Hard Times Revisited

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon W.W. Norton, 536 pages, $35.00

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein, W.W. Norton, 598 pages, $29.95

In contemporary American public life, the mere mention of poverty is considered bad form. Consider some recent attempts to bring up the subject. In 2003, the University of North Carolina assigned Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's account of her six months trying to squeeze by on low-wage jobs, to its incoming freshmen for summer reading. University administrators believed the book would be an uncontroversial choice; instead it provoked howls of protest from conservative student groups and right-wing talk-show hosts. In 2008, John Edwards' effort to build a presidential campaign around a commitment to ending poverty proved a nonstarter; many voters apparently thought that he was "just too angry." And even now, as job losses and foreclosures multiply, public discussion of the crisis lacks urgency: The unemployed are encouraged to blame themselves, and victims of housing fraud are made to look like dupes who should have known better.

How times have changed since the 1930s. The Great Depression was the golden age of poor folk in American culture. No one could deny their ubiquity. Documentary photographers discovered the beauty in the world of the poor. So did poets: "It's the anarchy of poverty delights me," wrote William Carlos Williams in 1938, "the old yellow wooden house indented among the new brick tenements." Frank Capra and other filmmakers sent up stuffed shirts while they celebrated the power of the People. Any evening with Turner Classic Movies will reveal the difference between then and now -- in the 1930s the rich are pompous fools while wisecracking working girls steal the show. What a contrast with the flagrant money-worship of our own time.

No wonder progressives look back fondly at the culture of the 1930s and resurrect it periodically for an admiring glance -- as these two books do. Both Linda Gordon's Dorothea Lange and Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark evoke characteristic cultural expressions of the era with subtlety and sympathy. They find new complexities in familiar cultural forms, fleshing out figures we thought we knew well, enriching our understanding of the decade. Yet at the same time they leave us wondering what has been left out and why our collective memory of the period still slips so easily into the same old grooves.

Gordon's subtitle, "A Life Beyond Limits," announces her intent. She will celebrate the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange as a contemporary feminist, crossing boundaries, refusing restraints, disdaining domesticity. Gordon bends over backward to avoid hagiography. She notes that Lange neglected her children in pursuit of romantic and professional goals -- though she was no more neglectful, to be sure, than either of her two husbands was. Gordon also admits that Lange could be bossy and controlling, toward co-workers as well as children. But in the end her narrative is carried forward by her deep identification with her subject, as a historian who sees herself engaged in a similar dialogue with documents. She concludes that Dorothea Lange's photographs "may well live forever."

Forever is a long time. Still there is no denying that Lange was a fascinating and in many ways admirable figure, whose career powerfully illuminates the interplay of art and politics in 20th-century America. Gordon, an accomplished social historian, captures Lange's complexities in context, as few other biographers are likely to do.

Lange's life encapsulates the shift from the bohemian, individualist left of the pre-Depression era to the earnest, collectivist left of the 1930s and after. Her changing taste in husbands embodied the shift -- from the painter Maynard Dixon, whom she divorced in 1935, to the economist Paul Taylor, with whom she documented the migrant farmworkers of the Depression. Dixon was a brilliant draughtsman and realist painter whose work celebrated the desert landscape of the Southwest, even as he deplored its conquest by Model-T Fords and tourist hotels. He was also a bit of a poseur who liked to dress up in chaps and a ten-gallon hat while he held forth over drinks to his admirers in San Francisco bars.

Lange had come to the Bay Area in 1918. A young woman of 23 with a slight limp from a childhood case of polio, she had left her girlhood home in Hoboken, New Jersey, seeking a career in the still-new medium of photography. She soon became, Gordon writes, "San Francisco's most upscale portrait photographer, most in demand among the rich arty set." Her studio created common ground between the local elite and the arts community. She and Maynard met through mutual friends and married in 1920. He was much older than she, yet still magnetic. Their marriage began in white heat but soon became a rocky slide, accelerated by his long absences, frequent infidelities, crude jokes, and emotional demands. Still, their attachment persisted until the early 1930s, when Dixon's art sales plummeted and he became increasingly depressed.

