Biographer. Historian. Editor. Journalist. Satirist
My latest book is The Noir Forties, published in November.
Reviewed by Barbara Spindel
At World War II's end, a low-budget thriller called Detour was released to positive reviews; it has since become a film noir classic. In the movie, a New York piano player named Al plans to hitchhike to California to see his girlfriend, who has moved west in hopes of making it big in Hollywood. In Arizona, he's picked up by a wealthy bookie, who succumbs to a heart attack while Al is driving. Fearing that he'll be implicated in the death, Al dumps the body and assumes the bookie's identity. He then picks up a hitchhiker named Vera, a femme fatale who by coincidence had earlier encountered the bookie and thus is onto Al's secret. Later, Vera tries to blackmail Al. They argue, and Vera, drunk, threatens to call the cops; attempting to do so, she gets the telephone cord tangled around her neck. Al tries to free her, but Vera ends up strangled. At the end of the film, he is picked up by the police. Though he hasn't murdered anyone, it is clear that he will pay for the two deaths. "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all," Al says in a sullen voice-over.
noir, which thrived between 1945 and 1950, have much to reveal about the immediate postwar period. There was, of course, joyous celebration when the war ended, but that joy had a dark flip side. "Uncertainties loomed: fears of another Depression, of the Soviets, of the A-bomb too," Lingeman writes. As the Cold War dawned, those fears became amplified by dread, fatalism, and paranoia, all central elements of film noir.
Lingeman, a longtime editor at The Nation and author of several books, calls The Noir Forties a "memoir in the form of history." While the book is no memoir -- it's cultural and political history -- it is bracketed by chapters in which the author recalls his "unremarkable adventures in Japan," serving in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps during the mid-1950s. During his stint overseas he operated mostly at night, meeting shadowy paid informants in an effort to keep tabs on Japan's ultranationalist groups. What it all amounted to was unclear to him then and now, but years after the fact, when he began immersing himself in the crime films of the late '40s, something about them resonated with his "subterranean memories" of his service. He concluded that "films noir are a key for unlocking the psychology, the national mood," from the end of WWII to the onset of the Korean War.
The Noir Forties is a bit too wide-ranging -- short sections on music and Abstract Expressionism feel tacked on, while a chapter on Henry Wallace's failed 1948 run for president as the Progressive Party's peace candidate feels too long. It is perhaps this sprawl that leads Lingeman to be, at times, unnecessarily repetitive, as when he summarizes the same movie, the 1947 noir The Long Night, twice within almost fifty pages.
The book is at its best when it hews close to Lingeman's enlightening central thesis; he excels at portraying the uncertain postwar mood and the way that films noir were uniquely able to capture that mood. (Even if accidentally: Lingeman explains that the dark lighting and use of smoke and mirrors characteristic of the genre were deployed out of necessity to disguise the cheap props and shabby sets that resulted from wartime’s material shortages.) "Fictional war films seemed phony because they competed with the real war in magazine and newsreels," he writes, "while in the hard-boiled crime films death was more real because it was shown in an unidealized, unheroic way." Many of the violent crime films, like the 1946 classic The Blue Dahlia, featured veterans and reflected the country's conflicting feelings toward the men who'd fought the fight: gratitude, but also guilt over what they had sacrificed, resentment over the claims they were making on society, fear that they were ticking time bombs capable of resorting to the violent acts they'd been trained to commit during wartime.
Finally, Lingeman explains why film noir’s heyday was so short, how the creative ferment of the immediate postwar years fell victim to the country's rightward-shifting politics. After the war, big business's stature rose while the New Deal's declined. As the Cold War consensus hardened, what Dwight Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex was born. While the crime films of the '40s were shot from the perspective of the criminal, "the pro-authority police procedural film became the dominant genre" of the politically conformist '50s. Film noir gave way to the rabidly anti-Communist movies that Lingeman calls "film rouge." In the wake of the Hollywood blacklist, "even the Communist writers were writing anti-Communist movies," according to a quip from the period. And by the time Harry Truman sent American forces to South Korea's aid in June 1950, even 1948's "peace candidate" Henry Wallace was expressing vocal support for this new war. Times had indeed changed.
