Kevin Mattson review of Dancing in the Dark

Dissent Magazine, Winter 2010

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark

By Kevin Mattson
Dancing in the Dark:
A Cultural History of the Great Depression
by Morris Dickstein
Norton, 2009
598 pp., $29.95

NEED IT BE SAID we live in gloomy times? The most optimistic among our commentariat talk of a jobless recovery: the banks and Wall Street recuperate while more Americans face unemployment or watch their wages and benefits stagnate. All this, of course, follows massive mortgage defaults and rising homelessness. Numerous journalists now speak of a “lost generation” coming of age—young people unable to find jobs and sinking into psychic despair. Depression 2.0, the Great Recession, or whatever you want to call it, has renewed a sense of what it means to get the blues.

Which brings us to Morris Dickstein’s marvelous new book that explores “the crucial role that culture can play in times of national trial.” Studying the 1930s, Dickstein builds upon the common observation among historians that New Deal programs helped Americans but didn’t solve the problem of the Great Depression (that took the Second World War). What the New Deal did accomplish—especially when Franklin Roosevelt projected his sunny disposition onto the array of programs he helped create—was to build the psychological reserves of ordinary citizens. Dickstein adds to this political picture the “expressive culture of the thirties”—the novels, poetry, music, and films that “played a role parallel to the leadership of FDR and the programs of the New Deal.”

To tell his story, Dickstein assembles a panorama—a wide-ranging pastiche of cultural works that he deals with individually before placing them alongside one another to build a bigger picture. He doesn’t focus on those who consciously used cultural expression as a political tool—the Communist Party hacks, for instance, who have gotten a mind-boggling amount of attention from left-wing academics like Alan Wald and Cary Nelson. Instead, he emphasizes the “unusually complex” and “enduring” expressions of depression culture from the proletarian literature of Michael Gold to the ponderous modernist narratives of William Faulkner, from the murals of Thomas Hart Benton to the Hollywood musicals of Busby Berkeley, from the “group interaction of big bands” that suggested “the sense of community fostered by the New Deal” to the gangster movies and screwball comedies that allowed their audience moments of escape. Along the way, he touches on subjects grandiose in their scale—modernism, realism, naturalism, escapism, and democracy. Sometimes, while he assembles his panorama, he leaves part of the canvas bare or chooses the wrong image, but the total picture is chock full of insights about the fluid relation between culture and politics during a trying era.

Of course, the 1930s is not the 2000s. American culture still held a premium for books, novels especially. Dickstein is a scholar mostly grounded in the history of American literature, and so his insights on writing during the depression are among his best. For example, he rescues Jews Without Money by Michael Gold, a writer usually dismissed as a Communist Party hack. For Dickstein, Gold’s novel is full of rich language and serves up a potent tale about the experience of ethnic ghettoes (here’s a line on bedbugs: “They crawl slowly and pompously, bloated with blood, and the touch and smell of these parasites wakens every nerve to disgust”). Dickstein disentangles Gold’s literary skill from his political stupidities.

Dickstein also teases out the brilliance of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, a novel that he believes manages to merge “the role of memory in Proust” with “the language of Joyce,” offering a portrait of the Lower East Side that is “distinctly quotidian.” Henry Roth is important to the larger case Dickstein hopes to build. Most treatments of depression literature emphasize the decade’s political overtones and argue that realism or naturalism displaced the modernism that had dominated the 1920s in the works of Eliot, Joyce, and Hemingway. Dickstein, however, wants to provide a counterargument to this flat interpretation of the depression, and Roth’s novel allows him to explore “the tension in the 1930s between a resurgent naturalism and a subterranean modernism, between a desire to bear witness to the social fact and an insistence on the individual character of all witness, all perception.”

So two ideal types usually used to separate the 1930s from the 1920s merge here—and why not? If the literature of the depression hoped to tell a story of entrapment, why not turn to modernist classics of Kafka, Dostoyevsky, or Conrad? Novelists could treat the new subject matter of poverty and suffering without surrendering their intellectual creativity.

Of course, Dickstein also has to come to terms with the most popular novelist of the 1930s—John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s novels are still read and rank high among readers but low among literary critics. Dickstein finds Steinbeck to be more intellectually sophisticated than usually thought. His first serious political novel of the 1930s, In Dubious Battle, is anything but simplistic. Profoundly ambivalent, it focuses as much on the manipulative tactics of Communist Party organizers (the chief organizer delivers a baby in a camp in order to get the men on his side, even though he knows nothing about obstetrics) as it does on the plight of migratory fruit pickers faced with bullying landowners and vicious cops. Steinbeck manages to portray the strike at the heart of the novel as “a struggle against overwhelming power” and thus “gives the whole story a flavor of fatality.” The hero of the novel, Doc Burton, is committed to the cause but remains a “skeptic.” As Dickstein explains, “the migrant workers of the depression years were largely powerless pawns, exploited on all sides, caught between a rock and a hard place.” Not exactly what’s expected from Popular Front sentimentalism or populism.

But Steinbeck’s most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath, doesn’t fare as well in Dickstein’s eyes. The novel still has a potent narrative, one that synthesizes the microcosm of one family’s disintegration with the voyage of thousands suffering the same fate (this explains why it was made so easily and faithfully into a movie by John Ford). Dickstein is amazed at the in-depth journalism and research that went into its writing, admiring Steinbeck’s “gift for absorbing data and breaking it down into something simple and direct” But to him the novel’s characters often appear unbelievable and leaden. Too often the writing turns agit-prop, as when Tom Joad speechifies about his growing identification with his fellow workingmen. Finding these portions of the novel “phony and staged,” Dickstein winces when Steinbeck “[puts] his own ideas in the mouths of simple folk.”

Dickstein is most interested in providing a complicated story of depression culture rather than a simplistic one, and he therefore puts Steinbeck alongside the modernists who continued to write in the 1930s. This includes Nathanael West, whose The Day of the Locust shares Steinbeck’s focus on those who went west in search of the American dream of success or those “who had nowhere to go, the dreamers, bit players, and hangers-on for whom the California dream was a dead end.” But here the similarities between West and Steinbeck end. West was almost a Steinbeck in reverse, emphasizing the irrationality of the masses and the paltry dreams and pathetic emotions that Hollywood preyed upon. Eschewing the realism of Upton Sinclair and Jack London, West draws upon surrealism and the psychological explorations of Dostoyevsky and Freud. While Steinbeck hopes to portray the strength of “the people,” West sees among the masses of dead-enders in Hollywood “an incipient or potential form of fascism.” Miss Lonely Hearts depicts the “desperation of… fantasy lives,” while The Day of the Locust culminates in “mindless lumpen violence fed by boredom, resentment, and a heavy diet of mass culture.” But, as Dickstein argues, West still “cannot help seeing the deeper pathos behind the commonplace misery of ordinary people’s lives.” There’s a sympathy in his writing that matches his penchant for criticism and distance.

By bringing together Steinbeck and West, Dickstein complicates our understanding of depression culture. It’s not so easy to dismiss the decade as one of fervent political commitment and decaying ideas twisted to fit the moment, and Dickstein offers a story of range and complexity—of artists and writers who struggle to convey the moods and aspirations of ordinary Americans.

In telling this more complicated story, Dickstein also consciously moves beyond literature. Like other scholars of the thirties, he takes note of the decade’s thrall to the documentary. He examines two classic works that fused photography and writing: Erskine Caldwell’s and Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces and James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Bourke-White’s photographs are some of the most famous pieces of depression-era culture we have, often catching migrant mothers “unawares,” and Caldwell adds to them by stretching their meanings about a culture and system of abject poverty (already captured in his classic novel, Tobacco Road). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on the other hand, is the best merger of modernist subjectivity and documentary realism ever produced. Agee, in Dickstein’s words, “aimed to reshape modernism to encompass the social and human urgencies of the Depression.”

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is treated as depression culture’s highest accomplishment (Lionel Trilling first made that case when the book was published). And I think deservedly so. However, Dickstein wants to take the work down a few pegs, aggravated by some of Agee’s navel-gazing concern about how well he can do his job, a theme that dominates the opening sections of the book. But Dickstein turns harsher and mischaracterizes the work: “Having pinned the tenant families in his own fantasy of the simple life, he wants them to remain just as they were, not processed by the institutions of an imperfect civilization.”

