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Dancing in the Dark

A Cultural History of the Great Depression

Morris Dickstein (Author, CUNY Graduate Center)

 

Finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism: from Agee to Astaire, Steinbeck to Ellington, the creative energies of the Depression against a backdrop of poverty and economic disaster.

Only yesterday the Great Depression seemed like a bad memory, receding into the hazy distance with little relevance to our own flush times. Economists assured us that the calamities that befell our grandparents could not happen again, yet the recent economic meltdown has once again riveted the world’s attention on the 1930s.

Now, in this timely and long-awaited cultural history, Morris Dickstein, whom Norman Mailer called “one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature,” explores the anxiety and hope, the despair and surprising optimism of a traumatized nation. Dickstein’s fascination springs from his own childhood, from a father who feared a pink slip every Friday and from his own love of the more exuberant side of the era: zany screwball comedies, witty musicals, and the lubricious choreography of Busby Berkeley. Whether analyzing the influence of film, design, literature, theater, or music, Dickstein lyrically demonstrates how the arts were then so integral to the fabric of American society.

While any lover of American literature knows Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, Dickstein also reclaims the lives of other novelists whose work offers enduring insights. Nathanael West saw Los Angeles as a vast dream dump, a Sargasso Sea of tawdry longing that exposed the pinched and disappointed lives of ordinary people, while Erskine Caldwell, his books Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre festooned with lurid covers, provided the most graphic portrayal of rural destitution in the 1930s. Dickstein also immerses us in the visions of Zora Neale Hurston and Henry Roth, only later recognized for their literary masterpieces.

Just as Dickstein radically transforms our understanding of Depression literature, he explodes the prevailing myths that 1930s musicals and movies were merely escapist. Whether describing the undertone of sadness that lurks just below the surface of Cole Porter’s bubbly world or stressing the darker side of Capra’s wildly popular films, he shows how they delivered a catharsis of pain and an evangel of hope. Dickstein suggests that the tragic and comic worlds of Broadway and Hollywood preserved a radiance and energy that became a bastion against social suffering. Dancing in the Dark describes how FDR’s administration recognized the critical role that the arts could play in enabling “the helpless to become hopeful, the victims to become agents.” Along with the WPA, the photography unit of the FSA represented a historic partnership between government and art, and the photographers, among them Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, created the defining look of the period.

The symbolic end to this cultural flowering came finally with the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40, a collective event that presented a vision of the future as a utopia of streamlined modernity and, at long last, consumer abundance. Retrieving the stories of an entire generation of performers and writers, Dancing in the Dark shows how a rich, panoramic culture both exposed and helped alleviate the national trauma. This luminous work is a monumental study of one of America’s most remarkable artistic periods.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • September 2009
  • ISBN 978-0-393-07225-9
  • 6.7 × 9.6 in / 624 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverDancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression

    Paperback

Endorsements & Reviews

“[A] smart, ambitious piece of work, the product of prodigious research and careful thought, and those who read it will come away with a clearer understanding of an important but widely misunderstood period in the country's cultural life.” — Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

“What will they be writing about our cultural endeavors 70 years from now? That’s the question that keeps coming up when you read Dancing in the Dark, Morris Dickstein’s fascinating examination of how the Great Depression influenced art, music, and literature.” — The Daily Beast

“Morris Dickstein achieves something so remarkable with Dancing in the Dark that it hovers close to the miraculous: He almost makes you wish you'd been living in America during the 1930s.” — Gene Seymour, Newsday

“[A] judiciously researched, persuasively argued, elegant analysis of Depression culture.... Dickstein is...exhaustive without being exhausting, and his book is a commendable compression of a complex decade.” — Saul Austerlitz, Boston Globe

“A collection of thoughtfully linked essays on relatively few but exemplary works and their creators—novels, poems, plays, movies, art (both high and decorative) and music (both popular and classical) that defined the period between the Crash of 1929 and America's entrance into World War II. These admirably written pieces are marked by a generosity of spirit that never deteriorates into the quarrelsome or the niggardly, even when Dickstein does not fully endorse the objects he's discussing....Dickstein is terrific on all kinds of expression.” — Richard Schickel, The Los Angeles Times

“Starred Review. Dickstein's fluent, erudite, intriguing meditations turn up many resonances, comparing, for example, the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will to Busby Berkeley musicals and Gone with the Wind to gangster films....The result is a fascinating portrait of a distant era that still speaks compellingly to our own.” — Publishers Weekly

“Starred Review. His scintillating commentary illuminates an important dimension of a decade too often considered only in political or economic terms….It’s hard to imagine a more astute, more graceful guide to a remarkably creative period.” — Kirkus Reviews

“[A] bighearted, rambling new survey of American culture in the nineteen-thirties.... Dickstein...values the popular culture of the Depression, and writes with enthusiasm about Cole Porter’s wit, George Gershwin’s jazz cadences, and the racing stripes and shiny surfaces of Art Deco.” — Caleb Crain, The New Yorker

“Dickstein looks beyond the mainstream to the nation’s minorities, whose powerlessness made economic hardships even harder to bear, and he details the contributions of African Americans and immigrant Jews to American culture. Parallels to contemporary economic conditions mark this as an exceptionally relevant book.” — Mark Knoblauch, Booklist

“A significant historical work. A wonderful cultural historian, Morris Dickstein has written a book that lends testimony to the perseverance of the nation at that time.” — Gay Talese

“A tour de force of '30s culture, high and low.  The writing is never less than scintillating, the interpretations bold and incisive, the range encyclopedic.... As timely and readable a book as any that will be published this year.” — David Nasaw, author of Andrew Carnegie

Dancing in the Dark is a book best read slowly, perhaps with a DVD player or YouTube close at hand, so that when Dickstein invokes Fred Astaire's "refusal to dance, and the very dance in which he acts this out" in Swing Time, you can see exactly what he means.... [a]s we again find ourselves whistling past the big, bad wolf of economic hard times, Dickstein reminds us of how much we owe the culture that taught all of us how to face the music and dance.” — D.D. Guttenplan, The Nation