The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II

The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II – Review

Robert Westbrook

The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II. Edited by Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Pp. x, 346. $17.95.)

The American home front in World War II is recalled warmly in popular memory and cultural myth as a time of unprecedented national unity, years in which Americans stuck together in common cause. This is a historical half-truth, one among several that have lent a glow to the “Good War,” and the essays in this fine collection subject it to careful scrutiny.

Several contributors focus on issues of race, gender, and class to portray a fragmented wartime social and cultural order, marked as much by conflict as by consensus. Others describe efforts by government bureaucrats, Hollywood producers, and other propagandists to obscure conflict, promote consensus, and glue the shards of society together. A few authors offer glimpses of the patriotism that was felt as well as prescribed during the war, and thereby give the half-truth its due.

Some contributors reiterate, in subject and argument, the substance of their important books on the period. Readers familiar with these books will find little that is fresh or surprising in their essays. Yet it is perhaps useful to have in capsule form George Roeder’s eye-opening account of photographic censorship, Gary Gerstle’s subtle treatment of working-class patriotism, Elaine May’s downbeat view of women’s experience, John Dower’s searing portrait of the race war in the Pacific, and Alan Brinkley’s insightful narrative of the emergence of the Keynesian state.

Among the fresher material in this volume, the treatment of wartime music is especially noteworthy. Lewis Erenberg dissects the enormously popular “sweet swing” of Glenn Miller, a “clean-cut version of jive suitable for expansion into the nation’s heartland via jukeboxes and radio” (146). Miller’s music–mixing small-town sentimentalism with big-city rhythms–took its place beside Coca-Cola and Betty Grable as a symbol of the way of life for which Americans were fighting. His band, which welcomed white ethnics but excluded African Americans, was also typical of the limits of wartime pluralism. In addition, there are essays by Reed Ueda on Chinese naturalization, Susan Hirsch on Black Pullman workers, and Edward Escobar on struggles between Chicano zoot-suiters and the Los Angeles police. Black musicians, such as those barred from Miller’s band, are the subject of Shirley Moore’s telling reconstruction of the role of blues dubs in the making of the African American community in one of the war’s leading boomtowns, Richmond, California.

The gem of this collection is Carol Miller’s beautifully subtle meditation on two novels, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn [1968] and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony [1977], which evoke wartime traumas of Native Americans. For the Indians in these novels, especially those who served in this “white people’s war,” World War II was “a catalyst bringing about separation, exploitation, and loss,” and recovery of self and community lay only in the fragile hope of reintegration with traditions of place under assault by the dynamics of assimilation (222). Miller’s essay reminds us that one of the common characteristics of the best literature to emerge from World War II (one shared with the best essays in this volume) is a salutary complication of its moral implications.

Robert Westbrook

University of Rochester

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