Morris Dickstein's "Dancing in the Dark" is not exactly the syncretic "Cultural History of the Great Depression" that its subtitle promises -- at best, the book treats inferentially the broad political and social trends of that desperate, crucial era. Let me quickly add, the book is something better than that: a collection of thoughtfully linked essays on relatively few but exemplary works and their creators -- novels, poems, plays, movies, art (both high and decorative) and music (both popular and classical) that defined the period between the Crash of 1929 and America's entrance into World War II. These admirably written pieces are marked by a generosity of spirit that never deteriorates into the quarrelsome or the niggardly, even when Dickstein does not fully endorse the objects he's discussing.
The author has been living with some of his material for three decades, and you get the impression he has never once grown tired of it, no small achievement when you consider that this period includes novels as tiresome as "Studs Lonigan" or (I would guess) Michael Gold's "Jews Without Money," a "feverish," naturalistic story about coming of age in New York's noisome Lower East Side that was widely acclaimed and widely read when it was published in 1930. Dickstein's thorough, sympathetic account of the novel credits it with a jagged, passionate style, apparently not entirely appreciated at the time. I don't know. I suspect I will never know, from firsthand experience, what I think of Gold's fiction: Life, as they say, is short. What I do know of him firsthand, from my own researches into 1930s criticism, is that he soon became, as Dickstein writes, "an apologist for party hacks and progressive 'enlightened' murderers," vituperatively excoriating contemporaries who strayed from the Stalinist line.
It makes you wonder. It makes Dickstein wonder, I'm sure -- what came over this modestly promising man? But Dickstein is no student of the psychology of artistic creation. His thoughts are confined to the written or imagistic record -- what they meant to us in their day, what they may still mean to us today. It is a good strategy if your aim (it is not a small one) is to convey what it was to read and see at a certain moment in history.
It's to Dickstein's credit that, while he is vividly readable on relatively obscure writers such as Gold, he's at his best with more popular figures like John Steinbeck and Frank Capra. In fact, it requires true critical daring to advance the causes of people long since dismissed as "middlebrows" by the cultural elite. He sees Steinbeck not so much as a "protest" writer -- he was no ideologue -- but more as a reporter, a horrified witness to the rape of the Edenic California of his birth. Steinbeck can write sympathetically of the Communists organizing migrant farmworkers, but his deepest concern is with people like the Joad family, struggling to survive amid overwhelming disasters with little more than goodwill and a touch of populist rhetoric to support them. This cost him the critics but permanently won him a readership that renews itself with each new generation. That is all right with Dickstein. And with me. "[W]ith his remarkably simple, concrete, and accessible style [he] remains virtually the introduction to literature for many young readers," he writes. His work refuses to date like that of his "more ambitious or grimly topical contemporaries."
Capra's case is more complicated, not least because he himself willfully misunderstood his own work, gleefully embracing the "Capracorn" label placed on it largely because he always tried to manipulate his films toward a happy ending. At best, his motto was "The People, Maybe" (which may be an improvement on Nathanael West's attitude, "The People, Ye Gods"; Dickstein writes movingly about West). By the time Capra made "Meet John Doe" in 1941, that broken, near-masterpiece, his fear of American populism, in which he clearly saw the potential for native fascism, powerfully nagged at him. And the darkness of his last masterpiece, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) -- somehow misunderstood as a cozy Christmas fable -- is at least half the time a genre unto itself: "Small Town Noir." It is greatly to Dickstein's credit that he reads Capra's films, not his reputation. I would add only that at his brief height he was, technically, the greatest American director, resting my case on the astonishing "Rally in the Rain" sequence in "Doe" (which I believe is the greatest piece of mass-action staging in American movie history).
You can quarrel with Dickstein, of course. I like Dos Passos' "U.S.A. Trilogy" and Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?" far less grudgingly than he does. The former may be schematic and typological in its characters, but it has an energy and a singular, half-mad desire to blend the literary modernism of the 1920s with the left-wing politics of the 1930s. "Sammy" may be, as Dickstein suggests, a sort of proletarian novel about men in polo coats, but it is also a timelessly accurate novel of Hollywood manners and morals -- including those of its sizable population of decent people.
But we must not bog down in details. Dickstein is terrific on all kinds of expression: the decade's cult of speed or the process of streamlining; the elegance of Art Deco and its employment of new materials (Bakelite anyone? Fred and Ginger?); the raucous raptures of Louis Armstrong and the insinuating ease of his good, jazz-singing buddy, Bing Crosby. Woody Guthrie was, yes, bound for glory but also bound for a craziness far deeper than most of us ever understood.
I like Dickstein's notion that Busby Berkeley's intense choreographic geometries owe as much to Leni Riefenstahl as they do to Broadway's paltry models. He gives us inverted success stories ("the gangster as tragic hero" and all that), Gershwin and Copland coming to populism by very different routes and F. Scott Fitzgerald wandering the progressive wilderness -- trying, and failing, to turn his boyish romanticism into a tragic vision. (Did ever any fiction get Hollywood as wrong as "The Last Tycoon"?) I even appreciate some of the things Dickstein essentially leaves out -- "Gone With the Wind," for example, and "The Wizard of Oz," those drippy fantasies treasured by those forever lost in Neverland.
Despite the author's resistance to Big Think, some quite interesting, surprising conclusions peep shyly out of these 600 pages. One is that, at least in high culture, a dialectic was working: between the once-dominant high culture of the 1920s (with its stress on experiments both verbal and visual) as it fought a rear-guard battle against artlessness for artlessness' sake -- or should we say, against a largely ill-expressed proletarian sentimentality? This was a struggle not won by the modernists until well into the postwar era, and then possibly for the wrong reasons. But there you are -- nothing is as deeply lost to non-specialist posterity as proletarian novels such as "Bottom Dogs," "Hungry Men" or, yes, "Jews Without Money." Oh, brothers, where art thou?
Ironically, as Dickstein makes clear, these sober, idealistic works were thrown in the face of a perversely chipper, middle-class public culture. Maybe one-third of the nation was wandering around looking like Dorothea Lange extras, but . . . wow, look at the Chrysler Building, shouldering the sky. Wow, look at the streamlined cladding of the Pennsylvania Limited whizzing past. Wow, listen to Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading zingers in "His Girl Friday." The thought occurs to me, reading Dickstein's marvelous and nonmoralizing book, that maybe this country has not been, for something close to a century, a serious country. Even in extremis we're always looking for a laugh, a song, an inspirational ending. We try -- we really do -- but, damn, that Jean Harlow sure was a cutie.
Schickel's new book, co-written with George Perry, is "Bette Davis: Larger Than Life."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun