'Dancing in the Dark' mixes the Depression's grit, gloss

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DANCING IN THE DARK: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein. W.W. Norton & Co., 598 pp., $29.95.

Morris Dickstein achieves something so remarkable with "Dancing in the Dark" that it hovers close to the miraculous: He almost makes you wish you'd been living in America during the 1930s.

This sentiment is, you'll note, qualified with an "almost." The Great Depression, which hung over the nation like a gray shroud from the 1929 stock market crash to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, was of such widespread and traumatic proportions that not even the intervening years of relative prosperity can neutralize its power to haunt the national memory.

That distressing specter, as Dickstein notes at the beginning of his "cultural history," looms larger than ever these days. Some Americans, after all, have labeled this country's recent economic travails "Depression 2.0" - sufficient evidence of the psychic scars from the much-worse (so far) conditions of nearly eight decades past. So it feels especially soothing to come across a book like "Dancing in the Dark" that, despite the shadows implicit in its title, both identifies and exalts artistic radiance amid hunger marches, bread lines, dust bowls, labor uprisings and shattered lives.

Dickstein, who teaches literature and theater at the CUNY Graduate Center, has shown in such previous work as "Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties" and "Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970" that he's a veritable magpie of an era's contradictions and connections. The 1930s, as Dickstein concedes early on, present a daunting challenge, even to someone with his avid eye for syntheses and dialectics. "How," he asks, "can one era have produced both Woody Guthrie and Rudy Vallee, both the Rockettes high-stepping at Radio City Music Hall and the Okies on their desperate trek toward the pastures of plenty in California?"

Dickstein's pursuit of answers to this query takes in territory as vast as the vision of America captured in Guthrie's most famous anthem, "This Land Is Your Land." It is a view expansive enough to encompass George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" and Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane"; John Steinbeck's compassionate tales of California's transient poor and Nathaniel West's gimlet-eyed autopsies of pop culture's waking nightmares; Langston Hughes' ingenious, blues-inflected poems of Harlem's hopes and fears and Wallace Stevens' lush, complex rhapsodies of the imagination's seemingly ineffable landscapes; the stark realism of Walker Evans' photographs of Alabama tenant farmers and the swooping elegance of Art Deco architecture and its aural counterpart, swing music.

Such dualities abound in "Dancing in the Dark," whose principal subject is an era rich in grit and gloss, in optimism and despair, in abrasive social documentary and buoyant screwball comedy. Writes Dickstein: "A culture's forms of escape, if they can be called escape, are as significant and revealing as its social criticism."

So he gives you as many examples of gloss and grit as his book can contain, striding with assurance over well-traveled ground (the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, F. Scott Fitzgerald's melancholy last act in Hollywood) while finding fresh angles on such myriad topics as "Amos and Andy," Aaron Copland, James T. Farrell, Bing Crosby, Frank Capra's "populist" movies, the Group Theater and its "Golden Boy" playwright Clifford Odets, whose poignant destiny was forged by warring impulses "to change the world, but also to find a place for himself in it." Dickstein also is attentive to such relatively unsung writers as Edward Anderson ("Hungry Men"), Henry Roth ("Call It Sleep") and Tess Slesinger ("The Unpossessed"), illuminating each to the point of making you want to read them all yourself.

He puts on such a great pageant that you feel like an ingrate wishing he'd done more with, say, W.C. Fields (whose classic 1934 comedy, "It's a Gift," is as emblematic of thwarted aspiration during the Depression as any Group Theater play) or John Dos Passos (who, though acknowledged as an inspiration to Norman Mailer and Jean-Paul Sartre, gets a kind of backhanded dismissal here).

Nevertheless, there are so many vivid personalities, so many layers of rumination and revelation coursing through "Dancing in the Dark" that it almost reads like the kind of all-embracing narrative an ambitious 20th century writer might have offered as a candidate for the Great American Novel.

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