Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
by Morris Dickstein
W.W. Norton, 624 pp, $29.95
“It didn’t take long for us to become nostalgic for the thirties, when we hadn’t even been born.” So wrote Morris Dickstein toward the close of Gates of Eden, his passionate account of the 1960s, speaking for himself and his group of fellow undergraduate intellectuals at Columbia College. He published Gates of Eden in 1977, in the immediate wake of the period he was celebrating, but it’s taken him all this time to turn to the prehistoric (for him) Golden Age of the Thirties. He and his friends, he tells us, “looked back wistfully at the excited ideological climate of the thirties, about which we knew next to nothing,” and Dancing in the Dark is essentially an expedition into this unfamiliar territory with the goal of pinning down its political, cultural—and somewhat schizophrenic—climate.
Dickstein was at home in the Sixties: it’s all real and immediate to him; he knows it inside out. Now he’s mostly relying on research, and because he’s thorough, he’s been able to assemble and transmit an immense amount of information about a wide range of subjects, not only in his own fields, literature and film, but stretched (thinly at times) across music, art, dance, and design. Much of what he’s come up with will be fresh and instructive to readers who are only casually familiar with the period; much of it is fun to read even when you know the material well—who can resist yet another smart take on Cole Porter or Frank Capra? But by necessity his grasp is far more secure in some areas than in others—the trap for any such omnium-gatherum. Thin ice is always dangerous.
In this book, as in Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple (2002), his brilliant exegesis of the postwar novel, Dickstein is at his best when considering texts. He’s first and foremost a teacher: the sound of a professor’s voice is everywhere in evidence, occasionally, even, by direct personal reference, as when he says of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “When I’ve assigned it to undergraduates, the results have been disastrous.” Sometimes the tone is strictly academic:
From what we’ve said so far, it would seem that the language of social awareness in the 1930s is at least two different languages: a language of naturalism concerned with documenting social fact, and a language of modernism that plumbs the mind of the observer, translating complex states of consciousness into new narrative modes.
You have the sense here and elsewhere that his most reasoned arguments are reconstituted lectures or expanded lecture notes, his conclusions sharpened by years of teaching this material to avid (we hope) students.
The scholarly impulse, as apart from the pedagogic impulse, is at its most pronounced when he devotes five pages to scrutinizing the obscure Hungry Men, a 1935 proletarian road novel by Edward Anderson, of which he shrewdly remarks, “Out …