Creating "Common Ground" on the Home Front: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in a 1940s Quarterly Magazine
William C. Beyer
We begin in difficult times. Never has it been more important that we become intelligently aware of the ground which Americans of various strains have in common; that we sink our tap roots deep into its rich and varied cultural past and attain rational stability in place of emotional hysteria; that we reawaken the old American Dream, the dream which, in its powerful emphasis on the fundamental worth and dignity of every human being, can be a bond of unity no totalitarian attack can break. 1
With this urgent statement of purpose, Common Ground, a new quarterly journal of literature, education, and politics, appeared in mailboxes and on newsstands across the country in September 1940. With the United States edging ever closer to open involvement in World War II, the quarterly was, in the words of one of its principal backers, "addressed to the foreign born and to Americans who ought to know more about them." 2 The magazine was the creation of three idealists: Read Lewis, a genteel, cautious, Columbia University-trained lawyer with roots in New England and close ties to the settlement house movement; Louis Adamic, an expansive, intense, best-selling author who had immigrated from Slovenia; and M. Margaret Anderson, a capable, likable, second-generation Swedish-American high school English teacher from upstate New York with an interest in immigration history. Its funding came from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a foundation that saw itself strengthening the home front during wartime.
Aimed at fostering national unity and forestalling divisions stemming from American class differences and nationality backgrounds, Common Ground was published by the Common Council for American Unity, based in New York City. 3 Americans, the quarterly's editors believed, could be unified in the present because they shared fundamental experiences in the past: their apparent diversity masked essential unity. But as the hot war against the Axis became the cold war against Communism, the fault lines within U.S. society shifted from nationality to race. To bridge the chasms among groups of Americans, Common Ground's contributors first looked to persuasive intercultural educational