There was more to the 1930s than Dorothea Lange and John Steinbeck. NEH-funded scholar and critic Morris Dickstein talks with Humanities about hidden gems and rival clichés of the decade. His newest book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, will be released by W. W. Norton & Company in September.
HUMANITIES: Where does the title of your book come from?
MORRIS DICKSTEIN: “Dancing in the Dark” is the title of a wonderful song by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz from a revue called The Band Wagon in 1931. It’s a song I’d known for years without paying much attention. But listening to Bing Crosby’s version of it, I realized how much deeper it was than I had thought. The couple in the song is dancing, clinging to each other, making beautiful music together, and yet they’re surrounded by this void, this emptiness, this threatening darkness. I realized that this is what my book was about.
Within probably the worst economic and social period in American history, a culture was created that was buoyant and lively, that was exciting, about love and sticking together, even about the sheer joy of movement. The song embodied this paradox of Depression culture.
HUMANITIES: So it’s not a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song?
DICKSTEIN: Not at all.
HUMANITIES: There’s a rough divide in the culture of the 1930s. There’s the familiar social realism of WPA imagery and Dorothea Lange photographs and John Steinbeck novels. Then there’s the Marx Brothers and witty, knowing comedies such as My Man Godfrey. Is one side the myth and the other the reality?
DICKSTEIN: There are two rival clichés about the culture of the period. From one angle it’s earnest, socially critical, full of conscience, and its centerpiece was the documentary movement. The critics who gravitate to that perspective are scholars on the left. On the other hand, look at Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which projects the other cliché, that the culture was all escapist and fluffy: people went to the movies to forget their problems. But I discovered that those two sides of the culture were not that different. There was plenty of melodrama, plenty of escapism, even on the socially critical side. The film critic A. O. Scott said even when you see The Grapes of Wrath, you’re escaping because you’re in somebody else’s story. Moreover, you were doing it communally, in a movie theater with other people.
And the fluffy, fizzy side, I noticed, was rife with Depression themes. Take the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, Busby Berkeley musicals or screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey, and you find references to the Depression in every other line. One studio, Warner Bros., decided that one way to ward off bankruptcy was to make topical movies “ripped from the headlines.” Meanwhile most media ignored the Depression for its first three or four years.
Warner Bros. used the same quick pace that they had brought to gangster and other films at the beginning of the thirties. They turned that style to musicals and comedies and also to social-consciousness dramas like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or Wild Boys of the Road—movies that dealt very directly with the Depression.
There was a split in Depression culture, but the lines are blurry. The culture was really much more unified than I had first realized. The social crisis went that deep.
HUMANITIES: Who is the Forgotten Man?
DICKSTEIN: The Forgotten Man was first mentioned by Roosevelt in a campaign speech in 1932. It became a popular trope. The most striking use was in reference to the veterans of World War I, men who had served their country but were now neglected, even destitute, such as the Bonus Marchers who had camped out in Washington, D.C., only to be routed by General MacArthur’s troops. This is the subject of the great musical number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” that concludes Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s a marching song and you see soldiers in an oval pattern on the stage, marching with their guns, defending this country; then you hear torch songs sung by the women who are separated from the men, keening, “Remember my forgotten man.”
The Forgotten Man is also the theme of probably the most famous song of the time, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The guy, just an ordinary Joe, sings that I built your cities and fought in your armies, so “Brother, can you spare a dime?” It means, ‘Remember me.’ The major theme of this social side of Depression culture was simply: ‘Look at me, I’m here, I’m not invisible.’
One of the most widely read text-and-picture books of the era is called You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. The implication of that title is, ‘Now that you have seen their faces, you can’t say that they don’t exist.’ That’s the burden of the whole documentary movement. There’s probably no decade in American culture where documentary work and journalism are as important to both the arts and the nation’s social conscience, its critical understanding of itself.
HUMANITIES: You said in passing that the media ignored the Depression for its first few years. How so?
DICKSTEIN: It was in that terrible winter of 1932–1933 that the whole banking system collapsed and unemployment hit 25 percent. Suddenly, the media began to awaken to the depth of the condition. There was a rather famous article late in 1932 in Fortune called “No One Has Starved” that recognized the Depression and tried to downplay it at the same time.
