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Realism for the Masses

Realism for the Masses: Aesthetics, Popular Front Pluralism, and U.S. Culture, 1935-1947

Chris Vials
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Realism for the Masses
    Book Description:

    Realism for the Masses,is an exploration of how the concept of realism entered mass culture, and from there, how it tried to remake "America." The literary and artistic creations of American realism are generally associated with the late nineteenth century. But this book argues that the aesthetic actually saturated American culture in the 1930s and 1940s and that the left social movements of the period were in no small part responsible. The book examines the prose of Carlos Bulosan and H. T. Tsiang; the photo essays of Margaret Bourke-White inLifemagazine; the bestsellers of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Mitchell; the boxing narratives of Clifford Odets, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren; and the Hollywood boxing film, radio soap operas, and the domestic dramas of Lillian Hellman and Shirley Graham, and more.

    These writers and artists infused realist aesthetics into American mass culture to an unprecedented degree and also built on a tradition of realism in order to inject influential definitions of "the people" into American popular entertainment. Central to this book is the relationship between these mass cultural realisms and emergent notions of pluralism. Significantly, Vials identifies three nascent pluralisms of the 1930s and 1940s: the New Deal pluralism of "We're the People" inThe Grapes of Wrath; the racially inclusive pluralism of Vice President Henry Wallace's "The People's Century"; and the proto-Cold War pluralism of Henry Luce's "The American Century."

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-349-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION The People’s Form Finds Its Audience
    (pp. xi-2)

    Released in January 1942, Preston Sturges’s filmSullivan’s Travelsembodies a number of assumptions about American realism and the mid-century left that have guided many scholars and critics through the Cold War and beyond. The film is about a socially committed, Hollywood director named John L. Sullivan who has become tired of making light comedies and wants to do a “serious” social protest picture calledO Brother Where Art Thou. The opening scene ofSullivan’s Travelsis a film within a film—we see two men grapple atop a speeding train, lose their balance, then fall to their deaths in...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Taking Down the Great White Hope The Popular Front Boxing Narrative
    (pp. 3-36)

    In January 1939Lookmagazine printed a damning exposé of the entire sport of boxing entitled “Prizefights, Pugs, and Profits.” Its critique was not particularly original, for it echoed a narrative of prizefighting in wide circulation in the 1930s.Look’s writers and photographers focused not on the champions and blow-by-blow accounts of particular fights, but rather on the masses of young men who failed and were crushed in the competition for the title—those who “swung and missed,” to use the title of one Nelson Algren story. Its authors write, “For every Dempsey, Tunney or Schmeling who makes a million,...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Radio Soaps, Broadway Lights Lillian Hellman, Shirley Graham, and the Interpellation of Female Audiences
    (pp. 37-79)

    In the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt was arguably the most visible woman in the United States. Indeed, by 1940, Gallup polls indicated she was more popular with the public than the president himself. As is well known, she worked for the full participation and recognition of women in public life, and did not merely push this goal for her white sisters. Less well remembered is how she ascribed to literature and the performance stage a significant role in this struggle. In February 1939 she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution because they barred the famous African American opera singer...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Realism with a Little Sex in It Erskine Caldwell’s Challenge to Gone with the Wind
    (pp. 80-109)

    While the major dramas of Lillian Hellman took place all over the national map, mass-mediated boxing narratives were almost always set in urban centers in the Northeast or Midwest. True to the “local color” tradition of American realism that marked the genre in its earlier phases, these stories of troubled prizefighters eschewed universality in order to announce their precise location.Golden Boy, for instance, was set in New York,Native SonandNever Come Morningtook place on the South Side of Chicago, andBody and Soulbegan in the Bronx. A standard feature of the Hollywood boxing film was...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Asian Yeomen and Ugly Americans Carlos Bulosan, H. T. Tsiang and the U.S. Literary Market
    (pp. 110-148)

    The case of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Mitchell illustrates how the labelrealismwas necessary to confer narrative authority and literary respectability in the 1930s and 1940s. Far from being a hindrance in the mass market, socially committed authors who deployed realism in a way that earned the label could gain access to the mass audience they desired. But as I have argued with the case of Shirley Graham, not everyone had equal access to the profession of writer or screenwriter within the culture industries, nor to the badge of narrative authority granted by realism. While critical treatments of the...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Popular Front in the American Century Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, and Partisan Objectivity
    (pp. 149-190)

    When Vice President Henry Wallace first articulated the idea of the People’s Century in 1942, it was in direct response to a vision of globality already in wide circulation—that of Henry Luce’s “American Century.” Before his assembled audience in New York City, Wallace exclaimed, “Some have spoken of ‘the American Century.’ I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can and must be the century of the common man” (193). That the vice president of the United States would have to struggle against a media baron such as...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 191-212)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 213-224)
  12. Index
    (pp. 225-232)