“We're the people”: Realism, mass culture, and popular front pluralism, 1935–1946
This dissertation is a multiethnic exploration of the ways in which contending realisms in the 1930s and 40s attempted to remake "America" within the terrain of popular culture. Unlike in the late 19th century, when American realism was largely intended as a competing mode of representation with an emergent mass culture, the realist-inspired work of the 1930s and 40s I investigate---much of it affiliated with the Popular Front social movement---was produced by individuals who had grown up in a world in which there was virtually no space untouched by the culture industries. Thus I explore what their conscious stance toward mass culture, their authorial position in relation to the culture industries, and their at times unconscious incorporation of mass cultural forms into their realism tell us about the subjectivities they created.
Central to this investigation is the relationship between these mass cultural realisms and emergent, official notions of American pluralism, notions embodied domestically in the phrase "We're the People" uttered by Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Many (but not all) of the cultural workers I cover worked within and against this idea of pluralism, intertwining class, race, and gender to create hybrid subjectivities not generally associated with American culture before the Second World War. Each chapter investigates these dynamics within very disparate instances of midcentury popular culture---in the contending, southern bestsellers of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Mitchell, in the Hollywood-inspired boxing narratives of Nelson Algren and Clifford Odets, in the struggles of Carlos Bulosan and H. T. Tsiang within an orientalist literary market: and, finally, in the co-optation of Margaret Bourke-White's documentary methods by LIFE magazine. These fusions of realism and mass culture are important to understanding the re-definition of American pluralism at mid-century, as the tradition of American realism carried with it certain epistemologies of what should and should not be visible, and the mass culture of the era diffused that realist-based epistemology to an unprecedented degree, converting it, albeit temporarily, into a "common sense." I argue, ultimately, that the tradition of American realism both enabled and constrained a more inclusive notion of "the people."
0323: American studies