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Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depressionby Morris Dickstein
"[Morris Dickstein] plunges into the books and movies he writes about and describes characters and plots in detail; he also steps back and looks at the big historical picture and the sweep of social movements. Dancing in the Dark is by far the best book, ever, about American creative expression in the Depression." Jonah Raskin (read the entire San Francisco Chronicle review)
Synopses & Reviews
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 andGod'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 News Annotation:
The Great Depression of the 1930s had an undeniable impact on the economics and politics of the United States. Less studied is the impact it had on the country's cultural makeup. The Depression reshaped the American dream. How that dream, and the contemporary reality, was portrayed by artists, photographers, dancers, poets, novelists, and filmmakers of the era is the subject of this impressive, highly-readable history. Dickstein delves deeply, but not ponderously, into the works of individuals shaping the culture of the day, as well as provides readers with an excellent overview of the times and their cultural meaning. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
A National Book Critics Circle finalist: "The definitive book about Depression culture for our time."—San Francisco Chronicle
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.
In this timely and long-awaited cultural history of the 1930s, 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 distressed Americans at a time of dire economic dislocation. Bringing together a staggering range of materials — from epic Dust Bowl migrations and sharecropper photographs to zany screwball comedies, wildly popular swing bands, and streamlined Deco designs — this eloquent work highlights the pivotal role of culture and government intervention in hard times. Exploding the myth that Depression culture was merely escapist, it concentrates instead on the dynamic energy and insight the arts could provide and the enormous lift they gave to the nation's morale.
Dancing in the Dark shows how our worst economic crisis, as it eroded American individualism and punctured the American dream, produced some of the greatest writing, photography, and mass entertainment ever seen in this country.
'Hailed as one of the best books of 2009 by the New York Timesand the Los Angeles Times, this vibrant portrait of 1930s culture masterfully explores the anxiety and hope, the despair and surprising optimism of distressed Americans during the Great Depression. Morris Dickstein, whom Norman Mailer called \"one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature,\" has brought together a staggering range of material-from epic Dust Bowl migrations to zany screwball comedies, elegant dance musicals, wildly popular swing bands, and streamlined Deco designs. Exploding the myth that Depression culture was merely escapist, Dickstein concentrates on the dynamic energy of the arts, and the resulting lift they gave to the nation\'s morale. A fresh and exhilarating analysis of one of America\'s most remarkable artistic periods, with Dancing in the DarkDickstein delivers a monumental critique. A New York TimesNotable Book, Los Angeles TimesFavorite Book, San Francisco ChronicleBest Book of 2009, and Huffington Post Best Book.'
About the Author
Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English and Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple, among other works. He lives in New York City.
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