John Gross Review of Dancing in the Dark

Times Literary Supplement, Jan 15, 2010

Sunset sails
by John Gross

A Review of Morris Dickstein’s
Dancing in the Dark: A cultural history of the Great Depression
598pp. Norton. $29.95.

Morris Dickstein was born on the same day, in February 1940, that Woody Guthrie wrote his most famous song, “This land is your land”. Dickstein informs us of the fact in the course of Dancing in the Dark, his “cultural history of the Great Depression”, and it is plainly something which gives him a warm glow. Woody Guthrie is one of his heroes.

“This Land is Your Land” was dashed off in what was initially a mood of revulsion. It was conceived of as a populist counterblast to the soaring bourgeois emotionalism of Irving Berlin’s 1938 anthem “God Bless America” – from which it might well seem to follow that Berlin is not one of Dickstein’s heroes. But such an assumption would completely misjudge the breadth of Dancing in the Dark. Berlin is in fact a powerful and admired presence in the book – the Berlin who wrote scores for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in particular. One of his numbers, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, provides Dickstein with a key text, sounding as it does the warning that “there may be trouble ahead”. Elsewhere, too, Dickstein is heavily preoccupied with entertainment (or with what a cultural historian would once have classified as entertainment, as opposed to art). A good deal of Dancing in the Dark celebrates popular music, and a large portion of it is devoted to Hollywood – emphases which help to justify what might otherwise seem an unduly glamorous title for a book about hard times.

Not that Dickstein is by any means in retreat from his original trade of literary critic. Despite all the allurements of show business, more space is allotted to literature in the book than to any other form of expression, and many different writers are passed under review. There are rewarding accounts of topics as varied as the impact of the Depression on Tender is the Night, and the contrasting visions of the two foremost black novelists of the period, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. There are reappraisals of once-famous figures who have been halfobscured by time, such as James T. Farrell (of the Studs Lonigan trilogy) and Erskine Caldwell (of Tobacco Road). And we are led in some unexpected directions.

Robert Frost, for example, may not seem someone with an obvious claim to a place in a book about the Depression, but Dickstein has some thoughtful and well-justified pages about him. They centre on an analysis of his poem of the mid-1930s, “Two Tramps at Mud Time”. The tramps are looking for work on Frost’s farm. The poet refuses to hire them – it would mean sacrificing some of his independence if he did – and gets on with the job himself. All of which was very much in character.

There was no virtue Frost prized more than self-sufficiency. But by implication the poem was also up to the minute, a thrust at the New Deal and the President whom Frost scoffed at in his correspondence as “his Rosiness”.

As a series of separate case studies, the literary sections of Dancing in the Dark are well worth reading. But it cannot be said that they add up to a particularly strong narrative. We zigzag around, without ever feeling that we have arrived at the heart of the story. The nearest thing to a commanding figure is John Steinbeck, singled out as “virtually the only proletarian writer who achieved enduring popular success”. Tracing Steinbeck’s career in the 1930s through its successive phases, Dickstein shows why this should have been so. He pays persuasive tribute to the writer’s reportorial skills, his narrative power and his ability to dramatize “large, inexorable historical movements”, but he seems largely untroubled by the mawkishness and the simplifications.

Meanwhile there is a conspicuous gap or near-gap in his survey of other novelists. Historically, John Dos Passos was as important as Steinbeck (or would have been, if The Grapes of Wrath had not reached a far wider audience than his own books after it was filmed). In literary terms, many would say that Dos Passos was a good deal more important.

But although Dickstein doesn’t positively ignore his trilogy, U.S.A., he confines himself to a few passing references, all of which imply that it is irrevocably dated, and to a tepid paragraph about its narrative techniques.

There is no attempt to convey the work’s substance or flavour – not even a single quotation.

Dickstein tells us at the outset of his book that he has not tried to be comprehensive, focusing instead “on work that genuinely engages me”. Up to a point, you can only applaud. But you also wonder whether a cultural historian, as opposed to a critic at large, has a right to rely quite so heavily on his own preferences. And as with Dos Passos, so too, to a lesser degree, with the minor political novelists of the period. No one would expect Dickstein to say much, at this hour, about such once well-regarded works as Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited or Robert Cantwell’s Land of Plenty. But a portrait of Depression culture which doesn’t mention them at all is surely a somewhat defective one.

The exclusion of these writers, and others like them, makes one of Dickstein’s positive choices seem all the more curious – not so much the choice itself as the prominence which it is given. The first novel which he considers at length in Dancing in the Dark – he devotes ten pages to it – is Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), an account of life in a Lower East Side slum which is at once ferocious (in its angry portrayal of squalid living conditions) and rhapsodic (in its invocation of the revolution which is going to cure everything). It is not much of a novel, and Dickstein doesn’t pretend that it is. But he cannot help being taken by its fervour.

He sees it as the missing link between “the plebeian Whitman” and “the youthful Allen Ginsberg”.

If Gold eventually achieved a footnote in history, however, it was not as a novelist, but as one of the American Communist Party’s most strident apparatchiks, laying down the party line year in, year out in the Daily Worker and elsewhere. Dickstein duly acknowledges and condemns his record in this respect – but only briefly, and with reminders of the early hardships that had helped to shape him. The effect is to make the Gold who wrote Jews Without Money the one who really counts. The remainder of his career, the overwhelming part of it, is seen as an aberration.

