California Literary Review

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein

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September 29th, 2009 at 11:46 am

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Dancing in the Dark by Morris Dickstein
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
by Morris Dickstein
W.W. Norton & Co., 624 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

From Hooverville to Hollywood

In his 1919 poem, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats wrote memorable lines that have resonated throughout the troubled decades that followed:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

For Americans during the 1930’s, such images were evoked by the specter of their once proud and prosperous nation reduced to thread-bare privation. The threat of revolution loomed ever nearer with each bank panic and factory closing. During the decade of the Great Depression, the American way of life came perilously close to breaking under the hammer blows of plunging stock values, staggering unemployment and the unraveling of social services. Despite the reassurances of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, there was much to fear.

According to Morris Dickstein’s new study of the 1930’s, Dancing in the Dark, there was also much to celebrate. For Dickstein, who teaches English and Theater at CUNY Graduate Center, the Depression decade was a time of brilliant creative achievement. Classic novels and poetry, music and dance, the visual arts, cinema and radio created a lasting cultural foundation for the nation.

Dickstein’s book is subtitled a “Cultural History of the Great Depression.” Before we can assess whether Dickstein delivers on the stated theme of his subject, it is useful to consider the meaning of cultural history. Does it consist of scholarly examination of major artists, writers and thinkers of the period and the way that their creations have influenced succeeding generations? Or should it reflect the interests and enthusiasms of society at large during the era in question?

Culture for the average American during the 1930’s involved both participation in public events and enjoyment in personal or family settings. Radio combined both of these approaches. Many Americans during the 1930’s devoted four to five hours per day listening to radio programs having a nation-wide appeal, ranging from comedies like “Fibber Magee and Molly” to Arturo Toscanini’s classical concerts. Public libraries grew in number and patronage despite funding shortages and there was widespread readership of magazines and the new paperback books. Most of all, weekly trips to the movies by an estimated 60 million Americans, even during the darkest years of the early 1930’s, represented a social phenomenon of the highest significance.

Dickstein considers these trends briefly in the preface to his book and more trenchantly in his conclusion. But the first third of Dancing in the Dark focuses on a sustained critique of literature, chiefly novels with socially-conscious themes.

The first books that Dickstein analyzes are two working class novels. Michael Gold’s Jews without Money and Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep are both set in New York City’s immigrant enclave during the early 1900’s. Gold’s novel, published in 1930, was his only successful book, followed by a life-long career as a “nasty propagandist” for the American Communist Party. Roth was a Communist too, though a more benign one, but his evocation of a ghetto childhood, published in 1934, sank without a trace. Call it Sleep was rediscovered during the 1960’s and is now a highly regarded work in the American literary canon.

After wading through Dickstein’s opening chapter, the nature of cultural history once again arises. Should Jews without Money and Call it Sleep even be included for detailed study of prominent works of the 1930’s? Dickstein asserts that Gold’s novel “single-handedly shaped an agenda for writers of the new decade.” Considering that American novels and short-stories dealing with working class themes had a pedigree reaching backing to the late 19th century, this is a questionable assertion.

Dickstein is on firmer ground when he takes up John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. In some of the best passages of his book, Dickstein charts Steinbeck’s evolving reaction to the human crisis of the 1930’s. As he witnessed scenes of appalling misery in California’s migrant labor camps, Steinbeck jettisoned his chosen role of a detached observer of humanity in favor of a radicalized empathy. While never joining the Communist Party or even becoming a “fellow traveler,” Steinbeck’s leftward tilt was indicative of much of the literary response to the corrosive impact of the “Hard Times” of the 1930’s.

The focus of Steinbeck’s fascination during the early 1930’s was human dynamics. In Dubious Battle chronicles the relationship of two Communist agitators, Mac and Jim, who foment militancy during a California farm workers’ strike. Despite their professed solidarity with the migrant laborers, Mac and Jim utilize the protest more for the tactical benefit of the Communist Party than the welfare of the workers. Steinbeck’s attitude initially followed a similar path. The blighted hopes and suffering of the early Depression years served him as subject matter for pseudo-scientific study rather than inspired advocacy. Steinbeck declared that he “wanted to be merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing, simply putting down the thing.”

Dickstein makes effective use of Steinbeck’s letters to chart the shift in his attitude. After watching children die in the squalid migrant labor camps, Steinbeck declared, “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation.”

From this sojourn amid rural suffering, The Grapes of Wrath was born. By articulating the interplay of Steinbeck’s experience and the creation of his great novel, Dickstein evokes both the era and the literary work to an impressive degree. Important themes are expounded with insight and authority. Ma Joad’s resilience and faith in the future are set against the heightened social role of women during the Depression as breadwinners and family leaders, better able to handle the emotional stress of loss of job, home and social status.