This seems unfair. Agee consistently saw the families as “damaged,” and he hoped for some form of political salvation that is admittedly vague but certainly not romantic. For Agee, the schoolteachers were “saturated in every belief and ignorance which is basic in their country and community.” “Their whole environment,” he added, “is such that the use of the intelligence, of the intellect, and of the emotions is atrophied, and is all but entirely irrelevant to the pressures and needs which involve almost every instant of a tenant’s conscious living.” Though he hears beauty in their language, he called them “totally blinded” by their conditions and found their work “simple and terrible.” Far from romanticism, this was a realism that eschewed sentimentality in any form.

THOUGH I MIGHT quibble with some of Dickstein’s other observations and judgments, the power of his narrative builds by its sheer expanse. From depression literature he moves into Hollywood fare, arguing that the decade’s films struggled with the idea of success and possessive individualism. In movies like A Star Is Born, one of the many he examines, success seems contingent and haphazard, a woman’s climb to the top moves arm in arm with the decline of her husband, who slips further into alcoholism and despair.

There’s also the gangster film, a genre that dominated the decade and has received attention from numerous historians. Richard Pells once labeled it “a safety valve for the latent feelings of violence and hostility to which men were ordinarily inclined,” representing the “futility of trying to rise above one’s station and class,” while Robert McElvaine argued that “people who identified with” gangsters in films and in reality “were making them over in the social bandit image.” Dickstein doesn’t try to get in the heads of viewers from the time—an impossible challenge—but simply sees the films as tragic stories that show how the drive for success turned ugly and fatal for so many Americans.

Dickstein continues to throw his net wide. He discusses light-hearted screwball comedies like It Happened One Night, the hilarious Marx Brothers, and Citizen Kane. He incorporates musicals and dance movies, making interrelations that start to feel like they are going to burst. Here’s Dickstein on Fred Astaire’s and Ginger Rogers’s dance movies, most famously Top Hat: “To face the music and dance is not to escape into superficial glitter or romance but to surmount reversals and catastrophes by finding one another, by taking beautiful steps and turns together. Dancing in the dark is a way of asserting a life-saving grace, unity, and style against the encroaching darkness. Thus the message …is not that different from more socially conscious hard-time fables like The Grapes of Wrath: separately we fail, we lose heart and fall into confusion; together we have a chance.”

To which I say, Maybe. I watched Top Hat and didn’t see what Dickstein did; there was a man dancing in a top hat and fine coat and getting the girl with smarmy charm. It really wasn’t the same experience I had watching the Okies traveling from repossessed farms to the fruit fields of California in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.

In other words, the book manages to marry its strengths and weaknesses. The panoramic vision sometimes draws so far back that it mistakes foxes for hedgehogs. For example, when Dickstein treats the poetry of Robert Frost, his inclusion feels forced, more so that of Wallace Stevens. And I’ll admit his inclusion of “the streamlining” designs of Art Deco completely lost me. Panorama also upsets the book’s otherwise fine literary quality. Dickstein ends up restating things too often in order to make linkages. Nonetheless, Dickstein has written an important book about a subject matter that seems, with our current economic despair, all the more timely.

Though some might hope otherwise, this book doesn’t offer any clear suggestion about today’s current anguish. It is, of course, not fair to ask Dickstein to bend history into talking points (although he’s suggestive in the opening pages that there’s a relation between the 1930s and today). Besides, our contemporary culture and that of the depression seem vastly different. The 1930s, after all, was an era of mass culture. For sure, Hollywood still has a hold on many Americans, but more and more our culture seems fragmented, splintered into different spaces on the Internet. Our culture is more cynical and ironic, eschewing the sentimentalism and populism that dominated much of 1930s culture. And the populism that is still so prevalent in contemporary politics doesn’t tilt only to the left, the way it did during the depression, it is just as likely to tilt right. Which is not to say that Dickstein’s book doesn’t hold crucial lessons about depression-era culture—but it is to say that what light it sheds on our contemporary culture is mostly about its absences.

Kevin Mattson’s most recent book is “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country.

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