Facing the Music

Many a baby boomer was raised on tales of the Great Depression, tales of sharecroppers, breadlines, NRA parades, and sparing a dime for a brother in need. These often played a bigger part in our lives than Dr. Spock. My mother, who learned about John Steinbeck’s work from a savvy nun at a Brooklyn high school, regarded the depiction of the Joad family’s struggle in The Grapes of Wrath as a moral touchstone, a must-know story of human dignity imperiled. Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, grew up hearing about the Depression-era fears and hopes of his own parents. In Dancing in the Dark, he examines some of the artistic and cultural expressions of those hopes and fears, and does so with compassion, gusto, and fine scholarship.

The title of the book comes from the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz song of 1931, a lush, moody composition about a couple in a ballroom-“waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here,” “looking for the light,” and determined to “face the music together.” The lyric serves as a distillation of several themes in the volume: yearning and wondering about our national condition, being afraid of what’s next, keeping going. Dickstein has authored two other “decade” books-one on the 1950s, another on the ’60s. He is used to making big generalizations and managing a large cast. Educated at Columbia University, where he was a pupil of Lionel Trilling, Dickstein was bred on the humanistic idea that literature is a criticism of life: important works of the imagination must report on the complexity of social experience and transcend the mere preaching of propaganda. As he navigates through scores of novels, poems, dramas, movies, paintings, songs, and works of art and architecture, he keeps his critical balance, discriminating between pop appeal and lasting value.

But unlike his Columbia teachers and the intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review in the 1930s and ’40s, including Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, Dickstein refuses to dismiss populist works that depend on broad-brush technique and heavy doses of Popular Front rhetoric about the People, Progress, and Equality. Dancing in the Dark balances Dickstein’s own high aesthetic standards with a sense of fairness to popular or influential creators who weren’t first-rate. He is able to convey the ardor and excitement of an agitprop work like Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty-“Strike! Strike!” the audience is made to cry at the end-without suggesting it’s a masterpiece.

Dickstein combs through forgotten books and songs and movies to tease out the theme of American individualism gone wrong. His desire to be comprehensive leads him to explore such works as Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men, a “road” novel about down-and-outers with some of the flavor of The Grapes of Wrath. Dickstein isn’t blind to the “mannered simplicities” of proletarian literature of this sort, its “fuzzy vocabulary and populism,” its failure to handle “the wrinkles of the individual mind.” Overall, his approach is nuanced and analytic, but sometimes he loses focus. Long stretches of the book are given over to detailed discussions of Faulkner, Frost, and Wallace Stevens, who happened to be alive and writing during the period covered by Dickstein. His attempts to relate their work to the culture of the Depression are usually unpersuasive and sometimes tedious. Too much attention is given to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s depression and disillusionment in the 1920s, while Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War aren’t mentioned and Edmund Wilson’s “American Jitters” essays are dealt with only perfunctorily.

But Dickstein is interested in the jitterbug. He is interested in movement and dynamism of all kinds-whether he’s hitting the road with the characters of William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road or hitting the dance floor with Fred and Ginger. He has no patience for generalizations about the escapism of Depression-era movies and songs: The Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, and the Astaire-Rogers films were about picking yourself up and facing the music. Dickstein is especially good at showing how both entertainment and politics were ensemble affairs; a Rooseveltian sense of community pervades the book. “His Rosiness,” as Robert Frost snidely called FDR, is compared by Dickstein to the Wizard of Oz. Like the man behind the curtain, FDR told Americans that the power to overcome their problems was in themselves-all they needed was a little help and encouragement.

Movies, populist fiction, songs, and the New Deal were about morale and momentum. But controversy and resentment were never far away: there was always a fight over who or what was pushing us forward or backward. Was mass opinion leading to collectivism? Did Busby Berkeley’s fabulous choreography remind one of Leni Riefenstahl’s pageantry in Triumph of the Will? Was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land” a valid response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” or simply rousing Communist propaganda? Dickstein’s discussion of these questions is at once careful and stimulating. He obviously loves the artists of the 1930s-Odets and Steinbeck, Frank Capra and Orson Welles-and he pays them the compliment of scrupulous critical attention. The story that emerges from Dancing in the Dark is one of a country rattled, unsure of itself, but still on its feet and ready to move.

Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 

The late David Castronovo wrote many books of literary and cultural criticism, including Blokes: The Bad Boys of English Literature.

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