Monday, March 11, 2019

March's Book: Dancing in the Dark

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein
Literary Criticism (2009 - 530 pp.)

Dancing in the Dark is a culmination of much of CUNY Professor Emeritus Morris Dickstein's research on the art, culture and society of the Great Depression in America. Although one of Dickstein's theses is how diverse the decade was, there are a few unifying threads. One is the growing interest in the common man, intertwined with the average American's suddenly far more closeup relationship with poverty. Another is the flipside of these "common man" and "poverty" narratives - the dazzling high society, "the glitter dome" (116), that dominated much of the era's Golden Age of Cinema. Finally, there is the sheer American-ness of the decade's media, moving the focus away from Europe toward a more purely American cultural identity.

Where Dickstein opens these narratives is in the stark realization of how long ago the '30s seems. The use of 1945, or the late '40s in general, as a clear demarcation point between eras creates this effect. In Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe place 1945 as the time when the Crisis era ended and the High era began. Narrowing down the focus to art, histories of 20th-century popular music often focus on the rise of rock and roll during the early Cold War, as well as the transition from 78s to 45s. Dickstein comments on this cultural chasm between the pre-WWII and post-WWII eras, placing it within his discussions of politicization and poverty: "When I was in college in the 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 destitute." (11) Finally, Dickstein divides the Great Depression into Early Depression, Mid-Depression and Late Depression eras in all of his analyses.

Much of the rest of Part One ("Discovering Poverty") takes off right into the lives of those "poor and destitute". Rather than launch into the usual GDP-driven definition of poverty, though, Dickstein starts with an analysis of Michael Gold's Jews without Money (1930), set among the New York City tenement housing of the pre-WWI era: "To Gold, poverty is not simply and economic fact but a soul-destroying malaise that infects its victims with hopelessness and depression." (31) Before the Great Depression, these stories were less widespread, as Dickstein notes in calling pre-Depression poverty "invisible". (31) That poverty was not all a holdover from the people who had always been poor. when the Great Depression inflicted poverty on a mass scale, there was a new literature of poverty, of the middle-class people who had become, in essence, the nouveau poor. Dickstein sees John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath as the culmination of this type of art form, as well as a direct logical step to mass politics: "Steinbeck shows us how weak and hopeless the workers are individually, how strong they can be when united, almost unconsciously, by some sense of common purpose." (84)

Those politics would show cracks among the poor in Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), a book so violent its protagonist, Bigger, murders two people in ways so grisly it would be hard to imagine the book being made into a movie in 2019. The first is a young, white communist woman; after smothering her, he dismembers and then burns her corpse to hide the evidence. The second is a young, black woman who is a prostitute and alcoholic; he throws her corpse down an elevator shaft before returning to loot it of valuables. Such is the "rage and self-hatred" of Bigger, a poor black man, that he cannot even identify with other self-identified leftists or oppressed people. (191) This lack of identification with a community, of being one against the world, not only lands Bigger in prison, but also mirrors Wright's increasingly radical views that caused his break from the Communist Party of America during that era. (177)

Part Two ("Success and Failure") takes the reader closer to the aforementioned glitter dome but stops short to look at the politics of success and failure during the Great Depression. Dickstein generally takes the side of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other Democrats of the era, such as when he makes sweeping statements about the New Deal saving capitalism. (227) What is more interesting from a literary perspective is the way Dickstein places the political narrative of the Great Depression, and of the 64 years that preceded it, into a cohesive study of how people in the 1930s viewed themselves. 

The idea that what once represented success would come to represent failure figures into this part of the book. Dickstein frequently uses the phrase "success myth" to denote the 1865-1929 period, which he regards as the heyday of American business, bookended by the Civil War and the Great Depression. The Civil War-era struggle, as seen from the perspective of also-struggling Great Depression-era Americans, is no more evident than in Gone with the Wind (1936 [book], 1939 [movie]) which stars "strong personalities who batter their way through terrible times", and which Dickstein once apparently asked students to compare to The Grapes of Wrath during a class. (232) This ties into Strauss and Howe's generational theory; with each of the Civil War and the Great Depression being Crises, it makes sense for the inhabitants of one to look back in sympathy on the other.

