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A Waltz Through Depression-Era Art And Culture

Sep 22, 2009 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Morris Dickstein's new cultural history of the Great Depression, called Dancing in the Dark, is one of those "everything but the kitchen sink" kind of books — except in this case the kitchen sink does make an oblique appearance, given that Dickstein discusses art deco industrial design, as well as the dance extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley; the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Roth and, of course, John Steinbeck; gangster movies and screwball comedies; the music of Bing Crosby; and the photography of Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White.

The knee-jerk way to review a colossus like this is to chip away at it, to whittle it down to one's own intellectual size by regretfully pointing to what Dickstein left out: What about comic strips or radio shows or doggerel poetry? (See? I'm not above such tricks.) But Dickstein puts a stop to this kind of gamesmanship at the outset when he tells readers that he "made no effort to cover everything." Instead, he says, "this was a series of personal choices, focusing on work that genuinely engaged me."

You earn the right to take that kind of idiosyncratic approach if you're Morris Dickstein, who's not only one of America's most perceptive literary critics, but also one of our best critical writers. Somehow, Dickstein has managed to hold onto his voice throughout all the decades he's spent in the de-flavorizing factory of academia. What other literary scholar of such eminence would use the adjective "nutty," as he does at least twice here? That zesty voice — as well as his lightly worn erudition — make Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark a thrill to read. As a work of cultural history, it's the equivalent of a Fred and Ginger dance number: It makes all the sweaty scholarly steps and difficult leaps of interpretation look easy.

Dickstein's aim here is nothing less than to fathom "the inner history of The Great Depression" through the art that gives us "singular keys to ... its dream life, its unguarded feelings about the world." Throughout his book, Dickstein keeps executing a critical two-step: First, he wants to illuminate the art in Depression-era works that have been valued mostly as political reportage novels, for instance Mike Gold's 1930 Jews Without Money. About that book and the widespread awareness of urban poverty that it helped usher in, Dickstein tartly says: "The poor may always be with us, but we seem to notice them at 30-year intervals, like spoilers at a party for people of good conscience. The Depression was one of those moments of visibility."

The second step here is to reveal the social consciousness lurking in movies, music and dance of the period that have been dismissed as mere escapism. Of course, this aspect of Dickstein's book is more fun: Who wouldn't prefer spending time in the company of Cary Grant rather than the Joads? I suspect even Dickstein feels this way, because his insights are particularly dazzling in the swankier sections of the book. Here's one of them: In a chapter where he discusses music and the road movies of the '30s — gems like It Happened One Night — Dickstein makes this distinction between the serious reportage of the period — which was all about being down-and-out, stuck — and popular entertainment.

He writes:

The fantasy culture of the thirties ... is all about movement. ... the look of the great thirties musicals is everything that Dorothea Lange's [photographs], "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 [Dickstein urges]: the rose-petal effect in Berkeley's big [dance] numbers; the sweepingly elegant curvature of the Art Deco sets, the brilliance of ... Astaire and Rogers. ...

Add to that, as Dickstein does, the brisk repartee of screwball comedy, the scampering lyrics of Porter and Gershwin, and you see that he's really onto something. It's the American Dream of mobility, encoded in even, say, a fantasy about picking yourself up after a dust storm, finding your courage, and following that yellow brick road.

Dickstein's title, Dancing in the Dark, refers to another one of those works of popular entertainment, a 1931 ballad sung by Bing Crosby about a man and a woman clinging to each other as they're surrounded by uncertainty, darkness. Dickstein reads this image as emblematic of the impulse toward community the Depression would reawaken in Americans. If I can belabor the dance metaphor one more time, though, I'd say that a penetrating work of cultural history like this one also gives the reader who holds fast to it a sense of dwelling in a circle of illumination amid all the shadows.

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