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The Worst of Times: Revisiting the Great Depression

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great DepressionDancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein

Reviewed by Arthur Krystal
Harper's Magazine

Until fairly recently, historians tended to think in large swaths of time: the ages and epochs capable of enfolding a hundred years' war, the fall of an empire, a renaissance in art and literature. But as historical time lengthened and documentation accumulated, scholars began to fasten on the years and seasons that captured a trend -- an exegetical method that itself became a trend, perhaps in 1926 with The Mauve Decade, Thomas Beer's rather drab survey of the 1890s. History, though, cannot be conveniently cordoned off, and the resonance of a decade ought not to be bracketed by numbers. There is one decade, however, that does possess -- both by complexion and positioning -- fairly well-defined boundaries, stamped at one end by the stock market crash of 1929 and at the other by America's entry, in 1941, into the Second World War. The years in between, of course, have become known as The Great Depression -- a period when 34 million Americans (out of a population of 123 million) had no means of earning a living, when roughly 2 million homeless made up a "wandering population" and 15 million -- 25 percent of the workforce -- were idle. By 1932 the economy had deteriorated to such an extent that men set forest fires so that they could be hired to put them out and committed crimes because jails, at least, served food. For the first time in the country's history, the number of people leaving America was greater than the number of those arriving. Asked whether there had ever been such an economic downturn, John Maynard Keynes replied, "Yes. It was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years."

Nonetheless, the country did not shut down; in fact, a small number of businesses actually managed to thrive. Refrigerators and radios sold briskly; so did cigarettes and contraceptives. People bowled, played miniature golf, and went to ball games and the movies. Tourism increased, and motels sprang up nationwide. And because wages in some cases stayed ahead of the cost of living, those who found decent jobs or who held on to them actually fared better than they had before the crash. Most Americans, it bears remembering, were employed during the Depression, and a few, like Edmund Wilson, regarded the decline as cause for celebration: "To the writers and artists of my generation who had grown up in the Big Business era," Wilson wrote, "these years were not depressing but stimulating. One couldn't help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud. It gave us a new sense of freedom; and it gave us a new sense of power to find ourselves carrying on while the bankers, for a change, were taking a beating." Spoken like a true intellectual, more concerned with the fall of the mighty than with the welfare of those who depend on a stable economy.

The majority of Americans obviously felt otherwise, yet Wilson's blithe pronouncement does suggest that "the Thirties," despite having an evocative, instantly recognizable tag, was not some monolithic period in American history. Indeed, as Morris Dickstein vigorously reminds us in Dancing in the Dark, it was also the decade of screwball comedies, backstage musicals, gangster movies, jazz, art deco friezes, and theatrical concoctions featuring effervescent tunes and highly elaborate dance numbers. "Trying to grasp the essential spirit of the thirties would seem to be a hopeless task," Dickstein quickly acknowledges. "How can one era have produced both Woody Guthrie and Rudy Vallee, both the Rockettes high-stepping at the Radio City Music Hall and the Oakies on their desperate trek toward the pastures of plenty in California?" And because culture is not homogenous, because there is always an undercurrent flowing counter to what appears on the surface, Dickstein calls our attention to the "split personality of Depression culture" -- a split that assumed various forms.

To be specific: "the Depression not only challenged America's economy and its political system, but also undermined the central myths and beliefs on which the system was founded." If jobs did not exist for those willing to work, if business leaders did not know what they were doing, if America was not necessarily the land of opportunity, then what was the country about? At the very moment when the phrase "the American dream" came into common usage with the publication of James Truslow Adams's The Epic of America (1931), Americans began to ask themselves whether the dream was nothing more than a cruel joke.

Since the nation's founding, people believed or pretended to believe that America was fundamentally a classless society, or one in which class borders were porous enough to accommodate the Horatio Alger myth of the poor boy who makes good. "There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us," Abraham Lincoln noted a year before he was elected president. "Twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday labors on his own account today, and will hire others to labor for him tomorrow." It didn't matter that only a precious few ever rose above their circumstances; social mobility was the bedrock of the American dream. As long as there was one Abraham Lincoln, one Andrew Carnegie, one Jack Dempsey, one poor boy who lifted himself up by his bootstraps, then every white male, at any rate, could make it. But if there were no jobs to be had, how was a person to survive, much less rise? That was the question the Great Depression posed. The Thirties were not just about a lack of opportunity; they were also about hopelessness.