As soon as Roosevelt came in, in March of ’33, he emphasized the dire conditions of the Depression to create a sense of urgency. He wanted to heighten the political pressure to pass rather dramatic programs. At the same time, he needed to reassure people that something would be done, that there was someone in charge who cared.
HUMANITIES: Let’s talk about some of the writers of the thirties. You stand up for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second decade as a writer, while few readers venture past The Great Gatsby. What did he produce in the thirties and what was special about it?
DICKSTEIN: Everyone thought he was a back number, a figure from the boom decade, but he wrote a series of failure stories that took the measure of the times. This produced some of his greatest writing: one of his best stories, “Babylon Revisited”; his longest, most ambitious novel, Tender Is the Night; the “Crack-Up” essays, which shocked people at the time but influenced a whole later vein of confessional writing; and even minor work like the Pat Hobby stories. In some ways, it was only in the thirties that he really came into his own.
HUMANITIES: You note in your book that William Faulkner had a great decade in the thirties. As I Lay Dying seems like a pretty depressing story. Why isn’t it a Great Depression novel?
DICKSTEIN: It’s certainly much easier to call Faulkner a Southern writer, or even a universal writer, than to call him a Depression writer. I wrote about As I Lay Dying because I saw a rather striking analogy and contrast between that and perhaps the most famous novel of the Depression, The Grapes of Wrath.
They’re both sagas about a family journey. And together they highlight the differences between certain kinds of naturalist writers, like Steinbeck, who had already written journalistic pieces on the migration of the Oakies and the terrible conditions of migrant workers.
Faulkner, on the other hand, did a very bizarre piece of black humor around the journey of the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying. These, too, were poor people, but their condition spilled over into tall tales and comedy. This contrast gave me a way of showing how differently the poor could be portrayed in the same period.
HUMANITIES: Another great writer you talk about in the book is Nathanael West. When was West first rediscovered?
DICKSTEIN: His four novels were republished in a single volume in 1957, but his fame really dates from the sixties, because black humor was such a key element to the culture of the sixties.
West did not have much commercial success in the thirties, though there were very shrewd critics and writers, like William Carlos Williams and Edmund Wilson, who were great admirers. But he hardly sold any copies at all in the thirties, which is why he went to Hollywood to make his living there.
HUMANITIES: How did West fit into the rough categories that we’re talking about—the earnest and the ironic?
DICKSTEIN: While it’s tempting to see him as a sixties writer, doing a sixties kind of black humor, the truth is that most of his work is a satiric take on the same material the less ironic writers of the thirties are grappling with: social misery. In Miss Lonelyhearts, you have real suffering, but it’s not the result of the Depression; it’s a desperate misery that is highly individual, brilliantly exaggerated into pathos and absurdity. Miss Lonelyhearts, the male central character who has no other name except Miss Lonelyhearts, is an advice columnist who gradually becomes more and more depressed and upset by the letters he’s getting from all these miserable people. His cynical mask crumbles. His sense of futility puts him into a tailspin.
The novel after that, A Cool Million, is a wild, over-the-top takeoff of a Horatio Alger novel, as well as a political novel about the roots of fascism. For obvious reasons, Horatio Alger motifs of success and failure were very central to the Depression. Similarly, in West’s last novel, The Day of the Locust, he used Hollywood and show business as an important metaphor for the fate of individuals during the Depression. Riffing on a world dominated by lucky chances, grim failures, and cheesy dreams, West did a sardonic take on Hollywood culture as seen from the point of view of the back lot and the bit players. It was a novel that encouraged F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was also moored in Hollywood at the time.
HUMANITIES: Are there other examples of literary or film treatment in which poor or ordinary people were portrayed not with a solemn or sanctifying air, but with a tough, black comic air and the suggestion that not everyone’s a victim of forces beyond their control?
DICKSTEIN: Probably the most extreme example—very much like West—is the now largely forgotten work of Erskine Caldwell in Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre. These people, living in subhuman conditions, are the poorest of the poor, but at times you feel that it’s not the Depression but almost a genetic degeneration from generations of inbreeding that has caused them to deal with their condition in the bizarre fashion they do.
