BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 18, 2010
Dancing In the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
By Morris Dickstein
(W.W. Norton, 598 pp., $29.95)
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits
By Linda Gordon
(W.W. Norton, 536 pp., $35)
American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty In U.S. Literature, 1840-1945
By Gavin Jones
(Princeton University Press, 248 pp., $38.50)
“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a story of 1926, at the height of the economic boom and his own creative powers. “They are different from you and me.” Rich people “possess and enjoy early,” he explained, which makes them cynical and haughty. “Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.” The passage is best known not for its psychological insight, but for Ernest Hemingway’s withering rejoinder. Yes, the rich are different, he conceded: “They have more money.” As with so many of their recorded exchanges, Hemingway is supposed to have come out on top. We are meant to feel that Fitzgerald, in his usual romantic way, believed that the rich really were better, and that he needed Hemingway’s bracing realism to bring him back to earth.
But what if Fitzgerald had claimed instead that the poor are different? Even Hemingway entertained the idea that poverty--at least the bohemian frisson of being momentarily poor--might carry with it certain advantages. In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris during the flush Twenties, Hemingway included a chapter in praise of hunger:
You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy … the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted…. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.
Of course, one may feel that Hemingway is not describing real hunger, since his was voluntary: he had given up lucrative journalism for the riskier rewards of fiction. (Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer shows what it was really like to be a hungry American in Paris during the 1920s.) And besides, Hemingway’s chapter ends with a check in the mail and a rousing dinner at the Brasserie Lipp. “Hunger is healthy and the pictures do look better when you are hungry,” Hemingway concludes evenhandedly. “Eating is wonderful too.”
Still, Hemingway’s two kinds of hunger--the hunger that gnaws at the belly and the hunger that fuels artistic ambition--are central to any discussion of how poverty is represented by American artists and writers. Now three books have appeared that seek a fresh understanding of depictions of the poor in American life--what Morris Dickstein calls “the starvation army.” Edmund Wilson--who crisscrossed the desperate country as a roving reporter for this magazine in 1931 and 1932, contributing to what Alfred Kazin called “the vast granary of facts on life in America put away by the WPA writers, the documentary reporters, the folklorists preparing an American mythology, the explorers who went hunting through darkest America with notebook and camera”--once observed “how difficult it is for persons who were born too late to have memories of the Depression to believe that it really occurred, that between 1929 and 1933 the whole structure of American society seemed actually to be going to pieces.” Perhaps the experience of the past year has made it somewhat easier to imagine.
It is good to be reminded that poverty did not enter American literature with the crash of 1929 and the stark photographs of the Farm Security Administration. Gavin Jones identifies three main bodies of American writing about poverty, corresponding roughly to the aftermath of the Panic of 1837, the prolonged economic downturn of the 1890s, and the Great Depression. He finds that “moral and cultural approaches to poverty in the antebellum era merged into biological and social explanations in the Progressive age, and then into psychological and subjective responses during the Great Depression.”
Before the Civil War, poverty was widely regarded as “a chronic rather than a temporary condition,” Jones notes, with a family such as the disenfranchised Maules in The House of the Seven Gables “plebeian and obscure; working with unsuccessful diligence at handicrafts … living here and there about the town, in hired tenements, and coming finally to the alms house, as the natural home of their old age.” Classic American writers showed little appetite for schemes to improve the lot of the poor. “Are they my poor?” Emerson asked sardonically in “Self-Reliance.” Despite his employer’s efforts to provide aid and shelter, Melville’s Bartleby--whose “innate and incurable disorder,” Jones notes, is defined as “poverty”--pursues a seemingly preordained trajectory to the Tombs.
Like Hemingway in the Luxembourg gardens, Thoreau endorsed a form of voluntary poverty in his experiment in radical self-reliance on Walden Pond. “Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage,” he counseled. But when he encountered actual poor people, poverty did not smell so sweet. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross,” he remarked. “It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.” Writing about an Irish immigrant neighbor named John Field, he was even crueler:
With his horizon all his own, yet he is a poor man, born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty or poor life, his Adam’s grandmother and boggy ways, not to rise in the world, he nor his posterity, till their wading, webbed, bog-trotting feet get talaria to their heels.
The biological explanation suggested in those webbed feet (talaria are the winged sandals worn by Greek gods) found more elaborate and harsh expression in the Social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century, and in the “Naturalist” generation of writers such as Jack London and Theodore Dreiser.