One might think that the national revulsion at 400,000 Americans losing their lives in World War II would have created a zeal for peace at any cost. And yet a mere 5 years after the orgy of celebration in Times Square, the nation was at war again, this time in Korea. In his latest work, biographer/historian Richard Lingeman connects the dots to explain how this conundrum came to be.
As he writes, "by 1946 the postwar mood was (already) tinged with anxiety about another depression, the atomic bomb and tensions with the Soviet Union." He uses American culture as a backdrop in demonstrating that these insecurities and anxieties played out in watching a new film genre that the press called "red meat films" and French critics later "more elegantly titled film noir."
Film noir, he argues, "drew from the major social issues at the time, such as the readjustment of veterans to civilian life or the return to domesticity of women who had won economic and professional independence in war work,....vividly evokes the rampant unrest that took hold of industries across the country, as unions demanded protection of workers' wartime gains and management tried to regain control over the workplace. African-Americans wanted to preserve their wartime gains and the first freedom riots began."
Richard Lingeman, a longtime senior editor of the Nation, has written nine previous books, both cultural histories and biographies. He lives in New York City.
—Steve Goddard’s History Wire
THE NOIR FORTIES
The American People From Victory to Cold War
By Richard Lingeman
Illustrated. 420 pp. Nation Books. $29.99.
Molly Haskell [front page review, NY Times Book Review
...here is nothing unsung about film noir, those harsh and lurid little tales reeking of European-style fatalism. The genre has been the subject of a whole range of books, some of them superb, tracing the many tributaries feeding these pools of bile in a cinema that leans too persistently toward the sun. Lingeman’s point of entry is through his own years as a veteran, and he understands firsthand the sense of displacement, the frightening and disorienting experience of being thrown into an alien culture (for him, Japan) and then thrust back upon the shores of a homeland that seems almost as alien. But movies, as it turns out, play a relatively small role in a book that’s more interested in the always perilous struggle of America’s liberals and progressives. Lingeman’s discussion of films is never less than interesting, and he understands the paradox of a politically repressive period leading to some of the most inventive films ever made, often with subliminal blacklisting themes.
But the heart of his writerly energy is the New Deal and its aftermath. A whole chapter is devoted — and devoted seems the right word — to the quixotic career of Henry Wallace. It’s not hard to see where Lingeman’s passion lies, though he tells us only indirectly. Even his personal memories are carefully impersonal.
Along with movies, “The Noir Forties” contains fine summaries of other arts — Lingeman is especially good on the exuberant mishmash of populist forms of music that emerged after the war. But without a strong thematic engine to provide a sense of structure, without a protagonist — be it movies or music or Wallace — there is simply too much information floating freely. At times I felt I was slogging through an undergraduate textbook, but without the clear timeline and emphases to guide us and tell us what’s important. I think I learned a lot about labor and management, and the struggles over wage and price controls, about the F.E.P.C. and the O.P.A. and the O.W.M.R. But please don’t give me a test.
Molly Haskell’s most recent book is “Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone With the Wind’ Revisited.”
Reviewed by Laurence I. Barrett
Americans who survived the Depression and savored triumph with V-E and V-J Days hoped, even expected, that their travails had earned them an extended period of serene prosperity. Instead, with the celebratory confetti barely collected, new anxieties and hardships beset them. In The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War, Richard Lingeman takes readers through the five years following conquest of the Axis. In an elegiac tone, he mourns the vanished hopes he shared during that roiled time.
Economic dislocation prompted rumors of another depression. Violent labor unrest flared. Many veterans found it difficult to integrate into a rapidly changing society. The Red-beneath-your-bed syndrome spread suspicion, ruined careers, fractured the unity created during World War II. Fear of a new war — perhaps nuclear war — set in. Americans learned scary new terms such as Cold War and Iron Curtain. In 1950 they suddenly heard of an Asian peninsula supposedly worth dying for. “How pathetically ignorant we Americans really were of Korea, its history, the causes of and alternatives to war!” he says, counting himself among the uninformed. Though that lament is specific to the “police action,” Lingeman evidently feels that way about the whole period.
