DANCING IN THE DARK: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION
By Morris Dickstein
New York and London: W.W. Norton
Review by Jay Parini
The Great Recession, which has overwhelmed us on both sides of the Atlantic during the past year or more, has eerily brought to mind the ghastly decade of the 1930s, when tens of millions lost their jobs, went hungry, and – worst of all – nearly lost hope. Not unlike Morris Dickstein, who has now written a cultural history of the Great Depression, I grew up with parents affected permanently by that era. My father often recalled the struggles of his immigrant Italian family at that time, when he – a teenager – was forced to leave school to help the family survive. Although he lived to see in the new millennium (and did well in later life), I don’t believe he ever forgot the terror and embarrassment of those years.
A seasoned critic, Dickstein has done a remarkable job in Dancing in the Dark, offering a readable survey of the literature, music, theatre, photographs, and films of that era, staging a subtle defense of the arts themselves and their ability to inspire people in dire times. One sees the era unfold in these pages, beginning with the bleak early years after the Crash of the market in 1929. The downturn only deepened, and winter of 1932-1933 was a time of despair, even panic. Dickstein writes: “Because of the economic crisis, because the sufferings of the Depression eroded confidence in the whole system, including its dominant myths, the overriding fascination with success and failure ran deep in the culture of the thirties.” 
That obsession with success, and failure, permeates the novels, plays, and films of the thirties, beginning with such memorable gangster films as Little Caesar (with Edward G. Robinson), The Public Enemy (with Jimmy Cagney), and the searing Scarface (with Paul Muni) – all of them centered on the figure of the explosive outlaw. Says Dickstein: “The gangster film always dealt with both the rise and fall; when the gangster, sitting on ‘the top of the world,’ dies spectacularly alone, his success proves hollow and short-lived, like the great bubble of prosperity in the 1920s. He is at once self-made and self-defeated, a tragically ambiguous tribute to the success mystique.”  Needless to say, the audience identified with these figures from the underworld, seeing their own bubbles bursting, feeling their own lives hollowed out.
Loss of hope permeates work of the early thirties, as Americans fell back upon their own shrunken resources, digging around to find what would suffice. In the mess itself, its fecund disarray, they discovered “a sense of solidarity that contributed to a tempered optimism about the future.”  This optimism filtered into the films, the madcap comedies, the witty musicals, and the novels, and Dickstein surveys the lot with astounding erudition and, it seems, a special affection for the zany musicals and popular songs, including “Dancing in the Dark,” which in Bing Crosby’s incomparable version “gave full play to its darker shadings.” 
Of course, vigorous political movements arose, especially on the left, with the quixotic dream of Collective Man. Art and architecture flourished, and there was a sleek new style – an extension of Art Deco — and this sense of design flourished in buildings and kitchenware, interior designs, cars and trains. The world became suddenly streamlined, glassy, chromium-clad. On Broadway, witty musicals flourished, lifting up such gifted composers and lyricists as Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers. The advent of “talkies” opened the possibility of a brave new medium that would soon become the dominant form of art in our time. Dickstein discusses an array of films, looking closely at the careers of stars like Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, or Kate Hepburn – feisty icons of the era. By the end of the decade, as the worst of the economic problems receded, there was a fresh aura of hope, an uplifted mood embodied by swing music, even as ill winds blew across the Atlantic from Europe.
Dickstein has already proven himself a literary and cultural historian with astonishing gifts. Among his many fine books are Leopards in the Temple, an immensely readable study of postwar American fiction, and Gates of Eden, his provocative examination of the sixties and its culture. One looks long and hard for critics of equal stamina and panoramic vision. In a very real sense, Dickstein is a true heir of Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin. That is, he takes the work of criticism seriously, and leaves no stone unturned as he attempt huge tasks. Without a trace of academic pretense, he writes for the ordinary intelligent reader, avoiding the kind of jargon that so disfigures academic criticism in our era.
As might be expected, he’s good on the usual texts – Frost and Stevens, Steinbeck or Fitzgerald; each of these major writers responded to the Depression in his own measure and style. But one of the pleasures of this book is discovery, and we see Dickstein grapple with books not always on the radar screen of readers. He has interesting things to say, for example, about Nathanael West, whose The Day of the Locust (1939) explores the seedy fringes of Hollywood during the Depression. Elsewhere, he digs deeply into the work of Tess Slesinger, who wrote The Unpossessed (1934), a novel “which remains the best portrait we have of the intellectual ferment of the Depression years.” 
At first I felt a bit skeptical about the project of this book. Was Dickstein biting off more than he could chew? I rapidly felt in good hands. Any study of this kind will be highly personal, of course, as cultural history is not an objective thing, discovered and reported on. It’s a work of art itself, the product of carefully selection and arrangement, and Dickstein knows this very well. His private enthusiasms for screwball films, for loosely organized but witty musical comedies, for the choreographic genius of Busby Berkeley – these all come through. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Bing Crosby, a singer whose career (as I learned here) was rooted in jazz. One really forgets how influential a crooner like Crosby could be, as he became so popular that (by a kind of reversal) he nearly evaporated, his songs (“White Christmas,” etc) the musical equivalent of wallpaper.
Few books of criticism read with the narrative compulsion of a good novel, but this one does. Morris Dickstein’s peculiar gift is to breathe life into the murky past so that its figures dance before us on a kind of mental screen, even in the dark.
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, is author of The Last Station, a novel about Tolstoy’s life, which will be released as a film in February, starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, and James McAvoy.
DANCING IN THE DARK: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION