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

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

by Judith E. Smith
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Elaine Tyler May
Visions of Belonging is a monumental work of cultural history... Judith Smith has challenged the common wisdom... And made a powerful contribution.

Journal of American Ethnic History - Dara Orenstein
A powerful & meticulously researched study of fourteen stories that helped to plot the boundaries of cultural citizenship.

Journal of American History - Joseph Hawes
[It] is full of vitality and is bound to be used, cited, and assigned to generations of students.

American Historical Review - Renee Romano
Smith has written an important book that will serve as a great resource for historians of American postwar culture and politics.

Film International - Paul Buhle
A very remarkable and extremely useful book.

H-Net Reviews - Crista DeLuzio
[This] consistently nuanced and impeccably informed analysis... raises provocative questions.

Film Quarterly - Martin Fradley
Highly readable and sensitively written.

American Studies - William Graebner
[A] rich, fascinating, and important book.

Choice
Smith's treatment gives readers much to consider...Highly recommended.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Visions of Belonging is a monumental work of cultural history... Judith Smith has challenged the common wisdom... And made a powerful contribution.

— Elaine Tyler May

Canadian Review of American Studies
Smith's Visions of Belonging is a masterpiece of interdisciplinary scholarship. Research, narrative, and analysis are all exemplary, making the book a 'must read' on the topic of post-war American cultural and social history.

Journal of American Ethnic History
A powerful & meticulously researched study of fourteen stories that helped to plot the boundaries of cultural citizenship.

— Dara Orenstein

Journal of American History
[It] is full of vitality and is bound to be used, cited, and assigned to generations of students.

— Joseph Hawes

American Historical Review
Smith has written an important book that will serve as a great resource for historians of American postwar culture and politics.

— Renee Romano

Film International
A very remarkable and extremely useful book.

— Paul Buhle

H-Net Reviews
[This] consistently nuanced and impeccably informed analysis... raises provocative questions.

— Crista DeLuzio

Film Quarterly
Highly readable and sensitively written.

— Martin Fradley

American Studies
[A] rich, fascinating, and important book.

— William Graebner

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780231121712
Publisher:
Columbia University Press
Publication date:
05/16/2006
Series:
Popular Cultures, Everyday Lives Series
Pages:
464
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

George Lipsitz
This is a wonderful book. There is a brilliant specificity to this project; Smith's re-readings of well known texts reveal just how much cultural expressions of this era wittingly and unwittingly registered the time period's enormous social transformations. Her work explores the links between patriarchy and patriotism by showing how cultural stories about the family make citizenship legible and credible to ordinary people.

Christine Stansell
There is nothing else like this wonderful book among histories of post-World War II America. In the aftermath of the great victory against fascism and on through the darkening 1950s, playwrights, TV scriptwriters, film directors, bestselling novelists and their enraptured audiences struggled to reimagine the American Everyman and Everywoman and in the process reconceive the country. As she investigates the riches of popular culture high and low, Judith Smith captures both the hopefulness and myopia of their moment. Visions of Belonging is an extraordinary blend of tenderness and intellectual power.

David Roediger
We have grown so accustomed to sharing the pain, laughter, and triumphs of 'ordinary families'—from the Waltons to the Osbournes—in U.S. popular culture that it is easy to suppose such imagined intimacies have always existed. Judith Smith profoundly shows us that such visions of belonging not only have a history, but one that redefines the broader stories of world war and cold war, of liberalism and the left, and, above all, of the definitive ways that the popular became multiethnic and the ambiguous ways that it became interracial.

Lizabeth Cohen
Judith Smith takes the major popular culture texts of the postwar era—such as I Remember Mama, A Raisin in the Sun, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Death of a Salesman—and brilliantly reveals how much they have to say about prevailing attitudes toward ethnicity, gender, class, race, sexuality, family, and national identity. Reading this book was a revelation to me.

Kevin Gaines
Judith Smith skillfully demonstrates how central issues of race and the inclusion of African Americans in American democracy were to the postwar period. Her vivid and absorbing account of the narratives and representations of the American family in the literature, film, and television productions of the period provide an insightful new way to understand the contest for democracy in the twentieth century.

Kevin Gaines

Judith Smith skillfully demonstrates how central issues of race and the inclusion of African Americans in American democracy were to the postwar period. Her vivid and absorbing account of the narratives and representations of the American family in the literature, film, and television productions of the period provide an insightful new way to understand the contest for democracy in the twentieth century.

Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan

Meet the Author

Judith E. Smith is professor of American studies at University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Family Connections: A History of Italian and Jewish Immigrant Lives in Providence, Rhode Island, 1900-1940.

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