Dancing in the Dark
Born in 1940, Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, remembers his steady-working, first-generation immigrant father recalling that, every Friday during the Great Depression, when he picked up his paycheck he looked for the pink slip telling him he was laid off. “The Depression put a strain on families, undermining the breadwinner and placing more pressure on the wife to bring in money and hold the family together,” Dickstein writes in the preface to Dancing in the Dark while quoting critic Alfred Kazin: “No one who grew up in the Depression ever recovered from it.”
What he did for the turbulent 1960’s thirty-two years earlier in Gates of Eden (1977), Dickstein does in this book for the 1930’s; that is, he writes a high-minded survey of the decade’s cultural history. “Culture” is an eclectic term, though, perhaps best defined as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted in evolved forms from one generation to another. One thus might wish for a more wide-ranging coverage than Dickstein provides. Such coverage would include, besides fluent exegeses of novels as well-known as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and little-known as Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934), ordinary things that people did such as listen to radio programs featuring the Shadow; order sodas at drugstore counters; see a newsreel, a serial, and a feature for eleven cents at Saturday motion picture matinees; and adore Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Betty Boop cartoons.
Reviewer Robert Gottlieb finds Dickstein’s two most blatant omissions to be Walt Disney and Shirley Temple. The actress is acknowledged only disparagingly, while Disney, arguably the most revolutionary film talent of his time, is unmentioned. Gottlieb, however, praises Dickstein’s sense of what might appear to be the bipolar nature of the Thirtiesthe apparent clash between the frightening social realities and the ritzy glamour of so much of the entertainment of the period.The Okies, yes, but also Astaire & Rogers and screwball comedy. Movie audiencesseverely shrunk in the early Thirtieswanted to be cheered up, distracted.
The 1930’s gangster and up-from-poverty films reveal the seamy and the triumphant sides of the Depression, respectively. Two of Dickstein’s most delightful profiles are of Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin.
Dickstein remains, as one would expect of a Columbia University student and colleague of Lionel Trilling, a perceptive critic. He finds in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Babylon Revisited” (1931) “scarcely a remnant of the old iridescent shimmer, that romantic glow; at issue in Fitzgerald’s later work is no longer the dream and disappointment but simply survival, pasting it together.” He describes the subject of Migrant Mother, Dorothy Lange’s bitter 1936 photograph, as “a woman whose brow is furrowed like tractored-out land.”
Dancing in the Dark is a treatise on what the author believes is the crucial role that culture can play in times of national ordeal. “The crisis kindled America’s social imagination,” he says. Dickstein’s main interest is less a novelist’s writterly qualities, as it was with Edmund Wilson, whose model was Henry James, than the writer’s social consciousness. The Depression, Dickstein continues, fomented, perhaps for the first time, “enormous interest in how ordinary people lived, how they suffered, interacted, took pleasure in one another, and endured.”
“Enduring” is the touchstone of the novels of William Faulkner, whom Dickstein calls “the best writer”one whose “voice and material, like Hemingway’s, add strength to the culture of the 1930’s without fully entering into it.” The author devotes portions of ten pages to Faulkner’s experimental As I Lay Dying (1930), seeking to demonstrate that the interior monologues of that novel set an example for writers...
(The entire section is 1,356 words.)