The American Jitters

A recent book on Depression-era culture is both lively and all too timely. Scott McLemee interviews its author.

March 10, 2010

Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, published last year by W.W. Norton, is one of five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award in criticism. The author, a professor of English and theater at CUNY Graduate Center, has written and edited numerous other works of literary and cultural analysis. His explorations of American literature, films, and music of the "long decade" between 1929 and 1941 seem to be written in an almost classical mode -- as if he were simultaneously channeling the major figures assayed in his Double Agent: The Critic and Society (Oxford, 1992).

My short discussion of Dancing in the Dark recently appeared at the website of the National Book Critics Circle. This was written as part of my duties as a member of the NBCC board, but doing so was no burden; this is a book to inspire enthusiasm. So without further ado, here follows the transcript of an e-mail interview with its author. The winners of the NBCC awards will be announced during a ceremony at the New School University in New York City on Thursday night.

Q: What was it like to find that a project you'd been working on for years suddenly turned out to be all too timely?

A: I actually began working on it in the Reagan era, when it was timely, since Reagan set about to upend the New Deal consensus in many ways, especially about the role of government in our lives and about our need, beautifully articulated in FDR's second Inaugural address, to take collective responsibility for each other, and especially for the worst off among us. Reagan gave a license to self-seeking that was a throwback to the Harding-Coolidge era, and he also dealt a severe and lasting blow to unions when he broke the air traffic controllers' strike.

The book was also timely because every year, almost every month of the 1980s brought the 50th anniversary of some New Deal program. For me, however, many other projects large and small intervened, and the book seemed to grow less timely by the year. In the go-go years of 1990s, the '30s seemed like ancient history. But as I was finishing the book in 2008 the economy tanked, and suddenly the Depression was on everyone's lips.

My wonderful editor at Norton, Bob Weill, said "I would have bought this book even without the financial meltdown." I reminded him that he did -- two months before. But I'm sure this timeliness is responsible for much of the attention the book has received, including an amazing number of reviews and pretty healthy sales.

Q: Your book is not a work of social or political history. But I'm not entirely persuaded that your subtitle is quite right to call it a cultural history, either. A cultural historian of the Depression would have to pay a lot more attention to radio, for one thing. It feels very much more like an interconnected set of essays in literary and cinematic criticism, written with a close attention to form, but also with an old-fashioned willingness to assess value. Is that pigeonholing you wrongly?

A: The book is a hybrid of cultural history and criticism, in proportions that are entirely my own. I wanted to explore how the arts illuminate the Depression and how the Depression illuminates the work done in the arts, even work that appears to have little or no reference to it, and has usually been seen as escapist. I also aimed to uncover the patterns that link or contrast many different kinds of artists: Mike Gold and Henry Roth, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White, Steinbeck and Faulkner, Steinbeck and Nathanael West, Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl.

I grouped them around four broad cultural themes, and I actually considered subtitling the book "Cultural Themes from the Great Depression." You'd agree that that would have been unduly modest, besides being commercially obtuse.

Why should cultural history have to cover everything, instead of offering an abundant variety of case studies, chosen because they were representative but also because they mattered strongly to me as a critic, and hence I might have something fresh to say about them? What usually passes for cultural history tends to be panoramic but superficial. Jacques Barzun, a pioneer cultural historian, once said that his friend and colleague Lionel Trilling often urged him to dig a little deeper, to pause over some of his many examples. He certainly did that in his book on Berlioz. That's where the critic comes in to deepen and thicken the work of the historian.

The British critic F.R. Leavis, often wrongly seen as a New Critic because of his focus on the texture of a writer's language, actually began writing in the Marxist decade of the 1930s as a sociological critic. Look at the early volumes of his magazine Scrutiny. But he also wrote several essays complaining that social historians tended to use literature merely for documentation, whereas the only real way to "use" literature, to bare its social meanings, was to get deeply inside it, as any subtle and patient reader does. That demands attention to form and language as well as surface content. It also involves critical judgment to assess where the work works, where its intentions are effectively realized and where it actually moves us.

This is not a thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach but a sensitivity to where the writer's or artist's imagination come alive. If you think, as I do, that the arts offer a unique access to the mind and heart of an era, to the way people really thought and felt, then you need to pay a good deal of attention to form and also to exercise your best critical judgment. It requires that indefinable thing called taste as well as some knowledge of the history of the arts. For me the arts, including a large swath of popular culture- - music, movies, photography, theater, and design -- served as a way to lay bare the inner life of the era. I could have subtitled the book "The Inner History of the Great Depression," but that would have been even more controversial, besides making people think it was a book about depression.

Q: Your discussion of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book that James Agee wrote to accompany Walker Evans's photographs of tenant farmers, seems very judicious. I admire this book a lot, but think of it as a defective masterpiece, and you clarify why that seems like a fitting assessment of it. But it was also striking to see your comment on teaching the book: "When I've assigned it to undergraduates, the results have been disastrous." Would you say more about that? Not about Agee's text, necessarily, but about what you mean by the results being disastrous.

A: Since the cliche about the literature and the visual arts of the 30s is that they were folky and naturalistic, or else overtly political, it was important for me to highlight the modernist currents that carried over from the 20s. Such experiments took on a different meaning during the Depression. Agee's writing is Faulknerian, the book is long and digressive, its structure is elusive, and the whole thing can drive you crazy at times. All this proved maddening to undergraduate readers. It took me a while to realize that this was his fault as much as theirs. Much of 30s writing -- Steinbeck, for example -- is more straightforward, since it's rooted in journalism, influenced by Hemingway, and its social criticism is right on the surface.

