New Masses was the predominant intellectual journal of the Left from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s. New Masses played a catalytic role in allowing a range of voices little heard in American "high" culture except in parody into the center of that culture. While this may seem unremarkable today, it was revolutionary then.
New Masses first appeared in late 1926 as a monthly cultural magazine that also featured considerable reportage. As the name suggests, its founders saw it as revival of the radical Greenwich Village bohemia embodied in the journals The Masses and The Liberator. Like The Liberator before it, New Masses viewed the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) as the leading vehicle of social change—a connection that would become increasingly close.
New Masses soon moved toward a more proletarian and less regionally parochial stance, particularly with the ascension of Mike Gold to the position of editor-in-chief in 1928. The most notable aspect of Gold's editorship over the next few years was his invitation to working-class writers (and would-be writers) across the country to tell their stories in their own voices. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, New Masses powerfully recorded the economic, social, and political crisis in a wide range of American accents.
In 1932, faced with a financial crisis, New Masses was transformed into a weekly political journal with a strong cultural interest modeled after The New Republic. It was increasingly aimed at white-collar workers. Nonetheless, the editors of New Masses retained a considerable attachment to the notion of promoting a working-class literature.
These alterations in format and intended audience lent themselves well to the Popular Front era that emerged in the mid-1930s. The magazine was closely aligned with both the antifascist struggle epitomized by the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and the organization of workers in the new industrial labor unions of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO). New Masses was able to reach a large segment of the liberal non-Communist intelligentsia not only because of a general antifascist zeitgeist, but also because the period saw the first successful large-scale attempts to organize white-collar workers into such left-influenced unions as the Screenwriters Guild, the Newspaper Guild, the Teachers Union, and the Office and Professional Employees Union.
This Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 marked the end of the Popular Front era at the magazine in some respects. New Masses still strove to reach non-Communist activists in the arts, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement—and to build support for the Soviet Union. However, negative reaction to the pact provided a major boost to an anti-Stalinist Left critique of the CPUSA and New Masses within intellectual and artistic circles.
This anti-Stalinism, most prominently displayed in the pages of The Partisan Review, painted New Masses as a middlebrow tool of Soviet foreign policy. New Masses was able to deflect some of this criticism once the Soviet Union and the United States became allied against the Nazis. However, the journal's core constituency was weakened and increasingly isolated, a weakness that became apparent once World War II ended and the Cold War began in earnest. New Masses retrenched to a weekly cultural journal and then merged in 1947 with the leftist cultural journal Mainstream to form Masses and Mainstream.
Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. 1961.
Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. 1996.
Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941. 1993.
North, Joseph, ed. New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties. 1969.
Pells, Richard H. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. 1974.
Wixson, Douglas. Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898–1990. 1994.