And yet Caldwell is the same writer who, in doing the text for You Have Seen Their Faces, did a solemn documentary treatment of those characters, the wretched of the earth, emphasizing a kind of nobility in their suffering.
Another writer who dealt with the poor in different ways was Henry Roth, who wrote Call It Sleep, which was published in 1934. It had a small success at the time, but then the publisher went bust, and the book was forgotten. Like West’s work, it was rediscovered in the sixties when, I think, readers were more prepared for the writer’s intense and extreme vision. In the story, Roth deals with a poor family on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century in terms of the family romance, focusing on the individual development of a child between the ages of six and eight, a boy who is gradually becoming more aware of the world. Influenced by the stream-of-consciousness techniques of Joyce, Roth filters the whole action through the mind of the child.
Though the book is beautifully anchored in its time and place, the emphasis is on subjectivity and personal growth, not social documentation. The book belongs to that undercurrent of modernism that remained important during the 1930s.
HUMANITIES: How did technological breakthroughs help shape our sense of national identity during the Depression?
DICKSTEIN: One of the most famous critical essays of the 1930s, an essay by the German critic Walter Benjamin called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” highlights the dramatic change in culture that occurred with the introduction of cinema, radio, and so on. The difference between those and older styles of stage production, or vaudeville, or various forms of pulp publication is very important because it meant that a single film or radio program could reach a very large number of people at the same time, while freeing art from its cultic “aura.”
At the beginning of the thirties, movies and radio didn’t fully reach rural America. Many small towns had a movie theater, but most homes, especially farms, had no electricity. One of the less remembered but most important programs of the New Deal was the Rural Electrification Administration, which eventually brought the number of people who had electricity from 10 percent of rural inhabitants to 90 percent. And that meant that the new mechanical culture that involved radio, for example, could reach a much larger number of people.
Roosevelt could go on the radio, as he did with his fireside chats, and reach people directly. Unlike Hoover, he understood that when you’re speaking to people on the radio, you’re not orating before an audience of three thousand. You’re in people’s living rooms, and you can speak intimately and reassure them.
HUMANITIES: Speaking of politics, I know that you take a great interest in how fights on the left among the Stalinists and anti-Stalinist Trotskyites played out in New York City in the thirties. What was that scene like?
DICKSTEIN: I think the battles on the left were a marginal part of the culture of the thirties, even though the issues—the future of capitalism, the rise of totalitarianism, the nature of Nazism or Communism—were central. This was a fairly small group of intellectuals arguing with each other and attacking these vital issues, but they did not yet have a larger impact on society, certainly nothing like the impact of the activist New Dealers that FDR brought to Washington. People nowadays think of the New York intellectuals, those who founded Partisan Review in the thirties, as being one of the most influential groups of American intellectuals, but that really happened after the war, and later in retrospect; it certainly was not a major factor in the 1930s. It was what they later became that mattered more.
When I was first working on the book, I was at a party talking with Diana Trilling, the widow of Lionel Trilling, and a very forthright and forceful woman with a strong literary reputation in her own right. Someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, what are you working on?’ And I said, ‘A book of the 1930s.’ And they said, ‘What aspect of the 1930s?’ And without waiting for me to say anything, she answered for me, ‘Of course, the Communist experience, that was the most important thing in the 1930s.’
And I said, ‘Well, no. That was certainly important, but it’s actually the movies of the thirties that first drew me in.’ ‘The movies of the thirties?,’ she said, incredulously, looking somewhere between puzzled and disapproving. Most intellectuals, like most other Americans, actually loved the movies, but couldn’t take them seriously.
HUMANITIES: Now, you studied at Columbia, but as a child you were raised to be an Orthodox Jew. What was that like?
DICKSTEIN: New York was, and remains, a relatively Jewish city. But back then Jews—and especially Orthodox Jews—kept a very low profile. The kind of thing you see today, with Jews everywhere in law firms and accounting firms, wearing a kippah, even on the street, you would not have seen in the 1950s. It was a close-knit, supportive culture turned in upon itself; it was not politically active.
