Topics in the News
American Art Arrives
American artists were wrestling with abstraction when the 1940s opened. Cubism and Surrealism had been at the forefront of European art for over two decades but had not really arrived in the United States. Through the 1930s social realism and regionalism dominated the American art scene. This naturalist painting was the style of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Stuart Curry. Edward Hopper had made some gestures toward abstraction, and Stuart Davis was a crossover artist creating work somewhere between figure painting and abstraction. The focus of their work was depiction of place and people, a kind of folkloric representation of American life, the texture and the color of its objects. Though Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove had worked abstractly in their own style through the 1920s, the American painters as a whole were looking backward. Modernism had not really arrived.
Art in Exile.
A small number of American painters had begun to show an interest in abstract art in the 1930s. An American Abstract Artists Association had developed in New York. The idea was to make New York the center of abstract art. With the help of fascism in Europe, the association succeeded. As events in Europe came to a head, artists began leaving Europe for New York, bringing their ideas with them. Piet Mondrian, the most influential of these...
(The entire section is 3191 words.)
The 1940s were the crucial decade for American dance in this century, crystallizing the experiments of the two previous decades and establishing the dominant forms of the medium until the 1970s. It was an age of remarkable cross-fertilization. Various forms here-tofore distinct were imaginatively combined: ballet was fused with modern dance; modern dance with burlesque and vaudeville. Jazz, tap, and swing music influenced everything; popular dances and steps from Harlem nightclubs, such as the jitterbug, found their way to the performance hall and the Broadway stage. The giants of modern American dance—George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Helen Tamiris, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly—established or consolidated their reputations during the decade; classic musicals such as Oklahoma! (1943), Pal Joey (1940), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Anchors Aweigh (1945) were scored in the 1940s. For dance it was a time of movement and sound and vigor. In the 1940s American dance perfectly reflected the ascendancy and vibrancy of America's new world leadership.
Broadway prospered tremendously during the 1940s. During the war New York City was a magnet for off-duty servicemen, whose presence in Broadway theaters provided huge profits and whose expectations established,...
(The entire section is 1521 words.)
Theater diminished in the 1940s. Although attendance rose on Broadway during the war years, audiences sought musicals and spectacles—escape, not drama. Dramatic theater, in fact, was downsizing and entering a period of decline. In the 1930s, with the advent of the Federal Theater Project, a division of the WPA, the sheer number of plays being produced and actors being employed reached an all-time high nationwide. The volume of production led to a theater of mass consciousness that reflected the politics of the times. Social realism was the norm, as it was in fiction and painting during the decade. The proletarian plays of Clifford Odets or the socially conscious melodrama of Lillian Hellman were the dominant forms on stage. Utopian ideas about working people entering a new era were common, including an often rhapsodic, tragic, and beautiful portrayal of mass movements. These ideas began to dissipate in the 1940s. Labor unions became less confrontational and more cooperative with the forces of Capital. Russia's purge trials and short-lived non-aggression pact with Hitler disillusioned idealists in America. The result in the theater was a shrinking of the scope of the stage and its themes. Postwar drama focused on families, not unions, on the individual in conflict with himself, not social forces clashing against one another. Theater became a quieter, more intimate peek into...
(The entire section is 1661 words.)
Fiction in Transition
Social Realism Exhausted.
The 1940s were an in-between era for American fiction. The decade marked an end and also a beginning. Social realism was the trend coming to a close. The 1930s had seen a rise in social concern among fiction writers. Novelists such as James T. Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, and Theodore Dreiser had aimed for socially significant fiction that portrayed working people fighting against the machine of capitalism. Novelists such as Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and Willa Gather had for three decades presented a realistic fiction entrenched in American landscapes and language. They were often political writers with a political agenda. In 1939, with the publication of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, social realism reached its peak. Steinbeck's novel, which followed the journey of Oklahoma's poor to the "promised land" of California, only to see them crushed by forces beyond their control, was the ultimate statement of social realism. It garnered Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize. After The Grapes of Wrath social realism seemed exhausted in form and content. The social movements of the 1930s were coming to an end, and the fiction that had described them was spent.
Another group of writers was also winding down. The Lost Generation of the 1920s, who had left America for Paris to become the most...
(The entire section is 1496 words.)
