As we near the end of the first decade of the new century, I wonder which books we’ll later look back on as best capturing our present time.
This season, several new books are fine period pieces, conjuring other eras. Non-fiction narratives depict a particular time and place through research and documentation; novels do so through invention, embellishing actual events.
“Grand River and Joy” by Susan Messer (University of Michigan Press), an impressive debut novel, takes its title from the name of an intersection in Detroit. Messer portrays her native city in the 1960s, at a time when racial tensions are explosive, leading up to historic rioting. Blacks and Jews live separately, but their lives connect, at their rapidly shifting neighborhood borders, and in business. While whites have left their old neighborhoods for the suburbs — “hopscotching across the city, one generation over the next” — many of their family-run shops have remained.
Among the Jews she writes about, tension is palpable in the way characters talk about their homes and the choices they face about moving, and much is also left unsaid, between friends. Harry Levine owns a wholesale shoe business in an inner-city Detroit, a business he inherited from his late father — “Not that Harry had ever wanted it. Not that Harry was any kind of expert on what he wanted, mostly afraid to want anything.” The shop’s basement, where the shoes are stored, along with furniture from his wife’s parents’ house and the pieces of a sukkah that no one assembles any longer, is a “bottomless repository of lost traditions and small, painful reminders.”
The reader first meets Harry in his shop, the morning after a crude message about Jews was soaped onto his windows. Not long after, there’s violence and looting.
Messer captures the small moments, in relationships and in daily life, that build to create a distinctive atmosphere. Here, the mood is one of anxiety and anticipation, underscored by the need to persist. Her characters are compelling and familiar. Harry’s sister Ilo works with him every day in the family business. His wife Ruth prepares carefully for a talk to her Detroit Council of Jewish Women group about changing neighborhoods, where she “could be as sociological as she wanted, but the truth was, what everyone wanted to know was when you were moving, and how they could find out without revealing their own plan.” In those days, a moving van was not a welcome sight.
The author says that she remembers being told, as a young girl, that Jews and blacks were minority groups, and this struck her as misinformed, for the only people she encountered in her small world were blacks and Jews. She recalls that the two groups lived in close proximity, but never understood each other, and neither was welcomed by the surrounding community. The novel mines the intersections and missed connections.
As Morris Dickstein was completing his important cultural history of the Great Depression, “Dancing in the Dark” (Norton), the U.S. was entering its worst economic crisis since that note. Many present fears trigger memories and hand-me-down memories of that earlier time, in its deprivations and tragedies. But, as Dickstein demonstrates through richly textured examples, the Depression was a “scene of a great cultural spectacle against the unlikely backdrop of economic misery.”
“Dancing in the Dark” is the name of a 1931 ballad by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. In the rendition by Bing Crosby, the most popular entertainer of the ‘30s, the song was an ode to melancholy and hope.
The book is encyclopedic in its depiction of the cultural creativity and social imagination of the time, looking at books, songs, film, theater, music, dance, paintings, murals, photographs and design, at a time when technology was changing everything, from vaudeville to radio, silent to talking film, and enabling wider audiences. Several well-chosen photographs illuminate the text, capturing the complexities of the times.
Dickstein, the author of several books and distinguished professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center, clearly enjoys his subject, to which he has devoted about 30 years. He includes occasional personal details drawn from his own family’s experience of the Depression, as he looks at the work of John Steinbeck, Henry Roth, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Agee and Walker Evans, Woody Guthrie, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and many others.
Scholars have given little consideration to the decade’s artistic energy and its entertainment culture, which was often seen as frivolous or escapist, but Dickstein pays careful attention, as it was a time of great freedom in Hollywood and on Broadway. Despite economic conditions, the popular arts were lighthearted — one of the many paradoxes of the decade. And the arts helped people cope and make sense of their lives.
Dickstein also looks to the world of architecture and design, pointing out that even amid industrial decline, industrial design flourished. After the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building were completed in the worst years of the Depression, the art deco style was incorporated in furniture, consumer goods and urban design. In defining the decade, he relates the expressive culture to the leadership of President Roosevelt and the programs of the New Deal. Cultural historians of other eras would do well to use Dickstein’s book as a model.
“The Glass House” by Simon Mawer (Other Press), a finalist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, opens with a lyrical passage about blindness. The reader slowly comes to realize that the main character can no longer see, and her memory has become a heightened sense. The house, central to the story, is an actual modernist villa built in Central Europe in the 1920s, although the setting and events are fictional.
On their honeymoon, a wealthy Czechoslovak Jewish man and his gentile wife meet an architect in Venice, a self-described “poet of space and form,” who designs a house for them that reflects their vision of the future and their dreams. It is “adapted to the future rather than the past, to the openness of modern living rather than the secretive and stultified life of the previous century.” Their world, and their masterpiece of a house, is soon filled with artists, musicians and thinkers who are forward looking, eager to trade in old world European style and ideas for what’s new and edgy. Mawer recreates a heady time of exuberance and idealism.
Initially, few of the characters are attuned to the growing Nazi thunder. But when the couple comes to realize how troubled their days are becoming, with the Nazis looming, they flee, leaving their home, and make their way to America. The house passes through several owners and incarnations, from the Czechs to the Nazis to the Russians. Finally, it is transformed into a museum.
David Freeland captures urban treasures that reflect a world that is no more. He presents an uncommon view of Old New York in “Automats, Taxi Dances & Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places & Leisure (New York University Press). He takes readers to the Yiddish theaters and to other early Gotham theaters, and to Horn & Hardart’s Original New York Automat, built in 1912. He places these venues of culture, high and low, in their historical context.