I read an essay once that called Steinbeck an ‘apple pie radical’. Cute. But maybe he seems insuficiently proletarian because John’s working a populist-agrarian trope: dispossession from the land resonates at a heavy symbolic level– the first humans cast out, the Hebrew tribes in exodus from pharaoh, etc.
It also occurs to me that maybe we could use a working list of names to describe the period in which In Dubious Battle transpires:
the Great Depression [like the Great War? What does it mean to call a historical conjucture Great?]
the “age of the CIO” [from Michael Denning’s Cultural Front, foregrounding the lived experiences and relationships of workers, their alliances and allegiances]
“Fordist modernism” [another Denning-ism. as a heuristic, as a problematic, as a way of thinking about history and culture, it encourages us to link cultural production and consumption and the meanings that erupt from the practices these terms imply. The dialectic this linkage produces allows us to consider the signifying practices of everyday life together with what is more obviously ‘cultural’: literature, music, film, etc. ]
the interwar period [periodizing by wars reproduces the logic of mainstream historiography?]
hard times [which is appealingly colloquial, gritty and direct, yet carries with it the risks of romanticism]
the Jazz Age [do we automatically associate this term with F. Scott Fitzgerald, bootleg hootch, and The Cotton Club? What are the benefits/limits of emphasizing a leading form of a period’s cultural production? For me, this term resonates with a kind of midcentury urban negritude, the adaptation of largely rural “Negro” folkways to a highly stratified urban environment. Richard Wright is an obvious candidate here, but also, essentially, Claude McKay, whose West Indian origins, communist fellow-travelling and Harlem Renaissance ties make him a seminal figure of 20th century US fiction (see Home to Harlem, Banjo, Banana Bottom). We could mention Zora Neale Hurston too, especially her ethnographies of the South, Haiti, and Jamaica and the links they reveal between modernism/primitivism. Or Bessie Smith, Aime Cesaire, Oscar Micheaux, Prez, et al.]
Finally, here are some notes for a lecture on the Depression I once gave at Scotts Valley High. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it might be helpful in locating IDB in its cultural/historical context.
The American Dream and the Great Depression
Seeds of the Dream
The American Dream is as old as America, which is to say the United States, which, in the scheme of things, hasn’t been around that long. We might push back in time to the period prior to the United States when North America was a system of colonies under the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish to find the seed of this dream, its undeveloped beginnings. Going back to the opening of the western hemisphere to European colonialism means the 15th century– still not very long ago in terms of the span of human culture (which, some say, is about 100,000 years old). This period– the late 15th and early 16th centuries– is potentially important for our purposes because it witnessed two crucial events: the birth of a new economic system– capitalism— and, with it, the beginnings of modernity. That’s too big a task for today. Nor is there time to discuss a significant change within capitalism that is connected to the American Dream that occured roughly 200 years after the western hemisphere was colonized and has been called “the rise of the bourgeoisie.” We must set aside those questions for now, because our focus is fairly specific: the American Dream and its relationship to the Great Depression.
What is the American Dream? What does it mean that it’s a dream? Henry Miller wrote a novel about his waking dream of America and titled it The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Dr. King had a dream (though it is interesting to consider what has happened to that particular dream in the hands of those who survived him). Like the dustbowl okies the Mamas and the Papas dreamt of California. More recently there’s been a television series called American Dreams. American Dreams would be a productive television show to analyze not only for what it has to say about THE American Dream, but for how it uses history to do this. I’ll confine myself to one sentence: American Dreams the tv show is a very selective historical fiction, one that is ultimately nostalgic about the period it represents; significantly, this nostalgia has a politics.
The Work of Dreams
Using the word ‘politics’ to characterize nostalgia doesn’t necessarily mean nostalgia is undesireable. Despite the way many people, mostly politicians and pundits, talk about politics– as something flawed, negative and partial– the term’s primary meaning is neutral and for some even positive. Politics is what happens every day. In other words, it is a site of struggle.
Dreams and politics often go together. During the years preceding the Russian revolution a term came into use– social daydreaming— to describe the activity people engage in when they imagine a better world. Social daydreamers think that such a thing is possible. That history is what people do and the world is what people make.
The American Dream as we know it has some connection to this idea, but in potentially confusing ways: the American Dream is the dream of a better world, but it is primarily a dream of and for the individual subject. Social daydreamers dream the social and American Dreamers dream Americans. The fact that the American Dream persists to this day means that dreaming Americans– and making them– is an ongoing process.
Everybody wants a good life, and for the vast majority of people in the world today this means a better one.
The American Dream assumes different shapes over time, and different aspects of the Dream are emphasized over others, something that is historical. The American Dream according to MTV “Cribs” is basically a dream of ‘getting over’: living in a nice house with plenty of nice gear.
Family is ocasionally part of the American Dream, and if our understanding of the American family itself has changed remarkably since World War II– most notably with the rise of ‘youth’ as a relatively new and meaningful social category– today the American Dream still places some emphasis on it. We might not think of the American Dream strictly in terms of a ranch-style home with a two-car garage in the suburbs and a nuclear family along the lines of Father Knows Best, but parents still want their children to have a life better than their own or at least one just as good.
Yet looking at it critically, the American Dream is not only about Americans as individuals; it concerns mobility. I say ‘mobility’ because the American Dream is above all a dream about freedom of movement, both geographically and socially.
