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Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression

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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, y 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. 24 illustrations.


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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, y 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. 24 illustrations.

30 review for Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    I had always been interested in the 1930s in American history, particularly in its cultural manifestations in literature, film, and music. When I saw a favorable review in The New York Review of Books of Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, I resolved to pick it up as soon as I could. There is an overall impression that the Depression was all I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but as Dickstein points out, there are numerous forces in play. For examp I had always been interested in the 1930s in American history, particularly in its cultural manifestations in literature, film, and music. When I saw a favorable review in The New York Review of Books of Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, I resolved to pick it up as soon as I could. There is an overall impression that the Depression was all I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but as Dickstein points out, there are numerous forces in play. For example, how is it that the worst economic crisis in our country's history saw the Screwball Comedies from Hollywood, films such as Easy Living, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story. It also saw the great films of John Ford, which ran the gamut from The Grapes of Wrath to Stagecoach. Then there was the music -- not only Woody Guthrie and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," but also Porgy and Bess, the music of Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. In the end, I think that Dickstein did a good job with a very large subject. At first, I didn't know where he was going with the arrangement of his chapters (and I still have some misgivings about some of his choices, but not major ones). Then, on the second last page, it all came together for me:Radio, movies, and popular music left few people out, especially with the tremendous advances in rural electrification, one of the New Deal's more far-reaching programs. The high arts, once the preserve of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority, began to embrace a crazy quilt of ethnic, religious, and regional populations. As Alfred Kazin wrote in Starting Out in the Thirties, "the banked-up experience of the plebes, of Jews, Irishmen, Negroes, Armenians, Italians, was coming into American books." And not just books, but mass culture as well. The energies of such outsiders, especially blacks and Jews, propelled popular music to the center of the new hybrid culture, while immigrant Jews and their children confected a Hollywood version of the American Dream. Moviegoing then was nothing if not a collective activity, a genuine mass act.That, of course, is it. As a Hungarian-American, I have never felt any particular identification with the Anglo-Saxon roots of American culture. Beginning in the 1930s, however -- just around the time my own parents came to America -- I have felt more like a participant in American culture, rather than a mere observer.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    This is less a cultural history of the Depression than it is an eminent critic's personal selection of the most significant art produced during the Thirties, accompanied by his brilliant analyses of these works. Although the graphic arts and music are considered, the book's primary emphasis is on fiction and cinematography. Dickstein's extensive essays on the individual literary works and films from this era, those that have entered the canon as well as those that he argues should be included, a This is less a cultural history of the Depression than it is an eminent critic's personal selection of the most significant art produced during the Thirties, accompanied by his brilliant analyses of these works. Although the graphic arts and music are considered, the book's primary emphasis is on fiction and cinematography. Dickstein's extensive essays on the individual literary works and films from this era, those that have entered the canon as well as those that he argues should be included, are the soul of the book - are the reason to read it. His critiques, even of the better known novels and films, are always fresh, insightful, illuminating; and his discussions of the lesser known works (for example: Gold's "Jews without Money" or West's "A Cool Million") had me regretting my ignorance of them - had me searching Amazon.com for copies. Less impressive is his survey of the music and art of this period - here he is solid, interesting, but much less comprehensive. This book was a stretch for me - beyond my usual reading genre - do not usually read fiction much less literary criticism. Still, Dickstein held my interest - particularly when he went beyond the consideration of individual works and attempted to draw the overarching themes of the Depression Culture - its need for escapist fantasy, its need for movement, for hope, for community, for political action - and used these needs, these longings, as his hermeneutics for understanding the art. Two minor disappointments were that the book was too New York-centric, placing far too much emphasis on the influence of the Left, in particular on the influence of the "Popular Front" tactic of the Communist Party, and, secondly, that it mostly ignored the trivial, ephemeral culture, the popular arts and activities that had no lasting significance, left no enduring legacy, but that formed the everyday lives, the 'culture', of the people - ignored the things that should be included in a real cultural history of the era. Course, this is not intended to be a historical work - is intended to be a work of criticism - and as such, is simply brilliant.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Dickstein comes up with some very insightful commentary and criticism of popular culture in the 1930s... but how the hell does one write a book subtitled "A Cultural History of the Great Depression" and completely miss The Carter Family, the Grand Ole Opry, etc? The subtitle should be "An Elitist New York Urbanite's Cultural History of the Great Depression." Beyond his blatant cherry-picking of material to suit his simplistic thesis, Dickstein tends to over-analyze his subject material and overs Dickstein comes up with some very insightful commentary and criticism of popular culture in the 1930s... but how the hell does one write a book subtitled "A Cultural History of the Great Depression" and completely miss The Carter Family, the Grand Ole Opry, etc? The subtitle should be "An Elitist New York Urbanite's Cultural History of the Great Depression." Beyond his blatant cherry-picking of material to suit his simplistic thesis, Dickstein tends to over-analyze his subject material and overstate the connections between social and political events and specific artistic trends- and between those artistic trends themselves (the mass marketing of Art Deco products parallels the popularity of swing music? Really? You goin' with that?). Literary critics should stick to literary criticism and leave the history to historians- well, at least this literary critic should.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Mommalibrarian

