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  The 1933 Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade starred one-time Columbian James Cagney, who tap-danced with Ruby Keeler through this typical Depression-era extravaganza.
Let Us Eat Cake

By Adam Kirsch

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
By Morris Dickstein
(W.W. Norton, 624 pages, $29.95)

In his poem “September 1, 1939,”  W. H. Auden famously labeled the 1930s “a low, dishonest decade.” Symbolically, if not quite according to the calendar, the thirties began with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and ended with the opening shots of World War II in 1939; in between came the rise of Hitler in Germany, the purges of Stalin in the Soviet Union, the civil war in Spain. The United States did not face catastrophe on the same scale, but to those who lived through them, the American 1930s were awful enough. It was the era of the Dust Bowl, Okies, sit-down strikes, breadlines, the demagoguery of Father Coughlin and Huey Long — and always, behind everything, the demoralizing, incurable Depression.

Yet as Morris Dickstein ’61CC shows in Dancing in the Dark, his wide-ranging new survey of what he calls Depression Culture, the same decade that brought America so much suffering was also a golden age for the arts. If you were to make a list of the most lovable and glorious things ever produced in this country, a surprising number of them would date to the thirties. There are the later songs of the Gershwins and Cole Porter; the dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and gangster pictures like Scarface; the art music of Aaron Copland, the folk music of Woody Guthrie, and the jazz of Louis Armstrong; the moralizing novels of John Steinbeck and the corrosive satires of Nathanael West; and the art deco designs that made everything from skyscrapers to radios look like bullets speeding into the future.

Dickstein discusses all these things, and many more, in order to show how the Depression “kindled America’s social imagination, firing enormous interest in how ordinary people lived, how they suffered, interacted, took pleasure in one another, and endured.” That social interest, Dickstein argues, is what unites all the different aspects of thirties culture, from the proletarian novel to the Hollywood movie. Before the Depression, and after it, America was the land of the individual; its favorite myths all had to do with the unaided self, whether in the form of Emerson’s self-reliance or of Horatio Alger’s self-made millionaires. With the seeming collapse of the free market, however, Americans were forced, sometimes against their will, to consider the virtues of solidarity. As Dickstein puts it, “the arts bound people together in a collaborative effort to interpret and alleviate their plight.”

Politically, of course, this new spirit took the form of the New Deal. But as Dickstein shows, it was no less important in shaping American culture. Sometimes the connection between the two realms is clear, as in Steinbeck’s heavy-handed protest novel The Grapes of Wrath. “The hero of the book,” Dickstein points out, “is not a family but more of an abstraction, the people.” As Ma Joad puts it, “us people will go on livin’ when all them people” — the exploiters, the capitalists, the landlords — “is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out.” The book’s famous last scene, where a mother whose baby has died breastfeeds a starving stranger, is Steinbeck’s searing emblem of the need for cooperation to overcome a disaster too great for any one man to cope with.

Yet if Steinbeck “makes the migrants’  cause feel truly American,” Dickstein shows that many other Depression writers were less certain of their ability to embrace the common man. Provocatively, Dickstein reads The Grapes of Wrath alongside Miss Lonelyhearts, where West views the suffering of ordinary men and women through the ludicrously distorted lens of a popular advice column—the “cry for help from Desperate, Harold S., Catholic-mother, Broken-hearted, Broad Shoulders, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.” Dickstein shows how West’s hero, the eponymous columnist, ends up numbed by so much suffering, and is “catapulted into a realm of dementia beyond feeling.”

Another kind of paralysis afflicted James Agee, whose collaboration with the photographer Walker Evans yielded one of the iconic books of the Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Dickstein reminds us of the true strangeness of that book, in which Agee — a Harvard-educated journalist working for Fortune — struggles for hundreds of pages with his inability to really capture the plight of the southern sharecroppers he is writing about. “If I could do it,” Agee says, “I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.”

As Dickstein comments, this “apotheosis of the real, the material…is typical of the 1930s.” You can see it in many of the books he writes about, from Michael Gold’s Jews without Money, about New York Jews, to Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, about Florida blacks, to James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, about Chicago Irish. None of these novels is very well known today, but each was a pioneering attempt to bring the actual experience of America’s poor into literature.

Few of the highbrows’ attempts to speak for the people were actually popular, however. (Agee’s book, Dickstein notes, was “one of the spectacular publishing flops” of its season, and did not become well known until the 1960s.) What really drew “the forgotten man” — that much-talked-about icon of the Depression years — were not realistic treatments of his own plight, but movies and songs that offered a window onto another world. “What movies lacked in realism,” Dickstein writes, “they supplied in fantasy — escapist fantasies with fairy-tale endings as well as more darkly etched fables that enabled people to tap into their fears and work them through.”

