Popular Culture during the Depression
A Review of Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Morris Dickstein received his education at Columbia, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Cambridge, and Yale. He began teaching at Columbia and is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Theater and senior fellow of the Center for the Humanities at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
BY ANNIE LU
Widely misconceived as a period characterized solely by suffering and anxiety, the Great Depression actually fueled diversification of media and culture as a response to the economic downturn, according to Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. Popular culture in America during the Depression was “defined not only by hard times, and a coming world crisis but by many extraordinary attempts to cheer people up—or else to sober them up into facing what was happening.”1 Media captured the pervading tones of sadness and uncertainty, often thinly veiled by weak optimism, which dominated the Depression and still exists today as a reminder of the tumultuous era. As evident in popular works from the time—from novels like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, to Bing Cosby’s hit songs, to films like William Wyler’s Dodsworth—artists aimed to relate with the common man and to provide the masses with an escape from their plight. Dickstein shows that because of the turmoil and panic, popular culture evolved and reached members of all levels of society, from the unemployed to the wealthy.
Part One, “Discovering Poverty,” provides a generalized summary of the impact of the Depression on the American people. Authors, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers empathized with “the detritus of the American dream.”2 Many sympathetic writers were radicalized by the scenes of poverty which they witnessed while on the road; proletarian experiment novels resulted in radical awareness and increased focus on the lowest classes of society. City and rural life proved miserable for most Americans, and writers produced brazen, frank, and unsettling literature to accurately depict their plight. Writers willingly degraded themselves to research the lives of the dregs of society in an experiment in downward mobility. The Depression was the “impetus to those eager to document how life was actually lived in neglected, almost invisible corners of society.”3 Dickstein also shows how the Depression was portrayed by different groups of people, especially minorities. For example, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money reveals the grime and decadence of a slum occupied by Jewish immigrants; his characters are “sadistic, ungenerous, warped in their sexuality--pure products of poverty and ignorance.”4 Also, Henry Roth’s description of Yiddish culture in Call It Sleep uncovered the sexual terror and babble of languages found in tenement housing. Opening his work with a sweeping overview of popular culture during the Depression, Dickstein allows the reader to immerse himself or herself in the Depression experience and lifestyle.
In Part Two, “Success and Failure,” Dickstein exhibits the instability of the era. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Margaret Bourke-White captured timeless images of those stricken by the Depression bug. Large masses of people were photographed to show how immensely large and widespread the damage wreaked by the Depression truly was. With these images circulating increasingly in newspapers and popular publications, especially amongst middle class citizens, there existed a fear of falling from a certain status, a high standard of living achieved through hard work. Meanwhile, marriage rate, divorce rate, birthrate, and even frequency of sexual relations in the 1930s decreased as family life suffered from the lagging economy. Men, humiliated by their failure to provide for their families, increasingly lost their roles as breadwinners because they refused to apply for relief or go to bread lines and soup kitchens, a task then taken up by wives and mothers. Furthermore, during this time, the widespread effort to examine people’s real lives to show how they were coping with the unprecedented adverse conditions continued to grow. Simultaneously, escapist media also emerged as Depression audiences tried to find a way to avoid their suffering, turning “show business into a cultural metaphor, especially a metaphor for success.”5 Moviegoers longed to witness the making of a hero – “immigrants who become successful, anonymous chorus girls who become stars.”6 Jazz was another form of entertainment that allowed people to release their stresses, if only temporarily. With its raw energy, physical vitality, unguarded emotion, and erotic freedom, jazz represented the evolution of popular culture. Although swing was also a popular form of music at the time, Dickstein’s book does not go into the genre in depth, giving a more holistic portrayal of jazz music in general. Marked by the antithetical nature of success and failure, the Depression also left this mark on media from the time.
