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Thoughts on the Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s has passed into myth as essentially American, not global.

2 December 2009

12:00 AM

2 December 2009

12:00 AM

Dancing in the Dark Morris Dickstein

W.W. Norton, pp.576, 22

The Great Depression of the 1930s has passed into myth as essentially American, not global. The Wall Street crash ended the Good Times and led, apparently inevitably, to the crisis of Capitalism. Europe suffered from the effects, but had the glum fun of watching the dollar lose its almightiness. America’s internal response was dramatic and, literally, moving: the migration of John Steinbeck’s Joad family of ‘Okies’, from the dust bowl towards the golden mirage of California, exemplified a general restlessness.

At much the same time, Richard Wright’s Native Son spoke up, for the first time, for the mute, oppressed southern Blacks who would find no promised land in their northward drift to Chicago; Michael Gold’s 1930 novel, Jews Without Money, gave an angry voice to the tenement dwellers of New York’s Lower East Side. Caroline Bird is quoted, from her 1966 The Invisible Scar, saying: ‘The poor had been poor all along. It was just that nobody looked at them.’ In the 1930s, they also began to look at themselves.

The vision of the Depression as an exemplary disaster helps to explain why communism — which had recruited inevitability to its prospectus — enrolled both Wright and Gold. Marxist futurology became the faith to which 1930s writers — the principal subject of Morris Dickstein’s long book — were disposed to turn. Everyone politically aware was, it seemed, ‘Waiting For Lefty’. After the first performance of Clifford Odets’ 1935 agitprop play, the audience became one with the cast and called ‘Strike!’ The fantasy of theatre as super-politics continues to give actors and directors delusions of significance.

For the uncommitted, Dancing in the Dark, a Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz number and Bing Crosby’s greatest early hit, supplied the key-note image of the 1930s as a time of despair and of its routine Hollywood alleviant, romance. Fred and Ginger faced the music and danced. The arts, Dickstein’s introduction tells us, ‘deflected people from their problems and gave them vicarious experiences and an alternate world that could help them bear up. This was as true for timely, topical stories as for seemingly escapist fare.’

Roosevelt’s politics performed much the same uplifting service. His election in 1932, and his re-election in 1936 (one of my earliest memories is of going with my mother when she voted for him in New York City) was a reward more for the hope which he inspired, by the cleverly modulated de haut en bas rhetoric of his fireside chats on the radio, than for any radically effective measures. The New Deal was, in large part, gestural politics, designed to prove that, to quote the title of Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel, It Can’t Happen Here; ‘it’ being fascism.


Roosevelt was a much better leading man than the sanctimonious Herbert Hoover, whom he displaced. Hoover’s policies might have worked, eventually; but his lack of star quality closed his show. Politics and showbiz began their convergence in the public performances, before mass audiences, of men such as Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Television has completed the process, but disassembles the mass audience: go out and do something and you miss the breaking news.

Collapse of confidence in the old supremacies had the side effect of stimulating previously repressed critics. Michael Gold depicted Lower East Side ghetto life without pious sentiment (‘Did God make bedbugs?’) and lashed out against Theodor Dreiser’s anti-Semitic paranoia: ‘Don’t you know, can’t you understand that the Jews are a race of paupers?’ There is a nice irony, from which Dickstein refrains, in the fact that Marx, whose philosophy lent Gold his militant muscle, was himself the author of a youthful anti-Semitic tract which, morphed into anti-Zionism, still fortifies the Left’s hostility to Israel.

Gold’s example probably inspired Henry Roth, who had much the same background, to write his more literary, introspective novel Call It Sleep. Published in 1934, it slept until 1960, when a re-issue gave its now elderly author (raising waterfowl on a farm in Maine) the belated accolade of best-sellerdom. Whatever 1930s writers had in common, in the way of social indignation, they declared themselves in a variety of styles, political and literary. If the vigour of their protest could propel authors to attention, it rarely made them durable: who now reads James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, about a Catholic slum kid in Chicago, withany kind of pleasure?

For Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dickstein draws on the world reserves of the obvious by informing us that ‘They seemed to live for glamour, style and kicks’. Scott may have been a sorry soak, whose best-sellerdom was eclipsed along with the world of his bobbed darlings, but he now again outshines his more ‘adult’ contemporaries, by virtue of one undoubted masterpiece. Dickstein wants Tender is the Night to be almost as good as The Great Gatsby, because somehow more grown-up, but it is too bruised by frequent rewrites to have the same careless rapture. Like his protégé, John O’Hara, Scott may have been a sonofabitch, but when was talent the perquisite of nice guys?

Dickstein has more endurance than wit, more thoroughness than manifest scheme. Somewhat in the style of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, which dwells unhurriedly on the literature of the American Civil War, he embraces a broad range of instances, from John Steinbeck to Busby Berkeley; from Richard Wright (properly, if patronisingly, set centre stage) to Alabama-born Zora Neale Hurston, the author of How It Feels To Be Colored Me, and said to be today’s ‘most taught’ black writer; from James Agee’s self-importantly unselfish text for Walker Evans’ photographs, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to Erskine Caldwell’s once quasi- pornographic Tobacco Road. Caldwell’s essay accompanying Margaret Bourke-White’s less known photographs is said to ‘turn cruelty and inhumanity into a bitter joke indeed’, a summation which may be valid but doesn’t raise much of a laugh.

When Dickstein says of the ‘Time-serving’ Agee, a Harvard-educated Luce journalist, that he tried to keep faith with the Bohemian ideal by ‘burning with a hard gem-like flame’, he attaches an obsolete tag from Walter Pater without saying anything pertinent to Agee’s mixture of prolixity and nostalgie de la poussière. Later, we are told that ‘the Freudian axiom triumphed: that writers write and painters paint in pursuit of money, fame and love’. Just how axiomatic is that in anything but a vulgarised mutation of Freud’s idea of human motivation? Kenneth Burke’s 1940 masterpiece, A Grammar of Motives, reflected with much more ingenious intelligence on the shifting relationship between the social and literary ‘scene’ and the actors within it.

When Dickstein tells us that ‘As Camus and Sartre were inventing existentialism …Richard Wright arrived at a similar worldview in his 1940 Native Son’, he tends to guidebook bluff. Parisian existentialism (in which Merleau-Ponty, much more than Camus, was Sartre’s philosophical copain) did not take off until after the war, in the wake of Heidegger, who accused Sartre of misunderstanding him. Wright wrote his Camusian The Outsider only in 1950 when he went to live in Paris. The French were, in truth, more influenced by the Yanks (Sartre by Dos Passos) than vice versa. Wright, like Robeson, gave black Americans someone to shout for them, but Joe Louis, unmentioned here, was the long-lasting champion whose clout they shouted for themselves.

Dickstein’s best pages are devoted to the movies
and, especially, to popular music and its responses to the nervous mutability of 1930s society: great black bands played at the Cotton Club, but no black patrons danced there. The untutored genius of George Gershwin and the astonishing sophistication of his lyricist (and long-lived) brother, Ira, are soaring examples of the upward mobility of the immigrant imagination. The wit of S. J. Perelman, like the novels of his brother-in-law Nathaniel West, was at once disruptive and self-advancing; Groucho Marx’s number ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it’ both vaunted his iconoclasm and became iconic.

Dickstein deals particularly well with the mixed critical and box office fortunes of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which had a rough ride before becoming an established classic. Its detractors included those who resented the pastoralisation (in Empson’s sense) of poor Blacks. The notion that Black suffering had been hijacked by, as it happened, a Jewish composer fore- shadowed the stand-off, to which Dancing in the Dark makes no illusion, between today’s Blacks and Jewish organisations in the U.S.

One is left with the feeling of having attended a lecture course which terminates, at length and rather abruptly, with the good news that the motorised, affluent, pretty fully employed post-1945 future was just around the corner. What is around our next corner, now that the world has been saved, again, after another supposedly brief, but brutal economic collapse, is unlikely to come up quite so rosy.


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