For sheer escape, Hollywood offered lavish musicals and fast-talking comedies. Dickstein writes lovingly about films like The Gay Divorcee, in which Rogers and Astaire showed how “seemingly mismatched people can connect beautifully to form a little community of two, in which all awkwardness and inhibition are soon banished and all movement is unimaginably graceful, fluid, purposeful, and lovely.” Yet he also pays attention to the darker fantasies that animated gangster movies like Little Caesar, with Edward G. Robinson, or The Public Enemy, with James Cagney. Such movies allowed “the audience to identify with the flawed protagonist, not just with his success but with his style and audacity, his gift for bold gestures and self-dramatization.” That these antiheroes were doomed only made them more attractive because they were more plausible to Depression-era audiences.

Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English and Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center, is one of our best literary and cultural critics, in part because he writes with more personal passion and engagement than academics usually do. The many subjects he treats in Dancing in the Dark are tied together by his central argument about the power of the arts to unite and inspire in dark times, but Dickstein also relishes each book, song, and movie for its own sake, and his pleasure is infectious. As he says, the artists he writes about may have been “dancing in the dark, but the steps were magical.” 

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for the online magazine Tablet. His most recent book is Benjamin Disraeli.



 
 
  Dorothea Lange’s March 1937 photo “Toward Los Angeles.”
Self-Portrait USA

The Likes of Us: America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration
By Stu Cohen. Edited by Peter Bacon Hales (David R. Godine, 208 pages, $50)

When we think about the Depression, the late critic Stu Cohen wrote in his introduction to The Likes of Us: America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration, we think photographs: The despair of the California-bound farmer. The indifference of the gathering dust storm. The stoicism of the unemployed in the breadline. Over the course of the 1930s, America’s finest photographers captured the toll of the Depression in tens of thousands of extraordinary images. Nearly all of these pictures were commissioned by the Historical Section of the federal government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA); 175 of them are beautifully reproduced in this new book.

Assigning top photographers to report on the Depression for the FSA was the inspiration not of a photographer, but of Roy Stryker ’24CC, an assistant in Columbia’s department of economics. Stryker had been a student of economics professor Rexford Tugwell, one of the Columbia academics who had formed Roosevelt’s brain trust in Washington, D.C. In 1935, Tugwell, by then an assistant secretary of agriculture, asked Stryker to work for him and to set up some kind of historical, sociological, and economic documentation service; the brief was that vague.

Stryker began hiring photographers. He started with Arthur Rothstein ’35CC (whose photographs are not in this book), and soon signed up a team that included Carl Mydans, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Sheldon Dick, and Marion Post Wolcott. It was a dazzling group, whether or not Stryker knew it yet.

The icons of the FSA collection are familiar to everyone;  thousands of photos were published in Life and the other emerging picture magazines of the day. What distinguishes this book, though, is the inclusion of so much unknown material from the photographers’ famous shooting trips. The wonder of Stryker’s group is not just the force of the photographs, but that the images, having served such powerful documentary roles in the 1930s, may be even more provocative today.      

— MBS

 


 
  Listmania

By Paul Hond

Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds
By Olivia Gentile (Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $26)

Phoebe Snetsinger’s parents didn’t name her after the phoebe, an insect-eating bird of the Americas. But had they been looking for a fitting bird name, they were alphabetically close: she was far more akin to the phoenix.

Which, as it turned out, was one of the few birds that Phoebe never saw.

The whole business started innocently enough. On a spring day in 1965, Phoebe, then a vaguely dissatisfied 34-year-old housewife and mother of four, was standing in a neighbor’s yard in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. The neighbor, who, like Phoebe, was what is now called a “stay-at-home mom,” handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed to a branch of an oak tree. What Phoebe saw — and felt — amounted to a rapture: “a black-and-white bird, no bigger than a child’s hand, with a yellow head, shiny black eyes, and a throat the color of a ripe mango.”

It was a Blackburnian Warbler, and, as the neighbor told Phoebe, it had flown north from South America to breed.

With this miraculous little moment, author Olivia Gentile ’03JRN sets Life List, the story of the world’s most prolific birder, on its remarkable flight.