Lange, meanwhile, was increasingly drawn into local left-wing politics, which Dixon mostly scorned. One day in 1932, she glimpsed her future as she looked down into the street at the White Angel soup kitchen; she saw "not only bums in ragged clothes and workingmen's caps but also men in suits and fedoras" and snapped her first document of the Depression. Eventually that capacious vision would narrow: The suits and fedoras would disappear, and only the ragged clothes remain. Still it was about this time that she made her decisive turn toward documentary. Soon she met Taylor, a maverick Berkeley economist, committed to the cause of farmworkers in California. He saw some of Lange's prints at an Oakland gallery and thought he could use them in an article on the general strike that was convulsing labor in the Bay Area. She agreed, and before long he was taking her and a few other photographers to the farm town of Oroville to document the labor troubles there.

Taylor was no aesthete. "His interest in photography was instrumental," Gordon writes. "He conceived of it as a forensic technology, a way of documenting wrongdoing." Despite their differences, "they fell in love by watching each other work" -- he loosening up as he talked to workers, she moving around quietly, intently, with her hand-held Rolleiflex, in effect turning the fields into an outdoor portrait studio. In 1935, Taylor got a job with the California Division of Rural Rehabilitation and hired Lange to join him as he drove around the state, documenting migrants' misery, advocating the establishment of state-run camps where they could live minimally decent lives. This was how Lange came to define documentary photography as political advocacy.

That project took off when she went to work for the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal agency assigned to investigate the impact of the Depression on rural and small-town America. The head of its photography project was Roy Stryker, a benevolent patriarch who promoted a photographic style, Gordon writes, that was "deliberately vernacular and anti-elitist." Most of his 11 photographers were from urban and immigrant backgrounds; five of them were Jewish. Their cultural backgrounds combined with their bureaucratic assignment to create an image of the Depression that was not only overwhelmingly rural but also aesthetically distanced and ennobled. And among the thousands of photographs they took, only a few dozen became part of our collective memory. A few were by Walker Evans; most were the portraits of poverty by Lange. What is important to remember is that the photographs that have become icons -- the migrant workers and sharecroppers, the poorest of the poor -- were only a fraction of the whole. Remarkable as Lange's portraits are, they leave us wondering what is still gathering dust in those FSA file drawers.

For Lange, the FSA was "the great adventure of her life." She quickly caught the connection between portraiture and political advocacy, Gordon observes, realizing that "images of squalor alone are too wretched and too inanimate -- or the people in them too distant -- to create the outrage and the 'do something' response she and Taylor wanted. Lange learned that images of individuals did that more effectively, and that the individuals could not be too beaten down." As the photographs circulated in books and magazines, they helped arouse public anger against the big growers; in 1938 the voters finally "did something," electing the progressive Democrat Culbert Olson as governor of California over the anti-labor incumbent Frank Merriam.

This kind of political impact, Gordon writes, "requires both intrusiveness and emotional distance" in documentary work. Nowhere were these qualities more evident than in Lange's most famous work, "Migrant Mother" -- a portrait of a brooding "mother of seven" entangled with three of her children, taken by Lange near the pea fields of Nipomo, California, in 1936. Many scholars have traced its extraordinary power to its resonance with archetypal Madonna imagery; Gordon agrees, adding that Lange's own emotionally fraught and ambivalent experience of motherhood no doubt intensified her relationship with her subject. Over time, the photograph became a valuable commodity as well as a cultural icon. Florence Thompson, its subject, gradually came to feel resentful and used, insisting that she should have been paid something for posing. The picture's afterlife raises the awkward and unanswerable question at the heart of the documentary aesthetic: What happens when pictures of poor people become expensive objets d'art?