This is not true of either Walker Evans's pictures, which are far more detached, or Agee's prose, at the other extreme -- so tortured and self-conscious, and so written. Yet it's a genuine 30s book, since it raises serious questions about motives of social documentary and the ethical demands of reporting about lives lived in poverty and deprivation.

For Agee, paradoxically, this was both guilt-inducing and spiritually exalting. Neither of these emotions is comes naturally to readers today, young or old; this was also the case for readers in 1941, when the book first appeared. The worst of the Depression was over, so the book must have seemed like a throwback, despite the timeless appeal of the photographs, which are among the best ever taken by an American. But they lacked the drama and narrative punch that readers had come to expect from photojournalism, thanks to movie newsreels and Life magazine. The book was stillborn till it was republished in 1960.

Q: Were there other experiences in the classroom that deepened your understanding of this period -- or of particular texts, films, etc. -- in ways that were decisive for your book?

A: In my experience, the cultural work of the 1930s teaches very well, especially the films. With the movie industry's rapid adjustment to the technology of sound, that decade saw the consolidation of the classic Hollywood style in relation to mass taste, including strikingly different studio styles, the development of the star system, and the cultivation of genre as the keystone of industrial production. Many of the stars and genres from that period remain hugely attractive today. The luster of Bogart, Cooper, Hepburn, Davis, Fonda, Cagney, Stewart, Stanwyck, Gable, Colbert, Lombard are many others remains surprisingly undimmed.

Screwball comedies and gangster movies still go over very well with students, partly because they're hard-boiled, cynical, and unsentimental, yet also subtly romanticized. The best social problem dramas, from I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to The Grapes of Wrath, have a strong visceral appeal, besides teaching students essential things about the times. I lean to movies that touch obliquely on the Depression, including Busby Berkeley musicals, Frank Capra comedies, and historical epics about other hard times, such as Gone with the Wind, which I often ask students to compare with The Grapes of Wrath. Repeatedly teaching such movies helped create an agenda for the book by showing me what worked and how it still gripped people, which pointed the way to how it might have gripped many Americans back then.

By and large I avoid concentrating on inferior stuff simply as evidence of the times. I have no patience for it and no feeling for it. To do good work, I need to write about things that turn me on. The lasting quality of certain films, books, songs, and photographs is an indication of the many levels on which they work, and also of how much more they have to tell us. Multi-layered books like Call It Sleep, As I Lay Dying, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust, Tender Is the Night, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men tell us more about the period than its transient best-sellers, even though they were not truly appreciated until much later. Some books that were sensationally popular then, such as Native Son and The Grapes of Wrath, along with many of the musical standards, remain just as meaningful today. Others books, among them the Studs Lonigan and U.S.A. trilogies, are simply too cumbersome to teach, besides seeming somewhat dated in their naturalistic styles.

One of my aims in the book was to create a living canon of works from the 1930s, not simply an archaeological dig to expose the buried and forgotten layers of a distant culture. Finally, I wanted to show what art could contribute to a society in the throes of a social and economic crisis, a theme that took on unexpected resonance in the wake of our own financial meltdown.

Q: History doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme, as Mark Twain is supposed to have said. Have any of the works from the Great Depression seemed to you to "rhyme" somehow with the experience of the past 18 months? I've occasionally thought that the title of Edmund Wilson's book of reportage, "The American Jitters," feels quite fitting now....

A: "Jitters" is exactly the right word. Instead of the kind of dramatic crisis that lasted for years during the Depression, a low-level anxiety hangs over the country, what with talk of a "jobless recovery," a concern about structural shifts in the economy, with little sign of improvement in the housing sector, and a resentful sense that only the banks have truly bounced back, largely at our own expense. Despite the populist backlash that has fed Republican hopes, the current economic fears are an improvement over the grim mood of the first six months of the recession, a pervasive dread that we were sliding inexorably into Depression 2.0.

That mood was closely parallel to the early years of the Great Depression. Both were set off by a banking crisis; both witnessed a plague of foreclosures on homes and farm; both revealed terrific flaws in the regulatory system and required serious federal intervention; above all, in both periods there was a huge crisis of confidence, economically in the collapse of the credit markets, psychologically in the widespread fear for the future, especially our children's future. It now becomes clear that the Obama administration did not or could not take full advantage of those first few months of crisis. Like FDR, the president tried hard to serve as Cheerleader in Chief, with some success. Along with the rescue of the banks, the passage of the stimulus bill was probably the single most important factor in avoiding a slide into a second Depression.

But where the New Deal managed to pursue three R's at once -- relief, regulation, and reform -- the administration has so far made little progress toward instituting new forms of regulation or vitally needed reforms. Some such reforms are in the pipeline but they will be bitterly contested, especially now that the worst of the crisis is assumed to have passed.

As far as the response of the arts to the Great Recession, that too is in the pipeline and impossible to predict, though we can be sure that the current downbeat mood, the sense of lowered expectations, will soon be reflected in indie filmmaking, darkly realistic fiction, and popular music at once cheering and keening. By economic indicators the recession may formally have ended, though there has scarcely been a full recovery, but the psychological recession will be with us for a long while.


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