'Dancing in the Dark': Reading, watching and enduring the Great Depression
"Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression" is author Morris Dickstein's look at the books, movies and other cultural touchstones of the Great Depression, and how they reflected the mindset of those enduring America's longest economic slump.
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'Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression'
by Morris Dickstein
W.W. Norton, 598 pp., $29.95
Most histories of the Great Depression pay only glancing attention to the popular culture of the era — de rigueur references to "The Grapes of Wrath" (book and movie), the Federal Theatre Project and Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast — and focus on the politics and economics instead.
The strength of Morris Dickstein's approach in "Dancing in the Dark" is that he relates the history of the Depression through the stories America told itself, in words, sounds and images, and expertly unpacks the deeper themes within, while including just enough mentions of the New Deal, Father Coughlin and the Dust Bowl to keep himself grounded in reality.
In many ways, the Depression marked the first time America really took poverty seriously. There was an acute hunger on the part of people — so recently prosperous, now scraping by — to understand what they were going through, and artists as diverse as Wallace Stevens and Richard Wright responded by taking different aspects of American poverty as their subjects. (Dickstein draws provocative contrasts between Wright's "Native Son" and Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God.")
But Dickstein also finds reflections of Depression mentality in less likely places. Gangster films are parables of transitory success and inevitable failure; backstage showbiz movies such as "42nd Street" and "Stage Door" are expressions of communal spirit. The show must go on, but it does only when people put aside their individual pettiness and band together.
Dickstein isn't shy with provocative interpretations. He argues that F. Scott Fitzgerald really hit his stride as a writer in the 1930s, a period usually dismissed as little more than a long, booze-soaked decline. And he sees something sinister in Busby Berkeley's ridiculously elaborate production numbers: "His skill at orchestrating grouped masses in precise formations belonged to the collective side of the 1930s outlook, like the real-life choreography of the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl... There was something frightening, dehumanizing, about the way he used people — as cogs in a wheel, interchangeable units of a grand design."
Reading Dickstein is a lot like getting together with one of your favorite professors after class in a cozy pub, and listening to him expound. The breadth of his knowledge alone is impressive: He's as familiar with nearly forgotten figures such as Michael Gold and Tess Slesinger as with Big Names such as Faulkner and Steinbeck.
But like that professor, particularly after he's had a few, Dickstein does repeat himself (a quote from Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" pops up a few times) and go off on tangents (a long discussion of "The Great Gatsby," while interesting, seems a bit off point).
And the book very much reflects Dickstein's own critical and aesthetic tastes. I wonder that in nearly 600 pages he didn't think superhero comic books, which date from the Depression, didn't merit more than a few passing mentions.
And I think he is altogether too dismissive of John Dos Passos and his terrific U.S.A. trilogy. (After quoting Sartre as comparing Dos Passos to Faulkner and Kafka and calling him "the greatest writer of our time," Dickstein sniffs: "But it should be remembered that Sartre's English was poor.")
I finished "Dancing in the Dark" wondering what lasting works of art, if any, will come out of the current slump. The Depression, for all the misery it inflicted, gave posterity "The Grapes of Wrath," "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." I'd hate to think our era's cultural legacy will be "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.
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