The Noir Forties: The American People From Victory to Cold War
Nation Books, 2012
432 pp., $29.99
The Noir Forties
Like many books, Richard Lingeman's The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War is actually several books (or rather fragments of several books) in one. First there's the argument that noir films made between 1945 and 1950—from the end of World War II to the start of the Korean War—"deeply echo the American unconscious" during that period.
Second, there's a sequel of sorts to Lingeman's Don't You Know There's a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945. Somewhat in the vein of Howard Zinn, Lingeman offers a very selective "people's history" of the immediate postwar years. Anti-communists were evil, foolish, or both; the hope nurtured by socialism was snuffed out; and so on (one chapter is titled "The Lonely Passion of Henry Wallace," seen here as representing the virtuous path not taken).
Finally, there are two autobiographical chapters bracketing the main narrative. In "Prologue: Confessions of a Cold Warrior (I)," Lingeman describes his service in Japan from 1954 to 1956 in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and traces the genesis of this book, years later, when he became fascinated with the film noir genre. In "Epilogue: Why Korea? Why Nagasaki? Confessions of a Cold Warrior (II)," he says a bit more, ruefully, about his outlook those many decades ago, recounts an episode in which a friend was transferred out of the CIC as a potential security risk (without the slightest basis, so it seems), and describes a visit to Nagasaki in 1955.
A few weeks ago, reviewing James Patterson's The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, I mentioned that I'm a soft touch for books that seek to re-create a slice of time. That's one reason I read The Noir Forties. A second reason: the appeal of film noir. And finally, I like to read Richard Lingeman, even though his take on the world we share is very different from my own. He has an interesting mind.
Even with all that, I found The Noir Forties hard going. The potted "people's history" takes up the bulk of the book. Next in terms of space allotted is the reading of "films noir" (as Lingeman likes to say) to probe "the mass psychological subsoil in which sprouted the nation's politics and culture at the time." This reading, running off and on through several chapters, is sometimes illuminating, but too often Lingeman merely repeats assertions already made in different words:
Films noir, more faithfully than other kinds of films, reflected the personal anxieties of the late forties. They vacuumed up the psychological detritus swirling in the air, the velleities, secret wishes, criminal thoughts, unspoken fears, dream images of the times. "Noir etched a metaphor of light and shadow into the popular psyche," writes the feminist film scholar Ruby B. Rich, "rain-slicked streets, feelings of loss, fear and betrayal, male bonding, femmes fatales, postwar malaise, atomic pressures, Communist threats, melodrama and gangsters all coalesced under its banner."
Sometimes I wondered if Lingeman was deliberately going over the top—vacuuming up, with relish, all that psychological detritus swirling in the air. (Alongside his political commitments, he possesses a wicked satirical imagination, not much in evidence here.) On the other hand, what could account for the caption on a page devoted solely to a reproduction of the cover of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories: "Shirley Jackson's terrifying story 'The Lottery,' in which villagers engage in a ritual of stoning a victim chosen by lot, can be read as a parable of political and racial intolerance." Indubitably. But it's hard to imagine a reader of Lingeman's book who, having reached page 292, will need or want that spelled out in such a wooden fashion.
For me, the most compelling parts of The Noir Forties were the brief autobiographical chapters at the beginning and the end. These chapters are written in a very different key, evoking the strangeness and many-sidedness of our common life. Recalling his time in the CIC, Lingeman deftly conveys what it's like to work as a foot soldier in the shadow war, and he gives us vivid impressions of Japan in the mid-1950s. In the epilogue, he mentions that before his visit in 1955, he read Takashi Nagai's We of Nagasaki, and he gets right to the heart of that book . Nagai, a physician, was a devout Catholic, a member of the Christian community devastated by the bombing in August 1945.
Alas, this is one of only a small handful of passages in which Lingeman acknowledges the existence of religion and the role of faith in the lives of "the American people" during "the noir forties." Early on, he pronounces this judgment: "Lacking any higher motivations, let alone a vision of postwar world order beyond FDR's sketchy picture of the United Nations, most Americans reverted to the personal and the parochial." Really? Maybe it depends in part on where you look for "higher motivations."
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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