Swing Time: On Morris Dickstein
You probably don't remember where you were when Lionel Trilling died. But I bet Morris Dickstein does. The death of America's most prominent literary critic on November 5, 1975, made the front page of the New York Times--with the story continuing for another 2,000 words after the jump. My friends and I--all Columbia undergraduates at the time--gathered around a bench in the middle of Broadway, not far from Trilling's office, debating the impact of this one man on American literature, an impact that seems unimaginable today. Yet as I read through Dancing in the Dark, Dickstein's elegant, evocative and passionate defense of the culture of the Great Depression, I found my thoughts turning again and again to the cool, genteel mandarin whose embrace of the complex ambiguities of literary Modernism, and disdain for the vulgarities of the Popular Front, did so much to shape our sense of the 1930s.
Those readers who, either by birth date or education, escaped the influence of Trilling's Olympian pronouncements may find it difficult to credit or even understand the chilling effect such denigration had on the taste of an entire generation. We still, after all, have literary critics, and some of them--Harold Bloom leaps to mind--are not exactly shrinking violets. But Bloom has always cast himself as the underdog in his many battles, a noisy Jewish outcast railing against the ruling pieties of polite literary society, rubbing our noses in the Oedipal rage of poet against predecessor or the messy sexual personas behind the biblical narrative. And though Bloom and Frank Kermode may be the only living critics with Trilling's range or learning, it is hard to see either of them commanding similar acreage from the press on his way out--or compelling such allegiance even among those of us who delight in their judgments. Nor do any of their younger colleagues seem to aspire to such authority: try to imagine what a "school of James Wood" might look like, and you'll see what I mean.
Dancing in the Dark is a book best read slowly, perhaps with a DVD player or YouTube close at hand, so that when Dickstein invokes Fred Astaire's "refusal to dance, and the very dance in which he acts this out" in Swing Time, you can see exactly what he means. Yet among its many delights, the pleasure of watching the author, a student of Trilling's in the late 1950s and a longtime contributor to Partisan Review, kick over his own traces is far from trivial. This is not Dickstein's first crack at filial rebellion. In Double Agent, from 1992, he complained that, owing to Trilling's prejudice, "seminal figures like [Theodore] Dreiser and Richard Wright were relegated to the shabby ghetto of propaganda." And in Gates of Eden, published in 1977, Dickstein offered a notably sympathetic account of the culture of the 1960s--a decade the Partisan Review crowd regarded with fear and loathing.
True, Dickstein's portrait of the '60s was slanted heavily toward literature (think Catch-22, not the Velvet Underground or Ed Roth), a view from the faculty lounge rather than the streets. As a critic he still seems more comfortable discussing William Faulkner or Richard Wright than Harlem rent parties, the Coit Tower or Snow White. But Dancing in the Dark doesn't merely offer a series of judgments, any one of which would have been anathema to Dickstein's teachers. By confronting our received--and often condescending--ideas about the 1930s head-on, Dickstein lays the ground for his own far more nuanced and affectionate take on Depression culture. In a way, though, his intellectual demolition work on the decade's detractors is at least as important as any new interpretation, because when it comes to the 1930s, most of us still have a great deal of unlearning to do.
Though we now find ourselves in the second year (counting from the collapse of Lehman Brothers) of the second Great Depression, every day the newspapers remind us that the political facts of the 1930s Depression remain hotly contested. No one denies that a terrifying number of American workers were unemployed in 1932 (12 million; approximately 25 percent of the workforce), or that industrial production and the stock market both fell by staggering amounts; and there is some agreement on what caused the contraction in the first place. But why the United States remained in depression longer than most of Western Europe, or which New Deal measures helped matters and which didn't, or whether the kind of economic collapse immortalized in Dorothea Lange's iconic photographs can ever happen again--on such questions there is endless disputation. And if your view of the political landscape of the 1930s is, like Trilling's, essentially a jaundiced one, the culture that flourished in that same contentious soil is hardly going to be attractive. Even Richard Rovere, in the 1930s an editor of New Masses and far to Trilling's left, looked back with distaste on the Depression decade as "cheap and metallic and strident." For Rovere, too, the contrast was between "mandarin or avant-garde" literature and a Popular Front culture, promoted by the Communist Party and its literary fellow travelers, that was "corny and vulgar and innocent of any subtlety."
But it wasn't only ex-Communist penitenti who saw little to applaud. In these very pages Jesse Lemisch derided the left's enduring fascination with folk music from the 1930s onward as inauthentic and symptomatic of a larger failure to engage with American reality (see "I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night," October 18, 1986). Though unfairly caricatured as an attack on the whole of Depression culture, Lemisch's dismissal of what he elsewhere called "old-time Popular Front agitprop" didn't offer much encouragement to anyone attempting to get beyond the received view of the decade as one long hootenanny, either.