Unfortunately, Dickstein is unable to sustain this sense of the correlation of actual events and cultural interpretation. As a literary scholar, he cannot resist commenting upon writers who are “historically detached” from the Depression era. From The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, he goes back to the beginning of the decade with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. While admitting that Faulkner was “by no means a ‘Depression author,'” Dickstein sets forth on an unconvincing attempt to contrast the experience of the Joads with the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying. The Bundrens’ “stupendous journey through flood and fire” to bury their dead mother, Addie, “can be compared to the Joads’ trek along Route 66 and across the desert to California.”

This is a bizarre comparison. Faulkner’s novel, pure southern Gothic, depicts the attempt of a family, disintegrating from within, to bury the past. The Joads, by contrast, struggle against outside economic and social forces to establish a stake in the future.

Instead of trying to forge a brittle link between The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying, Dickstein might have gained greater insight by comparing Steinbeck’s novel with Conrad Richter’s 1937 frontier epic, The Sea of Grass. Serialized the previous year in The Saturday Evening Post, Richter’s novel took up one of the great themes of 1930’s books and films: the clash of the self-made man versus the communal team spirit of New Deal America.

Richter’s protagonist, the fiery-eyed cattle-baron Jim Brewton, is an archetype of “rugged individualism.” Brewton wages a doomed rear-guard action against the heedless despoliation of the prairie country which a half-century latter would trigger the Dust Bowl and the last great trek of the American West, the migration of “Okies” like the Joad family to California.

By failing to consider Richter’s novel and giving but a brief look at Gone with the Wind, Dickstein neglects a major literary genre of the 1930’s. Mainstream novels with historical themes like The Sea of Grass helped Americans gain insight into the pressing issues of their times. By framing contemporary debate in terms of U.S. history, these stories helped readers grapple with otherwise taboo subjects such as lynching in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s classic 1940 novel The Ox-Bow Incident and the slave trade in the 1934 best-seller, Anthony Adverse, by Hervey Allen.

This is a major theme of a recent book by Peter Conn, The American 1930s: A Literary History. Conn treats many of the prominent authors favored by Dickstein – William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston – but also shows how the works of popular, though now forgotten, writers like Hervey Allen and Kenneth Roberts can be studied in ways that illumine the entire Depression decade.

Kenneth Roberts, in particular, is a fascinating character. A veteran newspaper correspondent, Roberts wrote action-packed sagas set during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. His books emphasized self-reliance and individualism to such an extent that Roberts’ dislike for Roosevelt’s New Deal was but very thinly disguised. Roberts’ novels like Arundel and Northwest Passage were hugely popular with American readers and were translated into foreign language editions. Roberts’ success reveals that there was a conservative cultural reaction to the Depression as well as the liberal one which serves as Dickstein’s principal focus.

Dickstein repeatedly side-tracks his narrative away from cogent analysis of works directly related to the Depression. After a brilliant explication of how Busby Berkeley’s extravagant musicals were far from mere escapism, Dickstein goes off on an ill-considered tangent commenting on the derailed career of the 1920’s literary lion, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Furthermore, Dickstein’s reflections on Fitzgerald focuses in greater detail on works from the 1920’s or stories evoking the Jazz Age than his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.

Unaccountably, Dickstein also fails to consider other significant cultural trends from the 1930’s. Despite the positive social impact of ethnic ball players and boxers like Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Joe Louis and Bronco Nagurski, Dickstein totally ignores the role of sports in society. And the youth culture of the 1930’s, one of the Depression era’s most pivotal developments, is similarly missing in action. Young actors and actresses like Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin provided positive role models for America’s young people. And a youthful African American singer from Philadelphia, Marian Anderson, “put on a show” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 which paved the way for the Civil Rights crusade of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Dickstein’s book has much to recommend it. His erudite commentary on the novels and films of the 1930’s will command well-earned respect among literary and cinema scholars. But a feel for the popular culture of the 1930’s is almost totally lacking in Dancing in the Dark. This is more a “sin of omission,” than an error in fact or interpretation. Dickstein is too skillful an historian for that. But it is a serious fault all the same.

It was on the level of popular culture that the vital “center” of life in the United States held firm during the Great Depression. Weekly trips to the neighborhood movie house, looking at photos of a revitalized nation in Life Magazine, listening to President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats on the radio, following the home team in the still vigorous daily newspapers, these rituals of daily life were the principal means of keeping faith in America’s future, of believing that the only thing to fear was fear itself.

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