For communists and radicals the Depression was a gift, proof that capitalism was a sham. Hoping to take advantage of the economic slide, the Communist Party, under orders from Moscow, renounced its agenda of class warfare and set in motion a "Popular Front" that aligned itself with liberals, socialists, and unionists -- the better to fight fascism. Although this newer, gentler communism, with its professed sympathy toward progressive traditions, appealed to many New Dealers, it never succeeded in gaining a true foothold -- for at the same time that the Depression played havoc with men's lives, it stirred a populist feeling that resisted attempts to alter the political system. By denying men the means to provide for their families, the Depression accentuated the American ethic of individualism and self-reliance -- qualities that made people feel shame and guilt about not working, while discouraging them from rebelling against the system that caused them to lose their jobs in the first place.

One of the central tenets of Dickstein's book is that the Depression emerged at a moment when artists, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians, as well as politicians and social reformers, were able to take advantage of innovations in technology to make the economic crisis a national topic, initiating a discussion that not only shaped a picture of the nation but also bestowed on its citizens a greater sense of community. Affordable cameras, radios, and phonographs helped promote a more intimate sense of America, as did the newsreel with its sappy, patriotic voice-over. Hollywood, of course, came out swinging, often literally, by producing musicals that were meant to make people forget their troubles. Movies, however, still had to compete with radio for an audience; one program, Amos 'n' Andy, was so popular that theaters scheduled their showtimes around it.

Whether the Depression was spoken of or left unmentioned didn't matter; it was the subtext of whatever played on the air or ended up on the screen. For Dickstein this constituted still another cultural dichotomy; namely, the simultaneous grappling with social issues and the desire to escape from them through entertainment. This struggle between living in the Depression and thinking outside it was also reflected by artists, whose sense of social responsibility was, to some degree, at odds with a "technically innovative modernism" that focused more on conveying complex states of consciousness than on the ills of society. "The tension in the 1930s between a resurgent naturalism and a subterranean modernism," Dickstein writes, "was at the heart of the portrayal of poverty in the 1930s." So much poverty and misery in the land could not be ignored by artists who, after all, were sometimes strapped for cash themselves. John Steinbeck, for one, could not afford postage in 1932, much less a dentist for his rotting teeth.

Certainly the Depression was not the first time that writers and artists had looked at the underclass (Zola's Germinal, Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, and Jacob Riis's halftone images in How the Other Half Lives acknowledged the wretched conditions of the poor), but the Depression did, as Dickstein notes, make artists identify "strongly with ordinary people and their needs." By and large, there had been little organized sympathy for the poor. Most Americans felt comfortable with a brand of social Darwinism in which economic individualism and moral rectitude were linked. If people were poor, they had only themselves to blame. But once a great many more people lost their jobs, and certain writers (Michael Gold and Henry Roth) recorded the misery they grew up with, while others (Steinbeck and Nelson Algren) registered the misery they came to know, the poor began to be regarded more humanely. Suddenly, they were everywhere: tenant farmers, tenement dwellers, migrant families, and filthy hobos -- all described in exacting detail or discovered peering out from photographs, newsreels, and movies.

A good number of these efforts were underwritten by the federal government as part of the New Deal. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), for example, which lasted eight years, spent $11 billion and employed nearly 8 million men and women, including artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. Because the New Deal smacked of government meddling and welfare, it had its detractors. To justify its existence, one of the newly formed agencies, the Farm Security Administration, established a photography unit in order to document the harsh conditions of the poor. During its nine-year tenure, this unit, drawing on the talents of some of the nation's best photographers -- including Margaret Bourke-White, Carl Mydans, and graphic artist Ben Shahn -- created 77,000 black-and-white photographs, as well as the documentaries The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). The now iconic 1936 photo of a weathered migrant worker with her three children in Nipomo, California, was taken by Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange.