    a series of in depth analysis of books - novels and poetry, plays, movies - tinpan alley and jazz, music and other assorted 'cultural' events. Some of all of these were completely new to me. As a result I am tempted to read: In Dubious Battle but John Steinbeck, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, Quicksand by Nella Larsen, A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. Just what I needed - more books to read. The scope of the topics made me wish the author had included a master timeline. It would be nice if it h a series of in depth analysis of books - novels and poetry, plays, movies - tinpan alley and jazz, music and other assorted 'cultural' events. Some of all of these were completely new to me. As a result I am tempted to read: In Dubious Battle but John Steinbeck, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, Quicksand by Nella Larsen, A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. Just what I needed - more books to read. The scope of the topics made me wish the author had included a master timeline. It would be nice if it had included: the major events of the depression and the government response, the history of the Communist party in America and changes abroad as the affected the American party, the repeal of prohibition, the vote for women, the 'Code' for the movie industry, immigration - from what countries in what number in what year. It is interesting to try and put all these things together. I could read a lot more history if it was as engagingly written as this.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    "Cultural history" is a great concept. Accepting that history is more than wars and elections and politics, books like this can offer fascinating insights into what a period of time was like for those who lived through it. Morris Dickstein's "Dancing in the Dark" is only partially successful. While often interesting, Dickstein's saga is seldom compelling. And it's hard to beat the 1930s for cultural drama. But, if you haven't read the books or seen the movies or heard the music, this can read li "Cultural history" is a great concept. Accepting that history is more than wars and elections and politics, books like this can offer fascinating insights into what a period of time was like for those who lived through it. Morris Dickstein's "Dancing in the Dark" is only partially successful. While often interesting, Dickstein's saga is seldom compelling. And it's hard to beat the 1930s for cultural drama. But, if you haven't read the books or seen the movies or heard the music, this can read like a textbook. So I somewhat enjoyed the sections about the movies and music, but not much about the books, although the sections on F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck are quite good. Too often, though, Dickstein forces the average reader to follow his various theses, rather than doing what the great historical writers do -- bring history alive through great storytelling. As the great rock poet Pete Townshend once said,"writing about music is like dancing about architecture." The same could be said for writing about culture -- it's hard to dance to a band with no rhythm.

  6. 4 out of 5

    George

    MAGICAL! "Artists and performers rarely succeed in changing the world, but they can change our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live in it."—Chapter 17 At twenty-three hours, twenty-nine minutes long, the audio book of DANCING IN THE DARK: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dirkstein offers a comprehensive critique and analysis of 1930s, Depression Era, popular art—novels, poetry, stage, movies, music, and radio—a magical kaleidoscope of delightful a MAGICAL! "Artists and performers rarely succeed in changing the world, but they can change our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live in it."—Chapter 17 At twenty-three hours, twenty-nine minutes long, the audio book of DANCING IN THE DARK: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dirkstein offers a comprehensive critique and analysis of 1930s, Depression Era, popular art—novels, poetry, stage, movies, music, and radio—a magical kaleidoscope of delightful and entertaining stories about stories, and stories about story makers. What a great lecture series on the art and culture of the Great Depression this book would make—and still, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Recommendation: This book was so entertaining and enjoyable that now, that I've listened to it, I want to read it, too. Book, movie, stage, and nostalgia nerds make this your very next read/listen. "They were dancing in the dark, moving in time to a music of their own, but the steps were magical."—Chapter 17 MP3 Audiobook edition, 23 hours, 29 minutes

