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Nearly Anything Goes

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Everett Collection
Fred Astaire in Swing Time, 1936

“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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Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library
Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford, 1917; photographs from Jeffrey Vance’s Douglas Fairbanks

The Faulkner problem arises again when Dickstein turns to poetry. The era’s leading poet, Robert Frost, made his position clear in a famous letter to a younger poet: “I wouldn’t give a cent to see the world, the United States or even New York made better. I want them left just as they are for me to make poetical on paper.” (You can’t get less political than that!) Dickstein doesn’t fare much better with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, but he lucks out with his fourth poet, Langston Hughes, “certainly one of the best young poets who became radicals and firebrands in the early thirties.” That’s about as far as he can make his case in this area, and he backs off from poetry fairly quickly.

In the field of fine arts, Dickstein’s lack of interest is undisguised. Ben Shahn, for instance—to cite the most blatant example—goes unacknowledged except for three passing references to him as a photographer. The famous “Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” paintings and the Jersey Homesteads Mural go unmentioned, as does Shahn’s collaboration with Diego Rivera on the famously aborted Rockefeller Center mural.

When it comes to classical music, Dickstein is similarly narrow. There is Aaron Copland—and Aaron Copland. (With a perfunctory nod to Virgil Thomson.) He overrates Copland’s talent and overstates Copland’s status: “Beloved by audiences, echoed by the younger composers he helped nurture, [his key works] became an intrinsic part of the nation’s cultural life.” Again, Copland is “a permanent classic and a perpetual audience favorite.” Not that Copland is a negligible figure, but he’s nowhere near as crucial a figure as Dickstein believes. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, though, because Dickstein is less interested in Copland as a composer than as musical America’s leading exemplar of populism, as manifested in his scores for film and dance—although his most famous dance work, Appalachian Spring, doesn’t come along until 1944 and has nothing to do with either the Thirties or the Depression.

Populism, then, it becomes increasingly clear, is the key to Dickstein’s take on the Thirties. Populism is neither genteel nor ideological; it’s the real America. At one point he presents a list of admired figures: “Copland, [Thomas Hart] Benton, Steinbeck, Capra, John Ford, Walker Evans, James Agee, Marc Blitzstein, Woody Guthrie, and even Virgil Thomson” constitute a lineup of artists whose work is “refreshing.” (As it happens, he barely refers to Blitzstein elsewhere in his book, and his account of Benton is perfunctory.)

Woody Guthrie, on the other hand, is one of his great heroes, who became “such a figure in American legend that it’s hard to believe the person really existed.” This is the romantic reaction to Guthrie that inspired so many young people in the Sixties, and Guthrie’s grip on Dickstein also makes sense in light of his account of himself as coming from a politicized, union-centric immigrant family. As with Henry Roth and Steinbeck, his strong personal interest in Guthrie is very much a reflection of his background and his moment.

As for modern dance, one of the most complicated and suggestive cultural phenomena of the Thirties, Dickstein has no context whatsoever. His very few mentions of Martha Graham are pro forma; he knows that she’s considered a major figure but is only really aware of her as a minor appendage to Copland, rather than as a genius more important and influential than Copland himself, or for that matter than any of the Thirties novelists other than Faulkner, whom he takes seriously. But Graham, unlike Faulkner and Frost, was caught up in the political and populist ferment of the decade and should have been a central player in his narrative.

The title of the essential book on dance and politics during this period tells the story: Of, By, and For the People: Dancing on the Left in the 1930s, a collection of essays edited by Lynn Garafola.* As is true of so much else involving revolutionary politics, modern dance was a hotbed of sectarian conflict. To some (like Michael Gold, writing in the Daily Worker), Martha Graham was “revolutionary in name only.” Yet Ellen Graff, in her article “Dancing Red: Art and Politics?,” points out that “in 1934 dancers could march from the Workers Bookstore to the Martha Graham Studio in no time at all, a fact that made it possible to fight the spiritual wars of revolutionary politics and modern dance almost simultaneously.”

