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Céline Mansanti (Amiens)

Popular Culture in the 1920s and 1930s: A Response to America's Cultural Identity Crisis

This paper shows how popular culture in American avant-garde magazines of the late twenties and early thirties came to represent a solution to the cultural identity crisis the country went through at the time. Three important American magazines of the period are discussed: transition (Paris, 1927–1938), New Masses (New York, 1926–1948) and Contact (New York, 1932). After a brief discussion of America’s cultural identity crisis, each magazine’s specific response to the crisis is discussion of America’s cultural identity crisis analyzed, showing the role of popular culture in each of them. Central to this debate are the magazines’ relationships with European modernism and of the cultural dialogue between Europe and the United States in the twenties and thirties.

In the late teens and early twenties, the US underwent a profound cultural crisis revealed in famous essays such as Van Wyck Brooks’ America’s Coming of Age (1915), Randolph Bourne’s The Puritan’s Will to Power (1917), Mencken’s Book of Prefaces (1917), Waldo Frank’s Our America (1919). Another reference, and one of the best cases in point is probably a collective work, edited by critic and essayist Harold Stearns. edited by Harold Stearns. Published in the early twenties, the ironically titled Civilization in the United States is a wide-ranged collection of essays in which leading personalities such as Conrad Aiken, H. L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, George Jean Nathan and Van Wyck Brooks debated on many aspects of American intellectual life (drama, literature, journalism, music, poetry, etc). Against a backdrop of Puritanism, materialism, and conformism, further strengthened by the passing of the Volstead Act instituting Prohibition in 1919, the American literary landscape was painted as a cultural desert from which only a few isolated geniuses – such as Poe, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville and Dickinson – stood out.

According to some critics, Civilization in the US was "the book that inspired many dissatisfied young Americans to go abroad" (Sarason and Strickland 1980: 358). Europe, and more particularly Paris, shone gloriously from across the Atlantic. Expatriation to Europe, in the wake of leading figures such as Pound, Eliot or Stein, was considered as a way to escape the seemingly dullness of US intellectual life and the moral rigidity triggered by Prohibition. Bold avant-garde experiments, beautiful exotic cities, a cheap and stylish life in cafes, and an interesting crowd awaited the newcomers. Many exile little magazines flourished at the time, such as Gargoyle, Broom, Secession, This Quarter, Tambour and transition. These little magazines were usually founded in the early twenties and had disappeared by the early thirties, with the notable exception of transition published between 1927 and 1938.

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There are but few traces of an interest in popular culture in the American exile literary magazines. In the wake of F. R. Leavis’ analysis in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930), many modernists felt threatened by the homogenisation and trivialisation of culture that characterized the growing mass market, and intended to defend a valuable "minority culture" based on canonical literature. Scrutiny, the magazine founded by F. R. Leavis two years later, exemplified this trend, as it promoted the "training of sensibility" and the "concern for 'tradition'" to maintain a "cultural consciousness" mostly represented by the “literary tradition" (Leavis May 1932: 31). Specifically American – and mass-culture – productions such as jazz or the developing movie industry did not attract much attention – if any – in exile magazines. The US was often encouraged to follow the grand example of stylish European culture: "We love in America that which it was and that which it might become. (...) I should like to imagine a super-America which might be the idealistic intensification and sublimation of the Occident." (transition Feb 1929: 16) Strikingly, even home-based Americans who mocked the pretentiousness of the exiles shut in their ivory tower, asserting that "(...) the whole game of "making words play with each other" becomes a genteel, bourgeois sport..." (transition Summer 1928: 100), did not feel comfortable with mass culture. Matthew Josephson, who had been an exile himself and pleaded in 1928 for a return of the exiles to the US in a violent manifesto denouncing their passivity and effeminate1 manners. However, he is the author of this curious paragraph in the section of the manifesto entitled "Open Letter to Mr Ezra Pound and the Other Exiles":

We may become centurions of Soap for a time, pro-consuls of hydro-electricity; we may sing before the microphone; dance before the television box. A period of training, a phase of discipline will elapse, and in the end the force of mind will leaven this society which has known only material preoccupations. (transition Summer 1928: 102)

Traces of popular culture did appear in some American exile magazines, even though they were scarce and usually to be found at the end of the time period under scrutiny (i. e. in the 1930s). In 1936, transition reproduced an image from the most famous scene of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, released the same year, where the Tramp is swallowed by the cogwheels of the giant machine. The previous page of the magazine presented a picture from a 1928 animated short, Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney’s third Mickey Mouse cartoon. Going back further in time, a third image showed Mack Sennett’s "bathing beauties"i> the 1917 movie of the same title. Another example is C. K. Ogden’s translation in Basic English of passages from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, published in 1932 both in transition and This Quarter, probably thanks to Joyce himself who was very much interested in this experimentation. In the case of transition, the presence of popular culture was not the responsibility of the chief editor, Eugene Jolas, but came mostly from US-based associate editor James Johnson Sweeney who worked only briefly for the magazine (from 1936 on). In the expatriate community, popular culture was generally not considered as a solution to the cultural identity crisis that the American intelligentsia was going through. The solution lay in Europe whose glorious cultural past and elitist historical avant-gardes were considered as role models both by the American expatriates and the editors of important little magazines back home, such as The Dial or The Little Review.

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As can be expected from the turn this story is taking, things did change in the late twenties and early thirties. F. S. Fitzgerald expressed something of this change as early as 1931 when he wrote: "By 1928 Paris had grown suffocating. With each new shipment of Americans spewed up by the boom the quality fell off, until toward the end there was something sinister about the crazy boatloads." (Fitzgerald 1956 [1931]: 20) But the problem was not just an outpouring of Americans onto European soil; historical avant-gardes were dying away and, to many Americans in Europe and back home, avant-gardism appeared increasingly as a mere fad. The European historical avant-gardes and the high-modernist phase of modernism were coming to an end, and the little magazines mentioned were deeply affected by this crisis. Indeed, The Dial and The Little Review both disappeared in 1929. At the same time Eliot’s Criterion took on a conservative, classicist turn, also present in the editorial line of newborn magazines such as Salemson’s Paris bilingual magazine Tambour. Whereas Europe seemed to embody Spengler’s "decline of the West", on the other side of the Atlantic on the other side of the Atlantic, something new was emerging: the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and the 1929 economic crash strengthened the shift to the left that had gained momentum over the previous decade, with the Russian revolution in 1917 and the publication of magazines such as Masses or The Liberator. The emergence of the "Cultural Front", a term coined by Michael Denning in an excellent book bearing the same name, was characterized by the birth on American soil of many proletarian, leftwing magazines. New Masses, created by Mike Gold in New York as early as 1926, was one of them.

Though New Masses was an exceptionally long-lived magazine, stretching over a period of twenty-two years between 1926 and 1948, its most interesting period was shorter, and took place in the twenties before the magazine officially affiliated with the Communist Party and became more dogmatic, focusing less on art and literature. Popular culture was always central to New Masses. It shows first in the format of the magazine, half way between a review and a newspaper, a medium closer to the "masses" to quote the title of the magazine, than the little magazines usually were. Moreover, popular culture played a major role in the written content of New Masses, which usually consisted in literature written by workers or by modernists with a strong political conscience, such as Langston Hughes or John Dos Passos, and, increasingly, in reports on working life and industry. In 1929, Gold urged the revolutionary writer to get "first hand contacts" (Gold Jan 1929: 3) by spending several years in an industry, enabling him to write "like an insider, not like a bourgeois intellectual observer" and looked forward to a time when the New Masses’ board of contributing editors, who were "vague, rootless people known as writers", would be replaced by "a staff of industrial correspondents" (Gold Jan 1930: 21). From the moment he became editor in chief in 1928, his agenda was to transform the magazine into one produced for and by workers. This is rather clear in the July 1931 issue. Its contributors were mostly unknown and presented either as reporters (the issue offering two reports on mine strikes in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania) or as workers (for example, a proletarian artist and a miner-writer – an intended pun on "minor"?). Another striking element of popular culture in New Masses was the reproduction of many political cartoons and drawings, some of them on full pages. They sometimes presented workers and their lives, but more often than not were satirical. William Gropper, Art Young, Isidore Klein, Hugo Gellert were some of the talented cartoonists who satirized big business, politicians and philanthropists in the pages of the magazine. New Masses’ emphasis on politics and popular culture can be considered as a way of making another voice heard in the debate fueled by Harold Stearns and others. This is particularly striking in the controversy that opposed transition and New Masses in the late twenties. transition opened hostilities when one of its editors wittily mocked Gold’s conception of art:

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The new artist of Mr Gold’s is going to hop out of his cot in the morning full of vigor, don his work-stained clothes and dash off to the job to work shoulder to shoulder with other Reds who are doing big vital things, things that count. At night he will return reeking with sweat, heavy with fatigue, but happily drunk with inspiration. He will sit down at his bare table and, writing at top speed, turn out page after page of virile 2 lyric literature – the real stuff. His words will come straight from the guts and he will scorn that attention to form and polish that those dilettantes over in Paris think so important. Here, says Mr Gold, is the future artist of America, the coming Jack London or Walt Whitman! (transition Feb 1929: 185)

The retort was not long in coming. A few months later, in an essay eloquently entitled "Literary Graveyards", Joseph Vogel, a contributing editor to New Masses, wrote:

transition and Blues continue with experimentalism that is old, that repeats itself, that becomes weaker and weaker, that serves little purpose. It is time that young writers disassociate themselves from all these abstractions, as many have long ago done from Pound, the dean of corpses that promenade in graveyards. (New Masses Oct 1929: 30)

The attack on Ezra Pound, one of the leading figures of modernism, revealed the essence of the debate. It was is not just a petty quarrel between rival magazines; on the contrary what was at stake was the artistic and cultural future of the United States. And New Masses openly chose to develop proletarian writing and art: Gold’s fictionalized autobiography Jews Without Money, published in 1930, met with immediate success and became the archetype of the "ghetto pastoral", analyzed by Michael Denning as "the most important genre created by the writers of the proletarian literary movement" (Denning 1996: 230). New Masses was not the only magazine of the period to take this stance, far from it. Its editorial line was in fact representative of that political magazines of the period, such as The Left magazine, which launched a campaign for a workingman’s cinema in 1931.

Popular culture was also used as a means of defining US cultural identity in opposition to European formal experimentalism in William Carlos Williams’ and Nathanael West’s 1932 New York Contact magazine. The editorial line of Contact was based on the idea that the spirit of American writing was "contact with a vulgar world" (Contact Oct 1932: 131). However, Williams and West’s approach was very different from Gold’s. Whereas Gold’s antibourgeois feeling increasingly turns into an anticultural bias, propaganda overriding art, Contact’s approach is rooted in the belief that popular culture could – and should – be considered as an idiomatic expression of US artistic genius – as a way of defining American modernism versus European modernism. Contact’s editorial line also relied on the following slogan, present on the cover of each issue: "Contact will attempt to cut a trail through the American jungle without the use of a European compass." (Contact Feb 1932: non paginated) In reality both West and Williams were influenced by French surrealism and transition magazine. But they were also successful in shaping their own kind of surrealism, as West’s novel The Dream Life of Balso Snell and in Williams’ prose poem A Novelette (Mansanti 2009: 215–249) show. Therefore, Contact presented an alternative to both transition’s fascination with European avant-gardes and New Masses’ eventual separation of form and content. This alternative was best embodied by Nathanael West, who was both a modernist and a Hollywood scriptwriter. His deep interest in popular culture shows in all his novels; a case in point being Miss Lonelyhearts, whose title is a direct reference to popular culture.