Film Before the War
Hollywood was at its peak when the 1940s opened. The industry had exploded into the American consciousness during the previous two decades and held a unique grip on the American imagination that would only begin to dissolve in the late 1940s when television would become more widespread and the studio monopoly of production and distribution would be shattered by the U.S. Justice Department. Eight studios controlled the entire industry (Warner Bros., M-G-M, RKO Radio, 20th Century-Fox, United Artists, Paramount, Universal, and Columbia) and signed a stable of directors, technicians, and actors, controlling their careers exclusively during the life of the contract. The system has often been compared to a form of servitude, though perhaps baseball's reserve clause is a better analogy. Actors were not free to pursue projects outside the studio. Studios often released one picture a week either as a headliner or as a B film. Quality did not matter because the studios owned a majority of the theaters in densely populated areas. Ninety-five percent of all reel rentals went to the big eight studios. Overseas markets were also huge and often accounted for the profit margin in films. Overseeing the production of movies was the Production Code Association (PCA), or the Hays Office, named for Will H. Hays and presided over by the strict Joseph Breen. Censorship was not a dirty word in...
(The entire section is 1195 words.)
Movies During the War
Hollywood, ever fearful of any conflict that might upset their system of production and generally aligned politically with the president, had worked with the government prior to the war. In August 1940 President Roosevelt asked Nicholas Schenck, the president of M-G-M, to make a film on foreign policy and defense. Schenck produced Eyes of the Navy. In February 1941 a filmed message was shown of President Roosevelt thanking Hollywood for its efforts and cooperation with the "expansion of our defense force." By mid 1941 government propaganda offices such as the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) were being formed. Robert E. Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a screenwriter, joined COI, whose job was to counter anti-American propaganda in Europe. Sherwood set up the Foreign Information Service (that eventually would become Voice of America) and promptly recruited notable writers, including Thornton Wilder, Stephen Vincent Benét, and John Houseman, to help. The work was usually pro-American, not anti-Nazi, in tone. The single largest cooperation ever between the government and America's entertainment industry was under way.
(The entire section is 3248 words.)
Movies after the War
Film Noir Develops.
In 1941 Warner Bros, released The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and based on the 1930 novel of the
(The entire section is 1848 words.)
A Dynamic Decade.
An explosive growth in the variety of musical styles marked American music during the 1940s. Electric blues, hard bop, serial music, folk opera, country swing, and show jazz were all innovations of the decade. Technology was in some way the catalyst of this growth, as a host of advances in musical media brought heretofore neglected styles to a broader audience, or, as in the case of the increased use of electric guitar, changed the instrumental presentation of existing musical styles. The boundaries between musical genres was fluid, and musicians swapped and fused styles. Musical experiments begun in the previous decade—especially in classical music—were completed in the 1940s. The impact of World War II on music was significant: classical music blossomed, infused with a host of expatriate European talent; swing became the soundtrack of the war; Broadway expanded to meet the demands of an enormous off-duty GI audience; jazz, swing, and country suffered from the impact of the draft; and great talent, such as Glenn Miller's, was lost in the war. The postwar consumer boom also transformed American music. Prosperity brought firmer backing to classical music and a tonier audience to jazz; consumer buying fueled rhythm and blues and country and western. Music's first teen idol, Frank Sinatra, set bobby-soxers swooning during the war; nightclub singers such as Billie Holiday...
(The entire section is 4838 words.)
Bogart, Humphrey 1899-1957
Image Pop-UpHumphrey Bogart (1899–1957), a top movie star of the 1940s and early 1950s, played private detective Sam Spade in the film The Maltese Falcon.
He made his name as a sensitive tough guy on the screen. He came to define an everyman sensibility and cynicism with his edgy, slightly slurred urban delivery. In the 1940s and early 1950s he was among Hollywood's biggest box-office stars. But Humphrey Bogart's origins belie the screen persona he was to become. He was born into affluence on Riverside Drive in New York City. His mother, Maud Humphrey, was a well-known illustrator. Her "Maud Humphrey Baby" became a popular figure in advertising. The portrait was of the infant Humphrey Bogart. Bogart attended Trinity School in New York City and the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He was a poor student and left the school early to join the navy. He reported to the USS Leviathan in October 1918, and World War I ended sixteen days later. In June 1919 Bogart was discharged. The navy gave him one thing—his distinctive speech. While serving as a military policeman, he was hit in the mouth with handcuffs by a prisoner attempting...
(The entire section is 915 words.)
