Dancing in the Dark by Morris Dickstein
A Cultural History of the Great Depression

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Synopsis

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.
 

About Morris Dickstein

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Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
 
Published September 14, 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company. 624 pages
Genres: History. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Dancing in the Dark

The New York Times

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“Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression” is a sprawling bundle of ruminations on the books, music, art, movies and design of the 1930s.

Sep 16 2009 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

The New York Times

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A high-minded cultural history of the 1930s, when sentimental populism could coexist with polished modernism.

Sep 27 2009 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

The Guardian

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Sometimes his argument struggles to plant its feet – it's hard to see how Deco and big-band jazz do the same cultural work – but often it produces astute re-readings of unregarded popular texts.

Dec 04 2009 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

The Wall Street Journal

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The meaning of Depression-era movies, songs and novels.

Sep 15 2009 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

Tampa Bay Times

Norton, 624 pages, $29.95 Review: Morris Dickstein's 'Dancing in the Dark' meld hope, despair of Great Depression 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 3:30am]

Nov 07 2009 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

Bookmarks Magazine

Morris Dickstein, critic and professor of literature, has written on culture and literature in Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties and Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945–1970.

Sep 13 2009 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

California Literary Review

Dickstein asserts that Gold’s novel “single-handedly shaped an agenda for writers of the new decade.” Considering that American novels and short-stories dealing with working class themes had a pedigree reaching backing to the late 19th century, this is a questionable assertion.

Sep 29 2009 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

truthdig

are a persecuted people in America - at any time since it’s colonial founding - is .

Jan 09 2012 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

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A look at the day’s political happenings, including Paul Krugman calls out “insane” NRA and Rick Perry weighs in on the news that the Boy Scouts may be ending its policy of banning gay members.

Apr 03 2014 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

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FRIEND & SAID I WAS CALLING MIAMI-FBI ON MONDAY W/WHAT I ACQUIRED-ON 6/8/04,I CALL MIAMI-FBI & GAVE ALL RELEVANT INFO & I WAS ASKED.

Apr 24 2007 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

truthdig

The ambiguity itself was objectionable to Jane Mayer, a reporter for The New Yorker, who compared “Zero Dark Thirty” unfavorably to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Mayer called Bigelow’s film “devoid” of moral context, in part because, in her words, Boal and Bigelow were guilty of “excising” the co...

Jan 11 2013 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

truthdig

Booth, Clinton’s Manager of Thought, said that Hillary knows that being on the ticket with Obama would give her a “shot” at the presidency.

Jun 05 2008 | Read Full Review of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultur...

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