  7. 4 out of 5

    Steven Vaughan-Nichols

    This history got great reviews. I don't know what they were reading. Yes, it's very good at times, especially in his discussion of movies, but too much of the time it feels like the author was trying to shoehorn his themes dealing with American Communism and its interaction with the culture of the 30s, into a relationship that simply didn't exist. Did Communism play a role? Sure--Woody Guthrie, Diego Rivera, Mike Gold--but after that his arguments quickly run of steam. There are also times when I This history got great reviews. I don't know what they were reading. Yes, it's very good at times, especially in his discussion of movies, but too much of the time it feels like the author was trying to shoehorn his themes dealing with American Communism and its interaction with the culture of the 30s, into a relationship that simply didn't exist. Did Communism play a role? Sure--Woody Guthrie, Diego Rivera, Mike Gold--but after that his arguments quickly run of steam. There are also times when I felt like this had not so much been written as a summary of his studies of the culture of the 1930s, as a sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely, bound together collection of essays about novelists, movie-makers, photographers, etc. etc. of the 30s. Someday someone will write a great history of all the fascinating ways that popular culture was expressed during the Great Depression. This is not that book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    David

    Dancing in the Dark has a couple of flaws, keeping it from a 5 star rating. The first flaw is the author states the cause of the Great Depression to have been the 1929 stockmarket crash. In point of fact, it was the international trade barriers/tariffs thrown up after the crash that was the cause of the depression. The consequences of these barriers was to put the final nail in the coffin of the first global economy founded via the British Empire. The second flaw is that the cultural elements an Dancing in the Dark has a couple of flaws, keeping it from a 5 star rating. The first flaw is the author states the cause of the Great Depression to have been the 1929 stockmarket crash. In point of fact, it was the international trade barriers/tariffs thrown up after the crash that was the cause of the depression. The consequences of these barriers was to put the final nail in the coffin of the first global economy founded via the British Empire. The second flaw is that the cultural elements analyzed in the book are never fully woven into the lived experience of the American people. The people end up in Dickstein's text as something of an unrealized abstraction, and the history reads flat because of this. On top of these two flaws one might add a third, though this a minor one. The readings of popular fiction, literature, film, radio, art, etc. are, for the most part, typical. Anyone with an interest in the Arts of '30s America would have come across these readings many, many times. Then why read Dancing in the Dark? The answer is that it is a competent, but well-worn, reading of the cultural history of the '30. Morris Dickstein's reading of economics and economic history, as well, is very weak, but the cultural readings are fairly good, though not particularly original. In the end, Dancing in the Dark was a competent reading of '30s America and for the neophyte reader worth the effort. Rating: a strong 3 out of 5 stars. Recommended for readers new to '30s American cultural history.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Shayla

    I read this book for my American History class for a book review on the Depression Era. It was well written and informative on all matters cultural during the Great Depression. Dickstein provides insight into the mood and general mentality of the people during the separate political stages of the Depression. The last few chapters of Dancing in the Dark however, were poorly elaborated and seemed as an after thought, they barely belonged;the book would have been perfectly fine without them. After I read this book for my American History class for a book review on the Depression Era. It was well written and informative on all matters cultural during the Great Depression. Dickstein provides insight into the mood and general mentality of the people during the separate political stages of the Depression. The last few chapters of Dancing in the Dark however, were poorly elaborated and seemed as an after thought, they barely belonged;the book would have been perfectly fine without them. After reading this I have found myself wanting to read some of the books he detailed in the earlier chapters and to watch the movies and plays produced during the Depression years that he mentioned. Though I doubt I will ever read this again for my own enjoyment,it was a great book to read to learn about the Depression because it is without the boring explanations of the economy.