Lange never questioned her own role. She was a public employee on a minimal salary, making photographs with a political purpose. In the later 1930s, she turned to documenting Dust Bowl refugees in the West and displaced sharecroppers in the South -- the "human erosion" that accompanied the soil erosion produced by heedless monoculture. Her collaboration with Taylor culminated in An American Exodus (1939), which embodied Lange's ambition to create a "visual narrative" of the migrants' odyssey without the sensationalism (and fictionalized quotations) of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell's You Have Seen Their Faces and without what Gordon calls the "contentless and sentimental patriotism" of Archibald Macleish's Land of the Free. American Exodus was, in many ways, the high point of Lange's career.

World War II and its aftermath formed an anticlimactic denouement to the struggles of the 1930s. Lange's documentary impulse was frustrated by censorship when she went to work for the Office of War Information, especially when she recorded the internment of Japanese Americans. So was her work for Life magazine in the 1950s, as her health began to fail. "Nostalgia for a less corporate society," as Gordon writes, led Lange to look backward in a photo essay on County Clare, Ireland, but also forward to the environmental movement. In 1957, she produced "Death of a Valley," documenting the disastrous human and environmental costs of a dam near Sacramento. Life refused it. In the late 1950s she took on the role of diplomat's wife, traveling to Vietnam with Taylor, who was still working for the Department of Agriculture. His notions of agrarian reform were soon eclipsed by the plans of Young Turks besotted with visions of falling dominoes. Taylor's New Deal version of social democracy had no place in Cold War policy. Lange died soon afterward, of esophageal cancer.

Lange and the FSA photographers are only a few of many players in Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark. His canvas is crowded with the great and near-great: John Steinbeck and James Agee, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert -- and with every classic 1930s text from Porgy and Bess to Pastures of Plenty. Dickstein is a thoughtful critic and a humane man. One can challenge his aesthetic judgments but not his generosity of spirit. He provides a feast of novels, movies, popular songs, and Broadway shows, replete with perceptive readings, abundant quotations, and detailed summaries. But he does not provide what his subtitle promises, "a cultural history of the Great Depression." Dancing in the Dark is full of fascinating ideas and insights, but grounded historical interpretation is not on the agenda.

Dickstein's long opening section encompasses the impulse that animated Lange and the FSA -- "Discovering Poverty." But he pays little attention to the documentary photographers, beginning instead with Michael Gold's proletarian novel Jews Without Money and Henry Roth's extraordinary Call It Sleep, a psychoanalytically inflected account of "childhood as sheer terror" in a Jewish immigrant family. From there he moves to the early Depression films I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Wild Boys of the Road, both of which address the theme that came to full fruition in The Grapes of Wrath: "ordinary people uprooted from a stable life."

Then it is on to lengthy appreciations of Steinbeck's novels and a briefer account of Agee's "unashamedly difficult" Let Us Now Praise Famous Men -- his account of Alabama tenant farmers that epitomized the anti-intellectualism of 1930s intellectuals in the anguished cry: "If I could do it, I'd do no writing here at all." For all their differences in style, Steinbeck and Agee shared a reverence for the People that could not be found in the novelist Nathanael West, Dickstein's next example, whose "people who had come to California to die" were the atomized crowd of mass society: "They were savage and bitter," West wrote, "especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment." There follows a consideration of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying -- also a novel about uprooted poor folk, if not specifically keyed in to the Depression -- then a glance at the poets Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Frost (whose "Home Burial" goes against the collectivist Depression grain by emphasizing "the radical separateness of every human creature"), and finally a reading of Richard Wright's Native Son, which like The Grapes of Wrath revealed the coming of age of the radical novel even "when it was set to expire, undone by the patriotism and prosperity ushered in by the war," juxtaposed with an appreciation of Zora Neale Hurston's vitalism in Their Eyes Were Watching God. All these texts are subsumed in more than 200 pages of "Discovering Poverty."