As for the first of these– geographical mobility, the freedom to move through space, across state lines, into other parts of the country– John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath shows us that for migrant workers and dispossessed sharecroppers in the 1930s it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. If you’re familiar with that novel you know the Joads have a difficult time making it to THEIR utopia, California. When Woody Guthrie sang “I’ve been a-doing some hard-travellin’” it was an experience like theirs he was describing. This kind of hard-travelling persists, and the difficulties that the Joads negotiated are astonishingly similiar to the ones encountered by Los Braceros in the 1940s and immigrant and migrant workers today. Less astonishing is the fact that, as in the 1930s, there are social movements seeking to change those conditions in organizations (ex. the Coalition of Imokalee Workers in Florida).
Social mobility, the ability to travel between classes– represented in the American Dream as an upward move– is closely related to geographical mobility and is rooted in a very specific western protestant tradition of hard work and self-discipline that is itself connected to modern capitalism. The American Dreamer is someone who acts industriously, who sacrifices present wants and needs, in order to ensure future success. In other words, the American Dream is a narrative; it has characters and it tells a story. We might even say that the American Dream is a story we tell ourselves in spite of the facts. The fact is, most people are not wealthy. Does this mean they don’t work hard and make sacrifices? Of course not. But the American Dream, in presenting an ideal, holds them accountable.
Imagining the Present in Terms of the Past: The 1930s in the 1890s
A number of Depression-era films transposed the events of the 1930s onto the 1890s. Films such as Barbary Coast and San Franciso represent that earlier moment– the Gilded/Victorian Era, a period, not incidentally, of the rise of consumer culture— and its risky economic life as an earlier historical moment in the American Dream. This historicizing act, a model example of the way ideology works through culture, even now reasserts and thus enforces the abiding power of the American Dream for contemporary audiences. It accomplishes this work by valorizing and very gently criticizing what was thought by many in the 1930s to be the inadequate myth of this American Dream.
Given the very real and serious effects of economic depression, what future could capitalism offer when it seemed to be at an end? Historical films of the 1930s, particularly those set in the 1890s, responded to these doubts by imagining the present in terms of a period whose ‘meaning’ has come to represent the risks and opportunities of industrial capitalism. In recasting the Great Depression in this way, “Hollywood” not only narrativized the 30s as part of a longer historical trajectory, thus positing the national crisis as a ‘down-turn’ in a process of development. In a more specific way, films about the gilded age produced in the great depression attempted to reinvigorate capitalist values in Americans by creating a range of characters, locales, and dramatic events which emphasized key aspects of the American Dream. The heroic entrepreneur of Barbary Coast, X (Joel McCrea), is a poet-prospector whose fortunes rise only to fall, yet who ultimately succeeds by keeping faith with that Dream. McCrea’s character is a familiar figure: resourceful, restless, impelled to succeed and yet fundamentally moral; in other words an ideal (and historically specific) embodiment of the modern capitalist subject. Further, his recognizeability is productive of a specific strand of nostalgia, one which has a crucial function in maintaining the hegemony of the American Dream.
Imagining the Future from the Present: Utopias and Dystopias
Related to these fictions of American Capitalism’s healthier past (its ‘up-turn’ phase) are those films that look to the future as a symbolic answer to the crisis of the Great Depression, a future that is, by turns, both utopian and dystopian.
The cultural and political utopianism of that 1930s– a period designated by some as a ‘Red Decade’– was not monolithic, and ran the gamut from the ‘social day-dreaming’ of the Cultural Front– which generally represented the future as a condition of collectivity— to films such as Lost Horizon, which responded to that ‘radical’ vision by attempting to discredit it.
Finding The People
The 1930s was an important period in terms of social movements. The Popular Front was a loose alliance of Liberals, Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists committed to (Liberal to Social-Democratic) reform and (Socialist to Communist) revolution. The Federal Works Progress provided unprecedented and never duplicated opportunities for students, writers, artists, and intellectuals to engage in their work. Some key examples of this would be James Agee and Walker Evans’ photo-literary account of southern sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Zora Neal Hurston’s anthropological studies and fiction about Florida and the Carribbean, the murals at Coit Tower in San Francisco, the Farm Security Administration’s photographic documentary project which has come to profoundly shape our understanding of the Depression by giving it a human landscape.
All of these works of social science and art attempted to represent and understand what the American People was, a complicated project that included disparate methods of empirical verification, mythologizing, and critique. Authors like John Steinbeck, Tilly Olsen, Claude McKay, Jon Dos Passos, and Richard Wright grappled with the Depression and American mass society in general in their novels. In music new sounds were generating that would form the basis for the mainstream swing of the 1940s (which has come to be the soundtrack of our memory of the 1940s as WWII). This early form of jazz fueled the growth of music as mass culture and featured artists like Count Basie and Billie Holliday, whose version of ‘Strange Fruit’ popularized a powerful anti-racist criticism of America in the 30s. New sounds reached in different directions: they developed in the Kansas City roots of Coleman Hawkins, the Chicago blues of Big Bill Broonzy and the urban eclecticism of Duke Ellington, who was accused by Arthur Cremin, an instructor at the New York School of Music, of making music that inflamed and debased the emotions. Cremin tried to prove his charges, according to a newspaper account, in the following way:
[Cremin] is reported to have placed a young man and woman in a room alone, first playing a series of symphonic recordings followed by a set of swing recordings. According to the teacher, the young couple remained formal throughout the first renditions, but as the music turned to jazz, they became familiar and more personal towards one another.
This seems fairly ridiculous to us now, but before we congratulate ourselves for our relative sophistication as a society, we ought to recall that moral panics about the behavior of young people are a regular feature of American life. Britney may be struggling to remain controversial, but there’s always another candidate for ‘problem-child’ just around the corner. For me, as a student of literature, this general tendency speaks more to the media and the structure of our society than to individual psychology.