Visions of Belonging
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Visions of Belonging

Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960

Judith Smith

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📖 eBook - ePub

Visions of Belonging

Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960

Judith Smith

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Visions of Belonging explores how beloved and still-remembered family stories— A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I Remember Mama, Gentleman's Agreement, Death of a Salesman, Marty, and A Raisin in the Sun —entered the popular imagination and shaped collective dreams in the postwar years and into the 1950s. These stories helped define widely shared conceptions of who counted as representative Americans and who could be recognized as belonging.

The book listens in as white and black authors and directors, readers and viewers reveal divergent, emotionally textured, and politically charged social visions. Their diverse perspectives provide a point of entry into an extraordinary time when the possibilities for social transformation seemed boundless. But changes were also fiercely contested, especially as the war's culture of unity receded in the resurgence of cold war anticommunism, and demands for racial equality were met with intensifying white resistance. Judith E. Smith traces the cultural trajectory of these family stories, as they circulated widely in bestselling paperbacks, hit movies, and popular drama on stage, radio, and television.

Visions of Belonging provides unusually close access to a vibrant conversation among white and black Americans about the boundaries between public life and family matters and the meanings of race and ethnicity. Would the new appearance of white working class ethnic characters expand Americans'understanding of democracy? Would these stories challenge the color line? How could these stories simultaneously show that black families belonged to the larger "family" of the nation while also representing the forms of danger and discriminations that excluded them from full citizenship? In the 1940s, war-driven challenges to racial and ethnic borderlines encouraged hesitant trespass against older notions of "normal." But by the end of the 1950s, the cold war cultural atmosphere discouraged probing of racial and social inequality and ultimately turned family stories into a comforting retreat from politics.

The book crosses disciplinary boundaries, suggesting a novel method for cultural history by probing the social history of literary, dramatic, and cinematic texts. Smith's innovative use of archival research sets authorial intent next to audience reception to show how both contribute to shaping the contested meanings of American belonging.

