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

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Morris Dickstein
Norton, 2009, 598 pg

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark is an impressive piece of scholarship that should last as one of the most important books on the subject for some time. I won’t say it is the most important book of its kind because there are a few gaps in the material but as a work of literary, film and cultural criticism it is a solid work. While one may be forgiven for thinking the books is primarily literary criticism since most of the first 200 pages are an overview of the literature of the period, one of the strengths of the book is his appraisal of the films of the 30s. No cultural history of the time could be without an investigation of film history and his understanding of how the films reflected the times is solid. In particular, when he crosses the genres of film and literature he makes some interesting cases.

He is sympathetic to Stienbeck (perhaps the most famous and most criticized depression writer) who he sees as a good writer of the times, someone who did not get caught up in the proletarian novel like Michael Gold in Jews Without Money, and instead was more interested in observing as a scientist. This led to his weakness as an artist, because he tended to write in terms of types, but it also allowed him in books like In Dubious Battle to see the labor leaders not as heroic martyrs with a degree of complexity. His take on the Grapes of Wrath is positive, calling it one of the better books of the decade, even though it has some silly slang (I remember the use of tom catting as particularly egregious) and he finds the ending too much. It is when he mixes the his film criticism with his literary that his take on the Grapes of Wrath takes its full power. For Dickstein, Grapes the book cannot be understood without the movie. It is the movie that makes the book iconic. The faithful reproduction of the book as a film amplifies the power of his lost eden and smoothes over the awkward moments. It is an interesting take, because it forces the book to be appreciated in terms of another work, and while many works need context to be understood, works typically can stand on there own at some point.

Dickstein sees several trends in the works of the times. One is a sense of mobility that expresses a freedom and a sense that things will get better. Whether in the dance films of Rodgers and Astaire or the Screwball Comedies with their irreverence, they are not so much an escape into the fantasy of being rich, but a moment of complete freedom. These he contrasts to the desperate works that marked the early years of the depression. Books such as Jews With Money where the proletarian characters have to fight their way out of the slum, or the gangster films which are a kind of nihilistic Horatio Alger story where the gangster, usually from an ethnic background, rises to the top with his own muscle and smarts, but falls, much as the American economy had. These stories show the failure of the American dream and show a people desperate and unmoored from the society they thought would hold them together. This image is reflected in countless books such as Tobacco Road and most powerfully, Miss Lonely Hearts, one of Dickstein’s primer works of the decade.

Not having read or seen many of the works it is hard to gauge some of his claims. But the works I do know I found his take to be insightful and nuanced, even if I didn’t agree with it completely, such as his take on parts of the Grapes of Wrath and the USA Trilogy. His take, for example, on Citizen Kane goes beyond the technical or the political controversies that occurred when it was first released. Instead, he sees it, along with Meet John Doe, as an examination of a dark populism, the kind that led to the rise of Hitler, and began to concern artists as World War II approached. Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, all reflect the end of an idealized dream of the people working together for a better society. It is a quite a change from the initial desperation and despair that led to the rise of the belief in the common man. The belief didn’t die just from a few men, but the works of art began to reflect a fuller picture, one where hope can be channeled into dark desires.

While Dancing in the Dark is an impressive bit of scholarship, it suffers in a few areas, in part I think, because to be as expansive as I would like it would be at least twice the size. First, he tends to concentrate on the best of the era, even if you might not think a particular book is good, it is the best of its class. In literature that isn’t such a problem, but in film I would like to have seen more than a passing reference to the silly films like those of Shirley Temple that were so popular. Another area that is missing, and is often missing in studies of the era, is a discussion of radio. Except for the usual Father Coughlin reference, radio doesn’t seem to exist. The lack of coverage of radio is indicative of the large lack of other cultural products of the area, from magazines to comics. I would like to see more of these ephemeral items. He does talk about musical theater, but I get the impression that is because he likes musicals. Musicals were certainly an important art form of the era and he has some insights, but I couldn’t help but feel he included them because he loves them.

Those criticisms aside, Dancing in the Dark is an excellent book and filled with fascinating insights to the era. It should, as it has done for me, make anyone who reads it want to see the movies and read the books he brings to life with his descriptions.

Los Angeles, France, and the Search for a New Noir

Salonica has a great post from Larry Fondation about LA and the search for a writer that encompass the city. What makes it even more interesting is it was published in France as a kind of what Americans should do next. While Noir is a and LA are fascinating as our the American writers of the 30’s I’m not sure if they are the salvation Fondation sees.

Outside a select and celebrated few – Cain, Chandler and West among them — most 1930s authors have been neglected, forgotten, ignored or downplayed in the United States. Writers such as James T. Farrell, Ellen Glasgow, Jack Conroy and Henry Roth rarely get their due. Even John Dos Passos’ masterpiece, The USA Trilogy, remains vastly underappreciated.

Instead, many critics trumpet the Post-World War II era of American fiction as a kind of Golden Age.  I take the opposite view. Much of the literature of the past several decades has been overly introspective and self-indulgent. University writing programs turn out scores of harmless craftspeople, superficially skilled stylists who have nothing to say. Chain bookstore shelves are redolent with works of glittering shit, finely wrought bits of nothing, the fool’s gold of the written word.

For decades now, there has been no Fante, no Nelson Algren, no Jack London or Stephen Crane. Yet the new realities of our age, a time of limits, will force our literature once again to address the margins – as it did in the 1930s.  This will reinvigorate American literature, and great public fiction will again emerge from Los Angeles.  I am naturally suspicious of the glamour of gold.  But our times will almost forcibly birth a new era in American writing: the Literature of Iron — a fresh body of enduring, meaningful and deeply moving work, work that matters.

The social realism/noir of the writers, I’m not sure are the answer (although, perhaps no answer is needed), but there is a grit to them that sometimes seems to be missing. Unless you are into the Dirty Realism mentioned in the Program Era, where the external fight against society or the machinations that it closes in on one are replaced by the internal and self destructive so that in the former alcoholism is what a tough world forces on you, and in the latter humans self destruct because of weakness and inner daemons.

I do find his statement the NWA’s Straight Out of Compton the best novel of LA in the last 20 years to be spot on. Too bad that album has generated so many lesser imitations.