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Excerpt: 'Dancing in the Dark'

by Morris Dickstein
Sep 22, 2009

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Introduction: Depression Culture

Cultural history is commonly seen as soft history, an exploration of what falls between the cracks: sensibility, moral feelings, dreams, relationships, all hard to objectify. My subject here is at once concrete—the books, the films of an era: the stories they told, the fears and hopes they expressed—and yet intangible, the look, the mood, the feel of the historical moment. Most of us think we know what the thirties were about. Its iconic images remain with us: apple sellers by their pushcarts, tenant farmers in their shacks, families trudging through dust clouds swirling over parched land. Like the 1960s, the thirties belong not only to history but to myth and legend.

To this day the period remains our byword for economic crisis, a historical marker of what could happen again. Every serious economic reversal since then has elicited dire comparisons to the 1930s. It was not, of course, the first economic depression. Nineteenth-century economic history is punctuated by repeated episodes of "panic," a word that suggests headlong, contagious, irrational anxiety: the Panic of 1873, the Panic of 189394. But it was the 1929 Crash, not the bank run of 1907, that was on everyone's mind when stocks plummeted in the fall of 1987. It remained an unspoken fear during the long, intractable recession that began in 1989 and left many Americans without jobs and with diminished hopes, a downturn that doomed the presidency of the first President Bush. Similar fears surfaced in 2007 when the housing bubble burst, leading to widespread mortgage foreclosures and explosive pressure on banking and investment firms.1 As the credit markets dried up in 2008, there was a near-meltdown of the whole financial system, followed by a renewed fascination with every facet of the Depression and the New Deal. But these problems did not begin in 200708. In the preceding decades we witnessed a contraction not only of American industry but of the old sense of unlimited possibility in American life. My theme, however, is psychological and personal rather than strictly economic: not the loss of jobs but the state of mind that accompanies the lowering of economic horizons. My goal here is to explore the role of culture in reflecting and influencing how people understand their own lives and how they cope with social and economic malaise.

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 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.

Thanks to the new media created by early twentieth-century technology, the thirties proved to be a turning point in American popular culture. Radio had grown exponentially in the late 1920s. By the early 1930s it came of age, binding together audiences living far apart with shared amusements as well as anxieties. Photography, photojournalism, and newsreels provided visual images, all in stark shades of black and white, that even those great radio voices—H. V. Kaltenborn from civil war Spain, Edward R. Murrow from London under siege, Orson Welles from Mars—could not convey. This was also the era that saw the consolidation of the Hollywood studio system and the classical style of American sound films. The great movie genres of the thirties—the gangster movie, the horror film, the screwball comedy, the dance musical, the road movie, the social-consciousness drama, the animated cartoon—came to dominate American filmmaking over the next decades. Significantly, they still influence the way movies are made, while the old films themselves remain objects of nostalgia or affectionate imitation.

In 1985, for example, Woody Allen looked back at the 1930s in his ingenious movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, a pastiche of Depression cliches that lovingly portrays the Janus-faced culture of the era. Mia Farrow is a waitress in a jerkwater town who lives out her fantasies by going to the movies, while Danny Aiello plays her unemployed husband, a blue-collar lout representing the drab and boring life she's trying to forget. Jeff Daniels portrays a character who literally steps off the screen to add a little magic and romance to her pinched world.

If you look at the movie within the movie, the film she keeps going back to see, you'll notice Woody Allen's send-up of the fantasy itself. There are incoherent glimpses of wealthy, frivolous idlers making silly banter on movie sets designed to look like cavernous living rooms, glitzy nightclubs, or "Egyptian" tombs. This cheesy but exotic setting parodies the famous Depression idea of the careless rich living a life of pure swank and style. But Allen's movie also shows us the other side of the story: the small town so idle and empty that it looks like a picture postcard; the husband out of work, supported by a waif-like wife as he hangs out with the boys; the movie theater as the scene of communal daydreaming where ordinary people feed on escapist images of wealth, adventure, and romance.

Woody Allen was always a master at manipulating movie cliches, simplifying them, satirizing them, infusing them (like Chaplin) with his own kind of little-man pathos. Dennis Potter did the same thing for the English common man, Depression-style, in his wildly original series Pennies from Heaven. There Bob Hoskins played a sheet-music salesman with a bossy, repressed wife and a shy, dreamy love for the music and lyrics that light up his gray, constricted world. They're his romantic outlet as he lip-synchs his feelings to the incongruous sound of the old recordings. He looks longingly to America as the place the best songs come from, but also as the fantasy land where those songs actually come true.