Graham, Martha 1895-1991
MODERN DANCE INNOVATOR
Picasso of Dance.
Martha Graham was to modern dance what Pablo Picasso was to modern art: the single greatest innovator of this century. Like Picasso, hers was a sweeping talent defined by a variety of styles and interests. In Graham's work Grand Kabuki, Greek theater, German expressionism, psychoanalysis, Native American ritual, Puritanism, and American history and poetry combined in explosive fashion. The 1940s were her heyday. She produced dances of transcendent splendor and worked with some of the world's most famous composers. During the decade, her experimentation, earlier acclaimed in New York dance circles, became widely known; as modern dance was popularized, her name became synonymous with the form.
Graham was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into a wealthy family who traced their lineage back to Miles Standish. In 1909 the family relocated to Santa Barbara, California. Graham maintained she was drawn to dance from an early age. At age sixteen she attended a dance performance by Ruth St. Denis of the Denishawn dance troupe and quickly joined the group. One of the...
(The entire section is 1033 words.)
Hellman, Lillian 1906-1984
"I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion," wrote Lillian Hellman in 1952 in a letter addressed to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She had been called before the HUAC, like so many before her, in order to name names, to admit fault, and to plead forgiveness. Some had done so. Others, like the Hollywood Ten, had gone to jail for pleading protection under the First and Fifth Amendments and being found in contempt of Congress. Hellman's tactic was to write a letter displaying a willingness to discuss her own beliefs but refuse to name names had been tried before, but she released her letter to the press and used public opinion as an ally. The tactic stumped the committee but still got her blacklisted for nearly ten years. Had the panel of congressmen been familiar with her plays, they would have expected no less. Hellman referred to herself as a "moralist" who used drama, on screen and stage, to illuminate the individual conscience in the face of social conformity.
Writing was not a calling for Hellman. Born on 20 June 1906 in New Orleans, Louisiana, she was raised as the only child of a shoe merchant of modest means. She spent her childhood shuttling between her mother's family home in New York and her father's sister's...
(The entire section is 1101 words.)
Holiday, Billie 1915-1959
The facts of Billie Holidays early life are uncertain. She was born Eleanora Fagan, probably in Baltimore. There are conflicting reports about whether her thirteen-year-old mother, Sadie Fagan, and fifteen-year-old father, Clarence Holiday, ever married, but if they did, they did not live together for any significant period. Clarence Holiday played guitar and banjo professionally and joined jazz-band leader Fletcher Henderson in the early 1930s, so he was on the road much of the time, and he was not conceivably a family man, in any case. Eleanora had a delinquent adolescence. She was sent to a reformatory at the age often and had become a prostitute by the time she was twelve. In Baltimore (or perhaps later) she assumed the first name of her favorite movie star, Billie Dove, and the last name of her father, and practiced to be a singer, taking Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as models. She moved to New York City with her mother in 1928 or 1929, and together they struggled to make a living during the Depression, working as domestics when they could get no other work. When her father came...
(The entire section is 899 words.)
MacDonald, Dwight 1906-1982
MAGAZINE EDITOR, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR
In the 1940s Dwight Macdonald was a leading voice of intellectual dissent in America. A writer of satire and biting criticism, he published nearly single-handedly a magazine called Politics, the only American intellectual journal to oppose U.S. participation in World War II. An ardent pacifist, Macdonald also championed equality for African Americans and homosexual rights.
Macdonald was born in New York City. His father was a lawyer from a middle-class background, and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Brooklyn merchant. Looking back at his parents' happy marriage, Macdonald later spoke of "the calm, affectionate atmosphere of my boyhood home." Indeed, Macdonald enjoyed a secure, privileged childhood. He attended private elementary schools in New York City, where he began to write, and then went to Phillips Exeter Academy, where he edited the student literary magazine and became class poet. He also helped found a club called "The Hedonists," whose cultural heroes were Oscar Wilde and H. L, Mencken. In 1924 Macdonald went on to Yale University, where he majored in history and continued to pursue his literary interests. He won literary prizes, and edited the Yale Literary Magazine, the Yale Record, and wrote columns for the...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
McCuulers, Carson 1917-1967
By the time she was twenty-nine years old, Carson McCullers had already produced three novels (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter , Refections in a Golden Eye , and The Member of the Wedding ). The first and last of the three are her most memorable and guaranteed her a place in the literature of the 1940s as well as in American literary history. Poor health and a tumultuous emotional life cut short her work in full flower, but by her twenty-third birthday she had already fulfilled her mother's prediction that Carson would one day become famous.