If Dickstein is correct, a depression of unprecedented misery was necessary before writers and artists felt moved to humanize the poor and before the arts and the government could enter into a partnership. Whether it was because the WPA commissioned them or because of their own sympathy with the huddled masses, artists and journalists scoured the country to bring us news of how its citizens were coping. And the news came in the form of novels and poems, posters and paintings, speeches and plays, songs and films. Dickstein welcomes them all, displaying an unnervingly comprehensive grasp of every genre. As a result, Dancing in the Dark is, to risk overstatement, a monumental work, both a prodigious feat of labor and, in some instances, a labor of love. So wide is its net that it's practically impossible to convey the expanse of materials or the steadiness with which Dickstein handles them. It's not just Steinbeck and Odets who come in for analysis but Woody Guthrie and Cole Porter; not just Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston but Bing Crosby and Cary Grant; not just F. Scott Fitzgerald and Aaron Copland but James Agee and Louis Armstrong. And because the Thirties were "a turning point in American popular culture," Dickstein, poor chap, had no choice but to immerse himself in all the great movies and songs that exploded on the scene.

Unlike academics of the Seventies and Eighties, Dickstein does not exact semiotic significance from popular entertainment. Nor does he lend credence to the New Historicist dictum, fashionable twenty years ago, that "Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt." (The mouse barely rates a mention in Dickstein's book.) But Dickstein does believe -- and rightly so -- that "somehow movies became a significant part of how the American people adapted to the Depression." As it happened, the consolidation of the movie studios coincided with the onset of the Depression, and Hollywood writers and directors applied themselves to depicting the American scene, churning out an astonishing number of movies, of which an astonishing number were very good. At the same time, Hollywood wanted to offer relief from the Depression and looked for scripts of a fantastic or quietly fabulist kind. Dickstein concedes that "no easy contrast can be drawn between escapism and social relevance," but he happily wades in, trying to relate movies to the mood of the country.

In most instances, he does this with panache, though every so often he'll resort to a bland generalization so sweeping as to be puncture-proof: "Movie audiences dreamed of success, of magical changes of fortune, yet also identified with failure, which seemed closer to the reality of people's lives." To his credit, he also picks up on numerous subtleties that enhance our appreciation. Gangster films, for example, are both immigrant fables and parodies of Horatio Alger success stories, whose you-can't-push-me-around attitude appealed to men who were being pushed out of jobs and homes. And if the gangster was not a good guy, it was society that made him that way; likewise with such Thirties films as King Kong, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man, whose flawed protagonists lashed out only when hurt (not like the alien and malignant creatures who arrived on the screens in the Fifties and Sixties).

As both a critic and a fan, Dickstein has every right to expatiate on films and, for that matter, on Broadway shows and the lyrics and melodies of pop tunes. He's engaging and astute about Frank Capra's movies and the music of Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin. He's probably watched every Fred Astaire movie ever made and neatly sums up what can't be proved but needs saying anyway: "The culture of elegance, as represented by Astaire and the Gershwins, was less about the cut of your tie and tails than about the cut of your feelings, the inner radiance that was one true bastion against social suffering." But does he occasionally swoon too much? Although there may be sublimated currents of sexual energy in Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies, Dickstein's contention that had such energy "been harnessed to some larger social purpose, as the New Deal had hoped to do, it might have brought the Depression to a swift end" is the sort of portentous remark that an editor should have excised. Dickstein obviously loves Fred and Ginger, but I'm not sure that the plot lines of their films require explication or that the choreography improves upon our hearing that it constitutes a mobility denied the people during the 1930s. And when Dickstein expounds on the rococo productions of Busby Berkeley, whose "skill at orchestrating grouped masses in precise formulations belonged to the collective side of the 1930s outlook," one might be forgiven a quiet "Oh, please." Yes, Busby Berkeley is more germane to the Depression than Bishop Berkeley, but who thinks of bread lines when the camera pans back and fifty pairs of sequined legs kick up in the air?