A journalist of eclectic accomplishment who has spent most of his career at The Nation, Lingeman is at home with his subject. One of his several well-received books was Don’t You Know There’s a War On: the American Home Front, 1941 – 1945. The new work is, in part, a sequel – a narrative describing the evolving popular mood as foreign and domestic politics played out. But The Noir Forties contains what amounts to a second book: a history of the noir genre and a complex argument that the dark crime melodramas reflected Cold War psychology. Lingeman, after all, is a cultural historian fascinated with movies. He tells us he could never get enough of black-and-white films in which loner heroes and brassy heroines seemed always to be darting down rain-slicked streets at night.
The author’s conventional narrative, particularly for readers under 50 whose awareness of the period ranges from dim to non-existent, is likely to be more useful than his erudite thesis on films noir. Even before the war ended, Lingeman reminds us, a vital debate was taking form. Wendell Willkie, the liberal Republican who had run for President in 1940, published a manifesto in 1945 called One World, in which he warned Americans against “narrow nationalism” and “international imperialism.” Victory should create “equality of opportunity for every race and every nation.” Henry Wallace, while still Vice President, limned “the century of the common man.” One goal, he said, should be a quart of milk available daily to each citizen on earth. Conservatives like James Witherow of the National Association of Manufacturers scoffed at the notion of “milk for Hottentots and TVA’s on the Danube.” Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce called the Willkie-Wallace approach “globaloney” while her publisher husband, Henry, looked forward to a muscular “American Century.” Charles Wilson of General Motors urged that the country remain on a permanent war footing.
For a brief time, the “one world” proponents seemed to have some traction. Opinion polls immediately after the war showed lingering regard for the Soviet Union. Organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists, the United World Federalists and the American Veterans Committee framed imaginative schemes promoting international cooperation. With a dollop of retrospective idealism, Lingeman says: “From whatever angle, some form of world government looked like an idea whose time had come.”
Harry Truman, who would ultimately fly with the hawks, did not start that way. Under his leadership, military spending plummeted despite strong objections from Navy Secretary James Forrestal, among other advisers. The draft ended. Washington acquiesced, however reluctantly, to Moscow’s initial power grabs from the Baltic to the Balkans. Truman hoped to extend the New Deal, proposing a variety of domestic innovations including – guess what? – universal health insurance. He was not a president bent on military confrontation.
Lingeman acknowledges that Truman faced heavy pressure to change course. Republicans who had inhabited the political wilderness since 1933 stormed back in the 1946 mid-term election. Revelations of Soviet espionage lent some credence to the rants of commie hunters. Even George Kennan, the administration’s leading Soviet expert and an opponent of military confrontation, observed that the U.S. had been making “one concession after another” to Moscow.
In response, the Stalin regime continued to act the brute. Its overthrow of the democratic Czech government and its blockade of Berlin aroused memories of Munich, which the Truman administration exploited to rally support for rearmament and the Marshall plan. Polls showed rapidly growing apprehension about Soviet intentions. When Henry Wallace ran on a peace platform in 1948, he came in a dismal fourth behind Truman, Thomas Dewey and Strom Thurmond.
Lingeman’s account of the 1948 campaign and the events immediately following is gripping and poignant. A devout Christian and the only practicing capitalist in the field (thanks to his successful seed business), Wallace bridled at the commie label affixed by critics. What he sought was vindication of FDR’s temperate approach to the Soviets, along with an effort to take the New Deal global. Yet it was clear then, and Wallace ruefully acknowledged later, that Communists heavily influenced his Progressive Party and ruined his effort to make it a durable force.
A tragic confluence of misperceptions preceded the Korean conflict. Both Kim Il-sung in the north and Syngman Rhee in the south yearned to rule the entire peninsula. Each side pin-pricked the other. Kim repeatedly sought Stalin’s blessing to invade. Washington, believing that North Korea would never have the nerve, and seeking to restrain Rhee, kept military preparedness light. Stalin, coming to the belief that the U.S. would never intervene, finally acquiesced. Truman, concluding he had no alternative, rallied the U.S. and the United Nations.
