Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Crash Course

A vivid account of the populist arts of the '30s offers lessons for today

Joan Richardson


Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is a sweeping, stirring, disturbing, and more than occasionally thrilling account of a period unsettlingly like our own. Citing Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second inaugural address, in 1937, when the nation had come to understand "the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization," Dickstein observes: "This was the New Deal message that was rediscovered during the financial meltdown of 2008, after decades of free-market ideology." He goes on to quote a passage that serves equally well in underlining Barack Obama's attempt to change "not only the role of government but the relation between individuals and their society":

Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. . . . This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.

Framed by the similarity between that moment and the present, Dickstein's bracing volume is a morality tale for our time and place, "this new yet unapproachable America," in Ralph Waldo Emerson's phrase, ever aspiring with what Obama terms "the audacity of hope" to become "a more perfect union." Dickstein's is no ordinary account, playing "the flat historic scale," to borrow from Wallace Stevens. Nor is it, as he comments in his introductory chapter, cultural history "as soft history, an exploration of what falls between the cracks: sensibility, moral feelings, dreams, relationships, all of them hard to objectify." "My subject here," he announces, "is at once concrete—the books, the films of an era: the stories they told, the fears and hopes they expressed—and yet intangible, the look, the mood, the feel of the historical moment." Dancing in the Dark is, in its expansiveness, like a Wagnerian music drama, the motif of its title scored symphonically through seventeen chapters parsed into four parts, developed thematically against a unifying chronological backdrop: "Discovering Poverty," "Success and Failure," "The Culture of Elegance," "The Search for Community."

While this story concerns the 1930s, its compass extends backward and forward and beyond our shores, revealing the decade's origins and influences. As Dickstein notes, "the Depression did not begin suddenly with the 1929 Crash but developed like a rolling swell over a lengthy period." Of the "artists with the pen, the brush, or the camera" reporting on and translating the feel of the '30s, he writes, "They gave us an exemplary lesson in the relation between artistic expression and social purpose. Their responses should resonate with us again today." Within this address to the era's populism, exemplified differently in, say, Frank Capra's biting fairy-tale parodies and Woody Guthrie's proletarian folk songs, Dickstein refers back to the origins of American populism in the 1890s—Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives and William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes, for example—and then carries us into the 1960s, as Bob Dylan's voice revivifies the spirit of Guthrie, the troubadour "Shakespeare in overalls," singing songs by, for, and of "the people."

In his incisive analyses of innumerable works and affiliations (the Group Theatre, the Partisan Review crowd, the Federal Writers' Project, and the Federal Art Project, to name a few), Dickstein textures his descriptions with observations made by other critics, biographers, and historians, both of the period and outside it, both American and European. The range of reference and the varying points of view make for stimulating reading. In discussing populism, for instance, Dickstein offers Richard Hofstadter's reflection in 1955 on literary theorist Kenneth Burke, who "got into hot water" at "the first Writers' Congress, in 1935, dominated by the Communists," for "urging the substitution of the broader term 'the people' for divisive phrases like 'the masses,' 'workers,' or 'proletariat.'" Dickstein goes on to paint the full backdrop of the Communist movement's tactical reversal from doctrinaire Marxism to an alignment with the Popular Front, so that by 1936 "Burke's terminology was in" and "the editors of Partisan Review, who were still Marxists, were castigated for still pursuing an interest in something so divisive as the proletarian novel, rather than more popular works with a liberal or progressive tinge." In delineating Guthrie's gift, Dickstein—who began his career studying the Romantics—perceptively observes, "He had what the great German poet Schiller describes (in his essay 'On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry') as a spontaneous rather than a self-conscious imagination; that helped make him so prolific."

Dancing in the Dark is enlivened by the author's account of his own profound engagement with the period: John Steinbeck's writing, for example, "enchanted [him] early on" with its "elemental . . . sensuous simplicity"—a feeling renewed "with nostalgia" when he lived in California during the summer of 1973 and visited Monterey and Cannery Row. These personal asides are never intrusive, and unlike Alfred Kazin's Starting Out in the Thirties, this is not a memoir. (Dickstein was born in 1940, on February 23, the day, he notes, that Guthrie "dashed off 'This Land' as an angry response to the patriotic rhetoric of Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America.'" It's significant that the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the Sunday preceding Obama's inauguration included Guthrie's song.) Rather, these periodic reminiscences produce in this survey a rhythm that reinforces the theme—that our present has been shaped in myriad ways by the cultural work of the Great Depression. If, as Dickstein notes, "the relation of the observer to the thing observed" was the source of James Agee's rich style, it also informs his own practice here; his critical sensibility has been shaped by the works he discusses. For instance, his recuperation, as equals of Steinbeck and Nathanael West, of the immigrant novelists Michael Gold and Henry Roth (the latter of whom Dickstein interviewed more than twenty years ago, in the fall of 1987, in gathering the material he would spin into this book) is poignantly informed by the reciprocal relation he details between his own family history and the fictions woven by Gold and Roth.

Thrilling perceptions punctuate the book, some capturing in one or two sentences the essence of an artist's contribution. About Gold, who drew on the poverty and misery of his family's immigrant experience not only for the 1930 novel Jews Without Money but also to sustain a cultural critique stretching into the late 1950s, Dickstein remarks that the author's "childhood lasted him a lifetime; the New York slums of the turn of the century became his imaginative capital, his obsession, the ground of his religious attachment to the Revolution." He further notes that "Gold was the missing link between the plebeian Whitman, whom he idolized, and the youthful Allen Ginsberg, who must have read him as a Young Communist in the 1930s or early 1940s."

More elaborate insights draw terms of comparison from other cultural frames of reference, thereby contextualizing American experience within an expanded historical field. A good example is Dickstein's description of the hero of West's 1933 novel, Miss Lonelyhearts: "Having lost his cynicism he has lost his fix on life. The discrete chapters of the book are like the Stations of the Cross. Having taken a kind of Dantean journey and gazed into the well of human misery, he has lost the ability to take pleasure in the ordinary world." Dickstein's critique encourages us to return to these works, newly equipped with his discerning perceptions. His deft descriptions of movie scenes (from John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, and Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby, among others), plays (Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!), and photographs (by Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, Edwin Rosskam, and more) bring them into vivid focus. Of Dorothea Lange's famous 1936 "Migrant Mother," Dickstein writes, "Like migrants in other Lange photographs, she is all angles, a zig-zag of intersecting lines."

Dickstein makes us feel the fear, anger, and despair disturbing the American dream, while demonstrating, through abundant examples, how the work of imagination transforms these tribulations into scenes of instruction. The story Dancing in the Dark tells is not only instructive but exhilarating.

Joan Richardson is a professor of English, comparative literature, and American studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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