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Picturing America

By Kate Tyler

Studying a century of American moviemaking, Lary May probes the links between pop culture and national politics.

American studies professor Lary May grew up in the 1950s on the fringes of Hollywood in a world that was about everything the Cold War era was not: smoky nightclubs, show-biz swank, multiracial friendships, and lefty politics, just for starters.

It was the glamorous world of his mother, a Katharine Hepburn look-alike with movie-star connections and ambitions to match. Yet even while living within the most bohemian circles of Los Angeles and New York, the young May learned that this freewheeling parallel universe had limits in the conformist sociopolitical climate of the time. The long hand of McCarthyism reached out to harass family friends summarily branded as “communists” for criticizing prevailing political values. Worse, May’s own family was forced to break up in social ignominy after his mother, who was both white and unmarried, gave birth to May’s sister, whose father was black (a story that would later be told by May’s sister, June Cross, in her 1996 Emmy award- winning PBS documentary “Secret Daughter”).

May today is an acclaimed historian who has devoted 30 years to studying the tensions and contradictions between popular culture—especially moviemaking— and national politics. He credits his unusual childhood experiences, as well as a political awakening in the1960s, with planting the seeds for this work, which ventured into cultural history long before it was fashionable.

Initially, though, “My impulse was to run as far as possible from anything having to do with American politics and culture,” May laughs. “My childhood had been so complicated that I wanted to separate myself from anything related to it.” In college, he went for a European history major, even setting his sights on “becoming a European-style intellectual.” But then came the countercultural foment of the late 1960s.

“I was in graduate school at UCLA, and I became intrigued by how the politics of the sixties were intersecting with the popular arts and with consumer culture,” says May. “I was seeing it and living it—but reading about none of it in my political history or intellectual history textbooks. Where had all this come from? How did we get from the repressed 1950s of my childhood to the cultural flowering of the 1960s? It just amazed me that historians didn’t know.”

As May began to probe 20th-century social history for clues, he found a long trail of unanswered questions about the shaping of American society. One was highly intriguing in the context of the freewheeling 1960s. “I found that social historians had a ton of data documenting that a revolution in morals had begun in the first two decades of the 20th century, including a rise in premarital sexuality,” says May. “Again, no one knew why.”

When May took a class with an early exponent of the brand-new field of American cultural history, “It was a revelation. The idea that popular culture was worth studying—that it could tell us something useful about American social and political life—doesn’t seem outrageous now, but it was a novel and contested idea among historians then. Eventually, it led me to film. All the data about changing morals in the early 20th century—well, those same decades also saw the rise of the film industry. What were the odds there was no link?”

The role of moviemaking

That’s how May, who joined the U’s faculty in 1978, began his groundbreaking studies, viewing U.S. cultural history through the lens of the Hollywood “dream factory.” From the silent era to the age of the global blockbuster, May’s work shows how America’s values and national identity have emerged from the complex interplay of pop culture and serious politics.

“Sometimes I have had to punch myself and say, ‘This is crazy, Lary,’” says May of his sweeping and innovative three-volume project. Besides archival research into the inner workings of Hollywood, May painstakingly analyzes hundreds of individual films selected according to a rigorous sampling method he himself developed.

May’s first book showed how the new Hollywood industry gave rise to mass culture and a new consumerist ethos. Created by immigrants and steered by social reformers, the new industry also advanced new visions of the American city, the family, and gender relations (the shift in morals was one result).

All of May’s books are widely cited and taught, but perhaps none more so than the second volume of his trilogy. This now-classic book traces the seismic shifts in American identity that occurred from the depression-era 1930s into the Cold War 1950s. Exploring issues of race, nationalism, and public life, it turns on its head the conventional view of 1930s Hollywood culture as backward looking or escapist, or as blandly affirming of New Deal capitalism. Even in the decade’s many musicals, comedies, and gangster films, May argues, the Hollywood industry of the 1930s was a powerful force for a new vision of America based on a progressive populism.

