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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Yet if Steinbeck “makes the migrants’ cause feel truly American,” Dickstein shows that many other Depression writers were less certain of their ability to embrace the common man. Provocatively, Dickstein reads The Grapes of Wrath alongside Miss Lonelyhearts, where West views the suffering of ordinary men and women through the ludicrously distorted lens of a popular advice column—the “cry for help from Desperate, Harold S., Catholic-mother, Broken-hearted, Broad Shoulders, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.” Dickstein shows how West’s hero, the eponymous columnist, ends up numbed by so much suffering, and is “catapulted into a realm of dementia beyond feeling.”

Another kind of paralysis afflicted James Agee, whose collaboration with the photographer Walker Evans yielded one of the iconic books of the Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Dickstein reminds us of the true strangeness of that book, in which Agee — a Harvard-educated journalist working for Fortune — struggles for hundreds of pages with his inability to really capture the plight of the southern sharecroppers he is writing about. “If I could do it,” Agee says, “I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.”

As Dickstein comments, this “apotheosis of the real, the material…is typical of the 1930s.” You can see it in many of the books he writes about, from Michael Gold’s Jews without Money, about New York Jews, to Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, about Florida blacks, to James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, about Chicago Irish. None of these novels is very well known today, but each was a pioneering attempt to bring the actual experience of America’s poor into literature.

Few of the highbrows’ attempts to speak for the people were actually popular, however. (Agee’s book, Dickstein notes, was “one of the spectacular publishing flops” of its season, and did not become well known until the 1960s.) What really drew “the forgotten man” — that much-talked-about icon of the Depression years — were not realistic treatments of his own plight, but movies and songs that offered a window onto another world. “What movies lacked in realism,” Dickstein writes, “they supplied in fantasy — escapist fantasies with fairy-tale endings as well as more darkly etched fables that enabled people to tap into their fears and work them through.”

For sheer escape, Hollywood offered lavish musicals and fast-talking comedies. Dickstein writes lovingly about films like The Gay Divorcee, in which Rogers and Astaire showed how “seemingly mismatched people can connect beautifully to form a little community of two, in which all awkwardness and inhibition are soon banished and all movement is unimaginably graceful, fluid, purposeful, and lovely.” Yet he also pays attention to the darker fantasies that animated gangster movies like Little Caesar, with Edward G. Robinson, or The Public Enemy, with James Cagney. Such movies allowed “the audience to identify with the flawed protagonist, not just with his success but with his style and audacity, his gift for bold gestures and self-dramatization.” That these antiheroes were doomed only made them more attractive because they were more plausible to Depression-era audiences.

Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English and Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center, is one of our best literary and cultural critics, in part because he writes with more personal passion and engagement than academics usually do. The many subjects he treats in Dancing in the Dark are tied together by his central argument about the power of the arts to unite and inspire in dark times, but Dickstein also relishes each book, song, and movie for its own sake, and his pleasure is infectious. As he says, the artists he writes about may have been “dancing in the dark, but the steps were magical.”

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