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The excellent contributions to Contact’s first issue gave credit to the possibility of a new indigenous American avant-garde based on popular culture. This first issue, published in February 1932, featured contributions by Ben Hecht and S. J. Perelman who, just like West himself, were scriptwriters writing in little magazines and earning their livings in Hollywood, therefore breaching the gap between so-called "high" and "low" cultures. Charles Reznikoff, a leading Objectivist writer, Diego Rivera, the great exponent of mural painting, as well as West and Williams themselves also contributed to Contact’s first issue. Reznikoff’s supposedly historical testimonies made by slaves and southerners were full of an ordinary violence that contrasted beautifully with the writer’s matter-of-fact style. Diego Rivera’s essay on "Mickey Mouse and American Art", offered clear-cut, positive statements on popular culture that sharply contrasted with transition’s ambivalent position on the subject. Contact also promoted experimental ways of writing popular culture, for example with S. J. Perelman’s collage scenario taking place in a movie production office. In almost all contributions, "contact with a vulgar world" was also established through a recurring conception of violence as a truly American theme and writing form, thanks to the use of a vernacular and "virile" (Contact Feb 1932: 86) language (in opposition to what was considered as the "effeminate" style of many exiles). Violence was even theorized as America’s 'idiomatic' expression in Nathanael West’s famous essay "Some Notes on Violence" published in the last issue of the magazine.

transition, New Masses and Contact embodied three different and evolutive responses to America’s cultural identity crisis in the twenties and thirties. Whereas transition mostly ignored popular culture, which conflicted with his representation of European Culture, New Masses considered popular culture as a basis for its political activism, away from the elitism of bourgeois European avant-gardes and expatriate modernism. Contact’s perspective on popular culture was particularly interesting since the magazine made a point to constantly intertwine the two traditions of popular culture and modernism, thus renewing a connection already made by Arthur Rimbaud. In this respect, both New Masses and Contact developed a complex dialogue with Europe and its avant-gardes, away from the clear-cut opposition suggested by Contact’s misleading slogan, "cutting a trail through the American jungle without the use of a European compass".


Denning, Michael (1996): The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London and New York: Verso.

Fitzgerald, F. S. (November 1931): "Echoes of the Jazz Age", in: Scribner’s Magazine, n°90, 459–65, reproduced in Wilson, Edmund: The Crack-Up. New York: New Directions Paperbook, 1956 [1945].

Gold, Michael (January 1929): "Go Left, Young Writers", in: New Masses.

– (January 1930): "A New Program for Writers", in: New Masses.

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Jolas, Eugene (February 1929): "Super-Occident", in: transition 15.

Josephson, Matthew (Summer 1928): "Open Letter to Mr Ezra Pound and the Other 'Exiles'", in: transition 13.

Leavis, F. R. (May 1932): "The Literary Mind", in: Scrutiny I.1, 31.

Mansanti, Céline (2009). La Revue transition (1927–1938), le modernisme historique en devenir. Rennes: PUR.

Sage, Robert (February 1929): "Mr Gold’s Spring Model", in: transition 15.

Sarason, Kerin R. and Strickland, Ruth L. (1980): "Harold E. Stearns", in: American Writers in Paris, 1920–1939, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. IV. Detroit: Gale Research.

Vogel, Joseph (October 1929): "Literary Graveyards", in New Masses, V–5.

Williams, William Carlos (October 1932): "Comment", in Contact I–3.


1 See for example Malcolm Cowley's poem in the same manifesto: "Young Mr. Androgyne the talented poet/ writes verse on the beauty of his soul/ – my body is as lovely as my verse/ big truckdriver if you like this verse of mine/ take me, big truckdriver." All this material is discussed in Mansanti 2009: 277–279.

2 "Virile", here, is a response to the common suspicion that exile literature was effeminate.