- Literature, Amusement, and Technology in the Great Depression
At a key juncture in William Solomon's subtle, provocative, and wide-ranging study of what he calls the Depression era "literature of the technocarnivalesque" (9), the author pauses to examine the famous painting by Thomas Hart Benton entitled Hollywood (1937). In this sprawling yet intricate canvas, Benton has placed a barely-clad starlet—she actually looks more like a burlesque star—posing but a few feet from her director on an entirely mechanized movie set. Indeed, as we pan outward from Benton's outrageous focal point, we see her surrounded by industrial workers, laboring to produce an utterly artificial allure with special effects, makeup, lighting, and sound men—even a grotesquely muscular understudy waiting in the wings. That is, Benton departs from the clean and depopulated industrial sublime of a Charles DeMuth or a Charles Sheeler, the neoclassicism of a Lewis Hine, or the heroic solidarity of Popular Front murals. Rather, for Benton, the meaning of all such bodies is expressed, in large part, by their prosthetic, distorted, and eroticized attachment to a machine (Hollywood) that both exploits their labor and reproduces their desires. [End Page 210]
The painting might serve as a visual crystallization of Solomon's illuminating inquiry into "the exchange between literature and an array of recreational practices" in the 1930s (4). In particular, Literature, Amusement, and Technology explores "the politicized deployment in the thirties of images of the mutilated, diseased, or oddly shaped body" (5–6)—or, more simply, how writers of this era "integrated images of somatic trauma into their radically motivated rhetorical projects" (5). More typically, scholars have emphasized the literary allure of clean, formal, precisionism in modern machine culture (one thinks of Cecilia Tichi or Jeffrey Meikle), or the heroic physicality so often enshrined in the collective dreams of proletarian realism. Instead, Solomon focuses on what, following the leads of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, Mikhail Bakhtin and Jacques Lacan, he sees as a ritualistic staging of a left political unconscious more intent upon monstrous bodies produced or displayed by mass amusements. And so, instead of Mike Gold or Robert Cantwell, or what Michael Denning calls the "laboring" of the Depression-era Cultural Front, we get what Solomon calls its "leisuring" (240) through the likes of Nelson Algren, Henry Miller, Edward Dahlberg, Nathanael West, and—perhaps most surprisingly—John Dos Passos. In a wonderful chapter subtitle that turns upon the conventional put-down of "vulgar Marxism" (117), it is the lumpenproletariat, in Solomon's book, that seems ready to inherit the future.
There are many contributions here. Solomon's theoretical excursions are willfully eclectic, pushing to new limits the recent trend to see radical writing of the 1930s as a plebian or proletarian grounding of experimental modernism. His book would be worthwhile simply in the way it disinters a neglected body of texts: Miller's memoirs "The Fourteenth Ward" (1936) or "Burlesk" (1936), Dahlberg's manifesto "Ariel in Caliban" (1929), West's A Cool Million (1934). Drawing on the somewhat divergent methods of Mark Seltzer, Bill Brown, and Lauren Berlant, Solomon's body-machine complex both attracts and repels writers on the 1930s left, working both to "undo and refashion private and public identities" in what prove to be different political registers (6). On the one hand, "[c]onstituting a kind of mechanical 'lower body stratum' (Bakhtin), American entertainment supplied the artist with the aesthetic energies he needed to cure his historically determined ills" (76); on the other hand, "charismatic bodies" serve as "the basis of forming new collective identities," often identities with dangerously fascist or militaristic implications (174). Thus, for Miller, imaginary depictions of the comically monstrous body-machine, derived in part from the author's education in dime museums, burlesque and vaudeville, become life-affirming forces, while his bawdy, confessional writing becomes akin to a mix of shock therapy [End Page 211] and carnival-inspired mental exhibitionism. In writers such as Dahlberg or Algren, grotesque naturalism serves not only to capture the verbal onslaught of sensations during mass amusements, but...