Birding, with its leisurely sounding evocations of lawn chairs and field glasses, is the term given to what is in fact a far more rigorous pursuit. As Gentile vividly reports, serious birders, to say nothing of fanatical ones, take exceptional risks in order to spot and identify the more recondite members of the world’s nearly 10,000 species. These adventurers travel to remote jungles, inaccessible mountains, and the forests of unstable nations, where they might encounter violent weather, exotic illnesses, perilous altitudes, armed guerrillas, kidnappers, and even deadly birds, like the six-foot-tall Southern Cassowary, “known to kill people with a swift, eviscerating kick to the stomach.” And if they are lucky enough to glimpse a Crested Eagle, or the “improbable looking” Helmet Vanga of Madagascar (“a small black body, cat-like yellow eyes, and a giant, downwardly curved, electric-blue bill”), they will add the bird to what’s called a “life list,” a record of the birds one sees anywhere in the world, over a lifetime.

This list is the birder’s version of the gunfighter’s holster: each name is a notch by which one’s triumphs are tallied. The birding purist must be able to identify her quarry’s markings (as opposed to merely discerning its calls, an alternate criterion whose growing acceptance in birding circles offended Phoebe) in order to enter it, in good faith, into her catalog. For Phoebe, the moment of visual conquest produced a rush of ecstasy unlike anything in her experience.

That Phoebe had, by the end of her strange life, compiled more names on her list than anyone in history — approximately 8400, or a staggering 85 percent of the world’s birds — would be an enormous feat under the best of circumstances. (It also would have made her one of the most euphoric people on earth.) But, as Gentile tells us in clean, direct, unsentimental prose, Phoebe’s accomplishments were forged against tremendous adversity — and came at a heavy cost.

Not a financial cost: Phoebe had no trouble funding her next bird tour to Peru or Mongolia or Kenya or Australia. Her father, Leo Burnett, had started an advertising agency in Depression-era Chicago that later produced such hits as the Maytag Repairman and the Pillsbury Doughboy. From Leo, Phoebe inherited not just brains and ambition (she was high school valedictorian and an A student at Swarthmore) but the means to cross the globe dozens of times over. (In addition, Phoebe’s husband, Dave, made a good living at Purina as a researcher for, of all things, poultry feed.)  In that regard, Phoebe’s achievements might be said to lie at the intersection of wealth and eccentric passion. But Phoebe, a habitual note taker and indexer, was also expanding science: her fieldwork has, among other things, led to the reclassification of several subspecies into distinct species. In any case, money could have taken her only so far — once she arrived at her wild, forbidding destinations, her body and mind had to do the rest. Good health was imperative.

It was also in short supply. In 1981, with her life list under 2000, Phoebe discovered a lump in her right armpit. She was diagnosed with terminal melanoma, and given, at most, a year to live. Shattered, Phoebe sought consolation in the thing that made her feel most alive, and with her family’s blessing, she decided to see as many birds as she could in the time she had left. Life List revisits those far-flung trips and the amazing birds they yielded, providing us, through Phoebe’s eyes, a vision of an auspicious moment in history, when travel and access permit the explorer to see much of what remains of the planet’s dwindling avian populations. One can still see the Madagascar Bee-eater, the Emerald Cuckoo, and Temminck’s Tragopan (“a pheasant with a blue head, an orange throat, and a blood-red body that is sprinkled with white dots that look like pearls,” Gentile writes), even as habitat loss and pollution lower the window ever more.

Using Phoebe’s letters, field notes, her memoir (published posthumously in 2003 by the American Birding Association), and her writings in a Webster Groves nature newsletter, as well as extensive interviews with the Snetsinger family and Phoebe’s birding associates, Gentile has constructed a gripping biography colored with dashes of travelogue, social history (the rise of Audubon societies, the disaffection of college-educated women in the 1950s and ’60s), and field guide (the lovely illustrations are by Rebecca Layton ’93BC). Life List is also a painful portrait of an uncommunicative marriage, and a provocative tale of obsession. Not least, it’s a story of survival in the face of that 1981 death sentence. As Phoebe writes in her memoir: “Somehow I developed a feeling of virtual invincibility once I was on the plane and heading toward new places and birds; I was leaving the threat behind.” So she did, for 18 more years.

Gentile is a sharp and selfless narrator, giving generous rein to Phoebe’s own stark, intelligent voice, which is quoted throughout the book. The result is a satisfying interplay that owes something to Mr. and Mrs. Zagat. Here’s Phoebe in the Ivory Coast in 1999, just months before her death, observing rockfowls: 

Phoebe set up her folding stool and, for a half-hour, gazed ecstatically. She noted their “bare golden” faces, their “heavy black” bills, and the “silky lemon-yellow wash” across their otherwise white chests. “Exquisite, stationary or leisurely hopping studies,” she wrote. “Totally amazing experience.” 