When that success peaks, during the Roaring Twenties, the iconic American gangster figure becomes synonymous with do-it-yourself wealth - but then crashes with the economy in the 1930s. In the aptly titled film Roaring Twenties (1939), James Cagney's protagonist becomes a character Dickstein sees someone who is, from 1939's perspective, a failure: "Like other capitalists, he's been ruined by the Great Depression, especially by the end of Prohibition." (243) Adding to the unexpected Gone with the Wind comparisons, Dickstein compares Clark Gable of Gone with the Wind fame to Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) as "an outlaw, a man from nowhere"(231) Likewise, Dickstein compares the protagonist's rise in Little Caesar (1931), another gangster movie, to that of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Carnegie never lived to see the Great Depression, but the gangster does, so he becomes "at once self-made and self-defeated, a tragically ambiguous tribute to the success mystique". (228)

A pleasant surprise is the seemingly arbitrarily insertion of the twelve-page review of Citizen Kane (342-354).* When Citizen Kane was released in 1941, the Great Depression was fundamentally over, yet it hearkens back to some of the key '30s tropes, most notably that of one person's extreme importance. William Randolph Hearst's funding of Gabriel over the White House (1933), a now-rare movie in which a U.S. President dismantles the Constitution but is lauded for it, is an inspiration of Citizen Kane's basis in Hearst's politics. Similarly, the Great Depression was the age of the creation of Superman. By the time 1941 had rolled around, though, "[t]he public loved the new comic-book hero Superman, but by the end of the decade, the obsession with success and failure, with personal power, had lost its innocence. The economy had improved as the international situation had worsened, and the strong-willed man of authority had become a metaphor for fascism rather than salvation." (352) Charles Foster Kane as a "William Randolph Hearst meets Superman, but also fascist" of sorts makes, in retrospect, a bizarrely high amount of sense. Citizen Kane is thus a complete 180 from the bouncy, adventurous gangster movies of the pre- HaysCode Depression days (1929-1934) or like J.C. Hammond in Gabriel Over the White House; unlike the gangsters or the saviour president, Kane is not romanticized.

In Part Three ("The Culture of Elegance"), Dickstein transports the reader to the world 1930s America thought it might have had. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers light up the dance floor, screwball comedies make audiences fall over laughing, pre-Hays Code movies are more raucous than their 1920s silent ancestors, and no one is pointing a finger at all the poverty everywhere. It would be a vast oversimplification to simply call this culture escapist, though, as Dickstein frequently reminds the reader. In Dickstein's thorough recounting of Cole Porter's major achievements, Dickstein notes that "Boredom, ennui, and unhappiness give an edge of desperation to Porter's bubbly world. His songs are not escapist, they're about escaping - and failing to escape." (373)

A sad reflection on failing to escape is in how many skyscrapers, planned during the Roaring Twenties, were actually completed during the Great Depression: "[a]s the Depression deepened, the building boom of the late 1920s ended and the luxury of Deco design became an embarrassment, out of tune with the urgent stresses of the moment." (433) Some of the aforementioned lineups of people waiting for public assistance could easily have been walking right past a brand new Empire State Building, completed in 1931 - and yet the 1930s would not be so iconic without this striking disconnect.

The vibrant culture of 1930s jazz clubs, while elegant in a way no Depression narrative ever seems, replaced the moribund recording industry. To my astonishment, "[t]he recording industry nearly went under in the early thirties, with sales plummeting from $100 million in 1927 to $6 million in 1932." (426-427) Dickstein is blunt about the reality that "[b]ands like [Duke] Ellington's kept alive by touring", a trend that equally includes the famous Benny Goodman show at Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1938, "a marathon event that also included musicians from Basie's and Ellington's bands." (427)

The recording industry has crashed since, of course, right along with the spiral of the Global Financial Crisis.** In an April 2011 interview, at the nadir of the GFC, Between the Buried and Me guitarist Paul Waggoner discusses the need to perform live shows to survive as an extreme metal act:
You make the record, and people buy some, people steal some. Either way, hopefully a lot of people hear it, and hopefully they come to the shows and buy a t-shirt. And for a band like us, that’s the bread and butter. Out on the road, that’s how we make a living.
Part Four ("The Search for Community") discusses everything from the "social commitment" and "political discipline" of 1930s writers (446) - which Dickstein emphatically states does not detract from the merit of the work - all within the context underlying the entirety of Dancing in the Dark: America. He points to Malcolm Cowley's statement that "Paris was no longer the center of everything 'modern' and aesthetically ambitious about American literature". (446) Whether it is the Civil War-era South in Gone with the Wind, Dust Bowl California in The Grapes of Wrath, or anywhere in Citizen Kane, it all happens in America. In sharp contrast, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (1934), now regarded as a literary classic, does take place in France, and was commercially loathed upon its release.***