Psychological studies of the Depression have shown how economic problems were complicated by emotional problems, since hard times, whatever their origin, undercut their victims' feelings of confidence, self-worth, even their sense of reality. "The Depression hurt people and maimed them permanently because it literally depressed mind and spirit," according to Caroline Bird. "Hoover chose the word 'Depression' in 1929 because it sounded less frightening than 'panic' or 'crisis,' the words that had formerly been used for economic downturns."2 The psychological anguish was worsened by the American ethic of self-help and individualism, the remnant of a frontier mentality—the same dream of success, dignity, and opportunity that had inspired immigrants, freed slaves, and natives alike. But it made people feel responsible when their lives ran downhill. Purple Rose and even Pennies from Heaven are stories about fighting off depression, in every sense of the word. In Purple Rose, as in Zelig, Woody Allen showed a special affinity for people who feed on borrowed lives. Out of the cliches of movie fandom and Depression escapism—far less escapist than he suggests—Woody Allen fashioned a complex fable of art and life, the wounded self and the projections that help sustain it. This exploration of dream life and fantasy is indeed a Depression theme, though seen through later eyes.

As the Depression wore on, fewer people believed the assurances of America's hapless thirty-fifth president, Herbert Hoover: they saw that the economy was not "fundamentally sound," that prosperity was not "just around the corner." Despite how the public remembers him, Hoover himself was a progressive whose activist policies in combating the Depression actually paved the way for the New Deal. He was anything but aloof, but his chilly demeanor lacked empathy. He was incapable of doing what was needed to boost the nation's morale, and he resisted intervening in important areas of the economy, such as the creation of jobs. The Depression was more than a temporary setback: though the word was coined to minimize the crisis, it seemed like a betrayal of the American Dream, the deeply felt promise of American life. As individualism lost its glow, certain varieties of collectivism, including the Soviet model, became attractive to many American intellectuals, some of whom had been drawn to the Russian experiment since the 1917 revolution.

Yet this economic morass also fostered a communal feeling far more widespread than Marxism or nostalgic agrarianism. There was a growing fascination with regional culture and folklore. Exploring popular culture, Constance Rourke unearthed tall tales and legends and studied the roots of American humor; anthropologists such as Zora Neale Hurston recorded the folkways of backwater towns whose way of life would soon be threatened; Ruth Benedict's 1934 book Patterns of Culture became a bestseller, as did Margaret Mead's studies of growing up in Samoa and New Guinea; musicologists like Charles Seeger and John and Alan Lomax, traveling with rudimentary tape recorders, unearthed a treasure trove of folk music that had been passed on in prisons, on chain gangs, and in remote country settings. But the thirties also witnessed the momentous growth of a new kind of popular culture in America: national rather than regional, amplified by technology, creating new folkways in a country still relatively isolated from the world.

It has been forcefully argued that during the thirties more people, especially the poor, lived vicariously by turning on the radio than by going to the movies. (The movie audience actually peaked in 1946, shortly before the full arrival of television.) Woody Allen complemented his picture of the Depression in Purple Rose with his more autobiographical treatment of a noisy Jewish family in Brooklyn in Radio Days, a tribute to the role radio had played in forming a larger community out of an ethnic stew. The nightly fifteen-minute dose of the tribulations of Amos 'n' Andy, which was often piped into theaters—otherwise few would have gone to the movies—propelled traditional dialect humor onto a national stage. New York's mayor, the inimitable Fiorello La Guardia, himself a salad of ethnic differences, read the comic strips over the radio on Sunday mornings. Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats gave people a feeling of intimate connection with their more activist government; radio, by intervening so widely into people's lives, thus became the electronic equivalent of the New Deal. It eased their anxieties and contributed to lifting their spirits; it helped fashion the nation's collective mind.

