- Double Takes and The Great Depression
Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is an ambitious work that combines prodigious scholarship with sharply honed analytical skills. The author intends to show how the arts "responded to a society in upheaval and, at the same time, how they altered and influenced that society, providing a hard-pressed audience with pleasure, escape, illumination, and hope when they were most needed." For Dickstein the Great Depression ran on these alternating currents.
Dickstein's title derives from "Dancing in the Dark" (1931), a haunting ballad by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz that seamlessly joins buoyant optimism with intimations of despair. In a similar fashion the study's book jacket—bordered at the top by a string of chorus girls and at the bottom by a row of out-of-work men sitting on a bench—suggests the cultural double vision that Dickstein explores. The result is a series of juxtapositions, some expected, some surprising, that move effortlessly from Rudy Vallée to Woody Guthrie, from Busby Berkeley to Humphrey Bogart. Taken together, these artists and performers may not have succeeded in changing the world, but, as Dickstein points out, they did succeed in changing "our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live [End Page liv] in it. They produced a rich, sometimes paradoxical culture by keeping their eyes trained on the ups and downs of individual lives within the larger social context, to which they bore eloquent witness. . . . They were dancing in the dark, moving in time to a music of their own, but the steps were magical."
Dickstein has a keen eye for the backstory or the underbelly of an imaginative work, and he demonstrates a playful counterintuitive spirit that enjoys overturning the popular (and uncomplicated) view that the Great Depression began with the stock market crash of 1929, reached its nadir in the years 1933-1936, and ended with the beginning of World War ii in 1939. Instead he argues (often persuasively) that the Great Depression had many of its roots in the Jazz Age twenties, especially as they are reflected in the boom-and-bust rhythms of F. Scott Fitzgerald's career, and that depression aftershocks lasted well into the late 1940s.
There are academics who happen to be writers, and writers who happen to be academics. Dickstein is a bit of both: he can write brilliantly on one page and turn pedantic on another. One of Dickstein's models is Alfred Kazin, a man who regarded himself, first and foremost, as a writer. Granted, Dickstein has his own voice, but, when the shape and sound of his sentences are working at their best he reminds me of Kazin. Here is Dickstein describing the essential difference between Dorothea Lange's grim angular photographs of depression figures such as "Migrant Mother" and the great thirties musicals: in the great musicals "it's all circle and swirl, all movement and flow. Think of it: the rose-petal effect in Berkeley's big numbers, the sweepingly elegant curvature of the Art Deco sets, the brilliance of movement of Astaire and Rogers, locked together in breathtaking dips and turns, he in top hat, white tie, and tails, she in elaborate gowns that create rococo line drawings in space." When Dickstein the cultural historian writes this well I can forgive the fact that he regards Wallace Stevens as a proletarian poet (talk about Procrustean beds) and that he leaves out Kenneth Fearing.
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of ways of getting cultural history wrong because, as Dickstein shrewdly observes, it explores what "falls through the cracks: sensibility, moral feelings, dreams, relationships, all hard to objectify." Again Alfred Kazin's work is a useful model. Kazin believed in his bones that if literary criticism wasn't "personal"—that is, deeply ingrained in the heart and mind, blood and tissue of the critic—it would ring hollow. In Dancing in the Dark the subject is "at once concrete—the books, the...