She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, on 19 February 1917. Childhood was to become a major theme in her work, especially in The Member of the Wedding. She was a tall girl (5'8" by age thirteen) and was seen as freakish by her peers. Her mother considered her destined. She gained early proficiency at the piano and was heading toward a career in music. At seventeen she went north to New York to attend The Juilliard School of Music and take writing classes at Columbia University. She had shown little literary bent but had been influenced deeply by her charismatic, storytelling mother. When she lost her tuition money for Juilliard on a New York subway, fate seemed to have chosen writing for her. She...
(The entire section is 955 words.)
Pound, Ezra 1885-1972
Champion of Modernism.
Ezra Pound's odyssey of ideas took him far from his birthplace in Idaho and changed American literature irrevocably. He had an uncanny eye for talent. During the 1910s and 1920s he was a champion of innovative new writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), and William Carlos Williams. During the 1940s and 1950s Pound's ongoing epic poem, The Cantos (1917-1969), had a major influence on a whole new generation of poets. Yet the American public read little of his poetry and knew of him mainly as the poet who had been arrested for treason.
Expatriate in Wartime.
When World War II broke out, Pound had been living in Europe since 1908 and in Rapallo, Italy, since 1924. During the 1930s he began dabbling in economics and political theory. His obsession with these subjects caused him to mistake the rise of Benito Mussolini's Fascist government in Italy for...
(The entire section is 765 words.)
Sinatra, Frank 1915-
POPULAR SINGER, ACTOR
Once stardom arrived for Frank Sinatra in the early 1940s, it came quickly and in a fashion never really seen in popular music before 1942. But fame had taken its time finding Sinatra. He could never be accused of not paying his dues in his rise to popular singer, Academy Award-winning actor, and eventually legend. He came from a working-class family in Hoboken, New Jersey. Although he grew up singing, it was only at eighteen, after seeing a Bing Crosby concert, that he decided to become a professional singer. His family resisted the career choice but helped him anyway, providing a car and an amplifier and even helping him find work through his mother's political connections. In 1935 he joined the Hoboken Four and went on the road for the first time. The experience was a difficult one, but Sinatra quickly learned that he was the star of the group and that the group was going nowhere.
In 1939 he was back in New Jersey singing at the Rustic Cabin, a club near the town of Alpine. The work was steady, but more important, it was broadcast on...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
Welles, Orson 1915-1985
At the time of his death in 1985, Orson Welles was most widely recognized for a series of television commercials selling wine. His delivery of the line "We will sell no wine before its time" and his substantial girth made him fodder for comedians. In many ways it was a fitting end to a genius who had never really been fully appreciated for his work while he was producing it. Although he was given an honorary Academy Award in 1970 "for superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures," an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1975, and a British Film Institute fellowship in 1984, Welles's contribution remained relatively unknown to a wider public. Little was known about this prodigy of theater and stage.
Born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he displayed a precocious talent, becoming an accomplished pianist and beginning his stage career at age five in Samson and Delilah in Chicago. His mother, a professional musician, died when he was...
(The entire section is 1015 words.)
Wright, Richard 1908-1960
Richard Wright came from the rural South and became the first African American to write of ghetto life in the North. His formal schooling ended at age fifteen, yet he became the foremost black author in American history up to his death. Wright was the first black novelist/essayist in American history to achieve the status of a major American writer. He was a remarkable man from humble beginnings who began the process of self-education in the mid 1920s as a teenager. He read H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Crane, and Dreiser. In the late 1920s he went to Chicago and discovered Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, and the Chicago school of sociologists (led by Robert Park and Louis Wirth). Wright also discovered the Communist Party and officially joined in 1932. He was active in the party, writing poems, stories, and essays for leftist magazines. He clashed with the rigid party dictates, was branded an intellectual, and finally quit in 1944, by which time he was already famous.
(The entire section is 1012 words.)
People in the News
On 22 December 1946 Humphrey Bogart signs a record fifteen-year contract with Warner Bros.
Novelist Willa Gather is given the gold medal by the National Institute of Arts and Letters on 27 January 1944.