If Thoreau’s “discovery of aesthetic virtue in socio-economic lowliness” seems oddly conjoined with his view of the poor as “a genetic throwback,” Jones identifies a kindred tension in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book he produced, along with the photographer Walker Evans, after spending a few weeks with poor farmers in Alabama during the summer of 1936. In addition to the near slavery of the tenant-farming system, Agee writes darkly of other factors contributing to chronic poverty: “There are in the people themselves, and in the land and climate, other sources quite as powerful but less easy to define, far less to go about curing: and they are, to suggest them too bluntly, psychological, semantic, traditional, perhaps glandular.” Surely no American has written more beautifully--more lyrically, more ecstatically--about poverty than Agee, but Jones is understandably disturbed by the notion that for Agee “poverty itself is attractive and valuable from a literary standpoint.”
Jones finds a more sympathetic account of poverty in Richard Wright, where “American Hunger,” the original title of Wright’s autobiography published in part as Black Boy, carries a rich double meaning. In Wright’s view, hunger functioned as a spur toward creativity, but not of the voyeuristic kind Agee indulged in: “The major obsessions of Wright’s life--with language, literature, religion, sex, and politics--are all figured in relation to the central fact of his hunger, whether it be physical, spiritual, cultural, or aesthetic in nature.” With Wright’s ambitious “want,” we re-enter Hemingway’s domain: the hunger of the belly contributes to the hunger of the creative imagination. “The conditions of Wright’s poverty contain an element of independent striving toward self-consciousness and imaginative fulfillment, a ‘hunger to be and live.’”
Those stirring words might describe the interesting career of the photographer Dorothea Lange, best known for her sympathetic portraits of migrant workers in California during the 1930s. “A Life Beyond Limits,” the subtitle of Linda Gordon’s feminist biography, alludes to the obstacles that Lange overcame. She was born Dorothea Nutzhorn in Hoboken in 1895. Her German-American father was a lawyer; her cultured mother, relieved of housework by a uniformed maid, was enthusiastic about classical music and jazz. Two traumas interrupted Lange’s childhood. She contracted polio at age seven, which gave her a permanent limp; and five years later her father abruptly abandoned the family, amid rumors that he was a “gambler” and a “speculator.” Dorothea, emotionally adrift and accompanied by her adventurous friend Fronsie Ahlstrom, explored New York City and was drawn to the modernist art scene.
Seeing Isadora Duncan dance was a revelation for Lange. “I had never been taken into the upper reaches of human existence before,” she recalled; “to me it was the greatest thing that ever happened.” She briefly attended a teachers’ college, dropped out, and went looking for work. Arnold Genthe’s photography studio was filled with images of Duncan. Born in Berlin and trained as a philologist, Genthe had emigrated to San Francisco the year Lange was born. A major figure in the history of American photography, he was the leading portrait photographer in the city, also photographing the San Francisco earthquake and Chinatown before shifting his studio to New York. Around 1912, Lange walked in and asked for a job. She was attractive; he hired her. Genthe gave Lange her first camera, along with a solid training in the tricks of manipulating and retouching negatives. He probably seduced her (she called him “an unconscionable old goat”) and introduced her to “a world I hadn’t seen … a world of privilege.”
In 1918, Fronsie and Dorothea decided to travel around the world together. They got as far as San Francisco, where Dorothea Nutzhorn dropped her father’s name for her mother’s and became, following Genthe’s lead, the society photographer Dorothea Lange. In 1920, she married the painter Maynard Dixon. While he painted heroic cowboys and Indians from the Old West, and had love affairs on the side, she was expected to keep house and take care of their two children--another of the “limits” that Lange had to move “beyond.” Her troubling solution--to farm out their two sons, ages five and seven, to a distant boarding school--gave her the time she needed for her work as “San Francisco’s most upscale portrait photographer, most in demand among the rich arty set.”
Lange’s major patrons were almost exclusively assimilated German Jews of a few families. “Wealthy and powerful, secular and urban,” Gordon writes, “the ‘Our Crowd’ of San Francisco, their ancestors had immigrated in the mid-nineteenth century and built mercantile fortunes.” According to Gordon, Lange “became so identified with this German Jewish community that several believed she was herself Jewish.” Lange’s photographs of her Jewish friends and patrons are exceedingly interesting, and I wish Gordon--who is eager to push the narrative forward to the far more famous Depression pictures--had lingered over them. She doesn’t seem to notice that these, too, are images of American hunger, American aspiration. She reproduces a brooding image of the composer Ernest Bloch, and notes that unlike “glamour photography” Lange’s portrait does not “sing out star.” She reproduces a photograph of a boy and his grandfather, from the Katten family that all but adopted Lange, and notes only that it is “exquisite.” A bare-shouldered portrait of Lange’s friend Edythe Katten from 1933, “a dramatic, austere beauty with large features,” inspires speculation about sexual attraction between the two women, but nothing much about the picture itself beyond the stray observation that Lange’s portraits of women “are, on average, mistier than those of men.”