For all its roots in minstrel humor, Amos 'n' Andy was an ongoing epic of daily life, setting off the practical man against the quixotic dreamer whose schemes, especially moneymaking schemes, were always going awry. Behind the laugh lines, it was a program about ordinary people trying to get by. This was typical of Depression "escapism": reflecting people's deeply felt concerns yet also channeling and neutralizing them, spinning out problems to show they could somehow be worked out. This was not so different from the way Roosevelt himself, despite his patrician tones, put a warm human spin on the news of the world. He spoke with authority but simply and directly, as if to each listener individually. By showing he cared, he fostered a renewal of hope after the deepening despair of the Hoover years. While giving a human touch to the new federal role in people's lives, he reaffirmed traditional values. Taking full advantage of the new media, he helped navigate the nation through this troubled decade.

Though movie newsreels, like illustrated magazines such as Life, were important vehicles of information in the thirties, movies were inherently a fictional medium. With their dreamlike qualities, which film aestheticians had long emphasized, they offered appealing fantasies to counter social and economic malaise. But the myth of the thirties was far more than the sum of its movie images and radio sounds. A legion of gifted photographers helped create the indelible galaxy of images that we'll always associate with hard times: the urban and rural poor, the bread lines and the homeless, families camped out in Hoovervilles at the edge of towns and cities; southern chain gangs and haggard but dignified sharecroppers. Epic scenes from the Dust Bowl are part of our permanent shorthand for rural poverty and natural desolation. Much that we know about the human spirit in adversity can still be seen in Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," the great 1936 photograph of a woman whose brow is furrowed like tractored-out land, with a look on her face more pensive and distant than pained or troubled. Two children, with their back to the camera, have nuzzled into her shoulders, and the bony fingers at her chin seemed to extend from some armature sculpted to support the weight of her head. Like migrants in other Lange photographs, she is all angles, a zigzag of intersecting lines. Anxious but reserved and self-contained, she speaks to our humanity without soliciting sympathy. Yet she has a look of distress, of entrapment, of someone with her back to the wall.

As we look back at it today, the Depression is a study in contrasts. At one extreme the "look" of the thirties is in the flowing Art Deco lines of the new Chrysler Building, the Radio City Music Hall, the sets of Astaire-Rogers musicals like Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance. At the other end is the work done by photographers like Lange, Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn for Roy Stryker's photography unit of the Farm Security Administration, conceived as a way of bringing home the unthinkable pain of rural poverty to urban Americans. If the FSA photographs give us the naturalistic art of the Depression at its most humane, the Astaire musicals convey an elegant, sophisticated world in which the Depression is barely a distant rumor. Yet the two are equally characteristic of the period.

The FSA photographs, along with Pare Lorentz's government-sponsored documentaries The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), with their images of drought, flood, and other rural calamities, helped Gregg Toland (the cinematographer) and John Ford (the director) give authenticity to their 1940 screen adaptation of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. (Indeed, the poetic narration and visual beauty of the Lorentz films actually influenced Steinbeck as he was writing the original novel.) The Ford film, in turn, fixed the iconography of the thirties for future generations. We can see its long afterlife in films like Hal Ashby's 1976 biography of Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory.

Surprisingly, this look was more meaningful to posterity than to the people of the period. In his fine book Documentary Expression and Thirties America, William Stott described how the government, business leaders, and even economists suppressed or sweetened the unpleasant facts during the early years of the Depression. Until Fortune published an article in September 1932 called "No One Has Starved," establishment newspapers, magazines, and radio programs downplayed or ignored the Depression and portrayed the country, as Hoover himself did, in business-as-usual terms.3 For years the Depression was underreported; it went against the grain of laissez-faire optimism, a widespread belief, revived in the 1980s and 1990s, that the system was self-correcting.

This virtual blackout of bad news gave impetus to the documentary movement, to radical journalism, and to independent films like King Vidor's pastoral fable Our Daily Bread (1934), which shows the old American individualism giving way to a utopian sense of community on a Russian-style collective farm. A few years later, an upbeat Life magazine, founded in 1936 as the vehicle for a new photojournalism, complained that "depressions are hard to see because they consist of things not happening, of business not being done."4 Needless to say, Life published none of the stomach-churning pictures of rural misery taken by its star photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, in 1936 and 1937. They appeared instead in a book she wrote with Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces, whose accusing title reminds us that a great deal of suffering, poverty, and unemployment was invisible, except to those who cared to look for it, and look at it. In his second inaugural address, on January 20, 1937, FDR described it this way:

