The catastrophic burst of the housing bubble in the fall of 2008 shook the foundations of the world economy and instilled a fear of a new depression.  Morris Dickstein notes with irony that he completed his cultural history of the Great Depression just as the country was entering a steep recession with parallels to the 1930’s.  In his hefty Dancing in the Dark, Dickstein probes the cultural landscape of the Depression era.  He places heavy emphasis on fiction and film, but also devotes attention to photography, music, design, and architecture.  The Great Depression “kindled America’s social imagination, firing enormous interest in how ordinary people lived.”

At a time of steep economic downturn, it is no surprise that poverty should be a topic covered in a variety of media, and Dancing in the Dark notes the importance of photographers in documenting it.  Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Margaret Bourke-White created iconic images that have helped to illustrate the Depression for later generations, and Dickstein has reproduced many well-known photographs throughout his text.  Some of this work was done at the behest of the federal government; as Dickstein notes, because

government interventions in the nation’s economic life were controversial, the [Farm Security Administration] created the Photography Unit under Roy Stryker to build support for the New Deal policies by documenting the grim realities of the rural Depression.

Dickstein considers several novels of the era, giving special emphasis to Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money.  Gold was a communist and an editor at New Masses; later, he worked as a columnist at the Daily Worker, where Dickstein describes him as having been “one of the most reliable and vituperative of Stalinist hatchet men.”  The novel, published in 1930, is set in the Jewish ghetto of turn-of-the-century New York and implies the author’s conviction that “the whole rotten [social] structure needed to be torn down.”  Dickstein considers also John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which he characterizes as a road tale with didactic Popular Front elements.  “When Tom figures out that if the pickers refuse to pick peaches, they will rot, Steinbeck is crafting a simple lesson in collective action and the power of the people.”  For this, Steinbeck was attacked by “politicians, newspapers, and business interests.”

The Grapes of Wrath was brought to the big screen in a landmark 1940 film directed by John Ford that Dickstein credits with giving a “physical actuality and immediacy to the characters that Steinbeck himself could not fully provide.”  That criticism attests to the power of movies, especially after the rise of talking pictures, which coincided roughly with the collapse of 1920’s prosperity: Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, which pioneered sound, in 1927.  In October 1930, Film Daily noted that “silents have reached the antique stage and are now approaching the curio era.”  That same year was a high point for film attendance: 80 million Americans went to the movies every week.  Those numbers declined for a few years, but, at the low point of the Depression, tens of millions of Americans regularly dropped their nickels at the box office.  Dickstein claims that, although the movie studios “were under tremendous economic pressure, with some teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, . . . somehow movies became a significant part of how the American people adapted to the Depression.”  It is natural, therefore, that Dancing in the Dark should devote substantial attention to the films of the Depression era.

Ignoring Shirley Temple’s movies and Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, which sold millions of copies and inspired an epic film, Dickstein demonstrates a preference for the gangster films and backstage musicals of Warner Brothers, as well as the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that were released by RKO.  He seems especially enamored of the on-screen choreography of Busby Berkeley in four backstage musicals from the Warner studio released in 1933 and 1934, as the country was in transition from the Hoover to the Roosevelt administrations: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, and Dames all feature the singing and footwork of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in thinly plotted stories that culminate in the “outrageous surrealism” of Berkeley’s choreography.  Dickstein rejects the notion that such movies were no more than escapist fare.  While they contain comedy along with singing and dancing, they also feature stories of economic desperation: Unemployed showgirls dodge landlords, while desperate directors seek funding for their productions.  One especially poignant number from Gold Diggers, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” compares the army of the unemployed to the expeditionary force that went “over there,” to France in 1918.  The accompanying stage production features dozens of men (a departure from Berkeley’s more frequent use of scantily clad females) shown marching in uniform as doughboys, then returning in the other direction, bloodied and battered as if from combat; lastly, they are shown standing on a bread line.  Dickstein describes this scene as Berkeley’s “astounding attempt to choreograph the entire look and significance of the Depression.”  He further ties the scene to an event that would have been fresh in film viewers’ memories—the Bonus Expeditionary Force of former doughboys that had marched on Washington requesting an early release of a bonus scheduled to be paid out in 1945 to veterans of the Great War, and who had been violently dispersed by the military, less than a year before Gold Diggers of 1933 was released.

The United States is now supposed to be in a Great Recession that may yet prove as deep and long as the Great Depression, but the country doesn’t have the sort of common culture that it had in the 30’s, when movies were far more central to American popular culture than they are today.  Instead of scraping together your pennies to see Footlight Parade, today you might download an episode of Lost to your iPhone, watch a YouTube video mixing the gangsta rap of the late Notorious B.I.G. and the bubblegum pop of Miley Cyrus, or play Farmville on Facebook.  A future scholar studying the culture of the Great Recession, hampered by an inexhaustible mass of material to work with, is certain to find the task an unenviable one.


[Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein (New York: W.W. Norton) 598 pp., $29.95]