Culture and the arts have always had an uneasy relationship: one derives its essential quality from the general; the other, from the particular. A cultural history, therefore, must resist a natural tendency to squeeze both culture and art into a social-psychological box, a tendency that grows stronger the more extreme the times become. Because the Depression landed artists in the same foxhole as ordinary people, and because there are probably even fewer aesthetes in foxholes than atheists, many creative types felt it was unseemly to pursue purely aesthetic goals against a backdrop of human suffering. So writers such as Dos Passos and composers such as Copland had to balance progressive ideals with the aesthetic refinements of modernism. On the other hand, Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald would have written pretty much the same whatever the GNP. That's the tension in Dickstein's own book: he believes in the singularity of art yet strives mightily to relate everything to the Depression. Accordingly, there is both veneration for individual works and a New Historicist's capacious, almost anthropological approach to events, in which nothing falls outside of culture, and differences themselves inevitably, if obliquely, suggest a common source or reference point: "The look of the great thirties musicals," Dickstein writes, "is everything that Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother' or 'Woman of the High Plains,' both so angular and static, are not. It's all circle and swirl, all movement and flow." Fine, but what does this tell us except that culture can be varied or paradoxical?

The truth is that art is not simply a socialized phenomenon, not one text among a myriad of texts, but a unique contribution to an ongoing discussion with other artists past and present. No doubt the French Revolution influenced Wordsworth and Coleridge, no doubt at all that Napoleon inspired Beethoven, but motivation is not to be confused with meaning: the French Revolution does not explain the Lyrical Ballads; Napoleon does not explain the Eroica. The Depression was responsible for many kinds of art, but it ultimately cannot account for whatever quality defines them as art. Dickstein recognizes this and settles on an inoffensive parallelism to describe the relation between art and history. Indeed, some form of the word "parallel" appears time and again in the book, as in: "the expressive culture of the thirties...played a role parallel to the leadership of FDR and the programs of the New Deal" and "the uncompromising aesthetic radicalism of Copland or Dos Passos paralleled the political radicalism of the Left during the early thirties."

Another reason for the repetition may be that some of the chapters in Dancing in the Dark were published separately as essays. This, unfortunately, also accounts for what to me is the book's main drawback: the author's first-person intrusions into the text. Although such interjections are not out of place in essays, and even worked quite well in Dickstein's Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (a smaller book involving people and events Dickstein was familiar with), they don't belong in a book about a decade that ended seventy years ago. Dancing in the Dark, as I hope I've made clear, is a book on a grand scale; as such it does not benefit from personal testimonials. The references to Dickstein's family and life -- "All of this was lost on me when I was growing up in the 1950s," "By the time I was growing up in the forties and fifties," "My own children loved [Woody Guthrie songs] when they were growing up" -- are revealing touches, but I prefer my historians in the background: unmarried, childless, parentless, focused only on the work, as any serious reader ought to be.

Stylistic tics aside, Dancing in the Dark offers a clue to the making of modern America, an America whose awareness of itself as a communal entity took shape during the Depression. It's a tricky proposition, trying to determine when a people form a sense of themselves as a national entity, or to what extent this entity represents the beliefs and ideals of the people. Borders are the least of it; something more intangible is involved: a common language and heritage, which, as we know, keep evolving. The past is always being manipulated, and the recoverable past -- what sticks in the minds of the populace at any one time -- is often a collection of myths, popular conceptions, and fanciful images. But it is precisely these things -- the stories that are repeated, the images that are represented, the music and lyrics that play in our heads -- that contribute to a sense of a nation's character; not its constitution, or its charter, or its laws.

It can be argued that the consumer culture of the 1920s, along with the ascendancy of sports, entertainment, and advertising, was already blunting America's ingrained sectionalism. One could just as easily make the case that the Great Depression, which put so many people in the same predicament, significantly enhanced that sense of unity. The Depression, after all, summoned Franklin Roosevelt, who initiated the New Deal, which made use of the arts to call attention to the collective plight of the people, thus fostering a wave of populism that began in Washington D.C. and spread to Hollywood, CA, where it was spun around and sent back to the capital in the form of sentimental movies extolling "the people." Hollywood executives had no love for radicals and did not see an America that was inherently flawed but one in which the common man was the exemplary man. Whether his name was John Doe, Jefferson Smith, George Bailey, or Longfellow Deeds, he embodied the populist as well as the individual qualities that made this country unique. In Meet John Doe (1941), Gary Cooper, the quintessential American hero, says to a gathering of unemployed men:

I know a lot of you are saying, What can I do, I'm just a little punk. I don't count. Well, you're dead wrong. The little punks have always counted, because in the long run the character of a country is the sum total of its little punks. But we've all got to get in there and pitch.