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I N THEIR EFFORTS TO ATTRACT THE WIDEST POSSIBLE AUDIENCE, THE PLANners of the 1940 New York World’s Fair hired an actor as “official greeter,” someone who would personify a figure made familiar by advertising, radio, film, and popular fiction. Their vision of the “average American” was of “a beaming, portly” person, “the kind of fellow who is a faithful member of luncheon clubs and doesn’t mind raising his voice in conventional quarters.” The planners also designed a Town of Tomorrow, in which two “representative American families” lived for a week in Federal Housing Authority model houses. The “families … selected by newspapers in various parts of the country … will consist of a father American, a mother American, and two little Americans, preferably a boy and a girl.” Among the criteria for the chosen families was “racial origin.” Borrowing from the Typical American contests that had been a staple of eugenics demonstrations at county fairs since World War I, the selection process ensured that none of the typical Americans chosen to embody the theme of the 1940 World’s Fair—Peace and Freedom—would be poor, foreign-born, or nonwhite.1
The fair’s “typical Americans” reflected public images of the American family in the 1930s as Norman Rockwell presented it in his illustrations: rural or small-town residents, neither rich nor poor, always white. The people who inhabited the American “norm” were less aware of its boundaries than those who were excluded, who saw themselves depicted in popularly circulated images as “types” rather than typical. Racialized, ethnic, and working-class stock characters animated American traditions of popular entertainment, especially in minstrelsy, vaudeville, and Hollywood, conveying humor, exoticism, or viciousness. They rarely appeared in serious drama, however, and never exemplified the ordinary.2
The social upheavals of the Depression and fears of the fascism sweeping across Europe began to shake these conventions. Slowly, forms of popular drama attempted to make room for immigrants, and even African Americans, to join farmers and residents of Main Street as featured players on a politicized stage.
While stories of families may appear private and personal, images of what constitutes a family have public and political significance. Recognizable membership in an “ordinary” family is a marker of public respect and civic inclusion; living outside that privileged realm leaves one suspect, unprotected by basic citizenship rights and excluded from national belonging, an “other.” The 1940 fair’s confident selection of “typical Americans” to exemplify American Peace and Freedom may have marked the end of an era. Subsequent demands for popular unity disrupted the common assumption that white, middle-class Main Street could fully represent Americanness.
World War II reshaped the American landscape. Multiethnic cooperation was publicly encouraged—in the platoon, on the shop floor and the city block. Citizens were asked to serve their country, to put aside personal dreams, to risk their lives in the fight for democracy. Men and women encountered one another outside of former local, ethnic, and racial networks; prolonged separations and the scattering of families altered standards for male and female heroism and camaraderie and opened up possibilities for expressing homosexual desire. For a brief time the vision of a labor-led movement against fascism and Jim Crow segregation coincided with national goals, expanding the range of representative Americans as well as the meanings of community that flourished within the cultural mainstream.
The national mobilization produced a division between the military and the home front, between men and women. At the same time, it created opportunities, especially for women—many of them outside the literary establishment—to write family-centered stories that made provocative cultural claims by allowing working-class, ethnic, and African American characters to represent an expanded American citizenship and to embody new visions of national belonging. Suddenly—but only temporarily—the working-class children of immigrants, laborers, and sharecroppers could also exemplify the “ordinary” American.
Visions of Belonging explores the ways in which popular stories of “ordinary” families provided a forum for competing conceptions of American democracy during World War II and into the cold war years. It shows how writers such as Betty Smith, Kathryn Forbes, Arthur Miller, Lillian Smith, Laura Hobson, Paddy Chayefsky, and Lorraine Hansberry experienced wartime and postwar possibilities in their own lives, and it explores the social visions they hoped their books, plays, and movies might encourage.
Giving literary shape in family stories to the dreams of wartime democratic promise meant that questions of democratic inclusion and racial equality spilled over from the clearly public to the potentially explosive private sphere. A racially and sexually expansive cosmopolitanism spawned in the social insurgencies of the 1930s, as well as interactions with different people and places during the war years, encouraged people to rethink parochial assumptions of ethnic and racial difference and to trespass, if with hesitation, across the boundaries of the “normal.”
Audiences encountered stories of ordinary families in novels, plays, and films. Visions of Belonging listens in on how audiences absorbed and assessed the social implications of these works, especially the ways in which white and black readers and viewers recognized the creation and shifting uses of ethnic and racial categories. Works such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I Remember Mama, Strange Fruit, Gentleman’s Agreement, Death of a Salesman, Marty, and Raisin in the Sun entered the popular imagination and shaped personal aspirations, offering a standard against which to measure disappointments, uncover unsatisfied longings, or fantasize loving acceptance. These stories and the responses to them provide a point of entry into an extraordinary time, when the possibilities for social transformation seemed boundless and yet were also fiercely contested.
Stories of ordinary families that featured working-class characters were especially appealing during the war years. They provided relief from war’s anxiety and fear; they also created a template for working out the terms of an expanded postwar citizenship and realigned heterosexual partnerships. Through their comforting use of a nostalgic and invented past that emphasized familial loyalty, collective support, and hard work, “looking back” stories of ordinary families, such as Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Kathryn Forbes’s Mama’s Bank Account—the subjects of chapters 2 and 3—addressed wartime and postwar uncertainties. Both Smith and Forbes portray the mother as the backbone of democracy and as guarantor of the republic’s survival. These mothers are not the controlling, infantilizing figures common to writing of the 1920s and 1930s, nor are they feminists moving from private into public life. They provide female nurture; their stories lionize domestic commitments and domestic strength. In both novels the journey of the ethnic family ultimately results in an exchange: of poverty, parochial isolation, and female- and kin-centered working-class struggle for absorption into mainstream America, class mobility, and the reassertion of masculine social and economic authority.
To use the family as a metaphor for the nation is to risk marginalizing those outside the family; in proposing an ethnic past as a universal American past, “looking back” family stories obscured the history of discrimination that had so far excluded black families from the realm of the “ordinary.” Tracing the transformation of these novels into film and stage productions reveals the rise and fall of looking back as a framework to express social concerns. These productions consciously portrayed ethnic parochialism as negative and ethnic cosmopolitanism as positive, though the latter did not address racial difference or cross racial lines.
