American Culture of the Great Depression

Charlotte Hays | Posted on 03/01/10

Bourke-White went in for special lighting effects that made the American poor look like Russian peasants, while Caldwell put words in their mouths.

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein, W. W. Norton & Company, $29.95

When it comes to the movies and musicals of the Great Depression, so ably described by Morris Dickstein in a magisterial new book that explores those dark times from a cultural perspective, the theme might be: bad times, good movies. Despite the Depression's privations, Dickstein notes that the period "also left us with the most buoyant, most effervescent popular culture of the twentieth century." The title of the book comes from a song composed for a 1931 musical revue, the last show to feature Adele Astaire, though her brother, Fred, danced on into history with a new partner, Ginger Rogers. Fred and Ginger may have been dancing in the dark era of "those calamitous years," as Dickstein calls them, but oh, how they danced!

Dickstein beautifully captures the (irrational?) exuberance of Hollywood and the other performing arts. There is a marvelous discussion of Cole Porter, who epitomized the "brittle chic" of high society, and who was "paradoxically" something of "a classic figure of the Depression Decade" because in "an age of adversity, he thumbs his nose at it."

Though Dickstein deals with such important figures of the era as Porter and the later F. Scott Fitzgerald, two artists who could hardly have been said to have the common touch, most of the book is devoted to two aspects of Depression culture: the left-thinking intellectuals and the closely allied discovery, as if it were almost a foreign country, of poverty by writers and intellectuals such as James Agee, John Steinbeck, and Erskine Caldwell. Dickstein even manages to shoehorn William Faulkner, troubadour of the South's fallen aristocracy, into the theme of knowing the poor. He achieves this odd feat by focusing almost exclusively on one short story, "As I Lay Dying," in which Addie Bundren, a poor country woman, listens to her sons hammering the coffin in which her body will be taken home for burial. (In a similar vein, the segment on Robert Frost deals mostly with Frost's poem about two tramps, which is certainly easier to fit into Dickstein's themes than most of his other works.)

The Depression was, of course, a time of great intellectual ferment on the left, and Dickstein is sympathetic to the Popular Front, the coalition formed as the result of a desire of Communists in America and Europe to ally themselves with less radical elements. The critic John Gross, reviewing Dickstein's book for the Times Literary Supplement, points out the author's "tendency to soften the edges of the political commitments and convictions" - at one point, Dickstein makes the Popular Front look like merely a progressive group that wanted to preserve folklore traditions. Dickstein admitted in the book [PDC1] that "when I finally looked into some of the ideological debates of the thirties, whose radical intensity I had admired from afar, I was horrified by the brutality of many sectarian polemics."

"But can he really have been as naive as this makes him sound?" Gross asks. "It doesn't take long, even from afar, to appreciate the bitterness of the political warfare - above all as it involved attitudes to Communism - which raged among American writers at the time." Gross says that Dickstein prefers to celebrate "a vague radicalism, without asking too many awkward questions about what his writers' beliefs entailed in practice."

Dickstein profiles Michael Gold, the Communist editor of the journal The New Masses and author of Jews Without Money, a grim portrayal of life in New York's tenements.  Gold's stark language had authority: "I was born in a tenement...The sky above the airshafts was all my sky, and the voices of the tenement neighbors in the airshaft were all the voices of my world." I do wish that Dickstein had mentioned Gold's deep friendship with another early member of New York's cultural left, Dorothy Day, whose departure from that world and conversion to Catholicism Gold respected. Day, certainly an important person in the culture of the day, and one far better remembered today than Michael Gold, doesn't make it into the book.

While Dickstein's portrait of the world in which Gold and like-minded thinkers lived is compelling - if, as Gross argues, not entirely satisfactory - what is most interesting is what could be called the discovery of poverty theme. It is important, too, because a lot of our current attitudes toward the poor developed largely in this period. In this genre, writer James Agee's and photographer Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a study of Southern sharecroppers in words and images, is perhaps the best remembered artifact. "Of all the attitudes that writers and artists struck toward the poor during the Depression, Agee's was unique in his numinous sense of awe, his feeling of religious reverence," Dickstein writes.

