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Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression

Morris Dickstein

(W.W. Norton; US: Sep 2009)

When Dancing in the Dark hit bookshelves last fall, seemingly no one could help commenting on the irony of its timing. Here was a massive retrospective of America’s cultural output during the 1930s, arriving just as the country was in the biggest economic crisis since then. The author, historian and professor Morris Dickstein, noted as much in his preface: the artists of that era “gave Americans a collective portrait of themselves yet consoled them for all that made the picture disheartening ... They gave us an exemplary lesson in the relation between artistic expression and social purpose. Their responses should resonate with us again today as we go through the stresses and anxieties that remind us too much of the Great Depression.”


But no such paean to current affairs is necessary when looking at the art and culture of the ‘30s. Dickstein, again, noted as much: 30 years ago, in his take on ‘60s culture Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (1978), he called the ‘30s “a permanent point of reference for the way we think and behave”. Indeed, no consideration of American popular art is complete without talking about George (and Ira) Gershwin, John Steinbeck, Frank Capra, and the rest of the pantheon whose most significant work was done during an enormously stressful time to be an American. Their work has permeated the American identity to the point where we accept its centrality to our cultural development without giving much thought to the nature of that centrality. This is where Dickstein comes in, providing a sweeping and authoritative—but, curiously, silent in crucial areas—dissection of what those major works mean to our lives today.


Dancing in the Dark is light years apart from Gates of Eden. The latter is the work of a younger man, who lived through the times being discussed, and wrote about them while they were still in the national rear-view mirror. Dancing in the Dark benefits from its distance from the era of its focus: the works Dickstein explores are more firmly part of the American canon; many historians and critics have since weighed in on Depression-era art and politics; and Dickstein writes better now.  With so much material to draw from, and with his gift for seeing connections and themes across genres and disciplines, Dickstein has no trouble tracking the period, from the onset of disaster to steely optimism and eventual recovery, through the expressive culture all that misery and uncertainty produced. 


But one might wonder about the path he chose. Fully half of the book is taken up with the fiction and documentary reportage of the period. Such concern with literature shouldn’t be too surprising; Dickstein is a professor of English, after all. And while he gives careful consideration to the period’s emblematic works (The Grapes of Wrath, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the plays of Clifford Odets), he makes a passionate case for less-usual suspects like Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men (1935) and Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934). Indeed, he launches the book by positioning Michael Gold’s Jews without Money, a novel published in 1930 and set in the New York City tenements of the 1900s, as the book which cleared the ground for writers throughout the rest of the decade to tackle the subject of grinding, relentless poverty.


Elsewhere, he sees Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston as representing two radically different perspectives, instead of lumping them together as Classic-Black-Writers, and links both Wright’s Native Son and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to trends of the era: the former to strains of radical politics that ran throughout the decade (discussions of ‘30s populist and Communist policies and philosophies run throughout Dancing in the Dark itself); and the latter to the keep-your-chin-up survivalist meme. He also identifies the decade as the time when fiction began to look askance at the Hollywood dream machine, most notably in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and West’s The Day of the Locust.


Looking at those titles provides Dickstein a simple transition to the film of the period. He is far less effusive about movies than about books, but no less insightful when talking about screwball comedies, Frank Capra’s career, and the relation of gangster movies to the national mood (although he doesn’t say much about what have become over time the decade’s most beloved movies, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz). He is at his most passionate when under the spell of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; his description of their dance to Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet (1936) provides Dancing in the Dark with its central metaphor:


The couple play two Monte Carlo gamblers who contemplate suicide after being wiped out—a rather melodramatic metaphor for the Depression—but console each other back into the world, save each other ... for dancing. This in turn is a metaphor for the whole [Astaire-Rogers] series: 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 of the series is not that different from more socially conscious hard-times fables like The Grapes of Wrath: separately we fail, we lose heart and fall into confusion; together we have a chance.


But aside from a chapter on Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, Dickstein doesn’t have much to say about Depression-era music (he admits that music writing is not his strong suit). He touches upon the elegance inherent in the sounds of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, and the urbane hipness of Cole Porter’s lyrics, but he doesn’t bring the same level of depth to analyzing those figures as he does to books and movies. His chapter on composer Aaron Copland is more a meditation on the Popular Front’s influence as a political movement on artists than on how Copland became our de facto national classical composer. His consideration of troubadour Woody Guthrie doesn’t go to the lengths of connecting him to the rest of the decade that Dickstein goes to elsewhere in Dancing in the Dark. Further, his take on Art Deco is as much about music as it is about design and architecture, and there’s nothing at all about the other visual arts.


This leads to the largest gaps in Dickstein’s otherwise exhaustive overview. He discusses the era’s fiction convincingly, and will send many a reader back to discover or re-discover some of these titles. But did literature loom so large over Depression culture that it justifies half the space here? Is a chapter on the inside-baseball quibbles of the New York intelligentsia, as chronicled roman-a-clef by Mary McCarthy and Tess Slesinger, really crucial to understanding the broader culture of the time? In fact, were there books Dickstein doesn’t discuss that may have been more widely read back then than the titles he offers here? We know, for example, that discussing black fiction of the decade just ended must include the likes of Zane and Vickie Stringer as well as Toni Morrison, if popularity is a relevant factor. There was plenty of pulp fiction in the ‘30s, but Dickstein doesn’t offer us anything about it or any other stuff current audiences would consider lower-brow than the likes of Steinbeck and William Faulkner. (He also neglects to touch upon the impact of several influential magazines launched in the ‘30s, including Esquire and Henry Luce’s Life, and the birth of the Superman character.)


He’s also puzzlingly mute on the most democratic of all cultural media during the Depression. There’s nary a peep about radio and its role in keeping a nation informed, uplifted and entertained through poverty and recovery—and the ‘30s was the decade of radio’s greatest impact on our cultural life, when it was as central to American home life as television has been since the ‘50s. A lot of people found relief from the calamity around them by tuning into radio comedies, dramas, and serials. But Dickstein says nothing about the medium except for its role as the place where most people learned to love swing and big band jazz. And a certain President regularly took to the airwaves to calm a nation ill at ease—were Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats not part of the decade’s cultural experience?


And for all his perceptive and adroit analysis, Dickstein doesn’t tell us how these major works were regarded by audiences and critics at the time. Granted, arts criticism wasn’t as plentiful then as it is now. But while relying on his own ideas, and considering the work of others since the ‘30s who have tackled these subjects, he left out the angle of seeing how this art was perceived by the people who consumed it. It’s obvious that most of these works were highly popular back then, but was there any deeper recognition beyond that, anyone sensing that what they were enjoying at that moment spoke to some eternal truth about America’s idea of itself?


Those omissions keep Dancing in the Dark from being a complete overview of a tumultuous time. As it is, it’s merely ambitious in scope, magisterial in tone, and a joy to read throughout. Dickstein makes compelling sense of a bewildering decade’s art and expression for an America much further removed from that time than the current economic uncertainties would suggest (there are no bread lines, at least not yet). In the process, he reveals those essential elements of Depression-era culture—a passion to chronicle the hardest of knocks, speak truth to power seen and unseen, and keep dancing anyway—that have continued to play out in our art these last 70-odd years, and counting.

Rating:

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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