  10. 5 out of 5

    James

    Dickstein's book shows how American cultural producers grappled with the desperate times of the Great Depression. In the worst of days of the long economic and social crisis, artists, film-makers, musicians, and writers let loose to produce culture that made other eras seem tame. Dickstein argued that a combination of the horrible conditions that exposed the contradictions of American society, the influence of the Communist Party led Popular Front culture, and the energy of the New Deal coalitio Dickstein's book shows how American cultural producers grappled with the desperate times of the Great Depression. In the worst of days of the long economic and social crisis, artists, film-makers, musicians, and writers let loose to produce culture that made other eras seem tame. Dickstein argued that a combination of the horrible conditions that exposed the contradictions of American society, the influence of the Communist Party led Popular Front culture, and the energy of the New Deal coalition pushed an explosion of challenging and wild culture. He traced the cultural history that began in the 1920s but took a hard turn in the 1930s, culminating in the New York 1939-40 World's Fair. Dickstein argued that rising fascism and continued destitution made Americans escape into culture like radio, novels, and music. While at times, Dancing in the Dark reads like a literary analysis instead of history, which makes sense given his background in English and Theater departments. He focuses on popular novels of the period, from the Proletarian style novels and the later left-populist Popular Front nationalism that recentered the common person as the protagonist and the rich and powerful as the villains. Part one focuses on those writers, who became sympathetic to Communism or themselves Communists as they seemed to be the only people challenging the system that had plunged the nation into the starving and the full. In the early 1930s, they were the fighters though the literature and photography tended to focus on the militant field organizers rather than the ideological Stalinist party heads. Part two looks to the middle class responses to the American dream being shattered, with satires and critiques of the wealthy. Part 3 moves to escapism. how music like the jazz halls of swing helped answer those needs/ Screwball comedies tended to fill the void in film, though many people turned to radio since it was free while movie theaters were not. Finally, part 4 focuses on the need to community and the rise of the Popular Front "unity of progressives" in the face of rising global fascism in response to the continued Great Depression. The book has been criticized for missing cultural phenomenons and focusing too much on the author's strengths, which are film and literature, but in a book as ambitious as this, that is to be expected. It also focuses on the producers of culture as opposed to the great mass of poor and working people struggling to make over the decade, whom produced their own culture. I would have liked a bit less high and middle brow and more popular and subcultural cultures of working class people, like sports. But, those are minor criticisms, and probably should be the subject of other books, because the book shows the richness and wild abandon of culture in the face of desperateness. Dickstein remarks that growing up in the 1950s, when he began to encounter old 1930s culture in music and novels, he was shocked by how good it was, since comparably the 1950s seemed bland and forgettable. It was a decade of challenge to what should be and struggling just to survive against poverty and threats of fascism, and that is reflected in the cultural productions, at least in the major sampling of Dickstein.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Individualfrog

    An interesting but necessarily very selective look at some of the art of the Great Depression. If I had written it I would have made many different choices. There is no Disney at all, very little discussion of WPA murals and the Federal Theater Project. The Great Gatsby, written long before the Depression and having nothing to do with it that I can see, gets a detailed look (as does Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo), but Gone With the Wind, published in 1936 and even according to the autho An interesting but necessarily very selective look at some of the art of the Great Depression. If I had written it I would have made many different choices. There is no Disney at all, very little discussion of WPA murals and the Federal Theater Project. The Great Gatsby, written long before the Depression and having nothing to do with it that I can see, gets a detailed look (as does Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo), but Gone With the Wind, published in 1936 and even according to the author something of a Depression allegory, gets like a sentence. Often I would look in the index to see if something was going to be treated and find it not there at all, or one mention. But that's fine--Dickstein has different tastes, is interested in different things, and the Depression was long, with a lot of art to choose from. Sometimes, when he was discussing things I have no interest whatever in, like Clifford Odets's plays, it felt like a real slow slog, so I imagine that writing about something he had no interest in would be even worse.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Elderberrywine

    A marvelously detailed examination of the Depression Era through the literature, movies, and music of the time. Dickstein does a marvelous job of weaving together strands one might never have considered as being connected. For example, much like Grapes of Wrath, The Wizard of Oz is also a classic Depression road movie. Think about it - you know it's true! But nothing sums it all up quite as well as that glorious title song. Dancing in the dark, till the tune ends, We're dancing in the dark and it s A marvelously detailed examination of the Depression Era through the literature, movies, and music of the time. Dickstein does a marvelous job of weaving together strands one might never have considered as being connected. For example, much like Grapes of Wrath, The Wizard of Oz is also a classic Depression road movie. Think about it - you know it's true! But nothing sums it all up quite as well as that glorious title song. Dancing in the dark, till the tune ends, We're dancing in the dark and it soon ends, We're waltzing in the wonder of why we're here, Time hurries by, we're here . . . and gone; Looking for the light of a new love, To brighten up the night, I have you love, And we can face the music together, Dancing in the dark. As were we all in the '30s. And may well be again.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Caron Smith

