the 1950s rather than in the earlier period of agitation. All the time Denning prompts us to abandon sectarian judgements and, quite rightly, suggests that we treasure Elia Kazan's brilliant film On the Waterfront not as a defence of informing, but rather as the greatest triumph of Popular Front-inspired theatre.

The book's early rhetoric is bullish, preparing us for a substantial labour impact. The tone of the conclusion is more realistic and honest. This may have been the age of the CIO but in truth, this is not a book about American labour but rather one about American intellectuals, only some of whom were of working-class origin. Denning is much taken with Olsen's phrase "the nameless Frank Lloyd Wrights of the proletariat" but those types are the inspiration of this book, not its subject. There are references to the garment workers' educational schemes, and there are tantalising snippets of information, such as the fact that Karl Malden (born Mladen Sekulovich) first appeared on stage in the Serbian theatre of Gary, Indiana, as well as definitive lists of published titles in the text and the exemplary notes. Denning is at his most convincing when discussing the garment workers' musical Pins and Needles, and when arguing for Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath to be read in the context of what was actually happening in what we may describe as McWilliams's California. There are excellent essays on John Dos Passos and Orson Welles: the latter in many ways is the hero of the book, "the American Brecht".

Denning ends with Bob Dylan's lament that unlike Woody Guthrie he had not been able to make "the rounds t' the union halls". As it was in 1930s and 1960s, so it is today: intellectuals and artists long to be part of what went on in union halls. That guilt produced some interesting art and continues to inspire rewarding history and criticism.

Peter Stead was senior lecturer in history, University of Wales, Swansea.

The Cultural Front: The Labouring of American Culture in the 20th Century

Author - Michael Denning
ISBN - 1 85984 815 X
Publisher - Verso
Price - £20.00
Pages - 556

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