Dancing In the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, By Morris Dickstein, W.W. Norton & Co. (September 2009)
Continuing in the vein of his once-timely Gates of Eden (1977), a solid but conventional socio-cultural history of the 1960s, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is reputable pre-boomer cultural historian and literary critic Morris Dickstein’s latest attempt to illuminate a historically tumultuous decade via a broad critical survey of its major cultural achievements. The longtime CUNY lecturer’s Eden benefited from an effective balance of personal experience and critical acumen, wherein cultural products served as a window into the important social trends and political movements of that decade. However, Dancing In the Dark’s approach is less tactful in its organization. Dickstein’s professorial analytical powers are in full swing, but he gives himself the luxury of a broadly defined (read: vague) agenda here.
Obviously by not collapsing everything into a narrow thesis Dickstein can explore and critique a wider expanse of Depression-era cultural production. But he’s rarely able to find the crucial connecting threads linking the “intangible” public mood of the day and its “concrete” artistic achievements. The book does, however, follow through on its promise to deal with what Dickstein sees as a dichotomy unique to the Depression: “a culture rich in the production of popular fantasy and trenchant social criticism.” But the author attempts to juggle too many disparate subjects, genres, and themes to make enough meaningful connections between the era’s cultural innovations and its dismal social reality.
Most problematic is his handling of Depression-era novels and novelists. He views the modernism of Henry Roth, William Faulkner, and Michael Gold (not to mention the folkloric bent of Zora Neale Hurston) as making more compelling artistic statements than the popular so-called “people talk” oral histories, Communist-centered proletariat fiction or the widely read Horatio Alger tales. These modernist novels saw the effects of the Depression filtered through individual perspectives rather than via a didactic Victorian-style omniscient narrator. Dickstein emphasizes how the Depression influenced writers and their work but reveals little about how their writing influenced Depression-era life (mostly, it didn’t). Dickstein seems to simply avoid the question of why so many now-canonized literary novelists’ visions couldn’t find acceptance until long after the Depression had passed into a post-New Deal war economy.
And of the literary works he chooses to devote the most space to—Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Faulkner’s novels, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, among others—only Steinbeck’s work really captured the masses’ attention in the midst of a reeling free-market system. Further, Dickstein highlights the work of poets such as Wallace Stevens, whose verse (like West’s fiction) expressed outright fear of the desperate unemployed masses. Dickstein clearly feels that the greatest literature of the 1930s originated from an author’s ability to “personalize” the Depression, but many of these aesthetically correct individualist statements went publicly unnoticed at the time. In most cases, Dickstein simply doesn’t pay enough attention to how these authors’ fictional versions of Depression life matched up with the reality.
Broaching the subject of escapist Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers’ dance movies, Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs, or Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl folk music, Dickstein seems more concerned with his own overextended critical judgments than with using these cultural artifacts to convey a tangible sense of the mood and feel of the Depression. And when the author does confront more populist/popular fare—as in his dispatches on everything from Aaron Copland’s socially conscious compositions to the flashy collectivist choreography of Busby Berkeley musicals—he continually reiterates the all-too-obvious notion of how it raised people’s spirits and helped keep them “in motion.”
Dickstein does occasionally make some perceptive cross-genre associations that break the book’s monotony and hint at its unfulfilled potential: for example, he cleverly likens the fast-paced editing of screwball comedy with the “zip and snap” of a Gershwin tune and eloquently fleshes out the aesthetic ties between early jazz and Art Deco visual styles. Then he wraps up the chapter by smoothly interlacing its major elements together: “What Astaire and Rogers transpose into dance, what Gershwin and Cole Porter transform into verbal wit and melodic flow, screwball comedy translates into furious verbal energy, propulsive in its intensity. Had this positive energy been harnessed to some larger purpose…it might have brought the Depression to a swift end.” Unfortunately, these sorts of eureka moments are few and far between in Dancing in the Dark.
What’s more, Dickstein could have easily based an entire book-length study on women’s changing roles in the Depression—a potentially fascinating subject only too briefly touched upon here. But taken simply as a series of individual critiques of Depression-era cultural products assembled under broad thematic umbrellas, Dancing in the Dark is a competent but vastly overambitious study: one that, despite its admirable genre-hopping breadth, only skims the surface of the deeper social values and psychology behind the Great Depression itself.
Michael Sandlin is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.