“It was about an alternative vision of the nation that was multicultural and egalitarian,” says May, whose book takes in everything from film plots to Hollywood labor unions to the design of movie theaters to the importance of Will Rogers, the enormously popular screen and radio star of Cherokee heritage who entwined this new vision into his folksy comedy in sophisticated ways.

The Hollywood vision of the 1930s “was not an anti-capitalist vision and it wasn’t Marxist,” May emphasizes. “It was a new Americanism. Property, markets, profits—fine. But at the same time, there was a belief that there should be some redistribution of wealth to ensure balance. It was about the commonwealth— that we are all equal citizens bound together in ties of reciprocity.”

This vision wasn’t really new, stresses May. “It was rooted in America’s long tradition of progressive republicanism—small ‘r’—which is about civic virtue, the active citizen, the common good.”

Many insist that America is rooted in liberal capitalism, bourgeois culture, and classlessness, May acknowledges. But along with American studies professor David Noble and several other prominent cultural historians, May staunchly maintains that “the long-term American tradition is a republican one.”

In the thirties, he says, “this vision is being reworked for a new pluralistic America. It’s about making room for people of many backgrounds, classes, and races—all of the new people in the cultures of the city.” His book lays out how this vision seeped into American social and political life, helping to create support for organized labor, the progressive policies of the New Deal, cultural tolerance, and frank debate of political ideas.

Competing visions

If the 1930s was the decade of the polyglot, egalitarian, liberal city, the 1950s was the era of homogeneous, consumerist, conservative suburbs.

May traces how the Second World War suppressed all progressive social ideals—and indeed, all critiques of American society—under a fierce patriotism, and how Hollywood followed suit. Patriotism (linked to capitalism and consumerism) remained supreme in the Cold War era that followed, and amid anticommunist fervor, the populism of the 1930s was recast as anti-American.

“Anticommunism becomes this kind of reshaping of American politics and identity rather than simply a paranoid crusade or a virtuous effort to catch spies,” says May. “It’s really a counterrevolution against the vision of the 1930s.”

The small-‘r’ republican vision of capitalist America as “a society that empowers the many” was in many ways radical, but it wasn’t communist, stresses May. “It was deeply American. Certainly it was linked to American social realities and to the American tradition in a way that the fixed ideas of the Cold War were not.”

The turnabout between the 1930s and 1950s seemed complete. In the postwar years, “repression of dissent and of difference became the consuming themes of political life,” says May, and American identity was conflated untrammeled capitalism and consumerism. Whereas about half of the Hollywood films of the 1930s had cast rich people or big business in negative terms, May’s research found, “by the 1950s, it was down to just 5 percent.”

The political is personal

But the fifties did give way to the countercultural sixties, and May finds popular culture leading the way. “If the fifties repudiated the ideas of the thirties, the sixties recovered them,” he says. Even in the placid and conservative 1950s, the boundaries were being pushed by slyly subversive films (especially in the film noir genre) and by such iconic figures as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

Just as important, says May, there remained rambunctious city worlds (real and metaphorical) where diversity, creativity, and liberatory impulses just kept popping out all over the place.

May draws on his own personal history to help students in his cultural history classes make sense of America’s 20th century arc. He is an award-winning teacher whose classrooms crackle with lively debates and creative assignments (students might do intergenerational oral histories or engage in “Meet the Press” type debates as historical figures).

Students flock to May’s courses, and if they get a kick out of May’s legendary anecdotes about meeting Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in Las Vegas, they get down to serious discussion after viewing “Secret Daughter,” the acclaimed documentary by May’s sister (soon to be published as a book). May uses it in his “Popular Culture and Politics” course as “a sort of coming out story that illuminates America’s struggles and changes around race, sexuality, and gender.”

In her film, his sister probes how she came to lead two lives—as the adopted child of a black couple in Atlantic City, as well as the biological child and “secret daughter” of a white woman—May’s mother—in New York and Los Angeles.

