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Art for Hard Times

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 13, 2009

DANCING IN THE DARK

A Cultural History of the Great Depression

By Morris Dickstein

Norton. 598 pp. $29.95

Morris Dickstein takes the title of his new book from the haunting, Depression-era song "Dancing in the Dark," by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. The song, in Dickstein's view, reflects the cultural history of the period, evoking a "darkened ballroom" or "our own darkest feelings, the existential limits of the human condition." Perhaps so, though it is the habit of academics -- Dickstein has taught for many years at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York -- to read more into things than they may actually contain. Still, Dickstein is absolutely right about the period:

"The mood of the Depression was defined not only by hard times and a coming world crisis but by many extraordinary attempts to cheer people up -- or else to sober them up into facing what was happening. Though poor economically, the decade created a vibrant culture rich in the production of popular fantasy and trenchant social criticism. This is the split personality of Depression culture: on the one hand, the effort to grapple with unprecedented economic disaster, to explain and interpret it; on the other hand, the need to get away, to create art and entertainment to distract people from their trouble, which was in the end another way of coming to terms with it. Looking at both sides of this cultural divide, we can see how closely linked they are."

In the course of his overview, Dickstein discusses movies, plays, music and photographs, but his principal emphasis is on books, not surprising since literature has been the focus of his scholarly career. His most extensive discussion is of the work of John Steinbeck. "With the exception of Harriett Beecher Stowe in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' Upton Sinclair in 'The Jungle,' and perhaps Richard Wright with 'Native Son,' no protest writer had a greater impact on how Americans understood their own country" than Steinbeck did, Dickstein writes, which certainly is the case; the influence of "The Grapes of Wrath" cannot be overestimated. But when Dickstein moves from the political, social and cultural aspects of Steinbeck's work to the literary, he loses his grip. "Thanks to his earthiness, sensuous immediacy, and sheer storytelling ability," he writes, "Steinbeck's work has not dated like that of more ambitious or grimly topical contemporaries," which simply isn't true; for all the sincerity of Steinbeck's writing, he had a tin ear and his prose is graceless, even allowing for its "proletarian" subject matter.

Dickstein does make one interesting and useful point about the "proletarian" writers, most of whom are long (and deservedly) forgotten: "Writing in the thirties was in many ways an experiment in downward mobility. Only a few of the 'proletarian' authors, such as Jack Conroy and Tillie Olsen, actually came from the working class." The work of writers such as Nelson Algren and Nathanael West wasn't necessarily slumming, but it was an effort to understand and explain other people's circumstances rather than explore the writer's own. The same is true of the work of Erskine Caldwell, the son of an itinerant Southern minister. Caldwell had a deep sympathy for the poor whites of his region and portrayed them vividly in his two mostly popular novels, "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre," which "sold many millions of copies in cheap paperbacks" but now are neglected -- "unfairly" so, says Dickstein, a judgment I applaud.

The great writer of the period, of course -- indeed, the greatest of all American writers -- was William Faulkner. His "career sits oddly in our study," Dickstein writes, "since he was by no means a 'Depression author' though his best work, beginning with 'The Sound and the Fury' in 1929, coincides with these years. Faulkner looms over this period from which he seems historically detached." Dickstein places him nicely:

"Thanks to Hemingway's influence and the journalistic notion of the writer as a transparent observer, a fly on the wall, the 1930s were also the high-water mark of the Simple Declarative Sentence. Faulkner offered writers a real alternative: a complex, at times baroque prose that might permit them to do justice to the inner lives of [their] characters as well as their social circumstances. At the same time, perhaps to their regret, he showed them how to become difficult rather than popular writers, writing books that could hardly sell. Above all, he taught how to deal with the poor without turning them into The Poor -- a constant temptation for social realists in the Depression years."

My only qualm about this astute interpretation is that, with the probable exception of James Agee, there's not much evidence that many of Faulkner's fellow writers were reading his work, much less being influenced by it, during the Depression. Not until the publication in 1946 of "The Portable Faulkner," edited by Malcolm Cowley, did the full extent of Faulkner's achievement begin to become clear, and not until later in that decade and beyond did his influence on other, younger Southern writers manifest itself. Dickstein is right to say that Faulkner was "historically detached" from his period, not merely because apart from "As I Lay Dying" he rarely used contemporary settings in fiction written during the Depression but because his great, abiding subject was the Deep South before, during and after the Civil War.

The most popular Southern writer of the Depression years was Margaret Mitchell, whose "Gone with the Wind" was published in 1936; the movie adaptation appeared three years later. Both book and film were astonishing successes. "Once I asked a film class to compare 'Gone with the Wind' to 'The Grapes of Wrath," Dickstein writes: "social catastrophe, family disintegration, a world held together, but just barely, by a grimly determined woman. The relevance of 'Gone with the Wind' is more striking because less obvious: both Rhett and Scarlett are survivors, strong personalities who batter their way through terrible times."

To what extent if any Mitchell was influenced by the Depression in writing the novel is virtually impossible to determine, but the themes Dickstein outlines probably appealed to readers and moviegoers as much as did the book's vivid characters and plot. As he says, "There's a great deal of fantasy and melodrama in the best of Hollywood's social films, and a rich lode of meaning in its 'escapist' and genre films." Dickstein is an admirer (as am I) of the decade's popular culture, which "was striking for its lightheartedness and frivolity," and indeed what's not to like in the films of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn?

Dickstein also admires (again, me too) the popular music of the decade, early jazz and swing most particularly, but there's a gaping omission here: country music. Dickstein, the Manhattanite who's open-minded enough to call Erskine Caldwell unjustly neglected, apparently has no room in his heart for Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills or the Grand Ole Opry, to name only three. Probably no music of the period except the blues arose more directly from the social and economic circumstances of the rural poor, and certainly none expressed more poignantly or, in its fashion, eloquently the plight of these people. Surely readers of "Dancing in the Dark" would be interested to know that in the first year of the decade Rodgers recorded his historic "Blue Yodel #9," accompanied on trumpet by none other than Louis Armstrong, at the time an almost unimaginable fusion of races and musical styles.

To my mind the omission of country music seriously weakens "Dancing in the Dark," as does its author's tendency to overanalyze just about everything that crosses his desk. But it's a smart, ambitious piece of work, the product of prodigious research and careful thought, and those who read it will come away with a clearer understanding of an important but widely misunderstood period in the country's cultural life.

yardleyj@washpost.com

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