Part Three, “The Culture of Elegance,” describes the increasing democratization of luxuries for Americans, as well as the fervent push for increased mobility. Mass audiences wanted to identify with characters, so films “transposed people’s daily problems into a different key and made them seem more manageable.”7 When the Depression was at its worst, Hollywood provided audiences with exactly what they wished to see. Historical romances were most popular, transporting viewers into different eras when everyone was happy and the economy was stable. With the arrival of sound films, dialogue comedy became more common, uplifting the spirits of movie audiences. Screwball comedies, originating entirely in the 1930s, stemmed from the arrival of witty, sophisticated Broadway-trained writers who epitomized the shift towards anti-intellectualism. They avoided clichéd, stereotypical love scenes while still appealing to audiences with their energy, cynicism, and romance. Choreography also became important; movement suggested genuine freedom, a rare extravagance few were able to enjoy. Dance countermanded the Depression, uplifting the downtrodden; the fluidity of dance replaced the stiff hierarchial notions of class long upheld by society. Musical numbers were coordinated and embedded with dramatic tension in order mirror society’s struggle between realism and escapism. Additionally, jazz, unbound by tradition and convention, grew in popularity “as music, as dance, as sex, as uninhibited self-expression.”8 Its syncopated rhythms with a strong, primitive beat appealed to young composers. Bing Crosby’s songs spoke for the nation’s mood at the lowest point of the Depression from 1931 to 1932. Duke Ellington’s Dixieland jazz and Louis Armstrong’s innovative hits both helped to solidify jazz’s prominence in American music. Ultimately, as evidenced by the music and films of the time, the real dream of the expressive culture of the 1930s was not money and success, nor elegance and sophistication; most people dreamed only of “mobility, with its thrust toward the future.”9
Finally, in Part Four, “The Search for Community,” Dickstein discusses the repercussions of the Depression and the many ways in which people tried to once again connect with one another amidst a time of chaos. The motif of the brotherly handshake once again became common as Americans realized cooperation was key to overcoming the Depression. A rise in communism, evident in soaring membership in the American Communist Party, led to an upsurge of populism and cultural nationalism, with writers using culture as a “source of psychological energy and social insight” to instigate reform and to call for change.10 The prestige of the people once again became important to the masses after they suffered degradation and dehumanization during the economic downturn; they sought to regain the pride and dignity they had lost by standing in the breadlines and signing up for relief. The Popular Front created a progressive culture of songs and books, nurseries and summer camps, radio shows and newspapers, all intended to help reconnect Americans with the government and with each other. Folk culture once again became popular as people eagerly returned to the status quo, connecting more than ever with their communities and reexamining traditional ideals; meanwhile new populist arts became intertwined with modernism and social realism. However, the populism resurgence had very little connection with the historical origins of American populism, which peaked in the 1890s and centered primarily around agrarianism. With the election of Roosevelt and the beginnings of the New Deal in March 1933, a “new vein of optimism in public attitude toward the Depression” was opened.11 Dickstein concludes that because of the Depression, the American people were brought together and strengthened, priming them for the patriotism, sacrifice, and collective effort of World War II.
While most historians write about Depression tragedies, Dickstein aims to analyze the cultural aspects that defined one of America’s worst crises. The Depression, although a painful moment in American history, ultimately helped the masses as the focus was once again shifted to helping ordinary people. This paved the way for Roosevelt and his New Deal policies, which were designed to return America to its former prosperity and “parallel[ed] the cultural changes of the 1930s.”12 Pop culture aided this effort by raising awareness and documenting the everyday life of the common man as he struggled to cope with the failing economy. Dickstein takes a unique point of view in regards to the Depression. Instead of repeating the same dreary details that most Americans already know about the Depression, Dickstein addresses a curious question: how could such a terrible time lead to the rise of jazz music and artists like Woody Guthrie? By addressing this paradox, Dickstein reveals that there are many misconceptions about the Depression. The era was not black and white, a fact proved by popular culture of the time. As a response to the recession, “Depression escapism” became a major theme across the media spectrum, from film to books to music.13 Dickstein began writing Dancing in the Dark during the Reagan administration when the economy began to sag, and bitter memories of the Depression began to resurface. In light of the current economic recession, which impacts his historiography, he felt compelled to complete the book. This book warns modern society to avoid making the same mistakes made during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while also instilling a sense of hope that better times are yet to come.
