Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein, Norton, 624 pp, £22, ISBN: 978-0393072259
It should be a source of reassurance that the twenty-first century began with something as ineffably human and recurrent as an economic catastrophe; even more so as it was founded on something as familiar as that massively delirious greed which has become the defining motive force of what we should now call Anglo-Saxon culture (not all of the West is quite so fundamentalist in its Mammonism as the US and its fawning mini-mes, Britain, Ireland and Iceland).
This recent bringing low is of course a disaster of sorts, but it should also be read (and is being read) as a necessary humiliation, a reminder that we have acquiesced in being made helpless to influence events beyond a minute degree. Depressions make things clear. First we got to understand that we had witnessed (and fostered) the exploitation of financial illiteracy on a massive scale by a stupefyingly cynical system; now we must cruelly acknowledge what we should have always remembered, that the game is rotten, and rigged in a particularly seductive way, in that you reckoned you were in on the con, with your speculations and your credit lines, only to find out that you were not in on it as well as you thought. In boom time, you are allowed to perceive of yourself as way ahead, but then the ladders become snakes.
Whether you blew your wad on adventure holidays, became a grant-dependent artist, invested thousands in your own education (or that of your wretchedly spoiled children) or simply mortgaged away your happiness, you are a minor but essential player in what is all good depression farce, the final act of which ought to – but might not – feature the humiliation of our prime villains, the über-bankers and politicians. That said, we also should admit that economic disasters like our own are perhaps not as terrible as we like to think. Despite the odd jumper from a window, we have not seen a loss of life such as a natural disaster produces, or indeed the kind of horror that fully flourishing capitalism can produce (the Union Carbide atrocity at Bhopal in India in 1984 was a product of industrialisation at its efficiently careless, prosperous best). For the really astute of course, like the superhumanly opportunistic currency speculators, depressions are times of great potential; but they can also be politically productive. In the US in the 1930s, the crisis meant that the country had to learn to experiment with ideologies other than capitalism for the first (and maybe last) time in its history. The real miracle of the New Deal(s) was what happened in American politics, the fragile radicalisation of a nation notoriously reluctant to radicalize.
Depressions, it could be argued, are not necessarily conducive to great imaginative art, being times when reality is sufficiently interesting and fantastic in its own way, rendering art irrelevant. That does not stop them becoming fodder for nostalgia in subsequent eras, however, as the sugar-coated Seabiscuit book and film of early this century demonstrate. Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of the horse was a winsome piece of redemptive writing, with Seabiscuit cited as an inspiration to others because he, as much as Jay Gatsby, came from obscurity to find prosperity. As such, the story is designed to offer a nebulously aspirational sense of how to succeed in American life, an unexceptional and familiar legend; the real story of the Seabiscuit phenomenon is one of a more wretched desperation ‑ that of those who were putting their last dime on the horse because he had come to be the closest thing to a reliable source of income. Nowhere in Hillenbrand’s book is there any mention of the starting prices of the horses in the races that Seabiscuit ran in, little indication that he might be something you could bet on rather than just admire.
This is a fundamental problem of using inspirational stories and artists to describe what happens in times of depression: the very positiveness of the accounts tends to render the time of crisis as one of harmony. Yet the best artists from times of depression often tend to be nasty pieces of work, just think of The Sex Pistols (nasty but nice perhaps), Ezra Pound (nobody gets closer to showing how money can make you mad), Céline, Hamsun, Villon, Melville (the most magnificent of all catastrophists, who could generate disaster from both boom and bust); none of them are exactly advertisements for not having money in your pocket. Such artists (and Seabiscuit) do not get much of a mention in Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. This is not necessarily because they did not exist in the USA during the 1930s, but because they do not serve well as protagonists in the kind of story Dickstein wants to stitch together; and so, while you will find reference here to Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, as indeed you should (although the sections on these musicians are far too reliant on Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, which is indicative of Dickstein’s discomfort with anything other than conventional literature), you will not find any reference to the Depression’s own Aleister Crowley, Robert Johnson (nor, incredibly, to any blues artists) or to its brilliantly warped jester, Fats Waller, whose perversions of Tin Pan Alley indicate the genius for mania that pervaded the 1930s.
This leads into a related problem of what a cultural history should do, and what a cultural historian should be. If there is any real difference, is Edward Gibbon just an historian or a cultural historian? What about Greil Marcus? Both of them tell stories of past civilisations, and rely on the cultural productions of those civilisations for their raw material, their fabula. Yet Gibbon is less overtly dependent on his particular sources than Marcus, in that if Marcus cannot tell his tale through the lens of a particular song, as with Like A Rolling Stone, then his story cannot get told. The song, the single artefact, has primacy. Gibbon, on the other hand, summons an array of texts to illustrate his larger tale, but none of them are individually as important as the metonymic significance that they carry. Gibbon’s epic concept of culture is romantic, nearly abstract; Marcus’s is materialistic and accumulative, a collection of stuff that practically tells its own story: all we have to do is listen. The practically archaeological Marcus method is probably the dominant one now, and the cultural history of material things has become a definitive mode of literary-historical discourse in our time, what with the colour blue, barbed wire and coffee all having recently received the treatment, not to mention Dominique Laporte’s very scholarly A History of Shit. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is irrelevant, but it does indicate the inadequacy of the term “culture” as a definition of anything. What can be said with considerable confidence, however, is that good historians or literary critics do not necessarily make good cultural historians, as the weight of their own disciplinary preferences can prove too strong. Very few writers have managed, for example, to achieve the equipoise of Terence Brown’s Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, with the barrelhouse confidence of both its narrative and its judgements. Indeed, in subsequent efforts as a more conventional literary critic or biographer, Brown has never been quite so persuasive, an indication that true cultural historians are born not made, and that they should never try to adapt. On the other hand, Declan Kiberd’s tendency to publish galumphing fat books with epically generous titles does not conceal that he is a brilliant reader of individual texts rather than a momentous narrator of Ireland’s cultural history; his Inventing Ireland is a book full of micro-pleasures, but its big idea is pretty banal.
This brings us back to Dickstein, whose Dancing in the Dark must be treated with wariness given that it is very much the creation of a literary critic who is struggling to adopt the role of cultural historian ‑ or indeed to form an understanding of what such a role might be; his prejudices are those of a bookman, and are evidenced in the texts he selects for analysis as well as the things he thinks. As such, it is clear enough what kind of history this will be: culture for Dickstein equates to novels, then a couple of poets (he is pretty good on Frost and Stevens) then movies, then music, some brief dashes of architecture and design, and finally (showing a wretched tokenism) a chapter on women and politics tacked on at the end. All of this suggests the presence of an editorial voice that kept on intervening to tell the author that hundreds of pages on Henry Roth, F Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Nathanael West were all very well (they are better than that in fact: the sections on West are particularly necessary and illuminating), but that a cultural history had better run to some other types of text and people than just fictionists.
Although this is in some regards an effective and impressive weave, and says some surprising things ‑ I never thought I would read the sentence “Steinbeck is too theoretical.” ‑ it is also poorly integrated and maddeningly prone to repetitiveness. There is also at times a tendency to poetic licence that would shame the pimply Stephen Dedalus: “The rich literary idiom of the novel springs partly from the rocky verbal soil of the ghetto.” It tests your tolerance when a writer never fails to opt for an overused phrase when something less addled might have done. So Dickstein describes “crusty old-timers” with “prickly independence” and you wince, but also wonder what that otherwise detectable editor was doing, a thought confirmed by the numerous typographical and grammatical errors throughout.
Dickstein’s writing is strangely impressionistic at times, making this a descriptive book that is just content to narrate via the narrations of others, whether they are artists or critics. Sustained expositions of his favourite novels take you ably into the world of the books, but sometimes at the expense of what is presumably the main work in hand, which is to bring you towards some approximation of what the Depression was like, whether as affective or intellectual experience. Dancing in the Dark is a strange history, though, as it wants to keep such experiences at a remove. A particularly revealing number of passages in the preface, phrases from which are repeated throughout the book, detail Dickstein’s personal interest in his subject, but also indicate his failure ‑ despite his introductory claims ‑ to project his reader into experience that is anything more than third-hand:
This book examines the rich array of cultural material ‑ books, films, songs, pictures, designs ‑ to fathom the life and mind of the Depression. But it also brings history to bear on these peerless works to understand where they came from ‑ to listen to their dialogue with their own times. Great art or performance helps us to understand how people felt about their lives; it testifies to what they needed to keep going. This is why we return again and again to classic American social novels, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The House of Mirth, and The Jungle, different as they are, to The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. Each in its own way enables us to feel the pulse of society from the inside. Dancing in the Dark, then, shows how the arts responded to a society in upheaval and, at the same time, how they altered and influenced that society, providing a hard-pressed audience with pleasure, illumination, and hope when they were most needed.