May was 14 when his mother gave birth to June out of a tumultuous relationship with stage and film personality Jimmy Cross (half of the famous comedy duo “Stump and Stumpy” and a model for white comedians including Jerry Lewis). The family lived together in New York until June was 6. But as June’s complexion grew darker, so did the family’s story, especially after May’s mother left Cross, whose anger at his declining career had turned violent. A mixed-race family headed by a single-mother proved too much in the 1950s, even in New York. Watching Lary, his mother, and sister come and go from their Upper West Side apartment, neighbors circulated a petition to get them evicted.

When May’s mother sent her daughter to live with black friends in Atlantic City, “She agonized,” says May. “She truly thought June would be better off with a black family, and certainly she knew her own life would be less complicated. It was easier to rearrange the facts to conform with social expectations.”

Social mores are powerful, May emphasizes; his family kept June a “secret” until going public in the 1996 documentary. June spent every summer with Lary, his mother, and his stepfather, the comic Larry Storch. But the family told friends June was an abused child they’d informally adopted.

His students find this story riveting, May says—not just because it’s juicy, but because “it embodies so much about the changing patterns of American life, about the tensions between popular culture and politics, about how chaos and change are normative in American life, and about what is pushed down in a society finds a way to push up again.”

The culture wars

May is expanding on these ideas in the third volume of his trilogy, which will look at the interaction of culture and politics from the Cold War to today. If the fifties repressed the thirties, and the sixties recovered the thirties, “the post-sixties period fostered an enormous backlash that repudiated the sixties—a backlash that continues to reverberate today.”

That’s changing, May says, with the rise of the global economy, which “has created a new international cultural space. That’s a big part of what today’s culture wars are all about.”

Since the 1950s, most Hollywood profits have come from abroad, May notes, and Hollywood films themselves have become truly international, “with the vast majority being financed abroad or having some combination of foreign producers, directors, and writers.”

Says May: “A lot of what’s happening is that American culture is becoming more porous. Think of Brokeback Mountain—this landmark ‘gay cowboy’ picture is by a Chinese director. A conservative political climate narrows the space for creativity, critique, and experimentation. But a globalized society expands that space—just as Hollywood’s immigrant founders did.”

Looking out over the 20th century, May says one lesson is “that the making of American identity doesn’t just happen— it’s bound up in struggles over time. It’s about the flowing river, not about the building up of a fixed foundation. That’s what I want my students to take away.”

About Lary May

LARY MAY, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of American studies

FOCUS: 20th-century American history, popular culture, politics

SELECTED PUBLICATIONS: The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (2000), Recasting America: Culture and the Politics in the Age of Cold War (ed., 1989), Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry, 1900–1929 (1980).

FAMILY: Spouse, Elaine Tyler May, professor of American studies and history; three children—Michael, a public radio reporter in Austin, Texas; Daniel, a community organizer in Los Angeles; and Sarah, of Minneapolis, who is completing a master’s degree in education, theater, and dance. Also two cats, Bootsie Collins and Tina Turner.

HOME: A 1920s prairie/tudor home in Minneapolis’s Prospect Park neighborhood.

RECENT READS: Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War by K.A. Cuordileone (“it has very interesting and useful things to say about how anxieties about gender lay at the core of Cold War thinking”); Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (“it knocked me out, I just loved it—I think I related to it because of my mother’s tumultuous love affairs … no writer ever understood the irrationalities of love better than Tolstoy”).

SCREEN RAVES: Brokeback Mountain (“it provokes us to rethink conventional myths of American life”); “The Sopranos” (“I just think the show has so much to say about American life, about families, about how we all try to hold it together … although I’m not as cynical about American life as they are in the show”); The Asphalt Jungle (“probably my favorite film of all time—a 1950 John Huston heist film that also contains subversive critiques about the American dream and McCarthyism … it captures so much of the cultural-political interplay that interests me”).

CULTURAL OBSERVATIONS: “I’m sometimes asked if there’s anyone today who at all evokes Will Rogers, the 1930s populist ‘everyman’ who had such a great impact. Maybe Garrison Keillor, in a softer and more watered-down way. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” perhaps comes the closest.”