    A little dry and "tomey," but has some interesting points about the writers and filmmakers of the 1930s. Steinbeck, Welles, Faulkner, Kapra and many others lesser known today. Makes me want to add to me "Want to Read" list and "Want to Watch List" on Netflicks. Gave up reading it. It's due back at the library today. Too dry, boring and many redundencies in it. A little dry and "tomey," but has some interesting points about the writers and filmmakers of the 1930s. Steinbeck, Welles, Faulkner, Kapra and many others lesser known today. Makes me want to add to me "Want to Read" list and "Want to Watch List" on Netflicks. Gave up reading it. It's due back at the library today. Too dry, boring and many redundencies in it.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Carol Tilley

    I think I'm most astounded that a cultural history of the US during this time period can almost fully exclude any mention of comics (strips or otherwise). I think I'm most astounded that a cultural history of the US during this time period can almost fully exclude any mention of comics (strips or otherwise).

  15. 5 out of 5

    Randy Wilson

    Having just finished Churchwell's book about the Great Gatsby, the classic American novel of the twenties, I was surprised that Fitzgerald came up so prominently in this cultural history of the Great Depression. However, the subtitle, 'a cultural history of the Great Depression' is a misnomer. There was very little history in this book. It was much more about how artists; novelists, film directors, poets and songwriters interweaved themes of the common man and poverty into their work. Many times Having just finished Churchwell's book about the Great Gatsby, the classic American novel of the twenties, I was surprised that Fitzgerald came up so prominently in this cultural history of the Great Depression. However, the subtitle, 'a cultural history of the Great Depression' is a misnomer. There was very little history in this book. It was much more about how artists; novelists, film directors, poets and songwriters interweaved themes of the common man and poverty into their work. Many times like with Fitzgerald it felt like Dickstein was more involved in explicating the transcendent qualities of the artist as well as those that were more problematic in and of themselves with little reference to what was going on around them. However, Dickstein did a thorough job of studying these artists and considering aspects of their work that hadn't been explored or that I hadn't considered before. I felt that he treated their creativity seriously whether it was Cole Porter, Fred Astaire or Robert Frost. He does justice to them as artists and had revelatory insights into their work and the contribution they made during the thirties to the American experience. Clearly he was most interested in how these artists took on the events of the thirties particularly poverty and economic hard times and expressed themselves and their art during this dark period. But what was it like to suddenly live in a time when life grew narrower? When the fear of losing one's livelihood was so much more likely? Of having ones thoughts about the role of government and public sector change radically? How did people think about communism, socialism and democracy during the nineteen thirties? Dickstein could have included popular artists who reflected the facts and reality of hard times. Perhaps they were of less literary value but could have grounded the reader better in the facts of the Great Depression.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Edwards

    Listened to the audio book, which was very comprehensive in-terms of scope, covering in depth the full-range of cultural works for the depression era. The greatest detail was prehaps afforded to the literature of the period, and it was interesting to become acquainted with many writers that I'd frankly never heard of. Dr. Dickstein also had chapters on the poets, film makers/actors, dancers, art deco, politics as it related to New Deal programs for the arts, theater, composers, musicans, and jou Listened to the audio book, which was very comprehensive in-terms of scope, covering in depth the full-range of cultural works for the depression era. The greatest detail was prehaps afforded to the literature of the period, and it was interesting to become acquainted with many writers that I'd frankly never heard of. Dr. Dickstein also had chapters on the poets, film makers/actors, dancers, art deco, politics as it related to New Deal programs for the arts, theater, composers, musicans, and journalists. His writing (spoken word) is "elequent" to say the least, and his insights witty. He occasionally interjects personal anecdotes, which are germaine, with him growing up in the 40's and 50's. Overall, I ended-up taking away a lot in-terms of new information from an era that's fascincated me for years. An excellent, albeit long read (listen).