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.5

Trying to grasp the essential spirit of the thirties would seem to be a hopeless task. How can one era have produced both Woody Guthrie and Rudy Vallee, both the Rockettes high-stepping at the Radio City Music Hall and the Okies on their desperate trek toward the pastures of plenty in California? To readers of the journalist Eugene Lyons's 1941 bestseller it was the "Red Decade." Revisionist historians like Warren Susman and Loren Baritz countered by drawing attention to the conservative heartland of the middle class, with its deep economic fears yet also its interest in sports, mystery novels, self-improvement, and mass entertainment. Liberal historians such as Daniel Aaron, James B. Gilbert, and Richard Pells focused on the intellectual history of the thirties, analyzing the radicalism of the era in terms that reach back to prewar socialism and progressivism. Other writers, in the popular tradition of Frederick Lewis Allen's best-selling Only Yesterday (1931) and Since Yesterday (1940) or Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd's Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937), concentrated on the social history of everyday life. Still others (like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the three volumes of his Age of Roosevelt) centered on the administrative and political history of the New Deal and the dramatic figure of Roosevelt himself, whose dominating presence became a force of mythic proportions. More recently, feminist scholars emphasized the unsung role of women writers in bringing gender issues, family histories, and deep personal emotions into the committed fiction and journalism of the era. Radical scholars have assiduously excavated the proletarian writing of the 1930s and explored the culture of the Popular Front, in part because they feel it has been unjustly neglected but also because they identify with its political direction. My own approach in this book is to focus on unusually complex, enduring works for what they reveal about the agebooks, films, music, and photographs that speak for their times yet still speak intimately to us today.

When I was in college in the late 1950s, the thirties appeared to us in the hazy distance as a golden age when writers, artists, and intellectuals developed strong political commitments and enlisted literature on the side of the poor and the destitute. We were able to mythologize the thirties because we had never read much of what was written then. (Most of it was long out of print.) But we managed to dig up records by Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, even the Red Army Chorus, all red meat for armchair revolutionaries. We recoiled from the blandness and repressive limits of the political culture of the fifties, and looked back wistfully at the excited ideological climate of the thirties, about which we knew next to nothing.

Years later, when I finally looked into some of the ideological debates of the thirties, whose radical intensity I had admired from afar, I was horrified by the brutality of many sectarian polemics; they seemed more concerned with doctrinal purity than with promoting any real social change. For all their dialectical ingenuity, the Stalinists, Trotskyists, and other left-wing factions seemed deaf to the free play of ideas; their work breathed an atmosphere of personal aggression and fundamentalist dogma. Yet this was also a period when writers as well as photographers keenly pursued an interest in the backwaters of American life: the travail of the immigrant, the slum, and the ghetto, the failures of the American Dream, and, above all, the persistence of poverty and inequality amid plentya subject with few but significant parallels in earlier American literature.7

The discovery of poverty had been a great theme of the naturalist writers of the 1890s. It had roots even earlier in the nineteenth century, in some of the lesser-known works of Herman Melville and the sensational popular literature on the "mysteries of the city," with its teeming social underground. In the nineties this fascination was summed up in the title of Jacob Riis's landmark work of documentary muckraking, How the Other Half Lives (1890). In the same year William Dean Howells published a great fictional study of class and social conflict in New York, A Hazard of New Fortunes. The protagonists of both works are social tourists in the best sense, curious about how poverty and plenty live side by side in the great metropolis. Howells had moved down from Boston to live and work in a more vibrant modern city. Riis was a Danish immigrant who became a journalist and followed the police in their raids in New York's most dangerous neighborhoods, such as the notorious Five Points. Training himself to become a photographer, he took advantage of new flash techniques to take pictures in dark, crowded rooms and dank cellars, often terrifying his hapless subjects and once, inadvertently, setting fire to their digs. He used these crude but powerful photographs to give slide lectures, which may have influenced writers, including Stephen Crane, but also to produce a text-and-pictures book, How the Other Half Lives, that anticipates one of the main genres of social reportage in the 1930s. In some ways this is where our story begins, in a city of immigrants, a turbulent social cauldron at the turn of the twentieth century, an era well remembered by the writers of the 1930s.

Reprinted from Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein. Copyright (c) 2009 by Morris Dickstein. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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