For all the inwardness and the exquisiteness of these portraits, we are meant to feel that we are not yet in the presence of Lange’s mature work. “In the spring of 1932 San Francisco portrait photographer Dorothea Lange looked down from her second-floor window and saw the Depression,” Gordon writes, in an italicized section set off from the rest of her narrative:
Her walls held portraits of the Levi-Straus family, the Freudenthals, the Fleishhackers, the Haases, the de Youngs. The streets below displayed images of unemployed men loitering on corners or standing in breadlines, homeless men huddled around fires or hiding in their bedrolls. They were not only bums in ragged clothes and workingmen’s caps but also men in suits and fedoras.
Lange’s photograph of the White Angel Mission portrays downcast men standing along rails that resemble pews; one man in a battered hat turns toward the camera, extending beseeching hands. We are invited to believe that this was the birth of documentary photography, and the moment when Lange found her true vocation: “Dorothea Lange turned onto a new path in 1932, walking in step with her country.” In the next three years she would transform her life, banishing false values for true ones. “Lange would close her studio permanently and become a documentary photographer…. She would leave her marriage, having fallen in love with an extraordinary man,” the progressive agricultural economist Paul Taylor.
Some of Gordon’s strongest pages cover the curious origins of the Farm Security Administration. She is not the first to note the irony that the FSA largely failed in its attempt to improve the lot of struggling rural farmers, and that its greatest success was its small public relations wing, run by Roy Stryker, and the handful of gifted photographers he hired--including Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange--to provide cheap images to newspapers and magazines. Lange spent much of 1935–1939 on the road, photographing destitute migrant workers in California. Migrant Mother, her photograph of a pensive woman with her hand on her chin flanked by two tow-headed children with their heads bowed against her and their faces turned away, is one of the best-known of all American photographs. It is interesting to learn that this icon of maternal heroism was an American Indian named Florence Thompson, born on a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. Gordon suggests that Migrant Mother may be a disguised self-portrait, since “nothing in Lange’s personal life was as fraught as her own motherhood.”
Gordon gives a full picture of Lange’s long career, including her courageous campaign to photograph the roundup of American citizens of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor and their forced resettlement in distant camps. But she has little talent for describing Lange’s photographs. She cannot compete with Morris Dickstein, who notes that Florence Thompson’s “brow is furrowed like tractored-out land.” Gordon calls Lange, approvingly, a “visual sociologist,” and she is attentive to photographs as evidence of social conditions. “Frequently,” she claims, “one needs a magnifying glass to extract fully the information out of her photographs, and it would require pages to write down everything that Lange made visible.”
But this is not how we are accustomed to look at photographs, nor is it what Lange intended. Gordon’s terminology of aesthetic appreciation is severely restricted: her terms of opprobrium, all roughly synonymous for her, are “romantic,” “idealized,” and “sentimental.” There was certainly a political shift in Lange’s photographs of the 1930s, from portraits of wealthy Jews to poor migrant workers, but how much of an aesthetic shift was there? Not much, Gordon concedes. “Her documentary photography was portrait photography,” Gordon says. “What made it different was its subjects, and thereby its politics.”
Morris Dickstein’s lively and omnivorous book, which explores the whole range of “the expressive culture of the thirties--the books, films, murals, photographs, reportage, radio programs, dance, and music”--proposes a larger frame for Lange’s fascination with the mobility of Isadora Duncan and the paralysis of Florence Thompson. Dickstein notes that the rise of documentary photography, with its persistent imagery of entrapment and stasis, coincided with the great period of American dance: Martha Graham, Fred Astaire, and Busby Berkeley. Mobility of all kinds, especially downward mobility, was one of the great subjects of American culture in the Thirties. The most creative minds were as preoccupied with the question of what made the rich tick on their downward plunge as with the living conditions of the poor “frozen into postures that allow little movement, no escape.” Audiences never seemed to tire of the spectacle of rich people suddenly plunged into dire straits. The runaway society bride in It Happened One Night must learn to hitchhike and survive on raw carrots. The movie director in Sullivan’s Travels wants to learn how the other half lives and ends up, by a series of accidents, joining them.
Such experiments in misery were nothing new in American art. Stephen Crane, probably inspired by Jacob Riis’s photographs of urban misery, dressed up as a pauper and spent the night in a homeless shelter during the depression of the 1890s. Crane’s “Dantean descent into the lower depths,” as Dickstein calls it, “became a prototype for thirties writers drawn uneasily to confront the hunger, poverty, lassitude, squalor, and fear that festered during the Depression.” (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed recently proved that there is still life in the tired formula.)
