I mentioned in an earlier post that I am teaching a course on American cultural criticism and using Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front as a primary text. After looking through other posts from the distant past of S-USIH, I noticed that Ben, Andrew, and Tim have all praised Denning for having redefined the discussion of the Popular Front and in the process given rise to countless seminar discussions and chapters in dissertations. I am fully on that bandwagon, having just ended a succession of classes leading students through Denning’s more theoretical chapters.
So with Denning on my mind, I have been struck by the confluence recently of work that seems to make Denning’s conceptual rendering of political culture crashingly relevant. The recent discussion of Denning in relation to Andrew Seal’s provocative post on Harold Ramis prompted Michael Kramer to wonder what we need to call our “cultural front.” Corey Robin’s searing concern for the “adjunct intellectual” makes us consider whether we are witnessing the twilight of our generation’s cultural provocateurs who make us think critically about a system that is slowly devouring their ability to sustain a livelihood. And then there is Tom Sugrue, who I nearly idolize. His published work—especially, The Origins of the Urban Crisis—and his talks about Detroit suggest a viable and even noble way to do socially relevant, methodologically sophisticated scholarship. Now in the administration of the Social Science and Policy Forum at UPenn, Sugrue has opened a conduit for some of the most important scholarship being done on inequality in America, from promoting fellowships to study the topic, to recommending and sponsoring talks by some of the most significant scholars on it, such as Thomas Piketty and Khalil Muhammad.
All of this is enough to push a person to wonder if Communism is twenty-first century Americanism. That was the question (h/t Earl Browder) I posed to my students recently, leaving them (unfortunately) a bit bewildered. Their lack of Cold War anxiety about communism is refreshing; their lack of understanding that Denning wanted them to see both the irony and sincerity of that declaration is a bit disheartening. So to challenge their ignorance and to give myself a chance to grade slightly better essays, I assigned them back issues of Jacobin to read while on spring break. Yes, that’s right, I expect them to read over break, and with the hope, no less, that reading our moment’s version of the Popular Front will inspire them to reconsider the subversiveness of Woody Guthrie and Orson Welles (neither of whom inspires them) while recognizing the subversion hidden in culture they take for granted.
I admire the writers at Jacobin, n+1, and The New Inquiry, for the same reasons that I praise Tom Sugrue and the scholars he promotes–having been galvanized by yet another social and economic crisis, they offer a radical interpretation of what it means to be involved in a collective project called America. Michael Denning captured the complexity of that project writing about the often maligned 1930s radicals of the Popular Front: “The figure of ‘America’ became a locus for ideological battles over the trajectory of US history, the meaning of race, ethnicity, and region in the United States, and the relation between ethnic nationalism, Americanism, and internationalism. Indeed, the ubiquity of ‘America’ in the rhetoric of the period is less a sign of ‘deep reverence’ or ‘harmony’ than a sign of the crisis of Americanism, provoked by the crash of 1929 and the social conflicts of the depression, not least the violent suppression of the ‘Bonus Marchers,’ the World War I Veterans, in 1932.” (129)
Change the reference from 1929 to 2009 and from the suppression of World War I vets to teachers, students, and others who make up the much maligned Occupy Movement, and you get a pretty accurate summary our state of affairs.
To punctuate the assignment I gave to my students, I pointed to the recent groundbreaking work done by Picketty and his French colleagues and linked it to a bit of my own family’s history. If you have not heard an abbreviated version of Picketty’s research, the upshot is this: American inequality hit its lowest level in those years just after the Great Depression and World War II (around 1945-1947). That trend, of course, has reversed in our time, with inequality spiking to its greatest level since just before the crash of 1929.
As you probably know, different census years are available on-line, including the 1940 census, when my grandparents were young and had yet, at least on my dad’s side, to have married. My dad’s father was 23 years old in 1940 and still lived with his parents in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. He had a high school diploma—a distinction he shared only with his oldest brother John—and was working as an assistant manager at a diner in Manhattan. He worked all 52 weeks of the year and had an annual income of $1404.
John, my grandfather’s oldest brother, went to university to become a dentist, and according to family lore was the recipient of a substantial part of his family’s financial investment. His salary for the same period was $4000.
Their father, named Bartholomew, was, along with his wife, first generation immigrants from Poland, and he worked as a pipe fitter for Standard Oil making an annual salary of $1976. He had a fourth grade education, according to the census.
My grandmother, who was the same age as my grandfather, had the census record that she worked part-time as a waitress and made an annual income of $450. She also worked in a factory in Brooklyn, and lived with her much older sister and her family. She told me she use to take home the Daily Worker until her brother-in-law scolded her that communism was godless. (This collision between the Popular Front and religion does seem a curious oversight in Denning’s book.)
I pointed out to my students that the monetary difference between my relatives demonstrates the relative equality among Americans in a period that had responded to a severe crisis. That trend remained stable through the 1970s, a period in which my parents grew to adulthood, had different education histories, and yet were making comparable annual salaries when they retired.
I emphasized to my students that the fact my grandfather made a little less than half of what his brother the dentist made was significant not because their monetary difference was so great—it wasn’t in terms relative to today—but because they could legitimately imagine (and in fact did believe) they were involved in a similar project called America. Simply put, their lives were not defined by a grotesque separation in wealth. My grandparents would probably not have embraced the label of communists, but as Americanists from the 1940s, they are closer to the communists today than to those who proclaim their fidelity to America and its forsaken sense of justice.