In my last few years of high school, I was adamantly in rebellion against Orthodox Judaism, even though I remained in a yeshiva until I graduated. My interests had really shifted to the secular side. A number of students from my school had recently gone on to Columbia, and I had set my sights on going there. I vaguely knew it was the best university in the city, and I didn’t think that my family had enough money to send me anywhere else. I assumed that I would be living at home and commuting to campus from Queens.
As it turns out, I got a scholarship that enabled me to live in the dorm. That was, I think, a very important element in my break with the world I had grown up in.
HUMANITIES: Columbia, at this time, had a sort of great books program, or a Western civ program.
DICKSTEIN: It still does. It’s really the keystone of the undergraduate program.
HUMANITIES: And how did you take to that?
DICKSTEIN: That was probably the most important educational experience I’ve ever had, and I think that’s still true for a lot of kids who go to Columbia. This introduction to the history of Western civilization, to the great books of Western civilization, doesn’t engage extensively with any individual work or individual period, but it introduces you to everything from the Bible and Homer to the debates of the twentieth century, providing a valuable context for the work you’ll do later on. When I was teaching at Columbia, I found it important that even if you didn’t know exactly what your students had already read, you could mention Plato, you could mention Aristotle, you could mention Dostoyevsky and you knew that there would be some glimmer of recognition.
That was the key marker of a Columbia education at the time, and it still is today, not so much because the faculty believe in it—some of them are quite out of sympathy with it—but because the alumni believe in it. It helped form them.
HUMANITIES: What else were you reading as an undergraduate?
DICKSTEIN: I was discovering twentieth-century writers I wouldn’t have encountered in high school. In my freshman year, someone on my dorm floor and I were reading in tandem, mostly Joyce and Conrad, and we would exchange notes about it. We weren’t reading them for courses. Suddenly, I saw other possibilities for modern writing that I hadn’t glimpsed when I was reading Hawthorne or Dickens for my English courses in high school. I found this really thrilling.
At the time I never imagined that anyone would actually pay me to go on reading and talking about these books. But at the end of my sophomore year, when I was looking for some reading after I finished my coursework, I picked up Lionel Trilling’s book of essays, The Liberal Imagination, and Trilling’s friend Jacques Barzun’s book, Teacher in America. I discovered from Barzun that it was conceivable that I could actually go on with what I was doing, and Trilling’s book showed me how I wanted to do it.
The problem with Trilling, though, is that the rhythms of his prose can get into your head and into your own writing. It took awhile for me to try to get that out of my own style. Some people might say I never have.
As a result, in my early work, whenever I mention Trilling the point is always mildly critical. I can see that I was trying to declare a certain independence from someone who had influenced me.
HUMANITIES: If we had to write the encyclopedia definition for Lionel Trilling’s contribution to twentieth-century literary culture, how would it read?
DICKSTEIN: Well, I would say two things. One is that literary criticism could be an important enterprise, especially when it embraced the ways literature overlapped with other forms of knowledge, from the political and economic to the personal and psychological. Trilling had a very broad view of both the role of literature and the calling of the critic.
The other important thing about Trilling’s work is his style. Many writers have made their mark by taking dramatic positions. Being extremely sweeping, absolutely definite, even imperially so, could be a crucial device for gaining attention. By temperament, Trilling took the opposite tack: He showed that complexity and ambivalence could be an effective tactic for the critic. A critic could focus—dialectically, so to speak—on his own conflicted feelings about the work. And if he were sensitive and shrewd enough, he’d actually be giving voice to the conflicts that were already there, both in the authors themselves and in their most attentive readers.
One of Trilling’s great successes was to apply that method to society, to look at real-world issues in just such a prismatic way, not in an ideological way. The argument of his work is that we shouldn’t simplify social problems any more than we should simplify literary texts. And the work in which he most effectively handles both sides of that street is The Liberal Imagination, which I think remains his best book.
HUMANITIES: The first thing I read by you, as I began my research for this interview, was an intensely felt essay about Allen Ginsberg in your book Gates of Eden. How would you describe your approach to literature?