By now it should be clear that the very comprehensiveness of Dickstein's coverage undermines his attempt to write cultural history. While his readings of individual texts are often compelling, there is little thematic coherence in his movement from one text to another, as we lurch from Agee to West to Faulkner to the poets, who seem not to belong in this book at all. "For Stevens, as for Williams and Frost, the challenge ... was not how to live or how to save the world, but how to go on writing," Dickstein says. It is hard to see how this challenge, a timeless one for any serious writer, has anything specifically to do with the Depression.

Throughout, Dancing in the Dark reveals the defect of its virtue: Admirably broad inclusiveness skirts the edge of incoherence. In the next section, "Success and Failure," F. Scott Fitzgerald huddles with Busby Berkeley, James T. Farrell, and Clifford Odets, gangsters with wisecracking dames. Fitzgerald's story "Absolution," from 1925, gets extended and thoughtful treatment; it's a wonderful story, but the reason for its inclusion in a cultural history of the Depression is unclear. The following section, "The Culture of Elegance" evokes Dickstein's most fervent enthusiasm and most coherent argument. He claims that the urban world of Art Deco design, swing jazz, and screwball comedy embodied fantasies of energy and mobility that appealed to people who were stuck in dead-end jobs or no jobs at all or who were forced into movement that was anything but freely chosen.

He also comes up with some of his sharpest insights: Bringing Up Baby showed "how to make a movie about sex with no actual sex in it," and Louis Armstrong employed a "call-and-response ... between the soloists and sidemen," while Duke Ellington used "multiple soloists in conversation, grounded by the beat of the strong rhythm section, rich with the expressiveness of the blues, yet moving forward with a relentless dynamic energy."

"The Culture of Elegance" is also the setting for Dickstein's enormously suggestive title, taken from a song written in 1931 and popularized by Bing Crosby later in the decade:

Dancing in the dark, till the tune ends,
We're dancing in the dark and it soon ends,
We're waltzing in the wonder of why we're here,
Time hurries by, we're here ... and gone;

Looking for the light of a new love,
To brighten up the night, I have you love,
And we can face the music together,
Dancing in the dark.

As Dickstein observes, the song works on many levels, evoking "the darkened ballroom, our own darkest feelings, the existential limits of the human condition, or the ongoing troubles of the Depression." But he wants it to stand for the best of Depression culture, or the parts he likes best: "Dancing in the dark is a way of asserting a life-saving grace, unity, and style against the encroaching darkness." So this is where Ellington and Armstrong and Benny Goodman get to take a bow, along with Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin, not to mention Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Unlike the plodding proletarian novel, the urban "Culture of Elegance" gets us on our feet and dancing. After this paean to metropolitan life (or the fantasy of it) Dickstein's concluding section -- "The Search for Community" -- seems an anticlimax. Woody Guthrie and Frank Capra just can't stay in the game with Fred and Ginger.

Dickstein's central metaphor is powerful, but he doesn't follow through on its full implications. No one can deny the appeal of people reasserting their vitality against the implacable force of adversity. But in his understandable focus on the dancing, Dickstein neglects the enveloping dark. Occasionally he gestures toward the larger experience of life in the Depression, as when he acknowledges Caroline Bird's emphasis on the "fear of falling" among the middling classes, the people who had something to lose and often did lose everything. For these people and their children, the experience of loss promoted "idealism in some, an unappeasable hunger for money and security in others," Dickstein observes. The observation begs for elaboration, beginning with the thought that idealism and security-hunger could coexist in the same mind and extending to the question of how this ambivalence shaped middle-class culture during subsequent decades.

The middle classes occasionally enter Dickstein's version of Depression culture, certainly more often than they appear in the FSA photographs that have fixed our cultural memory of that era. But even Dickstein's capacious canvas remains largely devoted to rural poverty and urban affluence (or the dream of it). The people in the middle, or on other kinds of margins, remain largely invisible -- genteel housewives reduced to scrubbing other people's floors; ambitious students forced to sacrifice life plans; traveling salesmen with nowhere to go and no one to buy their goods. Like the file drawers full of FSA photographs, unexamined except by the occasional scholar, they remind us of how much we still have to learn about the cultural history of the Great Depression.