The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Haymarket Series)

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9781859848159: The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Haymarket Series)
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As garment workers, longshoremen, autoworkers, sharecroppers and clerks took to the streets, striking and organizing unions in the midst of the Depression, artists, writers and filmmakers joined the insurgent social movement by creating a cultural front. Disney cartoonists walked picket lines, and Billie Holiday sand ‘Strange Fruit’ at the left-wing cabaret, Café Society. Duke Ellington produced a radical musical, Jump for Joy, New York garment workers staged the legendary Broadway revue Pins and Needles, and Orson Welles and his Mercury players took their labor operas and anti-fascist Shakespeare to Hollywood and made Citizen Kane.

A major reassessment of US cultural history, The Cultural Front is a vivid mural of this extraordinary upheaval which reshaped American culture in the twentieth century.

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Review:

The Popular Front, a momentous groundswell of social activism during the Great Depression, was marked by activism among creative artists of all types that called attention to both the ends and the means of the production of art. Later historians would dismiss the socialist and communist elements of this cultural movement as minor sidelines of little if any significance. But, writes historian Michael Denning, "just as the radical movements of abolition, utopian socialism, and women's rights sparked the antebellum American Renaissance, so the communisms of the depression triggered a deep and lasting transformation of American modernism and mass culture, what I will call the laboring of American culture."

Although the early portions of the book, which establish the historical and social contexts of the Popular Front, are interesting, readers may likely find most fascinating the later chapters on some of the artists who took part in the movement, including Billie Holiday, who first began singing "Strange Fruit" at a left-wing cabaret, Duke Ellington, and John Dos Passos. His essay on the antifascist crusading of Orson Welles--"the American Brecht, the single most important Popular Front artist in theater, radio, and film"--is particularly insightful. Like Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty, The Cultural Front is a panoramic history that brings vibrancy and passion to the telling of American culture. --Ron Hogan

About the Author:

Michael Denning teaches American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of Mechanic Accents, Cover Stories, Culture in the Age of Three Worlds, and The Cultural Front.

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