Culture equals the arts, the arts equal the novel, the novel equals the social novel. Dickstein’s rudimentary cultural mathematics is an apologia for a series of lectures on socially responsible fiction in the realist mode, and nothing more. He is no new historicist, scrabbling around for diner menus or union pamphlets for a fuller discourse; he reads everything as if it was a novel. More strangely, he claims that the particular value of the novels that he has chosen is that they were read by the kind of people that they represented. In fact, he goes beyond that and seems to imply that they enjoyed a practically universal audience, that of the “hard-pressed”. Yet of the millions afflicted by the Depression, some of whom were illiterate, you wonder what illumination was offered ‑ and to how many ‑ by The Great Gatsby. It is also questionable whether the real work of culture is to provide the kind of succour that Dickstein describes; Theodor Adorno, in many ways as bona fide a product of Depression culture as anyone Dickstein describes, and who read America as well as anybody, knew that this kind of “entertainment” in dark times is the culture machine doing its dirtiest work. Dickstein is resistant to such ideas; indeed, he is not really interested in ideas at all. This is tolerable as he progresses with his partial storytelling, but irritates when he goes out of his way to let us know that he has read at least a little of the cultural criticism produced in this time, only to make just as little (or no) use of it:
As Walter Benjamin demonstrated in his classic 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” this was a time when technology altered the arts and tremendously expanded their reach.
Benjamin never rears his inquiring head again in the entire book, having served his very bland ad hoc purpose for Dickstein. As for all of that stuff about “aura” and what-not in Benjamin’s essay, forget it.
In Dickstein’s imagining, the Depression is primarily a phenomenon that took place in the form of text, and his wish is to assert this at the expense of other forms of historical document. This might be precisely what a cultural historian ought to do of course, depending on what it is you think constitutes culture. Beyond this again, however, he ultimately prefers texts that do not attempt to represent the banal reality of Depression (and it would be right to say that any attempt to do this might be presumptuous, even impossible), rather choosing books, plays and films that fantasise ways out of reality into sentiment (Steinbeck), hedonism (musicals) or cartoonish catastrophe (West). This happens to such a degree that the Depression becomes rendered as rather dreamlike in itself. Dickstein therefore appears to be in the perverse position of asserting himself as an historian of a time that he would rather forget, which accounts for the tepid temper of much of this book, despite the gaieties of some of the texts it renarrates; finally, Dickstein tends towards the mourning and melancholia side of Depression, rather than its bug-eyed evil twin of dementedness. He does refer to screwball comedy in some detail and does an excellent job of making a claim on our attention for the outrageously good West, but mostly he prefers the sad to the mad, Capra to Sturges, Chaplin to the Stooges. This is a shame, because a stronger writer would have been able to find a way of communicating that the Depression produced as much brilliant mania as any other period in history, not least in the cartoons of Tex Avery and Looney Tunes. Even nasty little Walt Disney deserves a mention, but fails to get it.