DICKSTEIN: Just as Trilling emphasized complexity and ambivalence, along came certain figures of the sixties, like Ginsberg, who argued that certain matters were simpler than we thought. His work conveyed an exceptional passion, commitment, intensity, an almost ecstatic anguish, and, at the same time, a very complicated kind of humor. So just as reading The Liberal Imagination involved one kind of conversion for me, hearing some poetry readings by Ginsberg became another kind of conversion for me, away from certain forms of modernist irony toward something represented, let’s say, by the poetry of Blake or Whitman, who were both great models for Ginsberg.
I like to show how writers embody larger cultural movements, and Ginsberg represented a new phase of American culture. The sixties was a period of intense passion, combining utopian vision with anguished protest. It led to a great deal of self-destructive behavior, a mirror of the surrounding social violence. It was the best of times and the worst of times. In that sense, the period was as complex as any modernist would want it to be.
At the same time, there were certain things that seemed very simple, even cut-and-dried. A certain idealism was in the air. Young people, armed with their innocence, demanded a more just society. Something had to be done to secure civil rights for blacks and other Americans. The Vietnam War raised other black-and-white issues: that we were in a place where we shouldn’t be, in a war that we couldn’t win, and that it was killing our own people, ripping apart American society, and destroying many other people who didn’t want us to be there. The culture of the sixties evolved with this kind of sweeping simplicity; it exploded with a passion and intensity that the older, more ironic culture of the fifties had not trusted.
HUMANITIES: One thing that I admire about your literary criticism is its generally even temperament, Allen Ginsberg aside. You begin at the beginning with the simple experience of reading an author.
DICKSTEIN: I’ve always taken literature in a very personal way, personal to me, personal to the author. I always felt that I could tell where an author was invested in his work. I’ve often spoken to novelists about their work, and what they always say is, ‘Well, but that was just fiction.’ But a good reader can always tell exactly where the emotions of an author are invested and how the author wants the book to affect or even transform you as a reader.
This is why I feel that criticism has to remain close to the individual writer. It should avoid imposing any kind of template of theory, any kind of meta meaning, any kind of obsession with methodology that marginalizes the individual work or the individual author. That’s where I think contemporary academic criticism often goes wrong.
HUMANITIES: You’ve described yourself as a liberal but not a radical, and in the sixties at Columbia you were one of the go-betweens between the administration and the student protesters. Can you talk about the distinction between the radicals and liberals at that moment in time?
DICKSTEIN: I was actually too junior a member of the faculty to serve as a real go-between, but I was part of a faculty organization that was trying to serve as a go-between, and I think that’s what liberalism represents. Liberalism at Columbia in 1968 represented an attempt to reconcile differences between extreme parties, especially the administration, which had a law-and-order view of the situation, and the students who wanted an act of violence or an act of repression that would have radicalized the much larger mass of students, as in fact did happen.
HUMANITIES: You’re a professor of literature, but you have a taste for politics, an impressive familiarity with film history, and you’re clearly a close student of some periods in jazz and pop music. Was there a point in time when this style of free-ranging interest became respectable?
DICKSTEIN: Well, academically, it was never respectable. In the fifties and sixties, academic work was fairly narrow. When I was a graduate student at Yale, I proposed a broad-gauge thesis on Victorian cultural criticism. I was told that it was simply too ambitious and unmanageable for a thesis. But because I’ve done a lot of my work as a student and then a teacher in New York, I relate more to a metropolitan literary and intellectual culture than to the academic culture.
The whole phenomenon of what we today call the public intellectual was there as a model for me in Partisan Review, Commentary, and the New Republic. Some of those intellectuals were on the faculty at Columbia while I was a student, and they created a bridge for me between the academic world and the metropolitan intellectual world.
As if in belated revenge for my rejected thesis topic, I’ve just finished teaching a course on the emergence of cultural criticism between 1800 and 1950, and I include people like Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Ruskin, and go all the way up through Orwell, Trilling, Sartre, and Susan Sontag. These are all writers who had a fundamental base in literature, but also wrote very broadly about social issues. And that’s my own bent as well.
HUMANITIES: Is the practice of being a generalist discouraged in American graduate schools?