Yet Dickstein is less interested in how accurately writers and artists of the 1930s depicted the rich and poor than in the quality of the art that they produced, especially those “unusually complex, enduring works” that “speak for their times yet still speak intimately to us today.” He is wary of arguments that exclude more than they include--the persistent claim, for example, that the major writing of the period was leftist in inspiration. He insists that a comprehensive account of American culture in the Thirties cannot exclude the best American writers of the time--Faulkner, Fitzgerald--even if they were not “responding specifically to the economic and social crisis that followed the Crash.”
Dickstein is drawn to unexpected affinities of temperament (Delmore Schwartz, say, and that other erratic balladeer Woody Guthrie) rather than old ideological divides. He notes the many ways in which Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath borrows theme and structure from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, while remarking that Faulkner knew rural poverty in the South firsthand in ways denied to upscale visitors such as Agee, whose prose style was modeled on Faulkner’s. He believes that during the Depression the arts “bound people together in a collaborative effort to interpret and alleviate their plight,” and, like the New Deal, “offered a stimulus of optimism and energy.”
The emotional heart of Dickstein’s book is a passionate engagement with the boom-and-bust writing of Fitzgerald, “America’s greatest novelist of the dream of success and the inevitability of failure.” Fitzgerald has often been criticized for his fixation on the rich, in The Great Gatsby and elsewhere; but Dickstein notes that he “deliberately wrote about them from the viewpoint of the outsider: the middle-class provincial, or the poor boy striving for a foothold in a world beyond him.” Fitzgerald’s personal crisis--the institutionalization of his mentally ill wife and his own descent into alcoholism-coincided with the crash. In his devastating story of the end of the Jazz Age, “Babylon Revisited,” he wrote of the waste of the expatriate years. A waiter at the Ritz makes small talk with the protagonist, who has returned to Paris, momentarily sober, to reclaim his daughter. “I heard that you lost a lot in the crash,” he says. “I did,” comes the answer. “But I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”
Dickstein makes a strong case for Tender Is the Night, a novel flush with the traumas of the times, as a central document of the Depression. It is about a generation that has lost its illusions with the senseless butchery of World War I--a form of war invented, according to one character, not by General Grant but by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne. It is about a rich young woman who bears the emotional scars of an incestuous relationship with her own father. And it is about the ambitious psychiatrist who treats that woman and marries her, only to have the marriage founder on the rocks of alcohol and his own eagerness to please. In the tragic plight of Dick and Nicole Diver, Dickstein argues, Fitzgerald
tried to build a new career by exploring the ways in which he had been overextended, self-destructive, like America itself during the Boom years. Though few could see it at the time, Fitzgerald made his personal plight--the disintegration of his marriage, his health, and his career--somehow definitive of the age.
For Fitzgerald and many other people who lived through it, the Great Depression felt like the greatest disruption in American life since the Civil War. Gone with the Wind, one of the great commercial successes of the decade in print and film, could have served as a title for Steinbeck’s novel of dust-bowl solidarity; the title he chose instead, The Grapes of Wrath, came from “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” a poem written during the Civil War. Walker Evans, in search of a Flaubertian aesthetic of detached observation, found it in Mathew Brady’s photographs of Civil War soldiers and battlefield carnage.
Halfway through Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald compared Dick Diver to another heavy drinker with high aspirations, Ulysses S. Grant, “lolling in his general store in Galena … ready to be called to an intricate destiny.” Diver aspires to be “a good psychologist--maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.” How “very American,” his Swiss colleague observes of Diver’s hunger to excel. But Diver finds that the independence he thought he was acquiring in marrying Nicole has imprisoned him instead. Having published a best-selling but facile primer on psychology that he himself has “outgrown,” he aspires to something bigger, more consequential, like Grant’s service in the Civil War. But he is too comfortable, too charming, and ultimately not hungry enough.
Fitzgerald spent nine years writing Tender Is the Night, stitching and unstitching the fabric of the novel and doubting, Diver-like, his own ability to complete it. “It is needless to compare the force of character between myself and General Grant,” he wrote his editor Maxwell Perkins in 1936. But Fitzgerald, who had divined the interconnection of the two kinds of American hunger, had his moment after all, writing one of the central books of his generation. Late in his short life--he died in Hollywood in 1940, at the age of forty-four--he reflected on his old rivalry with Hemingway. “I talk with the authority of failure--Ernest with the authority of success,” he wrote. “We could never sit across the same table again.”
Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author of A Summer of Hummingbirds (Penguin) and Degas in New Orleans (University of California Press).