An essay by Barbara Stratyner tells us that “Communist Party pageants…were all-star extravaganzas, featuring the best-known and most innovative composers [like Marc Blitzstein], choreographers, and directors.” Stacey Prickett describes events like Edith Segal’s The Belt Goes Red, performed at Madison Square Garden in 1930, which “took as its theme the assembly line, the ultimate symbol of mechanized, alienating labor.” She also points to the role of unions, revitalized by the disastrous effects of the Depression, within the modern dance movement.

The omission of this rich history from Dickstein’s overview is not only unfortunate in itself but a symptom of how his range is narrower than it should be: this is material you can’t afford to ignore in a serious meditation on Depression realities and the culture.

One of the strong features of Dickstein’s approach is his sense of what might appear to be the bipolar nature of the Thirties—the apparent clash between the frightening social realities and the ritzy glamour of so much of the entertainment of the period. (The cover of his handsomely designed and illustrated book makes the point dramatically: on top, a row of leggy chorines; below, a row of grim, seedy, unemployed men.) The Okies, yes, but also Astaire and Rogers, screwball comedy, Deco. Movie audiences—severely shrunk in the early Thirties—wanted to be cheered up, distracted. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” yes, but also:

We’re in the money, we’re in the money,
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along.
We’re in the money, the sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.

Here, Dickstein’s stars are not only Astaire and Rogers, but also the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Busby Berkeley (to whom he gives a little too much credit when he states that he “single-handedly created the 1930s Hollywood musical”). It’s a pleasure to be exposed to his happy enthusiasm for these masters. (Informed enthusiasm is, in fact, Dickstein’s most appealing quality as a teacher and critic.) Yet again and again he reveals how shallowly immersed he is in Thirties popular (as opposed to populist) culture.

He barely acknowledges radio, the defining new medium of the decade—the essential mode of entertainment for Depression listeners because once they’d acquired their radio, it was free. There’s the usual nod to Amos ‘n’ Andy, a bare mention of The Goldbergs, and not much more, beyond the many obligatory references to FDR’s “fireside chats.” Yet radio was a tremendous democratizing and uniting force in this period, with a lot to be learned about the Depression even from its soap operas, just as the “shop-girl” romance novels and short stories of the period both reflect social realities and provide fantasies of escape from them. Joan Crawford’s ruthless up-from-poverty saga Possessed (1931) has just as much to tell us about the seamy side of Depression life as Dickstein’s preferred gangster and road films.

He’s obviously far more at home in the early Thirties urban film world, both gritty and deluxe, than in the more pastoral, kindly world of great stars like Janet Gaynor or Will Rogers, whose movies also respond, if in a different key, to the Depression-era need for escape and reassurance. In fact, the two most blatant omissions from his book are Walt Disney and Shirley Temple. (She at least is acknowledged—disparagingly; he, the most revolutionary film talent of his time, doesn’t rate a single mention.) If Dickstein had stopped to examine these two most popular film phenomena of the decade, it might have occurred to him that Shirley and Mickey (Mouse, that is) share a crucial trait—their indefatigable, cheerful pluck in the face of adversity. That’s what Depression-era Americans needed to be reassured of: their ability to bounce back from the harrowing circumstances of their lives. There’s no better example of the public’s unconscious wisdom in finding what it needs in the culture. But Disney and Temple are apparently beneath Dickstein’s notice; his eye is on the sophisticated or brutal, rather than the guileless escapist fantasies of the time.

He’s particularly impassioned about Cole Porter (five “great”s are sprinkled over the page about Porter’s Anything Goes), and writes discerningly about him:

Porter’s songs were exceptionally daring for the 1930s: sex gave them their pulsing vitality, an image of high society gave them their brightness and buoyancy, and a certain self-loathing grounded in sexual unhappiness gave them heft and shading.

These pages on Porter are among the most satisfying in his book. So what if Porter was a product of the Twenties, not the Thirties? Songs like “Let’s Do It,” “The Laziest Gal in Town,” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” were written well before Black Friday hit America.

The same is true of Astaire and Gershwin. They certainly helped assuage anxieties through the Thirties, but “Swanee,” Gershwin’s first big hit, goes back as far as 1919 and Rhapsody in Blue dates from 1924, while Astaire was an immense favorite on Broadway and in the West End throughout the Twenties. But why quibble? Dickstein loves and appreciates them—particularly the populist Porgy and Bess —although the literature on Astaire in particular is so formidable that Dickstein doesn’t have much original to say about him.