  17. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Mc morris

    A nice think piece covering the influences and motivations of the artists of this period and reading that now, helps to set in some lens the manner in which the more successful artists were able to find success and become American Icons in the coming times. A decent read for those looking to enlighten themselves on the ways that culture helps to dictate art, and as a result how those artists are received during their lifetimes, or revered after they die.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Fran

    I am not sure why I purchased this book, but it has been languishing in my stacks for many, many years. I pulled it out in an attempt to clear some clutter in January, and while I finished this, I can't recommend the read. It is pretty dry and less a cultural history than a tome of the author's (pretty privileged) opinions about The Depression. I am not sure why I purchased this book, but it has been languishing in my stacks for many, many years. I pulled it out in an attempt to clear some clutter in January, and while I finished this, I can't recommend the read. It is pretty dry and less a cultural history than a tome of the author's (pretty privileged) opinions about The Depression.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gwen - Chew & Digest Books -

    Totally Interesting if you are completely into the entertainment of the period, a slow slog if you aren't a superfan and horribly boring if you've never noticed the 30's. I love the period and it was still long for me, though an interesting view that I've never really pondered. Totally Interesting if you are completely into the entertainment of the period, a slow slog if you aren't a superfan and horribly boring if you've never noticed the 30's. I love the period and it was still long for me, though an interesting view that I've never really pondered.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dan Morgan

    Unfinished. It's just a very long book review Unfinished. It's just a very long book review

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    Throughout my life I have harbored a special fascination for the 1930s. The decade in which my parents were born seemed so remote from my own entree into the world some 30 years later. It was a period of extremes, testing the limits of human resourcefulness and courage, fostering the most brutal aspects of human nature, yet also issuing forth a popular culture of arts and letters that is, arguably, unsurpassed in the 20th century. Morris Dickstein has woven these threads together into an extreme Throughout my life I have harbored a special fascination for the 1930s. The decade in which my parents were born seemed so remote from my own entree into the world some 30 years later. It was a period of extremes, testing the limits of human resourcefulness and courage, fostering the most brutal aspects of human nature, yet also issuing forth a popular culture of arts and letters that is, arguably, unsurpassed in the 20th century. Morris Dickstein has woven these threads together into an extremely engaging tour of this complex era. Any fan of the popular culture of mid 20th century America will find much to add to a book or film list. I have not read widely in the 1930s genre, finding myself, instead, leaping from the Jazz Age to the post-war experience in literature. Dancing in the Dark has convinced me that I must fill in the gaps post haste. The work of Nathaniel West now holds particular interest after reading what this author had to say about Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust. As we now find ourselves in our own era of relative challenge and peril it is inspiring to remember that Hard Times invoked luminous voices during the Great Depression. If our grandparents' generation was able to rise to such a catastrophic occasion in the personalities of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, James Agee, the Gershwins and a pantheon of film stars still viewed as Golden Age performers...certainly we can hope for a little more than Lady Gaga and the second Homer Simpson. (The first, of course, being the main character in Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locusts".) It is interesting to ponder the possibility that times of low prosperity and security may produce more exceptional cultural milestones. The amazing music, film, product design, fashion and fiction of the 1930s make me feel fortunate to have been raised by people who experienced this era first hand and passed along to me all that was beautiful about it. Hearing, through first person narration, their accounts of day-to-day life in the midst of such deprivation has also been a gift. It puts so much about our own worries and fears into graphic perspective. Dickstein seemed most sure footed in his literary criticism. His background as a professor of English and Theater at CUNY Graduate Center would explain such fluency. As a huge fan of the music and film of the 1930s, I would have enjoyed several more chapters devoted to these themes (and, therefore, would have read an 800 page book, rather than one that tapped out at 530 pages.) I imagine other authors have covered this ground and plan to seek out such material (some of which was cited by Morris Dickstein.) Bravo! Dancing in the Dark was a cultural banquet table at which I plan to feast further through the notes I have taken and titles I have added to my reading list at its conclusion.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jules