The result was a frustrating conflict that confirmed the status quo ante. And the Cold War became a glacier requiring 40 years to melt.
Lingeman contends – though not with much vigor – that Truman might have pursued diplomacy first, that Korea was not really vital to American security, that he fell into a trap of outdated thinking. At the same time, the author acknowledges that “most of the peace organizations climbed on the war train” once combat started. So did Wallace, Kennan, and the left-leaning press (including Lingeman’s future home, The Nation). While Lingeman’s account of the long preface to the Korean tragedy is informative and briskly told, his scolding of Truman isn’t persuasive.
Much the same can be said about Lingeman’s discourse on films noir. He points out that the style can be traced back to movies made during the Weimar Republic; some important artists such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger found new careers in Hollywood after fleeing Hitler. They brought with them a “sense of loss and cultural despair” often palpable in movies they made in the United States. Hard-boiled crime novels by James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett supplied much of the grist, though a now-forgotten novelist, Cornell Woolrich, had the distinction of seeing 15 of his tales adapted for the screen, including “Fear in the Night,” “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and “Rear Window.” These films were “steeped in dread, a sense of the psychological terror of ordinary life,” Lingeman says.
Lingeman describes scores of films, and tries to put each in social context. Lovers of period movies (like this reviewer, who saw two double features weekly as a kid) will find these chapters engaging. But the idea that films noir, as distinct from other movies, reflect much about the popular psyche during the Cold War is, to put it charitably, a stretch. When the author claims that the noir genre was “born at the end of the war,” one’s skepticism antenna quivers. “The Maltese Falcon,” one of the great noirs of all time, was made before Pearl Harbor. Lesser specimens, such as “Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar,” date back to 1931. Others appeared through the 1930s.
America’s descent into the Cold War during the late 1940s should offer enough complexity and melodrama to satisfy any historian fascinated with the period. And the time was bleak enough to warrant the adjective noir without giving much attention to movies. [Washington Indpendent Review of Books
Laurence I. Barrett spent three dozen years in print journalism, first at the New York Herald Tribune, then at TIME. His first byline in a non-campus publication, however, appeared in The Nation in 1956, when he was a college senior. Later he contributed occasional articles as well. Lingeman came to The Nation after Barrett stopped writing for it.
The Noir Forties:
The American People from Victory to Cold War
Richard Lingeman. Nation, $29.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-56858-436-2
In this candid reappraisal of America’s postwar era, Lingeman (Don’t You Know There’s a War On?), a veteran senior editor of the Nation, covers the years between the end of WWII and the beginning of the Korean War, focusing specifically on the shift of the American mood during this time from one of vague apprehension to a pointed distrust of the nation’s stability. The author shows how this decline into a noir sensibility was abetted by the homecomings of battle-scarred veterans, anxiety over future international conflicts, and the vicious anticommunist crusades in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. In “unlocking the psychology” of the general mood, Lingeman traces how this dark disposition manifested in literature, music, and film, but the book’s greatest triumph is in its depiction of the gradual change in the American populace’s collective journey from the pessimism of the Great Depression, through the hope of a burgeoning postwar middle class, to a climate of fear in the McCarthy era and on into the cold war. Lingeman served the U.S. for two years in the ’50s as a counterintelligence operative in Japan, and this “historical enlargement of [his] smaller personal memories” is an insightful and illuminating blend of history and cultural criticism. (Dec. 4)
Reviewed on: 10/15/2012
I'm from Crawfordsville, Indiana, born in a brick house right across the street from the study of Gen. Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur. Growing up in a Midwestern town would later inspire me to seek to understand the role of the small town in American history and the life of Sinclair Lewis, author of two catalytic novels, Main Street and Babbitt. As Lewis said about his own home town, it was a good start in life.
