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Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified 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
on January 12, 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
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."

Dickstein rightly discusses most at length the work of Steinbeck, especially _The Grapes of Wrath_. Dickstein shows how the book was a sensation followed by a movie version that was far more faithful to its source novel than most Hollywood films were. F. Scott Fitzgerald everyone remembers for _The Great Gatsby_, but that was a 1920s story. Dickstein shows that Fitzgerald came into his own with his confessional "Crack-Up" essays of the next decade, and _Tender Is the Night_, works in which he "... tried to build a new career by exploring the ways in which he had been overextended, self-destructive, like America itself during the boom years." Dickstein's descriptions and analyses of movies are much more fun. After describing the Fascist films of Leni Riefenstahl, Dickstein compares her "appalling choreography of human masses" to that of Busby Berkeley. In _Gold Diggers of 1933_ Ginger Rogers may have opened by singing "We're in the Money", but the show closed with the phantasmagorical "Remember My Forgotten Man", about the veterans who were now neglected and destitute. The movies of the time are famous for their escapism, but Dickstein sees the situation differently; the "let's put on a show" crowd of the movie is hard pressed by financial worries, and before the "We're in the Money" number ends, the chorus girls are thrown out when the sheriff closes the show because the producer can't pay his bills. The torch song of the final number is not uplifting. Rather than escapism, this film like many others Dickstein writes about here reflects the anxieties of poverty, solitude, and loss of hope. The films of the depression were famous for their dance numbers, as in the Astaire / Rogers film _Shall We Dance_, and Dickstein stresses the importance of their physical energy, with dance countermanding the Depression: "It offers a lift to those who feel `down in the dumps,' a sense of movement and relationship to those who feel hemmed in and isolated, a democratic kind of classiness, available in fantasy if not in fact, to replace stiffly hierarchical notions of class." Depression movies might have shown people striving to get ahead, but in line with a darker theme, the people getting ahead were often gangsters; Edward G. Robinson's Rico in _Little Caesar_ has even been analyzed as a proponent of the success principles promoted by Andrew Carnegie. Another movie that shows the darkness of success is _Citizen Kane_. Dickstein's descriptions of the movies, and his acute summations of relevant scenes, are not only penetrating but will make readers want to go back to the originals again (something that will probably not happen with the frankly pessimistic books he describes).

There is a glow of nostalgia for the 1930s as a time when we may not all have been happy, but we were serious and united. As the current economy has its own troubles and individual Americans are helpless to do much about it, it is genuinely inspiring to learn from Dickstein how highbrow and popular art reflected the understanding of that last depression. He has a superb description of screwball comedies, including of course _My Man Godfrey_, wherein William Powell plays a forgotten man himself, restored to high society but only as a butler. He gets a chance to rescue some of the outcasts he used to tent with, realizing that "the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job." He provides the jobs in the movie, and he resists the implication that the men are not his responsibility. It may be just a screwball comedy, but the big question of how we can extend opportunities to the needy remains with us.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Dickstein, in this book, tries to give the reader a broad overview of the cultural environment of the 30's. He largely succeeds, looking at movies and music and literature. Design and architecture and poetry get a little short shrift though. Overall, he tries to show that the culture of the time was a balancing act between the social realism and flights of fancy that can be looked at like the divide between Steinbeck's work or the famous movie musicals with their elaborate choreography. Dickstein claims that the culture had an effect on the psyche of the nation that is equivalent to the economic effect of the new deal. The culture here, proved to be the looked for new deal of the soul as the world went from one that looked like the world of Nathaniel West.

I am conversant with the time period, but this book's greatest asset for me is that it has proven a treasure trove of jumping-off points. The author provides his own analysis of different works, but they lead me to want to experience them first-hand, and to not rely on his words. I kept wanting to go into this site here to look at the texts he mentions and gives treatments. I say texts because that is largely the focus here, even if the moving pictures and music were a part of the milleau, for Dickstein the culture is largely defined by the literature. I recommend the work for those who have limited knowledge about the literature of the era, but are interested and want to learn more.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
If you're a fan of Morris Dickstein (and if you've read any of his books, you probably already are), you can look forward to another gem from this distinguished scholar, critic and author. A lifetime of complex but unpretentious wisdom, of lightly-worn learning, and love of human creativity yield a feast for the mind and spirit.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Dancing in the Dark is an excellent resource for those who are interested in the Great Depression of the 1930s. It enhances history with the cultural aspects of this era. I am writing a novel, and the setting begins during the decade of the depression. Of course, the characters were shaped by their struggles to survive in a world of the down-trodden. Dancing in the Dark lends insight into the role art played--bringing light into a tawdry world, offering hope in a time of despair.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Although I am too young to have experienced the Great Depression first hand, I have a passion for all things of the era. When people ask my why, I reply "Because it seems to me that it was the last time that our nation possessed a soul."

I love this book. I found the author's critical assessments to be so sane, humane, and wise. The book led me, as I was reading, to explore its many topics. A friend burned me three CDs with 100 Cole Porter songs. Then he sent me 100 Irving Berlin. I bought the Bing Crosby boxed set that the author recommended. And I watched at least five of the movies that Morris Dickstein recommended. One downside: What am I to do with my new crush on Sylvia Sydney?

I think this is what criticism should be. It should inspire the reader to engage with the subject. It should enhance the art, not compete with it, or, worse, crush it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2014
Format: Paperback
This is a genuis presentation of the proletariat literature (and other art forms) of the American Depression years. Inspired by Dickstein's book, I've dedicated the rest of this year to the reading of "prole" literature of the 30s. Much of this I've read in the past -- but such enjoyment in re-reading Steinbeck, Nathaniel West, Faulkner and others and in reading (for the first time) some writers I've never read before.
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Format: Kindle Edition
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.
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