    Mostly, I think this just needed at least one more really intense edit -- both for content and for copy (even I was spotting a couple of dropped words here and there at the end, and some phrases and paragraphs seemed to be repeated almost verbatim at a couple of different places). The chapters themselves seemed more like a collection of separate articles, and Dickstein wasn't great at pulling them together to make one whole work. There's no question that Dickstein knows his material, but as can Mostly, I think this just needed at least one more really intense edit -- both for content and for copy (even I was spotting a couple of dropped words here and there at the end, and some phrases and paragraphs seemed to be repeated almost verbatim at a couple of different places). The chapters themselves seemed more like a collection of separate articles, and Dickstein wasn't great at pulling them together to make one whole work. There's no question that Dickstein knows his material, but as can happen when academics write for a more general audience, this ended up a bit bloodless, more of a catalog of interesting facts than a single work. The last couple of chapters especially seemed out of place, with few references to earlier points and themes, making it hard to tell how the works he looked at fit into the greater context of the time. (Also, I'd take major issue with his claim that no music since that of the 30s is so jam-packed with references to contemporary culture, because it demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance of hip-hop.)

  23. 4 out of 5

    Bookmarks Magazine

    Although Dancing in the Dark risks falling into the category of books suffering from "decaditis," as the New York Times calls it, Dickstein's focus on the good that art can do and the many places from which it can arise saves the day here. The project's broad scope gives the author's insights an inevitable scattershot quality -- Walt Disney, perhaps the most famous artist and visionary to come out of the period, doesn't figure at all in the book -- and Dancing in the Dark certainly isn't meant t Although Dancing in the Dark risks falling into the category of books suffering from "decaditis," as the New York Times calls it, Dickstein's focus on the good that art can do and the many places from which it can arise saves the day here. The project's broad scope gives the author's insights an inevitable scattershot quality -- Walt Disney, perhaps the most famous artist and visionary to come out of the period, doesn't figure at all in the book -- and Dancing in the Dark certainly isn't meant to be an exhaustive study of the period's politics. Through his appreciation for Depression-era culture, though, Dickstein ably articulates the ""crucial role that culture can play in times of national crisis. This is an excerpt of a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    Never were high hopes so devastatingly dashed. The author admits that it's too difficult to write an exhaustive cultural history of the Great Depression, and it is, but he chooses to focus on what I consider it's least interesting subjects. Honestly, I was 350 pages in before I was even briefly engaged. So much time was devoted to literature, and I like Steinbeck and Nathanael West, but it was bone dry. Summary after summary of works deemed important. Promises of discussing horror films of the 3 Never were high hopes so devastatingly dashed. The author admits that it's too difficult to write an exhaustive cultural history of the Great Depression, and it is, but he chooses to focus on what I consider it's least interesting subjects. Honestly, I was 350 pages in before I was even briefly engaged. So much time was devoted to literature, and I like Steinbeck and Nathanael West, but it was bone dry. Summary after summary of works deemed important. Promises of discussing horror films of the 30s broken, but Woody Allen's THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO is invoked several times, and yes! We will dissect CITIZEN KANE for the gazillionth time! The writing is pretentious. There is no author or composer that doesn't have an ian tacked on to it to make it an adjective. The chapter on Broadway musicals was most interesting, but too little too late.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nikki

    This reads like a textbook, but the research and detail lovingly worked through this decade-in-review is completely fantastic. Dickstein takes his subject very seriously, and demonstrates a thorough understanding of the zeitgeist of the Great Depression in all its complexity and contrariness. The elegance of the linguistic register is stunning, flowing off the page with all the noble character of a venerated grandfather imparting the wisdom of his years. It requires the reader's full attention a This reads like a textbook, but the research and detail lovingly worked through this decade-in-review is completely fantastic. Dickstein takes his subject very seriously, and demonstrates a thorough understanding of the zeitgeist of the Great Depression in all its complexity and contrariness. The elegance of the linguistic register is stunning, flowing off the page with all the noble character of a venerated grandfather imparting the wisdom of his years. It requires the reader's full attention and keeps him there with the completeness of his study: everything from film to literature to art to ephemera is addressed in equal measure to create the picture of such an unusual and precious time in history.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Gary Land

