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Lizabeth Cohen wants to prove that Chicago workers created a working class during the depths of the Great Depression Unfortunately the means she chooses to prove her case do not completely convince me In Cohens hefty Making a New Deal she posits a transition of Chicagoans from ethnic employer-loyal workers in 1920s to members of a common culture who articulated a class consciousness in the 1930s She asserts that workers needed to overcome ethnicity before they could realize class but then backs away from this claim In the end Cohens ambivalence the rosy picture she paints of the New Deal era and her overemphasis of class consciousness all weaken the book The books central theme holds that ethnicity had to be overcome if working-class unity was to be attained Cohen plants seeds of theoretical discontent within this framework that undermine her basic argument For instance in Chapter 3 Encountering Mass Culture Cohen argues that mass culture and consumption standardized American life in the 1920s But then she retreats from this sweeping generalization equivocating that the impact of mass culture depended on the social and economic contexts in which it developed and the manner in which it was experienced 101 Despite the prevalence of mass culture it did not make working-class Chicagoans feel any less Polish Jewish or black or any less of a worker 158 Yet Cohen shows that even as ethnic workers listened to radio programs and shopped at chain grocery stores that were not supposed to influence them in Cohens opinion they began to have more in common with their co-workers of different ethnicity and race 157 Either ethnicity or class has to prevail here and I am not sure Cohen knows which one she prefers I admire Cohens effort to present a positive picture of ethnic and black cultures by presenting their resiliency but she understates the impact of mass culture If the cultural changes that Cohen discusses proved central to
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