Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Dancing in the Dark, by Morris Dickstein

By Scott McLemee

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Scott McLemee discusses criticism finalist Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (Norton)

The past is not always prologue, but it sure gets your attention at times. Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression appeared just after the spectre of total global financial collapse had passed—though even with stimulus and bailout, and all the band-aids in the world, it’s clear that we are in for a long period of brutally reduced expectations.

There is, of course, a familiar condensed mental newsreel of the years following the 1929 crash. It tends to linger on a handful of images: soup kitchens, picket lines, dance marathons, Henry Fonda’s speech at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, families listening to FDR on the radio, and (this sequence proves most diverting) scantily clad chorus girls doing intricate numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Dickstein’s expansive and elegant reconstruction of the period doesn’t just expand the catalog of items that should define our memory of the period. He examines the style, the imagery, and the rhythms of Depression culture, paying close attention to how literature, music, and film captured—and, in a way, created—the texture of life in hard times.

Dickstein reminds us that the first few years of the Depression were marked by a pronounced tendency by “responsible” members of government and mass media to downplay just how bad things were getting. (I do not mention this to make any contemporary point; perish the thought.) Documentary realism was not simply the natural way to record what was happening to the country. It was a way artists and writers could cut through the fantasies of normalcy and confront the actual state of the American Dream. At the same time, the manufacturers and vendors of that dream still had a market:

Migrant workers were grasping at survival, not reaching for freedom. This is one reason why photography became such a central mode of expression in the 1930s. The migrant pictures, with their sharp angles, their clashing lines, are all about going nowhere; the people are pinned like social specimens, frozen into postures that allow little movement, no escape.

The fantasy culture of the thirties, on the other hand, is all about movement, not the desperate simulation of movement we find in the road stories, but movement that suggests genuine freedom. That is why, with Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire, with George Balanchine and Martha Graham, choreography became as important as photography for this decade. The look of the great thirties musicals is everything that Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” or “Woman of the High Plains,” both so angular and static, are not. It’s all circle and swirl, all movement and flow. Think of it: the rose-petal effect in Berkeley’s big numbers, the sweepingly elegant curvature of the Art Deco sets, the brilliance of movement of Astaire and Rogers, locked together in breathtaking dips and turns….Like all genuine couples, together they are something they could never have been separately, not simply romantic, not simply a vision of swank and elegance inherited from the nightclub era of the 1920s, but a dream of motion that appealed to people whose lives felt pinched, anxious, graceless, and static.

But the polarities and conflicts in Depression culture were not always so clearcut as the one between socially conscious realism and Hollywood-style escapism. For one thing, there was plenty of gray area between them. The gangster films that were so popular in the early part of the decade “were largely immigrant fables,” notes Dickstein, “as well as wild, almost parodic versions of Horatio Alger stories” that were “tellingly ambivalent about the American Dream.”

Dickstein considers scores of novels, poems, and works of literary reportage, as well as films, popular songs, and collaborative efforts between artists and writers working in different media. His pages on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—the lyrical and reflexive text that James Agee wrote to accompany Walker Evans’s stunning photographs of tenant farmers and their families—offer an admiring but unsentimental assessment of a deeply flawed masterpiece.

But the core of the book, in some ways, is Dickstein’s extensive consideration of Nathaniel West. While as active as any other left-leaning writer in the Popular Front causes of the day, West’s novels are darkly satirical in their handling of the tensions between populism and alienation, between solidarity and irony, between popular culture and modernist sensibility. He had “a genuine streak of proletarian sympathy in his makeup, a bleak affinity for human wretchedness that comes across clearly in his novels,” yet “avoided social realism and seemed to deal with spiritual rather than economic privation.” Dickstein comes back to West throughout Dancing in the Dark, finding in him the figure who splits the difference between Céline and the Marx Brothers.

After 1941, the economy got its groove back. Nothing primes the pump quite like war. But the previous dozen years left their mark on American politics and culture in the form of “a tension between individualism and community, between private initiative and public planning.” That tension has not diminished over the past seven decades. Dickstein’s account of the culture of the Great Depression at times proves uncannily familiar, and for good reason. “Artists and performers rarely succeed in changing the world,” he writes, “but they can change our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live in it.” And by paying attention to their work, we can come to understand the way we live now.

Click here to read an excerpt from Dancing in the Dark. Click here for a video–part one of seven–of Morris Dickstein discussing Dancing in the Dark.

The NBCC awards ceremony is free and open to the public, as are the readings by NBCC finalists on Wednesday, March 10. To purchase tickets to the reception following the awards ceremony, click here.