    I found this book to be very interesting and enlightening. It covers a broad swath of American culture, from high art to popular culture, during the Great Depression. I have read most of the books, listened to most of the music, and seen most of the movies that Dickstein writes about; his comments make me want to go back to these productions with my now greater awareness of their meaning. Unlike many contemporary literary and cultural critics, Dickstein avoids academic jargon and has produced a I found this book to be very interesting and enlightening. It covers a broad swath of American culture, from high art to popular culture, during the Great Depression. I have read most of the books, listened to most of the music, and seen most of the movies that Dickstein writes about; his comments make me want to go back to these productions with my now greater awareness of their meaning. Unlike many contemporary literary and cultural critics, Dickstein avoids academic jargon and has produced a volume that, while requiring close attention, is highly readable. I strongly recommend this book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Clara

    Dancing in the Dark was much lauded when it was first published, and this and its subject matter drew me the book. Clearly, Morris Dickstein knows his stuff. The book is obviously well-researched and its reach is impressive. Reading the book gave me a context for the disparate pieces of cultural history that I knew individually but had not viewed as a whole. Unfortunately, Dickstein seems to bend some of the pieces to make them fit his storyline, and this can fall flat. Still, Dickstein has done Dancing in the Dark was much lauded when it was first published, and this and its subject matter drew me the book. Clearly, Morris Dickstein knows his stuff. The book is obviously well-researched and its reach is impressive. Reading the book gave me a context for the disparate pieces of cultural history that I knew individually but had not viewed as a whole. Unfortunately, Dickstein seems to bend some of the pieces to make them fit his storyline, and this can fall flat. Still, Dickstein has done a great job bringing all of this important material together in one place and giving it an intelligent and thoughtful treatment. For that reason alone it's a book worth reading.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Herlocker

    This was not quite the fun read I was expecting. It sorta read like a lecture series -- a little unfocused and rambling, at times looping back on itself. It also felt a little rushed on the parts I was interested in -- movies and music -- and completely lacking in radio shows and fashions. If you want to know more about the Depression than what's normally covered in a history class this is a good read, but just know that much of the discussion is not only at a pretty high intellectual level, but This was not quite the fun read I was expecting. It sorta read like a lecture series -- a little unfocused and rambling, at times looping back on itself. It also felt a little rushed on the parts I was interested in -- movies and music -- and completely lacking in radio shows and fashions. If you want to know more about the Depression than what's normally covered in a history class this is a good read, but just know that much of the discussion is not only at a pretty high intellectual level, but also focused on the "higher" culture of the time. Tons of information about literature and intellectuals of the time.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lauri

    I really wanted to like this book. The subject fascinates me and is a necessary addition to the history of the Depression era. BUT, the author is a professor at CUNY Graduate Center and the book reads like one long, tedious lecture after another. I felt like I was back in college as an English Lit major but missing all the interest and intellectual challenge of a classroom discussion with many voices participating. The book is filled with name-dropping and allusions to theories or authors which I really wanted to like this book. The subject fascinates me and is a necessary addition to the history of the Depression era. BUT, the author is a professor at CUNY Graduate Center and the book reads like one long, tedious lecture after another. I felt like I was back in college as an English Lit major but missing all the interest and intellectual challenge of a classroom discussion with many voices participating. The book is filled with name-dropping and allusions to theories or authors which only serve to highlight Mr. Dickstein's professorial smugness. Can't recommend it unless you too are writing a treatise.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Buddle

    Here's a book that contextualizes such wildly disparate artists as Henry Roth, James T. Farrell, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aaron Copland, Frank Capra, Woody Guthrie, and Cary Grant (among others). Dickstein's book roots them firmly in the Depression era and explains how these artists reflected the popular mood of the American citizenry. It's good stuff, but a taxing read. I love the exegeses of Roth's "Call it Sleep" and Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy for e Here's a book that contextualizes such wildly disparate artists as Henry Roth, James T. Farrell, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aaron Copland, Frank Capra, Woody Guthrie, and Cary Grant (among others). Dickstein's book roots them firmly in the Depression era and explains how these artists reflected the popular mood of the American citizenry. It's good stuff, but a taxing read. I love the exegeses of Roth's "Call it Sleep" and Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy for example, but its difficult to absorb so much criticism in one huge gulp. My take is that "Dancing in the Dark" is a book better dipped into than read straight through.

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