The Culture of the Middle: Class, Taste, and Region
in the 1930s Politics of Art
Art in America is an affectation of caste.
You never hear now of Greenwich Village, which used to be a haven for the exiles from Alabama and Kansas, the West and the South; and the reason you never hear of it is that the exiles have all gone back to Alabama and Kansas.
(Van Wyck Brooks)
IN 1940, Stuart Chase, a well-known writer of popular social science, offered the following anecdote at a banquet honoring First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt:
The story goes that an American tourist was being shown the new subway in Moscow. His guide pointed out the frescoes on the walls, the ticket-choppers' booths, the turnstiles for passengers. After admiring all these, the tourist inquired: “What about the trains?”
Then the guide showed him the new washrooms, more turnstiles, and more frescoes. “What about the trains?” the tourist asked again.
“What about the trains?” the guide repeated angrily. “What about the trains? What about the share-croppers in Alabama?” 1
The story, though offered as a bit of light after-dinner patter, presents an interesting retrospective summary of some of the more common concerns of American intellectual life throughout the decade of the thirties. It reminds us, first, that a hesitant tolerance of, and even interest in, Soviet communism in the face of capitalism's Depression-era crisis was sufficiently widespread to unite in common discourse a fellow traveler like Chase with the First Lady of the New Deal. Second, it brings the idea of the sharecropper, that most enduring icon of the period's cultural politics, into this general left-liberal political framework. But it is also an interesting example of a central—I would be tempted to say, defining—feature of the culture concept in its fully domesticated form: the comparative gesture, in which one culture is held up to scrutiny in the light of the patterns of another.