The section on Gold foreshadows one of the most marked general aspects of Dancing in the Dark, a tendency to soften the edges of the political commitments and convictions which it records. Dickstein tells us that “when I finally looked into some of the ideological debates of the thirties, whose radical intensity I had admired from afar, I was horrified by the brutality of many sectarian polemics”. But can he really have been as naive as this makes him sound? It doesn’t take long, even from afar, to appreciate the bitterness of the political warfare – above all as it involved attitudes to Communism – which raged among American writers at the time. The details can be found in innumerable studies and memoirs, while a coherent overall account has been available for almost fifty years, in Daniel Aaron’s admirable Writers on the Left. Dickstein naturally knows a great deal about all this. But for the most part he keeps the manifestos and the concrete proposals at arm’s length. He prefers to celebrate a vague radicalism, without asking too many awkward questions about what his writers’ beliefs entailed in practice.

He frequently praises the art of the Popular Front, for instance, most notably in his chapters on Steinbeck and Aaron Copland. He also makes plain – it would have been hard for him to have done otherwise – that it was an art fostered by the Communist Party, as part of a change of strategy designed to win allies on the non-Communist Left. After 1935, the rediscovery of American traditions became, for a time, the order of the day. But what we are not given is anything like an adequate idea of the international context within which this shift took place. (The word “Comintern” doesn’t occur in Dickstein’s index.) And while the phenomenon was a complicated one, which produced some good art as well as propaganda, the first thing we need to know if we are to understand it is that it was part of a worldwide manoeuvre on behalf of Stalin.

Dickstein is equally inclined to tone down the views of the individual artists he discusses, at least when they are figures he admires. His account of the playwright Clifford Odets (“the great poet of Depression fear and Depression longing”) puts too much weight on dreaming and yearning, and not enough on gritty political detail. And writing about Woody Guthrie, he says that “a perverseness drew him even closer to the Communists after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939”. In fact, Guthrie supported the pact (and the horrors that went with it) because he was already a Communist, and that is what good Communists did. To talk of “perverseness” creates the wrong impression: it makes it sound as though he was following a personal whim.

When Dickstein turns to films and music, there can be no mistaking the pleasure he takes in his material. Sometimes, it is true, he slips into the routine language of showbiz adulation (“a lovely rendition by the great Gershwin aficionado Michael Feinstein”). But at his best, his enthusiasm is fresh and appealing, and it lends personal force to a paradox which others have felt before him, but few so keenly – the fact that the Depression, for all the misery it spread, “also left us with the most buoyant, most effervescent popular culture of the twentieth century”.

The commonest explanation for this apparent contradiction is that poverty and anxiety intensified the need for escapism. It is not a bad explanation, either, as far as it goes. But Dickstein is determined to dig deeper. He begins with crime or crime-and-punishment films (the gangster classics; I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang), and has no trouble in presenting them as social parables, which articulated public fantasies and frustrations. Moving on to the screwball comedies which were one of Hollywood’s glories in the 1930s, he argues that they were appropriate romances for a conflict-ridden post-1929 world – tough-talking, hard-boiled and disenchanted (though not, it need hardly be said, to the point of spoiling the fun). His prime exhibit, however, is popular music – and here a positive connection with the Depression might seem harder to prove.

Dickstein offers three different lines of approach. First, he cites a number of songs where references to the Depression were deliberate and unmistakable: the most spectacular example is Busby Berkeley’s lavish number “Remember My Forgotten Man” (an unemployed First World War veteran), from the film Gold Diggers of 1933. Such songs certainly deserve their place in the historical record, but there were not many of them. Second, he detects a new spirit of community and solidarity in the songs of the period. It may be so, but such a generalization needs to be backed up by more evidence than we are given. Finally, he points to the plangency of many 1930s songs, and suggests that it had “a larger cultural resonance”.

One such song is Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “Dancing in the Dark”, and more particularly the recording of it in 1931 by Bing Crosby. Dickstein writes effectively and affectingly about this (and about Crosby in general – it is good to see him fearlessly praising “Red Sails in the Sunset”). Inevitably, since “Dancing in the Dark” is the song which gives him the title of his book, he asks whether the darkness refers to “the ongoing troubles of the Depression”. But he also raises the possibility that it might refer to something else – to “our own darkest feelings”, for instance, or to “the existential limits of the human condition”. And meanwhile we cannot help reflecting that plangency doesn’t prove anything in itself – that there were lots of plangent songs in the 1920s as well as in the 1930s, and in many a decade before that. The idea that the Depression is taking place somewhere in the background of “Dancing in the Dark” remains suggestive but vague.

That the challenge of the Depression had a beneficial influence on many products of American popular culture seems beyond dispute.

Exactly how far that influence stretched is another matter. We are dealing, mostly, with issues of style and taste that cannot be quantified. But it seems reasonable to argue that the qualities Dickstein admires in the popular culture of the Thirties owed more to the past than to the upheavals of the time; that they constituted continuing evidence of American energy, initiative and freedom.

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