(My apologies for posting another speech, though presumably this will be the last one for some time. I made these remarks on June 10 in accepting the 2010 Ambassador Book Award in American Studies from the English-Speaking Union for Dancing in the Dark. an award honoring works “that contribute to the understanding and interpretation of American life and culture” and “providing people around the world with an important window on America’s past and present in the best contemporary English.” –MD)
I once jokingly congratulated a young reporter who made his reputation covering the financial meltdown that took New York to the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. “You must be one of the few people who profited from the city’s financial crisis.” Needless to say, he took offense, as if I had accused him of exploiting the city’s problems for professional gain. Now, with this gratifying award, for which I warmly thank the judges and officers of the English-Speaking Union, I find myself in a like position. Through much of the time I was working on Dancing in the Dark, there was hardly a glimmer of public interest in the Great Depression. During the go-go years of the 1980s and 1990s, when so much of the regulatory machinery set in place by the New Deal was relaxed or dismantled, when the wizards of Wall Street found ingenious ways of getting around the rules that remained, it was confidently assumed that something like the Depression could never happen again. Despite its traumatic effect on our whole society, for many it seemed to be receding into ancient history.
Moreover, my own way into the inner world of the Great Depression was unusual – not through economics or politics but by way of the arts: the books people wrote and read then, the movies they loved, the songs they heard, sang, and danced to, the photographs that awakened their social conscience and brought them grim news about what was happening in their land. “You Have Seen Their Faces,” said the title of one book of photographs, pointing almost an accusing finger at the book’s readers. Yet few imagined the thirties to be a rich period for the arts, though artists and entertainers may have served to prick the nation’s conscience or distract folks from their own troubles. Invariably, the prosperous and ebullient 1920s were thought to be the peak years for the arts in the twentieth century.
But by the time I was finishing the book in the winter of 2008-09, our smug complacency had evaporated: the American economy was in meltdown, fears of a new Depression were on everyone’s lips, and the nation was afflicted by a crisis of confidence, from the credit markets, which had shut down, to the housing market, that was in free fall, from middle-aged men and women who saw their jobs disintegrating to college students who saw no jobs awaiting them. Though the worst crisis has since been averted, our economic doldrums continued. But as interest in the book unexpectedly grew, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I too was profiting from people’s troubles, even as I tried to illuminate them. Soon, to my surprise, in op-ed columns and book reviews, a new received wisdom took hold – that economic troubles stimulate rather than depress the arts, as the arts themselves serve as a morale-boosting stimulus to those who are depressed by their prospects and fear for the future. My book became part of the conversation.
One special source of pleasure to me is that this award is for a book in American Studies, with the goal of creating a better understanding of American culture around the world. This is especially important at a time when a rabid anti-Americanism and a fascination with American culture seem paradoxically to coexist in so many places. In college I never took a course in American literature, which seemed too recent and too provincial for me and my friends, and I took only one very good one in graduate school to make up in part for this yawning gap. Though we all gobbled down contemporary American books, our hearts lay with English literature and continental modernism, with French New Wave movies, German classical music, and Italian opera, not with much that was Made in the U.S.A., except perhaps for the new poetry and fiction, like the Beats and the young black and Jewish writers, that spoke for us so personally.
It was only the social crisis of the 1960s, and my own interest in the intersections between literature and politics, that turned me towards the cultural situation of my own nation, first with the 1960s itself, then with the preceding decades that began to occupy more and more of my teaching and writing.
Without losing my passion for Conrad and Joyce, Mann and Yeats, Kafka and Dostoevsky, or, for that matter, Bergman and Fellini, I came to be intrigued by how the arts had reflected and influenced key turning points in modern American life, from the 1890s to the 1930s to the 1960s. Soon it became evident that the clichés about each era were inaccurate or grossly insufficient – for example, the notion that most artists in the thirties become radical social critics, or that the popular culture was inherently escapist, since the American people were loath to face up to what was happening to them. I hope that this book has yielded a much more complicated picture of both the inner life of the society and the bewildering variety of ways the arts could minister to it, at once exploring the crisis and reassuring everyone that it could somehow be overcome – that there was a future, even when prospects looked dim.
I’m grateful to those who stayed with this project through the long haul, especially my wife, Lore Dickstein, my first and best reader, and my agent of 38 years, Georges Borchardt, a model of unstinting support and good-humored patience. My thanks also go out to those at W. W. Norton who brought such enthusiasm and energy to the publication process, including my incomparable editor, Bob Weil, his assistants, Lucas Wittmann and Phil Marino, my indefatigable publicist, Winfrida Mbewe, and all their colleagues who helped make this an ideal publishing experience
Nothing has delighted me more than the letters and emails I’ve received from readers, some of whom actually lived through the Depression years, others who simply fell in love with the books, movies, songs, and pictures it left behind – its afterlife, so to speak. We can read about the Depression in the history books and draw lessons for our own time, as we can read up on any period, but only the creative imagination of the era, with its powers of narrative, its appeal to the ear and eye, enables us actually to experience it. It gives us momentary access to a culture’s profound dialogue with itself, its eager reach for self-understanding.