After graduating from high school, I followed Lewis east, attending Haverford College, an academically rigorous school near Philadelphia where I majored in sociology and minored in American Lit. My senior paper was a biographical study of Lewis. Graduating in 1953, I was caught in the tail end of the Korean War. (This period would be an indirect inspiration for my current project, a history of America between 1945 and 1950, exploring the fate of liberal idealism between victory and Cold War.) I enlisted in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps and found myself plunked in an appalling hotbed of mccarthyism. By luck of the draw, I ended up in Japan, semi-undercover and spying on ultra-nationalist groups.
Discharged in 1956, I entered Yale Law School—but decamped after a year sadly persuaded that I was not legal material. While at Yale, as a diversion from studying tax law, I started writing parodies and pasquinades for Monocle, a self-styled leisurely quarterly of political satire founded by law and graduate students, which appeared twice a year. Editor and fellow law student Victor Navasky recruited me to write for it. In 1960 we regrouped in New York where Navasky had raised startup money for regular publication. As executive editor I wrote for and edited the magazine, which appeared quarterly, and a satiric weekly called “The Outsider’s Newsletter.” Thus, as a law school dropout I began my career as an editor and writer.
Monocle, America’s only magazine of political satire, eventually succumbed to cash-flow problems. To pay the rent, its editors formed a book-packaging company. To pay my rent I free-lanced for the New York Times Magazine and Book Review and a number of other publications. I also co-authored or edited several books of humor, including a Monocle anthology and satires on “camp” and diet and health books. I wrote two books: Drugs from A to Z, a dictionary of slang and illicit substances published by McGraw-Hill, and Don't You Know There’s A War On?, a social history of the American home front during World War II, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. It sold fairly well and was an alternate selection of the Literary Guild. In 2003 a new edition was published by Nation Books.
In 1969 I joined the staff of the Times Book Review, remaining there for nine years. During this stint I previewed and assigned books for reviews, wrote a weekly column of publishing news called “Book Ends” and moonlighted as a substitute daily reviewer. During those years I researched and completed my third book, Small Town America, a narrative of the role of the small town in American history, which was published by Putnam’s in 1980. It received a cover review in The New York Times Book Review and was nominated for an American Book Award.
By then I had left the Times to become executive editor of The Nation, America’s oldest political weekly, holding down this post from 1978 to 1996 when I became a senior editor. I have written many articles, editorials, book reviews and satires for the magazine. My current book project, is to be published by Nation Books under the tentative title “The Noir Forties: American Life and Culture 1945-1950.”
After Small Town America appeared, I launched myself into a major biography of Theodore Dreiser, an undertaking which, along with my job. would occupy the next ten years of my life. The biography appeared in two volumes, in 1986 and 1990. Volume II of the hardcover edition won a Chicago Sun-Times Book of the Year Award in 1990. John Wiley brought out an abridged paperback version, Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1871-1945, in 1993. In 2002 Random House published the biography I had been waiting many years to write, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street,. It was followed by Double Lives: American Writers’ Friendships in 2005 (Random House) and The Nation Guide to the Nation in 2009 (Vintage), an activist's guide to the history and contemporary culture of the American left.
In summer 1999 the Berkshire Theater Festival produced Starr's Last Tape. by Victor Navasky and me, a one-character play satirizing the Monica Lewinsky affair. Earlier in my career, I had dabbled in comedy writing, creating material for Al Bernie, Alan King and the BBC's That Was the Week That Was. I have also contributed straight and satiric articles to Vanity Fair, Playboy, Esquire and other periodicals.
I have served on the board of P.E.N., and the council of the Authors Guild. I joined the National Book Critics Circle at its inception. I am also a member of the Society of American Historians. Following the appearance of Small Town America, I spoke at several symposiums on small town problems and became a member of the board of the Small Town Institute (now defunct). In 1988 I was an American Participant for the U.S. Information Agency, lecturing on small town America and The Nation in five European countries. I have also made a number of speeches on Theodore Dreiser at colleges and libraries in the United States. I served on the non-fiction and biography juries for the Pulitzer Prize and the jury for the Parkinson Prize for the Society of American Historians. I was awarded a 1997 Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete a biography of Sinclair Lewis. I am on the editorial board of American Literary Naturalism, successor to Dreiser Studies.
—Charles Fecher, Chicago Tribune