Dancing in the Dark

The Joad family’s epic journey from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California, depicted in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, has become an emblem of the Depression. But as Morris Dickstein observes in Dancing in the Dark, his cultural history of the period, the Joads weren’t the only ones on the move in America’s novels, plays, movies, and nightlife of the ’30s: there was the hobo crisscrossing the country in the film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Bigger Thomas on the run in Richard Wright’s Native Son, the synchronized showgirls dancing their way through Busby Berkeley productions, clubgoers swaying to the music of Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Much of the previous literature on the Depression has erected a wall between the social criticism of, say, a Clifford Odets play and the lighthearted escapism of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. But Dickstein, in a sweeping, significant work, searches out the unifying themes of what he calls the “split personality of Depression culture.” He describes this as,

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.

One of the links he finds, as suggested above, is movement. Dickstein, an English and theater professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Gates of Eden, a cultural history of another mythic decade, the 1960s, takes his title from a 1931 ballad written by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz and recorded at the height of the Depression by Bing Crosby. The lyrics describe a couple dancing in the dark but “[facing] the music together.” Similarly, in the 1936 Astaire/Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (with songs by Irving Berlin), the two put on a show in which they play gamblers who are wiped out in Monte Carlo but who console each other with a performance of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

“Incessant, often aimless movement was at once a key metaphor of the 1930s and a pervasive social reality,” Dickstein writes. While authors like Steinbeck strove to capture the reality, other artists explored the metaphor. (Dickstein himself has a nice metaphor for the false promise of mobility, likening it to “marathon dancers, circling the floor in total exhaustion, almost asleep on their feet, leaning on each other in pursuit of a small prize.”) What further unites the serious works of social protest and the more fantasy-based pop-culture fare (how many Depression-era moviegoers were ever going to make it to Monte Carlo?), Dickstein ventures, is their leftist, populist impulse. Many of them shared the message that “separately we fail, we lose heart and fall into confusion; together we have a chance.”

Dickstein delves deeply into other elements of the Depression’s “split personality,” finding connections between the period’s seemingly contradictory naturalism and modernism, its individualism and collectivism. Despite his caveat that he “made no effort to cover everything” in the book — and Shirley Temple, for one, is nowhere to be found — it would take a much longer review for me to even scratch the surface in terms of the number of works Dickstein tames with his smart, at times biting, textual analysis. (He is particularly hard on Steinbeck, whom he calls “no intellectual heavyweight,” describing The Grapes of Wrath as didactic, preachy, and sentimental.) Henry Roth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Cary Grant, Frank Capra, gangster films, screwball comedies, the Farm Security Administration photographers, and many others come in for extended treatment. But whatever the topic, he writes with ease and authority, as when he declares of Odets, author of Awake and Sing, “No playwright is closer to his characters or less capable of judging them.”

The book also benefits from Dickstein’s occasional recollections from his life as a student, a teacher (“When I’ve assigned it to undergraduates,” he writes of the notoriously difficult text of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “the results have been disastrous”), and a fan (he refers delightedly to “the sheer lunacy of Hepburn and Grant singing ‘I can’t give you anything but love’ to a leopard” in the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby). While such personal touches make this erudite book immensely readable, his insistence on the connections between the Depression and our own time of economic crisis make it immensely relevant.

Dickstein also makes a strong case for the special importance of the culture of the 1930s, when advances in technology and the New Deal’s rural electrification program meant that America’s various regional cultures began to develop into a more cohesive national culture. He doesn’t quite deliver on all of his promises. For instance, he writes in the introduction that he will explore the part culture plays in how people “cope with social and economic malaise,” but ultimately he has much less to say about the effects of Depression-era culture than about the works themselves. Still, his great achievement is in bringing so many of those works to life and, by demonstrating that so much serious art “became hugely popular while many popular artists… proved deeply serious,” helping us rethink our common conceptions of the culture of the Depression.