The real lesson of the Depression for Dickstein is that it left people like his father “terrified of poverty” for the rest of their lives; and yet he also concedes that his family did not suffer poverty in the tangible way that others did. Misery is spectral for Dickstein, therefore, and as such he struggles to represent the complex reality of the Depression. Having said that, the vicariousness of the book, its voyeuristic dependence upon movies and books, is nevertheless what makes it compelling; Dickstein’s understanding of culture is a limited one, but arguably those limitations are aptly reflective of the ocular bias in Western culture. He’s limited, who isn’t? Rather than document a period, he wants to introduce us to Depressionese, a style above all else, a mode; under these terms, the suavity of Astaire can be reconciled with the photography of Walker Evans. Whatever else, a shared beauty (however terrible) is determinable in the images. The problem is that this amounts to an aestheticising of politics as powerful as anything in Leni Riefenstahl (who is rightly compared here with Busby Berkeley). The 1970s saw the revival of this Depression chic, exemplified by films like Bonnie and Clyde, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Thieves Like Us. To be fair to Dickstein, he is very sensitive to the dangers of such voguishness, notably in the section where he compares the two widely known text-and-picture books from the era: Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) and James Agee and Walker Evans’s collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), where he identifies the danger of converting images of real sufferers of the Depression into images of generically distressed beauty. Agee and Evans are seen as exemplary in their respect for their subjects, and Evans’s images are described as achieving the status of high art, a matter of their proven ability to generate canonical discourse:
The word most often used for Evans’s subjects is “dignity”, as when Lionel Trilling says of one woman: “The sitter gains in dignity when allowed to defend herself against the lens.” Agee himself talks of the “weight, mystery, and dignity” of characters who are not imagined, as in a novel, but simply exist. It is not as often remarked that Evans allows exactly the same dignity to his people’s homes and possessions, a dignity of modest personal spaces; they too peer back at us with an uncanny look of unassailable pride. Evans grants an unusual integrity to the world of objects. It is not for nothing that his shot of George Gudger’s work shoes has been compared (favourably!) to the peasant shoes of Van Gogh.
The repeated projection of dignity onto wretchedness ought to be regarded with more scepticism than Dickstein attempts, perhaps, and his admiration for Evans’s work is typically founded on the opinions of others, but he achieves a much more certain and convincing tone when making his views clear on Bourke-White’s images:
By contrast, Bourke-White, whose picture (sic) are interspersed in groups throughout the text, takes us inexorably from images of “normal,” even happy life ‑ plowing, fishing, eating watermelon, working the land ‑ to images of sullen misery, deformity, hardship, and blight. At first we see families, even smiling children, with only the captions to tell us how bad things really are. But these are soon replaced by the lined, craggy faces of people old before their time, faces etched with weariness, hopelessness, hunger and disease.
No one can fail to be moved by this collective blight, but it lacks all reticence and specificity. We feel the photographer is somehow cheating: taking images of old age and passing them off as illness, presenting images of disease, some of them quite ghoulish, as more typical and hopeless than they really were. These people express no emotions that would individualize them, usually no emotions at all; instead, they come across as passive victims whose ravaged features, shorn of “unnecessary individualization,” serve as emblems of their general condition.
Now it is not too hard to take issue with a lot of what Dickstein writes here, not least in that the “discovery” of dignity is every bit as worthy of suspicion as Bourke-White’s stereotyping, and it is also arguable that such stereotyping is in fact every bit as “truthful” a way of describing what it was like to be poor in the Dust Bowl as it is to make the victims of poverty into Mona Lisas. Having said that, Dickstein is confident and resolute here, providing substance for his privileging of Agee and Evans, and this progresses into some very sensitive appreciation of Agee, although there surely should have been space for consideration of how the memory of the Depression persisted with Agee in his later screenplay for The Night of the Hunter.
Notwithstanding its many omissions, a strange part of this book’s achievement is in how you recognise so much of its content as familiar, texts (particularly the films and songs) that many generations of people have grown up with. As such, they have transcended their socio-historical origins, and Dickstein is left with the daunting task of trying to recontextualise them, something he does quite effectively at times, as with this aptly fluent passage on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:
The Gay Divorcee, directed by Mark Sandrich, who would go on to direct five more films in the series, set the pattern of conflict and resolution not only between Rogers and Astaire but between the films’ speech world and their musical world. In the speech world everything is at cross-purposes as the films contrive a tangle of misunderstanding, hesitation, and resistance to keep the couple apart. But the films also offer us a song and dance world in which seemingly mismatched people can connect beautifully to form a little community of two, in which all awkwardness and inhibition are soon banished and all movement is unimaginably graceful, fluid, purposeful, and lovely.