DICKSTEIN: In terms of our hiring faculty and dealing with students, we at CUNY have a greater tolerance for the generalist than most departments in most universities around the country. Graduate programs are still encouraging narrow-gauge dissertations which can be done more quickly, and will, in the time-honored fashion, give the candidate a niche, a specialty in which to apply for a job, even though the job market, of course, is still very bad. I don’t think there are any job openings for generalists, frankly. And, of course, there’s a ludicrous side to being a generalist. Just the other day I read this definition of a polymath as “someone who is interested in everything, but in nothing else.”
HUMANITIES: How has European literary theory transformed literary study in your lifetime?
DICKSTEIN: Well, the literary theory that strongly interested me in the sixties was a valuable corrective to what was a fairly provincial and narrow American literary culture. They were writers I still admire today, like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, both of them associated with the Frankfurt School; Sartre in his literary criticism and his psychological biographies; Roland Barthes on many subjects but especially in his work on photography.
What followed, however, the successive waves of post-structuralism, deconstruction, and cultural studies, to my mind, had largely a negative influence on American academic culture, especially literature departments. It shifted attention away from individual texts and writers to questions of methodology and de-emphasized the actual experience of reading. Even when the analysis was historical, it treated history in a programmatic fashion, often in terms of a hard-nosed left or anticolonialist politics. It was not social history as any historian would recognize it.
I consider myself a historicist, someone who’s concerned with the historical density of literature. I’m not interested in art for art’s sake, though you can’t be serious about art without grasping its own conventions. But in the concluding essays in two of my books, Double Agent and A Mirror in the Roadway, I asked whether the current forms of historicism really satisfy that interest.
HUMANITIES: Tell me about the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
DICKSTEIN: It began in the early nineties in reaction to an excess of theory and jargon and a plague of politically correct approaches to literary texts. The founders and the younger members of the association wanted to bring criticism and literary scholarship closer to the mainstream of what literary criticism had been during the age of Edmund Wilson and Trilling, a direct, publicly accessible, humanistic discourse about literature and the arts.
Members of the association are committed to clear writing, to writing not just for other scholars, to writing about literature that would also make sense to general readers. They’re committed to maintaining a relationship between critics and scholars, on the one hand, and to writers themselves. All of our conferences have panels that involve writers, as well as critics and scholars. Those vital connections had broken down with the reign of theory in the academy, between the seventies and the nineties.
HUMANITIES: Can you spell out how this was a reaction to the rise of identity politics in literary scholarship?
DICKSTEIN: Identity politics started out as a good thing. It was the reaction of ethnic groups and other minorities, first black, then gay, to the fact that up through the fifties, they were expected to assimilate and to bleach out their particular identities and take on a larger, more abstract, more universal identity. To some extent that was inevitable. If you look at the patterns of immigrant generations, there has always been a pressure toward assimilation and Americanization.
The first phases of identity politics established that you could have a hyphenated identity. You didn’t have to just become a bleached-out American. You could be a Jewish American, you could be an African American, you could be a gay American.
What happened after that was a kind of political vision in which the particular identity became the real you, the essential feature of your identity, an ideological cause that you were pushing in your professional work. That led to a healthy pride and unhealthy distortions.
In the first phase, critics rediscovered forgotten work by black or women writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Kate Chopin. These were wonderful books that had been unfairly neglected.
Then matters went too far, and the question became, ‘Is this really a good book with something to say to us, or are we just flogging it because we approve of it politically?’ At that point, I think identity politics became a destructive feature of literary culture. Part of the role of the association was to correct for that, to get back, you might say, to a more liberal approach to questions of minority identity.
HUMANITIES: You seem to be saying that the reign of theory in American English departments is over.
DICKSTEIN: Everything points in that direction. The culture wars peaked in the early nineties and some of the leading figures on both sides realized that everything that could be said had been said, often to excess.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the impact of the culture wars is over, because, of course, younger scholars get tenure in the academy, journals are created, and all that tends to ensure a relatively long afterlife.
But if you look at the work of leading black intellectuals today, you see they have gradually moved beyond the two main forces that motivated them earlier—Marxism or black nationalism. They rediscovered a figure like Ralph Ellison, who was very much a reconciling figure, someone who deeply believed in the power and wealth of black culture, but also thought that it was crucial to the larger mix of American culture. I think that this represents a new post-culture wars perspective.
