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Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression Paperback – September 6, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The gloom of the Depression fed a brilliant cultural efflorescence that's trenchantly explored here. Dickstein (Gates of Eden), a professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, surveys a panorama that includes high-brow masterpieces and mass entertainments, grim proletarian novels and frothy screwball comedies, haunting photographs of dust bowl poverty and elegant art deco designs. He finds the scene a jumble of fertile contradictions—between outward-looking naturalism and introspective modernism, social consciousness and giddy escapism, a hard-boiled, increasingly desperate individualism and a new vision of singing, dancing, collective solidarity—which somehow cohered into extraordinary attempts to cheer people up—or else to sober them up. 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. While tracing the social meanings of culture, he stays raptly alive to its aesthetic pleasures, like the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers collaboration, which expressed the inner radiance that was one true bastion against social suffering. The result is a fascinating portrait of a distant era that still speaks compellingly to our own. 24 illus. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From 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 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 text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393338762
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393338768
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #346,916 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Triebwasser on October 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found "Dancing in the Dark" to be an embarrassment of riches. The elegance of its writing, the political and psychological sophistication that inform it, the depth and clarity of its argumentation, and the jaw-dropping breadth of source material at Morris Dickstein's command all combine to make this a magisterial work of cultural history. Dickstein accomplishes what all cultural historians attempt, but few manage, to bring off, creating a palpable sense of what it must have been like to live, think and feel during the period in question - here the era of the gravest U.S. crisis after the Civil War, the 1930s. With breathtaking erudition, Dickstein draws together insights from disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, film theory, art history, sociology and psychoanalysis, making connections among them that are unexpected but never facile or strained. And "Dancing in the Dark" gives the reader the best of both worlds, bringing together the rigor and careful documentation of the serious academician Dickstein is, with the galloping narrative verve associated with the best popular history writing. Whether you're a professional student of the Great Depression looking for sparkling insights or fresh information, or just a lover of a good, rich read, you'll be entranced by this deeply beautiful book.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Tim Kotora on January 11, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
"Dancing in the Dark" is not the typical survey of the Great Depression years. Politics, economics, foreign policy take back seats to the arts produced in the Thirties--novels and poetry, music, film, drama, operetta, architecture, interior design. Of the many books I've read and documentaries I've watched about the Depression, this book more than most made the bleakness, despair, and grim fight to continue in the face of disaster palpable. The arts surveyed in "Dancing in the Dark" glow that much brighter in contrast.

Dr. Morris Dickstein's commentary goes beyond cataloging; he goes beyond appreciation of the works. He holds them up for the reader to examine with him and thus makes them multi-dimensional instead of just a "good movie" or a "good book." His cataloging, though, is first-rate, as he introduces artists rarely mentioned outside of the academic world. Too much to read and watch, not enough time.

I highly recommend "Dancing in the Dark." It revealed the Thirties in ways I had never considered, introduced works and artists with whom I was not familiar, and entertained me so that I looked forward to the times I could pick it up again.
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Over twenty years ago, Morris Dickstein began gathering reference material for _Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression_ (Norton). He did not realize at the time that his book would be coming out in the worst financial crisis since the Depression. It might be that our own crisis is being tamed, and if so, it will never be the subject of a book like this one, which details the cultural forces at work in America in the 1930s. Dickstein admits that it seems a daunting task: "How can one era have produced both Woody Guthrie and Rudy Vallee, both the Rockettes high-stepping at the Radio Center Music Hall and the Okies on their desperate trek toward the pastures of plenty in California?" I think he would admit that he hasn't been able to untangle all the artistic efforts and influences of the time, but he has made a big and inclusive book on an important theme. "My subject here," he tells us, "is at once concrete--the books, the films of an era: the stories they told, the fears and hopes they expressed--and yet intangible, the look, the mood, the feel of the historical moment." A reader comes away from this book with awe at how much has gotten included. Dickstein is very good at analyzing popular culture; when he considers films and songs, for instance, or popular novels, he scores one hit after another. Much of his book, however, has to do with novels that, well, few people read anymore. Dickstein has read them, and admired them, but literature has been the focus of his life of scholarship. Anyway, the books of the period are not as much fun as the songs or movies. He himself writes, "As serious writers began to emphasize the limitations and distortions of the American Dream, popular artists became obsessed with fantastic, even magical images of success.Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Diane H. Gurien on November 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Readers searching for an in-depth, compelling examination of all aspects of the cultural history of the Depression can do no better than Professor Dickstein's first-rate study. In reviewing music, theater, architecture, literature, photography and film of this era, the author creates a backdrop that is at once informative and - more importantly - invites the reader to further explore for himself the riches of the era.

From his wonderful overview of the films of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; the writings of Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so many more; the music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter..."Dancing" is a can't-put-it-down page-turner... one wished the book would never end.

"Dancing" is highly recommended but, be warned: this introduction to Depression-era culture will make you want to explore more for yourself.

A thoroughly rewarding, richly documented study.
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