Significantly, the section on Agee is headlined "Looking for Salvation." The poor are to help him find it. Dickstein describes him as "a Christian gentleman from Tennessee by way of Exeter and Harvard who felt impelled to do penance for his mildly privileged background." I am a huge fan of Agee's autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, which became a wonderful movie titled All the Way Home, and I also greatly admire his letters to Father Flye, the Episcopal priest his mother married after his father died (the subject of the novel). In my high school years, I clutched Let Us Now Praise to my bosom. But in my seer old age, this sentiment, prompted by Agee's reflections on the lack of education of the sharecroppers, seems...jejune: "I could not wish of any one of them that they should have had the ‘advantages' I have had: a Harvard education is by no means an unqualified advantage." I'm willing to bet that sharecroppers didn't regard Agee's advantages as "advantages." You have to have an incredible sense of privilege to put those quotes in there.

Like Agee and Evans, Erskine Caldwell and the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who later became husband and wife, also visited that (to them) foreign country inhabited by the poor. You Have Seen Their Faces was the result. Bourke-White went in for special lighting effects that made the American poor look like Russian peasants, while Caldwell put words in their mouths: "It ain't hardly worth the trouble to go on living," he has one saying. Caldwell, of course, is best remembered, to the extent that he is remembered, for his novel Tobacco Road, which paints the poor as being so deprived of material goods that they are in turn devoid of all human qualities, except for lust. I can't resist quoting, as Dickstein recalls, the reaction of the Lester family in Tobacco Road, when the grandmother is run over by daughter-in-law Bessie's car: "‘Is she dead yet?' Ada asked, looking at Jeeter. ‘She don't make no sound and she don't move. I don't reckon she could stay alive with her face all mashed like that.'"

There are two culturally resonant points these figures, intentionally or not, made with their "discovery" of the poor: that they are very different from the rest of us, and that they are destined to remain poor, unless their consciousness is raised and they become activists. I believe that many programs designed for the poor are based on these two ideas, that both began to flourish in this era of the discovery of the poor, and that neither is true. The poor are always with us, but they are not always the same people. People escape poverty, and, although the Appalachian poor or inner-city poor may appear to be very different from middle-class society, they respond to incentives and disincentives the way we all do. But we have many programs that treat them as if they lived in a foreign country. The cultural politics described by Dickstein thus affect conventional policy in ways that are not often fully appreciated.

Whether sentimentalized, as by Agee, or used as propaganda, by Bourke-White and Caldwell, or seen as so wildly different from us as to live on another planet, as Caldwell alone does, the poor are seen as the Other. If you view them this way, as monsters who can't be expected to uphold normal morality or as victims to be sentimentalized, you're going to want to take care of them - from a distance. You might also regard a year in, say, a poverty program as a way to work out your own salvation. Dickstein, without intending the message I derive, was excellent at showing how culture under girds policy.

Dickstein has an encyclopedic knowledge of the culture of the Depression, and he is an engaging writer. But he takes away some wrong lessons. He frowns on "success literature" because it relies not on the communitarian but on the determination of the individual, and he duns Ronald Reagan for ushering in a new age of greed. He quotes a former president of Williams College saying, "You cannot dream yourself into a character, you must forge one yourself," only to imply that this quaint sentiment, expressed in the 1870s, was rendered inoperative by the Great Depression.

Dickstein regards the notion of the American Dream as one of the "dominant myths'" of pre-Depression America, and it must have seemed a cruel one at that for families undergoing the hardships of the time.  But America emerged from the Depression, and I daresay that descendants of the poor of that era have gone on to raise their statuses, forging character out of hardship, and perhaps even enjoying the Harvard education about which the tortured James Agee was so dismissive. Let's hope they regarded it as a leg up in American society, a true advantage not to be belittled with ironic quotes.

Dickstein has given us a valuable and remarkably extensive survey of Depression culture, from movies to The Masses. It is well worth a read. But in his portrait of the mindset of the cultural and artistic elite, Dickstein's own sympathies prevent him from seeing the flaws in their viewpoint, including most notably seeing the poor as in some sense lacking in the personal agency necessary for betterment. It's too bad, because this is an idea that still weighs heavily upon us today. But for a romp through the performing arts, Dickstein makes an excellent guide.

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