Apart from the Civil War, the Great Depression probably affected the lives of more Americans than any one phenomenon in the nation's history, but it did not become a national trauma until the media made it one. In effect, it wasn't the Depression that helped unify the country but information about it: the books and movies, the photographs and newsreels, the radio programs, especially FDR's fireside chats, that made Americans feel part of a common culture. How much of this culture remains is anyone's guess. Now, with cable TV and satellite radio and online echo chambers that customize experiences rather than consolidate them, the prospect that the current financial mess will elicit the kind of grand communal response Dickstein describes seems remote. Indeed, we may have reached a point at which digital clutter succeeds only in accentuating differences rather than overriding them. Once upon a time, a few powerful radio stations, a few large newspapers, and a few network TV channels caught or created a national mood. But that world, for good or for ill, has been supplanted by a predominantly virtual world to which every person can contribute, thus making the idea of a unified national culture more problematic than ever. Dickstein may not have steered his book toward such questions, but it is a measure of the work's timeliness and historical grasp that we arrive at these questions nonetheless.

1. "Depression," incidentally, was not the loaded word it is now. The Hoover Administration adopted the term because it sounded less inflammatory than "crisis" or "panic." It was only in 1931 that Hoover began to refer to "a great depression," careful to use the indefinite article. "The Great Depression," as shorthand for the 1930s, may not have appeared until the British economist Lionel Robbins used it as a book title in 1934.

2. A somewhat different impression emerges from William Manchester's compendious The Glory and the Dream. Manchester does not downplay the sense of defeat and despair that overwhelmed many Americans, but he does note that in March of 1932, police fired into a crowd of three thousand demonstrators outside the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, killing four and wounding hundreds. In fact, Manchester's lively history opens on the summer of 1932 with the Bonus Army's occupation of Washington, D.C. The "army" consisted of 25,000 ragged veterans and their families who, without a means of earning a living, had come to the capital in the hope that Congress would implement the Adjusted Compensation Act immediately (payments were scheduled for 1945). Although the men were mostly "too weak to be a menace," they were forcibly ejected by the Third Cavalry, commanded by Major George S. Patton on the order of a General MacArthur.

3. The first owners of radio stations publicized only their own wares; it never occurred to them to sell "time" to unrelated businesses, just as they didn't think to transmit music that was not live. Playing records on the air did not catch on until a New York reporter resorted to them during breaks in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping trial in 1935. While playing records, the reporter pretended to be in a ballroom listening to a real band. For his efforts, he was disapprovingly dubbed a disc jockey by the columnist Walter Winchell, but his broadcasting ruse became The Make-Believe Ballroom and lasted on the air until the late Eighties.

Arthur Krystal is the author of The Half-Life of an American Essayist (David R. Godine). His last review for Harper's Magazine, "The Long Goodbye," appeared in the October 2008 issue.

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2 Responses to "The Worst of Times: Revisiting the Great Depression"

    AG December 31st, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Ironic that the point at which I gave up on this review is the passage in which Mr. Krystal starts whining in the first person about Mr. Dickstein's use of the first person -- a fine example in fact of why I quit reading Harper's criticism some time ago.

    I'm glad that I started reading Dancing In The Dark before I saw this writeup; I'd have missed an excellent read!

    Eugene Barufkin January 2nd, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Great thoughts, BUT -
    It was WW II that completed the transformation of the USA to a world player. It proved that black people and women were equal, and could contribute to economic and social areas. The Great Depression reduced opportunities for these classes of the population.
    Thus, either WW II was the great event that rivals the Civil War, or linking WW II AND the Great Depression as one event, was the "third" transformational leap of America.
    The first event was the formation of the USA, 1730-1810.
    Digested indisputable facts prove that it was WW II that got America out of the Depression.

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