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Nearly Anything Goes

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 of some fear of reading like a novel, Hungry Men doesn’t allow itself the indulgence of a plot, as if the mechanics of narrative closure would undermine the authenticity of its social observation.” His close study of proletarian fiction suggests a long and close familiarity with it, almost as if it had been the subject of a Ph.D. thesis. (His actual thesis was on Keats.) And his command of the material relaxes his tone.

There’s nothing overextended or overacademic when, for instance, he’s expounding on the historical importance (and literary collapse) of Michael Gold, author of the famous 1930 fictionalized autobiography Jews without Money, or when he’s providing a salutary reminder of the virtues of Erskine Caldwell, whose place in history has been tainted by association with the coarse dramatization of Tobacco Road and by the steamy covers of the very popular paperback editions of his novels back in the 1940s and 1950s. The comparison he draws between Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s documentary book about sharecroppers, You Have Seen Their Faces, is particularly instructive as he turns his gift for exegesis not only to the very different writing styles of Caldwell and Agee but to the very different photographic styles of Bourke-White and Evans.

Famous Men, as he refers to it, is one of Dickstein’s principal texts, and in his attempt to sort it out—and sort out his own reactions to it—he overenthuses, even while acknowledging the confusion in Agee between the documentary impulse and “autobiographical meditation” (or, as I tend to think of it, spiritual masturbation). Quoting an extended passage of what some might label “literary” and others “fancy” writing, he remarks, “Were I not so moved by it, I’d be tempted to dismiss this as self-indulgent prose-poetry, spirituality heightened into resonant vagueness, or as material for a psychoanalytic biography.” That rings true: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book that’s hard to take—unless you’re in love with it.

Another example both of Dickstein’s talent for probing complicated texts and of his inflating the value of what he sees as the signature works of the period is his fervent embrace of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. Dickstein was in his impressionable early twenties in 1964 when this tormented, powerful, flawed novel from 1934 was rediscovered, and it obviously resonates deeply—and personally—with him. If you’re searching for an important proletarian novel of the period, Call It Sleep is a feasible candidate, but is it “one of the great novels of the century”? (“Great” is a word that in his enthusiasm Dickstein devalues. If two of Zora Neale Hurston’s early stories are “great” and Porgy’s love duet is “great” and Let ‘Em Eat Cake is a “great” musical achievement, what words of praise are left for King Lear or The Marriage of Figaro ?)

Since his proclaimed subject is the effect of the Depression on the culture of the Thirties, Dickstein appropriately walks us through James T. Farrell’s coming-of-age novel Studs Lonigan, although I suspect he isn’t aware that for a generation older than his, Studs was more of a forbidden “dirty book” than a political statement. On the other hand, his determined attempt to squeeze Tender Is the Night into his canon is far from convincing. (And why is The Great Gatsby, that quintessential novel of the Twenties, brought back for a guest appearance in the Thirties? I guess Dickstein simply can’t resist it, and as he did with Agee, he shows himself here to be susceptible to florid writing, singling out as “gorgeous prose” a passage about Gatsby’s need to “suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.”)

What’s most telling is his choice of which writers to treat in depth. Appropriately, there are the mordantly provocative Nathanael West, the politically correct Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, the notable but ultimately disappointing Clifford Odets. Why, however, is John Dos Passos treated so cursorily? Isn’t U.S.A. one of the few genuinely major works of the decade? It’s at least as significant as any of the above—and more directly relevant to Dickstein’s avowed subject.

You have to feel sympathy for Dickstein when he has to address the one truly “great” novelist of the period. He’s too honest and too good a reader not to acknowledge that the decade’s “best writer” is Faulkner, but how to work this modernist-cum-Southern-Gothic anomaly into his thesis? He writes perceptively and persuasively about As I Lay Dying, but he can’t make a case for including Faulkner in his armory. “Faulkner’s career,” he acknowledges, “sits oddly in our study, since he was by no means a ‘Depression author.’” (And there goes the ball game.)

He has no need to apologize, however, for his focus on the novel that dominates his discussion of Depression literature— The Grapes of Wrath. As with Agee and Fitzgerald (but not Dos Passos and Hemingway), he takes Steinbeck personally, telling us of his formative encounters with the writer’s work when he was young and susceptible, and then of his nostalgia for him when “I lived in Northern California with my wife and kids in the summer of 1973, when we visited Monterey and Cannery Row.” And personally, rather than politically, is indeed the way to take Steinbeck, since despite In Dubious Battle, his bleak account of a Communist labor leader, Steinbeck was in no way an ideologue—his political position was essentially a middle-of-the-road liberalism.

And it was no ideology that led him to The Grapes of Wrath ; as Dickstein rightly remarks, Steinbeck “was anything but a rigorous or systematic thinker.” Rather, his burning sympathy for the victims of an outrageous and failed system was the direct result of his firsthand observations as a journalist. In this, he can be compared to Dickens, whose ardent political protests were also based on direct observation and personal sympathy, not theory. It’s not much of a stretch to see The Grapes of Wrath as a descendant of The Old Curiosity Shop, with the Joads’ desperate progress through the Dust Bowl as a parallel to Little Nell and her grandfather’s terrible pilgrimage through the dark Satanic mills of England’s industrial midlands. (Les Misérables is another passionate and personal, rather than ideological, outcry against the injustices of a deeply defective polity. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is yet another.)

I’m sure Dickstein would agree that Steinbeck, despite his real talent, didn’t possess the genius of Dickens or Hugo. He’s very aware of the pretentiousness of much of Steinbeck’s writing and the confusion of much of his thinking. Yet his own sympathies lead him to deal with Steinbeck’s flaws defensively, adopting an unattractive anti-elitist tone. Steinbeck’s novels are “scorned by highbrow critics” (what does he think he himself is?). And if Scott Fitzgerald was dismissive of Steinbeck, he “had his reasons: Steinbeck was the kind of socially committed writer who had displaced him in the 1930s and made his own work seem like a back number.” This is atypically ungenerous, and suggests the powerful tug of Dickstein’s reflexive preference for writing that is socially committed.

For all that Dancing in the Dark seems so inclusive in its reach, one of its problems is that it’s actually disturbingly exclusive. The fiction of the Thirties is far more various than Dickstein suggests, and much of what he omits bears on his subject, even if indirectly.

There is no mention, for instance, of Thornton Wilder’s chronicle of a modern Candide, Heaven’s My Destination, one of the ten top best-sellers of 1935. An earnest, good-natured, puritanical young man, a traveling textbook salesman in the Midwest—Joad country—undergoes a series of comic disillusionments, discovers some unpalatable realities about America and religion, and loses his spiritual certainties along with his rose-colored glasses. As a comment on the America of the Depression years it’s remarkable, but Wilder is too literary, too elitist, to qualify for Dickstein’s approbation. (Our Town, bizarrely, is mentioned only in passing.) And what does it tell us that in 1936, the year of the unprecedented success of Gone with the Wind, the number-two best-selling novel was George Santayana’s philosophical The Last Puritan, about as far as a novel can get from Jews without Money ? Wilder, Santayana, and other decorous writers have something to suggest about the period—so does The New Yorker, particularly in its cartoons—but they’re off the radar for someone born in the Forties and conclusively shaped by the Sixties.

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