On 8 May 1944 Charlie Chaplin is ordered to stand trial in a paternity suit filed by Joan Berry. On 4 April he is acquitted of a Mann Act violation, and a mistrial is declared on 4 January 1945. On 17 April 1945 Chaplin is named the father of Joan Berry's daughter.
On 16 October 1942 Aaron Copland's ballet Rodeo is performed in New York City by the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.
W. E. B. DuBois becomes the first black elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters on 18 December 1943.
On 23 January 1943 Duke Ellington debuts his fifty-minute-long tone poem for jazz orchestra, Blacky Brown, and Beige, at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Edna Ferber's unpublished novel Saratoga Trunk is sold to Warner Bros, for a record $175,000 on 25 March 1941.
On 13 October 1943 Errol Flynn is named in a paternity suit in Los Angeles by Shirley Evans Hassan, age twenty, who claims he is the father of her baby, born in 1940.
M-G-M grants a $150,000 novel award to...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
Fiction: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Drama: The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan
Poetry: Collected Poems, by Mark Van Doren
Fiction: no award
Drama: There Shall Be No Night, by Robert E. Sherwood
Poetry: Sunder land Capture, by Leonard Bacon
Fiction: In This Our Life, by Ellen Glasgow
Drama: no award
Poetry: The Dust Which Is God, by William Rose Benét
Fiction: Dragon's Teeth, by Upton Sinclair
Drama: The Skin of Our Teeth, by Thornton Wilder
Poetry: A Witness Tree, by Robert Frost
Music: Secular Cantata no. 2, ("A Free Song"), by William Schuman
Fiction: Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin
Drama: no award
Poetry: Western Star, by Stephen Vincent Benét...
(The entire section is 517 words.)
Robert Ingersoll Aitken, 70, sculptor specializing in public monuments, 3 January 1949.
Ivy Anderson, 45, blues singer, 28 December 1949.
Sherwood Anderson, 64, short-story writer, author of
Winesburg, Ohio, 8 March 1941.
George Arliss, 77, British actor and playwright, 5 February 1946.
Gertrude Franklin Atherton, 90, novelist (The Conqueror, 1902), 14 June 1948.
Philip Barry, 53, playwright (The Philadelphia Story), 3 December 1949.
John Barrymore, 60, Shakespearean actor, 29 May 1942.
Béla Bartók, 64, Hungarian composer and pianist, 26 September 1945.
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach, 77, pianist and composer, 27 December 1944.
Noah Beery, 62, character actor, 1 April 1946.
Wallace Beery, 63, Academy Award-winning actor (The Champ, 1931), 15 April 1949.
Stephen Vincent Benét, 44, author, acclaimed for John Brown's Body (1928) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937), winner of Pulitzer Prize for verse, 13 March 1943.
Richard Bennett, 72, actor of Eugene O'Neill plays and film actor (The...
(The entire section is 1486 words.)
Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1947);
Barr, Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946);
Saul Bellow, Dangling Man (New York: Vanguard, 1944);
Alice Browning, Lionel Hampton's Swing Book (Chicago: Negro Story Press, 1946);
E. E. Cummings, 50 Poems (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1940);
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1943);
William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses (New York: Random House, 1942);
Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1948);
Lloyd Frankenberg, Pleasure Dome: On Reading Modern Poetry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949);
Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (New York: Holt, 1942);
Naum Gabo, A Retrospective View of Constructive Art (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949);
Clement Greenberg, Joan Miro (New York: Quadrangle Press, 1948);
Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century: Informal Memoirs (New York: Dial, 1946);
John Hawkes, The Cannibal (New York: New Directions, 1949);...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
Important Events in the Arts, 1940–1949
- On February 29, Gone with the Wind wins the Academy Award for best motion picture.
- On June 12, American artists vote to withdraw from the Venice Art Exhibit because of the war.
- On October 22, Piet Mondrian arrives in New York, in exile from the war in Europe.
- On October 31, the Hollywood film industry pledges facilities to produce army training films.
- On November 14, the American Academy of Arts and Letters gives the Howells Medal for Fiction to Ellen Glasgow for the most distinguished work of the past five years.
- Fantasia, Walt Disney feature-length animation; The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda, directed by John Ford; The Great Dictator, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin; Knute Rockne, All-American, starring Ronald Reagan; The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart; Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
- Walter von Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident; William Faulkner, The Hamlet; Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls; Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley; Carson...
(The entire section is 3135 words.)