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Michael Kazin on Dorothea Lange and the Great Depression
Posted on Oct 16, 2009
Morris Dickstein devotes large chunks of his rambling survey of 1930s culture, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” to the same wave of social realism to which Lange belonged. But the distinguished critic gives barely a mention to documentary photography. His attention is fixed primarily on the “proletarian” novelists and playwrights whose ideologically driven creations were controversial in their own time and whose artistic merits untold numbers of English professors have been debating ever since.
Dickstein discovers nuggets of literary imagination shining in the dustbin of radical dogma. He argues that Mike Gold’s 1931 autobiographical novel, “Jews Without Money,” had much in common with Allen Ginsberg’s “impassioned, surreal language” in such 1950s classics as “Howl” and “America.” Ginsberg, the ecstatic gay Buddhist, was like Gold, who became the hanging judge of Stalinist letters, “a Jewish visionary touched by messianic hopes, a reader of Whitman and Blake mesmerized by the American junkyard and its outcast inhabitants.”
In another unconventional move, Dickstein rescues Erskine Caldwell’s novels about white sharecroppers—the most famous being “Tobacco Road”—from the enormous condescension of critics who accused the writer of exaggerating the incestuous, amoral behavior of his characters. Despite bad reviews, Caldwell’s novels were best-sellers in the 1930s; an adaptation of “Tobacco Road” played for over seven years on Broadway. Americans, contends Dickstein, were getting more than they realized from the author, who was then close to the Communist Party. While most of Caldwell’s readers thought they were merely enjoying a “wild, grotesque, lubricious comedy,” they were also learning about the harshness of rural life that the Depression had only exacerbated. Caldwell “turns cruelty and inhumanity from a joke into a bitter joke indeed.” Dickstein makes equally telling points about Richard Wright and Nathanael West (the pen name of Nathan Weinstein), writers who also emerged from the Communist milieu to produce works that unflinchingly explored some of the more gruesome aspects of American society.
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
By Morris Dickstein
W.W. Norton & Co., 624 pages
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits
By Linda Gordon
W.W. Norton & Co., 560 pages
Then, rather abruptly, Dickstein turns to Hollywood. He dwells on predictable figures and their movies—Busby Berkeley’s hyper-disciplined choreography, Astaire and Rogers as dancing sweethearts, Grant and Hepburn as rich folks with nothing to do but crack jokes and look marvelous. To his credit, Dickstein understands how the “lightheartedness and frivolity” of this popular fare, often labeled “escapist,” obscured an ironic subtext. The routine “We’re in the Money,” from Berkeley’s “Gold Diggers of 1933,” included showgirls losing their jobs and a sheriff closing down a bankrupt show. “Escapist illusions,” observes Dickstein, “are what this number is about—pretending you’re in the money when there isn’t any.”
Unfortunately, the thematic imagination of “Dancing in the Dark” goes no deeper than that. It is a pleasure to follow Dickstein as he displays his vast knowledge of the fiction and film of the Depression years. His book is studded with little insights, conveyed in fluid prose unmarred by the “theoretical” jargon that too many scholars of literature confuse with original ideas. But Dickstein offers no overarching way to understand how the two kinds of 1930s culture—hard-luck realism and jazzy romantic comedies—worked together. Only rarely does he seem interested in what the consumers of all these products may have been thinking as they read or watched them. In place of larger meanings, Dickstein often descends to banalities, such as stating that the energy of screwball comedies and dance films “made those difficult years more palatable, and left us with many works that testify to the unquenchably vital spirit of those who lived through them.”
After reading Gordon and Dickstein’s books, it is hard to avoid a pang of nostalgia. Both authors eloquently remind us that thousands of American artists in the 1930s were able to express a spirited left populism without sacrificing the dignity and autonomy of their craft. Much of their work endures because of its artistic brilliance, not merely because they empathized so strongly with people who fully merited that sentiment.
But where are today’s Richard Wrights and Dorothea Langes? The left does have powerful cynics like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, who flail the system with the bitterness of a Mike Gold but have no credible alternatives to offer. And it has Michael Moore, whose talent for radical satire loses force with each repetition.
But one seeks in vain for artists—whether they work in print or pixels—who effectively convey the ideals of social equality and democracy that are essential to reviving any mass movement on the left that would be worthy of the name. One of the best things in Dickstein’s book is his appreciation of the films Frank Capra made in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which too many liberals and radicals now dismiss as sentimental fables. The critic is particularly fond of “Meet John Doe,” the dark allegory of an attempted fascist takeover of the United States, made in 1941. “Without abandoning his belief in the common people,” writes Dickstein, “Capra … not only satirizes them (and himself) but shows how fickle and vulnerable they can be, how easily an unprincipled plutocrat with dictatorial ambitions can manipulate them.”
Yet the film, written by the passionate New Dealer Robert Riskin, concludes with one of the purest expressions of populist defiance ever seen on screen. “Ordinary Americans”—members of the John Doe Clubs who have wised up to the plutocrat’s scheme—convince their hero, played by Gary Cooper, not to commit suicide. Then, their unofficial spokesman, a hard-bitten newspaper reporter, turns to the would-be Mussolini—a wealthy newspaper publisher named D.B. Norton—and declares: “There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!” It is not an easy task to balance the gullibility of “the people” with their capacity to help themselves. But in the grip of our own economic debacle, it remains a very good idea.
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