Let Us Eat Cake

by Adam Kirsch
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
By Morris Dickstein
W.W. Norton, 624 pages, $29.95
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In his poem “September 1, 1939,” W. H. Auden famously labeled the 1930s “a low, dishonest decade.” Symbolically, if not quite according to the calendar, the thirties began with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and ended with the opening shots of World War II in 1939; in between came the rise of Hitler in Germany, the purges of Stalin in the Soviet Union, the civil war in Spain. The United States did not face catastrophe on the same scale, but to those who lived through them, the American 1930s were awful enough. It was the era of the Dust Bowl, Okies, sit-down strikes, breadlines, the demagoguery of Father Coughlin and Huey Long — and always, behind everything, the demoralizing, incurable Depression.

Yet as Morris Dickstein ’61CC shows in Dancing in the Dark, his wide-ranging new survey of what he calls Depression Culture, the same decade that brought America so much suffering was also a golden age for the arts. If you were to make a list of the most lovable and glorious things ever produced in this country, a surprising number of them would date to the thirties. There are the later songs of the Gershwins and Cole Porter; the dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and gangster pictures like Scarface; the art music of Aaron Copland, the folk music of Woody Guthrie, and the jazz of Louis Armstrong; the moralizing novels of John Steinbeck and the corrosive satires of Nathanael West; and the art deco designs that made everything from skyscrapers to radios look like bullets speeding into the future.

Dickstein discusses all these things, and many more, in order to show how the Depression “kindled America’s social imagination, firing enormous interest in how ordinary people lived, how they suffered, interacted, took pleasure in one another, and endured.” That social interest, Dickstein argues, is what unites all the different aspects of thirties culture, from the proletarian novel to the Hollywood movie. Before the Depression, and after it, America was the land of the individual; its favorite myths all had to do with the unaided self, whether in the form of Emerson’s self-reliance or of Horatio Alger’s self-made millionaires. With the seeming collapse of the free market, however, Americans were forced, sometimes against their will, to consider the virtues of solidarity. As Dickstein puts it, “the arts bound people together in a collaborative effort to interpret and alleviate their plight.”

Politically, of course, this new spirit took the form of the New Deal. But as Dickstein shows, it was no less important in shaping American culture. Sometimes the connection between the two realms is clear, as in Steinbeck’s heavy-handed protest novel The Grapes of Wrath. “The hero of the book,” Dickstein points out, “is not a family but more of an abstraction, the people.” As Ma Joad puts it, “us people will go on livin’ when all them people” — the exploiters, the capitalists, the landlords — “is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out.” The book’s famous last scene, where a mother whose baby has died breastfeeds a starving stranger, is Steinbeck’s searing emblem of the need for cooperation to overcome a disaster too great for any one man to cope with.

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