A group of writers particularly concerned that postwar society extend the social initiatives of the New Deal insisted that “ordinary Americans” must include those previously designated as racialized outsiders. During the war and through the late 1940s Lillian Smith, Arthur Miller, Laura Hobson, Richard Brooks, and Arthur Laurents produced narratives I categorize as “trading places” stories—the subject of chapters 4, 5, and 6—that allowed characters, as surrogates for the audience, to discover that the apparently fixed racial and sexual boundaries that legitimated exclusions from citizenship were in fact permeable. Trading places stories, such as Strange Fruit, Focus, and Gentleman’s Agreement, were addressed to and recognized by audiences familiar with Depression-era and wartime visions of popular democracy. The rhetoric of popular antifascism stressed the parallels between Nazi racialism and forms of segregation and discrimination in America, especially the policing of racial, ethnic, and sexual boundaries. Interracial sexuality was the most commonly named form of sexual deviancy; homosexuality was a closely related threat. In the exhilaration of the Nazi defeat, challenging these boundaries seemed both possible and necessary, given the role they had played in the fascist rise to power in Europe.
Trading places stories relied for their drama on presenting the different victims of discrimination as interchangeable in order to reveal the dangers of “domestic fascism.” Thus southern arguments in support of segregation in Washington, DC dangerously provided an alibi for gang attacks on Jews in New York. Writers of these stories assumed that they could challenge racialist ideas by revealing the fallacies of anti-Semitism or racism, that they could show the social costs of segregation by exposing discriminatory practices in housing and employment toward Jews or African Americans. They experimented to find the “ideal” victim who could at the same time inspire sympathy and challenge the legitimacy of racial and ethnic boundaries.
By uncovering and asserting previously unacknowledged connections between people, especially those who resisted racism and inequality, the writers hoped to promote interracial alliances and solidarity. The effectiveness of trading places stories depended on audiences recognizing racially and ethnically diverse characters as “representative” rather than exceptional. Paradoxically, when they overlooked the variety of barriers that prevented certain groups of people from achieving full citizenship, these stories reproduced racialized categories even while protesting them.
From 1946 to 1950 a steadily strengthening challenge to New Deal social activism and an increasingly aggressive anticommunism took over the political center, singling out popular antifascism as suspect and marginalizing heretofore mainstream organizations and political positions. Antifascist critiques of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexual conformity came to signal a dangerous association with radicalism. What began as an insistence on common human concerns and an effort to build empathy across boundaries was eventually narrowed to an idea of individual belonging that bypassed questions of power rooted in history. Trading places stories would eventually naturalize the exclusionary aspects of the ordinary, providing a bridge to the Everyman narrative that would become more common after 1949.
The “everyman” stories I examine in chapters 7, 8, and 9 feature modest characters whose disappointed dreams were intended at the time they were written to serve as a reproach to the emphasis in mainstream culture on material acquisition and class mobility. The right-wing mobilization claimed a monopoly in defining Americanness; conservative anticommunists were particularly outraged at the wartime popularity of left-wing portrayals of ordinary people. Left-wing writers used the everyman framework to fight for their vision of ordinary Americans. But everyman stories also conveyed the ordinary as unmarked characters with no trace of deviation from, once again, a sharply defined norm.
Everyman assumptions of universality were not, in fact, universal. Labor activists did not imagine the opposite of working-class powerlessness to be middle-class individualism; sexual modernists and homosexual progressives did not imagine the opposite of anomie to be heterosexual married couples with children. African American progressives did not imagine the opposite of racialization to be whiteness. Since an unmarked universality threatened to make people of color invisible, they continued to envision an alternate commonality based on an understanding of racial difference as historically constructed. Langston Hughes titled his address to the 1937 Second International Writer’s Congress “Too Much of Race,” insisting that Negroes in America were tired of a “world divided superficially on the basis of blood and color but in reality on the basis of poverty and power.” His conception of cosmopolitan racial universalism spoke to “a great longing” in the hearts of “the darker peoples of the world to reach out their hand in friendship and brotherhood to all the races of the earth.”3
Internationally, the momentum of anticolonialism was changing the complexion of the players in world government and creating the possibility for a global standard of human rights that could oppose nationalist and colonial subjugation of racial minorities. The cultural historian Nikhil Singh has proposed the term black worldliness to encompass the “astonishingly wide range of writings, black cultural formations, and institutional deliberations” in the 1940s in which “black intellectuals and activists argued that they were the true bearers of universality within the United States, and within the world-system.”4
For different reasons Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, and Lorraine Hansberry were all committed to representing ordinary families in their quest to raise, before a broad audience, questions about the limitations of postwar democracy. A family life protected from fascist threats and revitalized by postwar prosperity was the most common image associated with U.S. victory during and after the war. Combining the insights of Marx and Freud to reveal the cracks and disappointments of ordinary family life could, these writers hoped, challenge the ideology of individual family happiness and domestic consumption. Everyman family stories encouraged the exploration of social themes while avoiding the question of political affiliation. But family life always carried the danger of not seeming a legitimate subject for art or politics, veering dangerously close to a feminized world of commercial soap operas, especially if attention was directed to female rather than male disappointments: the writers of everyman stories tried carefully to balance their conceptions of masculine and feminine achievement and subjectivity.
Although Jews were regularly perceived to be a racialized group before the war and faced discrimination in employment and housing, after the war many found that they could “pass” as ordinary families. The popularization in television dramas of generically ethnic everyman characters expanded the range of those who could seem ordinary; but if “ordinary” implied both white and familial, it was encouraging both inclusion and exclusion.
Whereas in the 1940s stories claiming outsiders as ordinary carried a clear political message, by the end of the 1950s, when the cultural discrediting of social protest had effectively discouraged explorations of racial, sexual, and class inequality, audiences once again perceived family stories as a comforting retreat from politics. After Arthur...

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APA 6 Citation
Smith, J. (2004). Visions of Belonging ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2004)
Chicago Citation
Smith, Judith. (2004) 2004. Visions of Belonging. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press.
Harvard Citation
Smith, J. (2004) Visions of Belonging. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Smith, Judith. Visions of Belonging. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 2004. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.