When it comes to jazz and popular singing, he’s ingested the obvious books and delivers adroit accounts of their history and their virtues. Benny Goodman, Bing, Ella, Louis, et al. are all on hand. Reading Dickstein on them, you may feel that he was learning on the job, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means he’s coming to them fresh. On the other hand, you can’t help feeling that while he’s mapped the surface of the subject, what lies beneath is terra incognita. He dips in and out of these matters smartly, but there’s no sense of his having fully absorbed them.

Unsurprisingly, then, Dickstein is at his best when a passion for his subject is fueled by a long history of studying and teaching it. His greatest strengths, apart from literature, lie in film, and his confidence in this field gives him an authority that’s lacking when he deals with other subjects. He’s obviously thought long and hard about Frank Capra, for instance, the most populist (and popular) of the top directors of the time, shrewdly concluding:

Capra’s populist simplicity showed up in the way he personalized social problems into Boy Scouts and bosses, heroes and villains. But the same approach enabled him to transform America into a vivid personal myth of archetypal simplicity, affecting humor, and elemental emotional power. Like Chaplin, like Dickens, Capra remained in touch with something raw and vulnerable in himself and his audience, a memory of humiliation, struggle, and inner resolution. The coming of the Depression gave it a more than personal meaning, and helped turn it into a not always comforting social vision.

This may sound high-flown, but it also makes good sense. You may not agree with everything Dickstein says about the movies, but you can tell that his views reflect close knowledge and long consideration.

The fact that in Dancing in the Dark Dickstein proceeds on such different levels of intimacy with its subjects gives it a curiously unstable quality: sometimes there’s too much, sometimes there’s too little, and the terms of his responses keep shifting. There’s also the problem of his lack of interest in both the more conservative aspects of the art of the period and the down-and-dirty of pop culture—the ubiquitous comic book, for instance. Can it be accidental, for example, that Superman comes along at the end of the decade to rescue us all from disaster? Or to put it another way, isn’t “Clark Kent,” at bottom, an action- figure embodiment of FDR?

Dickstein maintains that he’s under no obligation to be all-inclusive—that his announced theme, the explicit relationship between the Depression and Thirties culture—releases him from the obligation to approach the culture comprehensively. But so prodigious a trawl through a cultural era sets up the largest expectations, leaving the relatively knowledgeable reader discomforted by the absence of what’s been left out. That’s why, despite the book’s often original thinking and many felicities of expression, it’s hard to accept it as a whole. It just isn’t whole enough.

Dickstein’s fullest jus- tification for his approach comes at the beginning of his Gates of Eden : “Unlike those historians who try to catalogue everything, I’ve slighted cultural phenomena for which I felt little affinity, as well as others that were more conservative than innovative, and therefore tell us little about cultural change.” But Gates of Eden doesn’t promise more than it delivers. And it’s personal in a very different way from the new book. About his teacher Paul Goodman, for instance, he tells us:

I…was disappointed that I couldn’t get him more interested in some of the clever and brilliant things I was saying. My bright-young-man’s ego was bruised. I wasn’t used to it. Later when he published his journal Five Years to show the world that he was not a good man but one driven and debased by sexual hungers and humiliations, I was able to guess at what happened: I simply hadn’t turned him on.

(Bad luck, Morris.) Dancing in the Dark is a book about the Thirties. Gates of Eden is not only a book about the Sixties, it’s an expression of the Sixties.

It would seem that although Dickstein’s mind is today fully concentrated on the Thirties, his heart and soul still reverberate to the gods of his youth. A characteristic case in point: someone of his generation would naturally consider Woody Guthrie’s assertive “This Land Is Your Land” to be an alternative national anthem, whereas anyone really at home in the Thirties would realize that, for better or for worse, the true alternative was Irving Berlin’s consoling “God Bless America”—as sung by plump, cheery Kate Smith, in those years America’s best-loved singer, who goes unmentioned in Dancing in the Dark.

  1. *

    Society of Dance History Scholars, 1994.