Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960

Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960

Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960

Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960


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.


In 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, foreignborn, or nonwhite.

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 . . .

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