Dickstein is so particularly energised here, however, because these musicals enact his real desire, the work of obliteration:
Though they are set in a fairy tale worlds ‑ here, and again in Top Hat, a Venice borrowed from Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) ‑ the discord could be seen as a displaced version of the Depression, a representation of everybody’s problems, while the concord that follows is the kind of dreamy romantic utopia in which depression and disharmony are transcended. Just as (Cole) Porter’s effervescence worked best against a dark background, the dancing of Astaire and Rogers was all the more effective with Depression audiences in a framework of conflict and delay.
The casting of Rogers-Astaire as Everyman/woman is a surprising turn, perhaps Dickstein’s most radical claim, but it makes perfect sense within the very limited terms under which he wants to read the Depression, with culture as its one and only cure-all, apparently open to everyone. He is usually (and happily) reticent about overloading many of his chosen texts with metaphoric or metonymic interpretations, resisting the lazy way in which so many lazy readers reduce what they read or hear or see to how they are “about” something, as if it were all they were about, so Ulysses is a book about … the street. This is a very necessary discipline for Depressions, where every minor calamity has the potential to be “about” the bigger, even more miserable, picture; however, with Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Dickstein is suddenly orgiastic in his troving for metaphors:
Seize the day, the song says, or rather seize the night, for there may be trouble and tears ahead; meanwhile, let’s face the music and dance. Facing the music, of course, is a nicely ambiguous play on words that suggests both an escape into romance and facing up to what really matters while we still can. In the story within the story, 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 series: to face the music and dance is not to escape into superficial glitter and 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-grace, unity, and style against the encroaching darkness. Thus the message of the series is not so different from that of 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. It’s only a play within a play, a performance, yet it seems more real than anything that came before.
Astaire is the closest thing to a hero that is identifiable in this book, because he offers an illusion of escape from the domain of the material and the necessary; indeed, he offers a way out of history. In the final paragraph of the book, Dickstein returns to the language of the Astaire chapter to offer his final analysis:
Artists and performers rarely succeed in changing the world, but they can change our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live in it. They produced a rich, sometimes paradoxical culture by keeping their eyes trained on the ups and downs of individual lives within the larger social crisis, to which they bore eloquent witness. Their work and serious play did much to erase the national trauma. They were dancing in the dark, moving in time to a music of their own, but the steps were magical.
The direct reference to the need to “erase the national trauma” makes this an apt conclusion, if not a fine one, to a book that often does not make a lot of sense. That said, it has its peculiar (to the point of dotty) convictions, and these are sustained throughout his pages. If nothing else, Dickstein’s book is a triumph of sincerity. What it believes is in many ways undeniable: that the cultural artefacts it describes so lovingly are indeed remarkable as products of their time (in this sense, then Dickstein is more of a Greil Marcus than a Gibbon), but also that they are remarkable because they demonstrate their freedom from their historical context. What makes Dickstein a weak historian is that he is at heart a universalist, and constantly avoids the particular. There are far too many moments in Dancing in the Dark where he begins to address an issue or analytical crux that he surely knows he must, only to fail to pursue the argument: as when he suggests intriguingly that the Depression can be identified as a primary cause of the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee but allows it all to remain as speculation. Too often he indulges in other speculations that are just silly and which run counter to his more habitual evasions:
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 and physical energy, propulsive in its intensity. Had this positive energy been harnessed to some larger social purpose, as the New Deal hoped to do, it might have brought the Depression to a swift end. Expressed as fantasy, it merely made those difficult years more palatable, and left us with many works that testify to the unquenchably vital spirit of those who lived through them.
If only. Cary Grant’s raised eyebrows were admittedly an awesome spectacle, but you wonder how they might have been harnessed to hasten the building of the Hoover Dam. At least in the 1930s they had Cary Grant. We have Lady Gaga.
Michael Hinds is Head of English and Co-Ordinator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies at the Mater Dei Institute, Drumcondra. He has published widely on American poetry and culture, and manages the website http://americanstudiesinireland.materdei.ie. He is also co-editor of POST: A Review of Poetry Studies, downloadable free at http://post.materdei.ie. His essay on ottava rima, “Quietly Facetious about Everything”, will appear later this year in Poetic Genres (Blackwell).