It’s a graceful duet that allows both Phoebe and her biographer to fan their writerly feathers. (Gentile knows exactly when to step aside, and when to take the lead.) The book is less assured when it seeks to analyze Phoebe’s behavior, particularly her stoical reaction to a horrific assault suffered during a trip to New Guinea. Even as Phoebe becomes increasingly irritable with tour guides and more competitive in her listing, and misses both her mother’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding in favor of yet another bird tour, one senses that she exists outside the conventions of psychology. But that is no criticism of Gentile, for whom the task of capturing so darting and inspired a mind is as tricky as Phoebe’s own pursuit, at the time of her death in Madagascar, of Appert’s Greenbul, “a little peach-and-green bird,” Gentile writes, “that had been found and named only about thirty years earlier.” Phoebe never saw that bird, but Gentile allows us to see Phoebe, more closely than nature would seem to permit.

To her further credit, Gentile neither judges nor protects her subject. At the end of an exhausting and often repetitive whirlwind of globe-trotting marked by elation and tragedy, Phoebe is left standing in the mind’s eye, in floppy hat and binoculars, squinting up at a tree — a devotee who accepted the setbacks and hardships as a fair price for her happiness.

“I don’t go out of my way to court danger,” she wrote, “but on the other hand, if you’re looking for safety and security, there really isn’t any — anywhere.”
 


 
 
  The Fish Building, an art deco apartment house designed by Horace Ginsberg, is one of the jewels of the Grand Concourse.
Heartbreak Highway

By Michael Kimmage

Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
By Constance Rosenblum (NYU Press, 256 pages, $27.95)

In the history of New York City, the Bronx belongs to one of two narratives. The first is a narrative of irrelevance, of mere proximity to Manhattan, without the stature of a storied outer borough like Brooklyn. The second narrative is one of terminal decline, the terrors contained within a simple geographic designation — the South Bronx. Constance Rosenblum ’67JRN, a former editor of the New York Times City and Arts & Leisure sections, adds a forgotten narrative to the standard two, even if her chronicle of urban splendor, erected at the very center of the Bronx, does evolve into the familiar narrative of devastation. Boulevard of Dreams describes “a moment of all but tangible optimism and seemingly unlimited possibilities,” experienced in the vicinity of a single street, the Grand Concourse. It was completed in 1909 and was, from the 1920s through the 1960s, a place of vaunting architectural and immigrant (or postimmigrant) ambition.

Boulevard of Dreams creates memorable images of the Grand Concourse in its midcentury golden age —  its spectacular buildings, its elegant, vibrant street life — and Rosenblum includes many fascinating biographies, starting with civil engineer Louis Risse, the European-born visionary who dreamed of a Parisian concourse in New York. The book concludes with present-day visionaries seeking to revive this street and its surrounding area. If their modest successes do not amount to a renaissance, they may mark the end of a long and miserable phase.

At the turn of the century, Risse dismissed other Bronx thoroughfares for development since they “could never function as proper boulevards,” and he built the Grand Concourse on a ridge, which gave the street a natural elevation, providing many of its inhabitants with wonderful views. The architects who later built on Risse’s boulevard matched their talent and fantasy to the street’s grand potential; though their apartment buildings, hotels, and cinemas did not conform to any single style, several were (and remain) art deco and art moderne masterpieces.

The Grand Concourse was never a stable destination. It was initially “a mecca for immigrants and their offspring,” especially for Jews moving from the working-class East Bronx to the ostentatiously middle-class West Bronx, which also had its Irish American and Italian American enclaves. The black migration was a presence from the 1920s onward, though blacks were prevented by de facto segregation from living on the Concourse. For the Jewish bourgeoisie that gathered around the Concourse, the paradise of community and of urban glamour was real, and it was certainly desirable, but it was never quite as beguiling as the upward mobility that had brought them to the West Bronx in the first place.

It is fitting that Ralph Lauren, an American icon of Anglophilic gentility, grew up near the Concourse; in his younger years he was Ralphie Lipschitz. Professionally, his aim was not to immortalize the Bronx in American fashion; it was to leave the Bronx behind by entering the upper reaches of the American elite, and to make this entry, or this motion, accessible to his customers.

Ralphie Lipschitz’s transformation into Ralph Lauren reflected a demographic truth. Concourse dwellers who continued their upward mobility either went south to Manhattan or north to Westchester County. The children raised on the Concourse in the 1940s and 1950s, the writer E. L. Doctorow and the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick among them, rejected the world of their parents, Rosenblum writes. In some ways, however, they were recognizably their ancestors’ offspring. An earlier generation had fled tenements and slums for the Concourse, and the generation before that had left the Old World for the New.

The postwar departure of youth, from the Bronx and into the wide world, foreshadowed an unanticipated collapse, and Rosenblum’s book about urban dreaming makes the nightmare city of the 1970s and 1980s, the South Bronx of legend, seem all the more strange and terrible. The leaving had begun early, and it collided with other large-scale trends. A predominantly Jewish middle class initiated a rapid diaspora from the Bronx in the late 1960s, mostly to the suburbs, “a textbook example of how the American city fared in the 20th century.” It is a daunting illustration, made vivid by the vertiginous career of this unfortunate street. A collapse of infrastructure and a rise in crime and narcotics, coupled with heedless urban planning, turned a Parisian boulevard into a dangerous highway from which the poor and the elderly were unable to escape — and hardly able to cross.

Rosenblum’s tone is not entirely consistent in Boulevard of Dreams. It wavers between an exuberant enjoyment of “the Golden Ghetto” and shock at a city’s tragedy that was not caused by war or natural disaster. The rise and fall are two contrasting elements of the same story. But Rosenblum’s book is not a work of analytical history, nor a book about causes. It is a beautiful act of re-creation, untainted by nostalgia, and too varied, too accurate to be only despairing. Perhaps because of her background in journalism, Rosenblum has a fine feel for the everyday people who walked the Grand Concourse; she incorporates their voices into her history.

At the beginning of this charming book, Rosenblum writes about Louis Risse and his audacious decision as chief topographical engineer to include the Bronx on the first official map of Greater New York, which he finished in 1900. In Boulevard of Dreams, Rosenblum has done the same with the Grand Concourse, putting its history on the map of the Bronx and helping, once again, to put the Bronx on the map of Greater New York. 

Michael Kimmage is an assistant professor of history at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism.
 


 
  Clean Money

By David J. Craig

When Principles Pay: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Bottom Line
By Geoffrey Heal (Columbia University Press, 288 pages, $29)

They are the do-gooders of the corporate world: Starbucks commits itself to paying coffee farmers in poor countries fair prices. StarKist refuses to purchase tuna from fishermen who use drift nets. British Petroleum voluntarily limits its own carbon emissions. Do ethical business practices such as these translate into dollars?

Increasingly, they do, argues Columbia business professor Geoffrey Heal in When Principles Pay: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Bottom Line. The popularity of socially responsible investment (SRI) funds, Heal writes, is the best evidence. Most SRI funds invest only in businesses with solid environmental and human rights records; many screen out tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and weapons companies. These funds represent nearly 10 percent of all institutionally managed money in the United States today, a tenfold increase since 1995, and they tend to outperform the stock market. Their success reflects consumers’ willingness to pay more for products and services from companies they consider socially conscious, Heal writes, as well as the frequency with which NGOs and activist shareholders are launching boycotts and lawsuits against corporations seen as acting ruthlessly. Investors, as a result, are betting against the prospects of unprincipled organizations.

Determining who are the good guys is hard work. There are rating agencies, such as Innovest Strategic Value Advisors and KLD Research & Analytics, dedicated to evaluating companies’ performance in the social and environmental areas, just as Moody’s and Dow Jones rate financial performance. However, these rating agencies must rely, in part, on companies’ self-evaluations. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, knows which toxic pollutants get released by U.S. companies only by voluntary disclosures. Rating agencies try to compensate for spotty government oversight by tracking complaints filed by the public.

According to Heal, SRI funds are most powerful when affecting investment in companies whose products aren’t sold directly to consumers and which therefore don’t have to worry about boycotts. They tell fund managers to avoid such companies for purely ethical reasons, regardless of stock value. Corporations, therefore, are “willing to incur significant costs to ensure they are well placed on these indices,” writes Heal, the Paul Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility.

Adam Smith, in the late 18th century, and Milton Friedman ’46GSAS believed that companies best serve society when they focus squarely on maximizing profits, which creates jobs and wealth. Capital markets for centuries have rewarded companies that adhere to this principle, except when their recklessness has caused, say, a major workplace or environmental disaster. Now consumers are rewriting the rules, one Grande Caffe Mocha at a time. 
 

 
 
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