Dancing in the Dark has been reviewed by numerous critics. One such critic, Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, suggests that “those who read [the book] will come away with a clearer understanding of an important but widely misunderstood period in the country’s cultural life.”14 However, Yardley also believes that Dickstein has a tendency to “overanalyze just about everything that crosses his desk.”15 Yardley’s viewpoint is certainly agreeable. The book delves past most people’s superficial understanding of the Depression. Focusing especially on novels from the period, particularly the works of Faulkner and Steinbeck, Dickstein gets a good sense of the lifestyle of an average American living during the Depression. Another review by Adam Begley of The New York Times states that Dickstein’s book provides a good description of the American response to tough economic conditions. Most importantly, Begley appreciates Dickstein for not “falling into the trap of seeing the ‘30s as a self-contained unit.”16 Dickstein recognizes that the Depression was not an isolated event but rather the result of the 1920s; he also acknowledges the fact that both the short term and the long-term effects of the Depression are impacting society still. Furthermore, Jonah Raskin of the San Francisco Chronicle comments, “Dickstein encompasses the full spectrum of creative energies in the 1930s, writing about Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, Duke Ellington.”17 With a wholesome and complete overview of all aspects of the culture of the time, readers get the entire picture. The era becomes more realistic, not just an event lost in time but an actual experience. This is vital to gaining an actual understanding of pop culture of the Great Depression because common misconceptions usually render readers already prejudiced against the cultural triumphs of the period.
Dickstein’s book is a thorough examination of cultural history during the Great Depression. Tackling a topic not commonly addressed by most historians, Dickstein provides a whole new viewpoint when it comes to the Depression. He begins his book by admitting that it is not possible to cover all aspects of popular culture during the Depression, simply because it is far too extensive. With the breadth and amount of information available, it would be possible to include more information but only at the risk of becoming overly tedious and dull. Dickstein’s organizational approach is effective because he spotlights one author, filmmaker, playwright, photographer, or musician, and he analyzes his or her place in popular culture so completely that there is very little left to be said. For example, his analysis of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is so thorough that one needn’t have any prior knowledge of the novel and still understand Dickstein’s ideas. Not only does he talk about the book, but he also analyzes the Hollywood film adaptation, noting that it is “unusually faithful” to the novel, providing a realistic and honest portrayal of Steinbeck’s intended story.18 Furthermore, Dickstein is adept at comparing and contrasting different works. He juxtaposes Richard Wright’s Native Sons and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, directing the most attention to the main characters of both novels and their differing responses to obstacles and challenges. Dickstein’s focus is primarily on literature, his forte, which sometimes forces him to neglect other aspects of society. Oftentimes, he chooses to analyze popular works from the Depression which have now become obscure and unread by most. However, Dickstein does a good job overall at covering such a difficult topic with stunning detail.
The Depression marked a watershed in American cultural history. Enabled by the development and growth of radio, film, and photography, authors, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers began to document the lives of the poorest Americans in an attempt to spread awareness and to exhort reform, resulting in the large amount of media portraying the time period, still a constant reminder today of a terrible time in American history. Prior to the Depression, bad news was mostly blacked out in lieu of happier reports; however, the documentary movement, radical journalism, and independent films made it easier and more acceptable to reveal the ugly aspects of American life. Regional culture and folklore became nationalized, and writers took advantage of the opportunity to experience cultures that were previously unbeknownst to a majority of Americans. With no visible end to the Depression in sight, “this optimistic view of mobility and America’s economic destiny was under siege as never before.”19 This seriously affected the psychology of the era and led to a reexamination of cultural myths, especially the concept of the American dream. The detailed depictions of life during the Depression paint the picture of a difficult time when unemployment and starvation ran rampant. Depression-era media serves today as a reminder of the terrible economic recession of the 1930s, a tragedy to be avoided at all costs.
The Great Depression was undeniably a grave time in American history. However, with careful analysis of all aspects of the Depression, it is clear that even with the suffering, Americans were able to overcome the recession. Aided in large part by popular culture, which provided an escape from reality, people could find a way to endure starvation and unemployment. Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark provides a complete snapshot of the everyday lives of typical Americans struggling to make ends meet during a tumultuous era. Ultimately, the United States was strengthened by the trials and tribulations of the Depression, and a new sense of solidarity was established.
1: Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 4.
Annie Lu is a junior at Irvine High School in Irvine, California. Her hobbies include writing and spending time with her sister, as well as listening to music and chatting with friends. She aspires to write a novel of her own in the near future.
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