Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark

Dancing in the Dark:
A Cultural History of the Great Depression

by Morris Dickstein
Norton, 2009
598 pp., $29.95

NEED IT BE SAID we live in gloomy times? The most optimistic among our commentariat talk of a jobless recovery: the banks and Wall Street recuperate while more Americans face unemployment or watch their wages and benefits stagnate. All this, of course, follows massive mortgage defaults and rising homelessness. Numerous journalists now speak of a “lost generation” coming of age—young people unable to find jobs and sinking into psychic despair. Depression 2.0, the Great Recession, or whatever you want to call it, has renewed a sense of what it means to get the blues.

Which brings us to Morris Dickstein’s marvelous new book that explores “the crucial role that culture can play in times of national trial.” Studying the 1930s, Dickstein builds upon the common observation among historians that New Deal programs helped Americans but didn’t solve the problem of the Great Depression (that took the Second World War). What the New Deal did accomplish—especially when Franklin Roosevelt projected his sunny disposition onto the array of programs he helped create—was to build the psychological reserves of ordinary citizens. Dickstein adds to this political picture the “expressive culture of the thirties”—the novels, poetry, music, and films that “played a role parallel to the leadership of FDR and the programs of the New Deal.”

To tell his story, Dickstein assembles a panorama—a wide-ranging pastiche of cultural works that he deals with individually before placing them alongside one another to build a bigger picture. He doesn’t focus on those who consciously used cultural expression as a political tool—the Communist Party hacks, for instance, who have gotten a mind-boggling amount of attention from left-wing academics like Alan Wald and Cary Nelson. Instead, he emphasizes the “unusually complex” and “enduring” expressions of depression culture from the proletarian literature of Michael Gold to the ponderous modernist narratives of William Faulkner, from the murals of Thomas Hart Benton to the Hollywood musicals of Busby Berkeley, from the “group interaction of big bands” that suggested “the sense of community fostered by the New Deal” to the gangster movies and screwball comedies that allowed their audience moments of escape. Along the way, he touches on subjects grandiose in their scale—modernism, realism, naturalism, escapism, and democracy. Sometimes, while he assembles his panorama, he leaves part of the canvas bare or chooses the wrong image, but the total picture is chock full of insights about the fluid relation between culture and politics during a trying era.

Of course, the 1930s is not the 2000s. American culture still held a premium for books, novels especially. Dickstein is a schol...