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THE NOIR FORTIES by Richard Lingeman

THE NOIR FORTIES

The American People from Victory to Cold War

By Richard Lingeman

Pub Date: Dec. 4th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-56858-436-2
Publisher: Nation Books/Perseus

Paranoia and anomie in late-1940s America.

As World War II drew to a close, American liberals hoped that the New Deal and a win-the-war culture would culminate in an era of peace and cooperation, advancing the interests of the common man. Instead, the nation got the Cold War and the McCarthy era. The Nation senior editor Lingeman (Double Lives: American Writers' Friendships, 2006, etc.) attempts to explain the transition in national mood during the time, from the euphoria at the end of the war to the anti-communist paranoia that followed. This was the heyday of film noir, inexpensive productions dealing in themes of violence, obsession with chance and death and existential despair. Lingeman attributes these films’ popularity to a correlation between these themes and the contemporary national psyche, elegantly using them as an accessible window into the spirit of an era struggling to digest the horrors of war, the dislocations of conversion to a peacetime economy and anxieties about the Soviet Union. As he surveys the politics of the period, Lingeman's sympathies are clearly with the left. He gives much attention to union activity but struggles with the role of domestic communism, cheerfully asserting that "the most militant and effective unions in the South were Communist-led ones," but bristling at denunciations of "alleged Communist infiltration of unions." He describes at length the quixotic third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948, doomed in part because it welcomed communist participation, and the slow demise of various peace groups. Lingeman appears to view American foreign policy in this period as a lost opportunity in which progressives like Wallace could have forged a lasting peace with the Soviet Union had they not been sidelined by hard-liners in both parties, while he excuses or minimizes Stalin’s provocations in Europe and Korea.

The film criticism is more rewarding than the doctrinaire leftist exposition of the period's history.