Part of this American community is the populist turn that, in making Depression-era art accessible to the masses, made it less accessible to later critics. To the critics of the avant-garde '40s, the '30s were "hopelessly middlebrow, a dumbing down of art into toothless entertainment." (455) Dickstein obviously disagrees with this statement, as his preceding 454 pages show. In The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West fights back against Clement Greenberg's criticism of mass culture as "one-dimensional"; West states that "[i]t is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous." (119) The Day of the Locust is fiction yet this passage reads as clearly as any critical work. When Frank Capra (later of 1946 It's a Wonderful Life fame) makes it big during the Depression, his "populist politics, complicating his bedrock patriotism, make the opposite assumption [of a moral social order]: that American society is corrupt and decadent (although the people are good)..." (485) This last quotation could just as easily be a review of Citizen Kane. Artists of the 1930s were more self-aware about their country's own struggles, from the political (Steinbeck) to the artistic (West), than those who looked down on mass culture credited them.****

Dickstein makes one final realization that ties it all together, from poverty, to the meaning of success, to the meaning of escape, to escaping from Kansas of all places: The Wizard of Oz (1939) comes from the same tradition as any American movie that glorifies getting out on the road. (524)

The sheer volume of material Dickstein discusses may not all be suitable for one extended reading. I read this book in about two weeks, and took another two weeks figuring out how I would write this blog entry. That criticism can be turned around to read: "Matthew Gordon didn't read this book correctly" - fair enough. However, the lack of any sort of chart or appendix at the end made it a task to remember all the fascinating works Dickstein lists. (Apologies of sorts to James Agee, Clifford Odets, Woody Guthrie and the many others who figure prominently in Dancing in the Dark but who I haven't even mentioned here.) Dancing in the Dark could easily have been three or four books. As it stands, alphabetized lists of books, movies and plays, with authors and dates, would have made Dancing in the Dark an easier read.***

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 9

*"seemingly arbitrary" because of Citizen Kane's 1941 release date; "pleasant" because I hadn't watched Citizen Kane in nine years, and now I can't wait to watch it again.

**The recording industry's problems since the 2000s are far thornier than I will attempt to discuss here. Suffice to say, the recording industry has taken a massive beating over the past 10-15 years.

***In the spirit of creating lists, here are my entries on seminal novels of the Great Depression, and then brief discussions of how a reader of Dancing in the Dark might interpret their roles within the Great Depression:

Light in August by William Faulkner (1932) - Although the '30s were Faulkner's most productive decade, his breakthrough successes with The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930) and Sanctuary (1931) place him within the turn-of-the-decade modernist camp. Faulkner's characters were in such dire straits before the Depression began, he is less likely to be considered a "Depression author" as a result.

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934) - Although a classic to our era, Tender Is the Night was a commercial flop upon its release. F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters live the fanciful existence of American expats on the French Riviera, in some ways mirroring Fitzgerald's own travels to Europe during the 1920s. During the '20s, these stories were the subject of fantasies by any who thought they could achieve the American Dream. During the '30s, when people more often found themselves lining up for public assistance, stories like Tender Is the Night appeared crass.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939) - Whether or not The Big Sleep invented modern crime fiction, it came at a fascinating time in American history, in part because it was so short-lived: when Europe and Asia were embroiled in World War II, but America wasn't. When the Depression was at least somewhat over, but Americans' attitudes toward it hadn't yet been coloured over by Pearl Harbor, there was a uniquely gritty, dark mood without all the tumbleweed. Within that mood came The Big Sleep.

Finally, there's my entry on Before Motown by Lars Bjorn, an excellent survey of the Jazz Age in Detroit from the 1920s through the 1950s. That Before Motown is almost as long as Dancing in the Dark despite covering such narrower subject matter is the ultimate nod to how much culture really surrounds us.

****Unfortunately, Dickstein becomes light on the credit he is willing to give their intellectual prowess: "While the novel as a form may not be inherently conservative, it does tend to be anti-utopian and anti-intellectual, suspicious of ideas when they are not grounded in actual human situations." (519) How "conservative" and "anti-intellectual" should be compared, "conservative" and "anti-utopian" should be compared, and how a form as broad as the novel can be so generalized is never properly explained. As for novels about ideas, The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers and almost anything by Robert Heinlein (e.g.: 1940s short stories | Stranger in a Strange Land | The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) should be a decent start.

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