HUMANITIES: You have a practice, I gather, of keeping up with new fiction.
DICKSTEIN: This was something that I learned from my teachers. Within the metropolitan literary culture that was dominant at a place like Columbia, you didn’t really need courses in contemporary literature. What you needed to teach and study were Milton and Wordsworth, and, perhaps, the great early modernists of the twentieth century. As far as the literature of your own time, that stuff you were reading as a matter of course. You were going to the galleries. Who would not want to be in touch with the culture of their own time? Who would not want to be reading the writers that are writing, or the painters that are painting at the present moment? They were speaking for you, and to you.
That meant that when you studied your Milton, when you read your Wordsworth, you understood them partly through the prism of a contemporary culture. This accented their relevance to the concerns of the moment. For better or worse, it made them our contemporaries.
Nowadays, the shift has been toward actually studying contemporary culture, often to the exclusion of the culture that came before. In many literature programs, students are not well prepared in the classic traditions of the literature they’re studying, but are totally up to date on current wrinkles of postmodern writing. To me, that is putting the cart before the horse.
Thirty years ago, when I first proposed a course on contemporary American fiction, which meant post-1945 American fiction, I got a very skeptical reaction questioning whether the literature after 1945 was really worth studying. Finally, they agreed, ‘Well yes, there maybe seems to be enough there, and you’ve certainly shown you have a certain competence, etc.’
Nowadays, if you offer a course on the literature of the twentieth century, it would attract many students. But what perspective do we have on the literature of the twenty-first century? It would be completely myopic, and superfluous.
HUMANITIES: Who are you reading these days?
DICKSTEIN: Well, mostly I’m still reading key works of the 1930s. I do hope to get back now to the contemporary, much more than I have been. From what I have read—I love Joseph O’Neill’s book Netherland, and I really liked the novel by Richard Price called Lush Life, which is set in the Lower East Side of today. Each of these New York books deals with a part of my home turf I don’t really know. Right now I’m reading Wells Tower’s terrific stories. He’s like Raymond Carver on steroids.
HUMANITIES: I have one question that comes inevitably for someone like you, who’s just written a book on the Great Depression. Are you noticing in today’s culture any parallels between then and now, given the current economic crisis? Or is it just too soon to say?
DICKSTEIN: There’s certainly an economic comparison to be made. The economic meltdown of last September was in many ways a crisis of confidence, very much like what we saw in the early years of the Depression. So there have been similar attempts to buck people up. Both the New Dealers and the folks producing work in the arts were trying to improve the morale of people during the thirties. This can’t be accomplished overnight.
If I had been asked eight years ago, What’s going to be the cultural impact of 9/11?, I would have thought it absurd to predict. And I think it’s really premature to try to foresee what the cultural impact of the Great Recession will be. It will have an effect on people’s behavior, on the arts and on culture. But that will be a somewhat mediated impact. We know people are not going to be spending as freely. We’re not likely to see those wild spending sprees we saw in the nineties, when so many people were living on their credit cards and speculating on properties they couldn’t afford. That sense of reduced opportunity, constricted horizons, will inevitably have an effect on the culture in ways that we can’t fully imagine.
HUMANITIES: In closing, can you recommend some hidden gems of 1930s culture that readers can treat themselves to?
DICKSTEIN: The greatest artists of the thirties, from Duke Ellington to Walker Evans, don’t need my imprimatur, but my book also deals with some seriously neglected works: Jews Without Money, Michael Gold’s feverish autobiographical novel about growing up in immigrant poverty; Tess Slesinger’s mordant feminist satire on a group of radical intellectuals, The Unpossessed; Nathanael West’s even more savage send-up of Horatio Alger and American capitalism, A Cool Million; Hollywood’s tough self-examination in What Price Hollywood?, which later was turned into A Star Is Born; the once famous, now neglected trilogies by James Farrell and John Dos Passos, Studs Lonigan and U.S.A. I could go on. I think the current economic climate lends additional power to all these works. Let’s see if our own troubles produce anything like them.