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

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Overview

"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 cultural history, Morris Dickstein explores the anxiety and hope, the despair and surprising optimism of a traumatized nation. Whether analyzing the influence of film, design, literature, theater, or music, Dickstein 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 Frank Capra's wildly popular films, he shows how they delivered a catharsis of pain and an evangel of hope. Dickstein suggests that thetragic and comic worlds of Broadway and Hollywood preserved a radiance and energy that became a bastion against social suffering." 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 work is a study of one of America's most remarkable artistic periods.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Dickstein looks beyond the mainstream to the nation’s minorities, whose powerlessness made economic hardships even harder to bear, and he details the contributions of African Americans and immigrant Jews to American culture. Parallels to contemporary economic conditions mark this as an exceptionally relevant book.— Mark Knoblauch
The Los Angeles Times
A collection of thoughtfully linked essays on relatively few but exemplary works and their creators—novels, poems, plays, movies, art (both high and decorative) and music (both popular and classical) that defined the period between the Crash of 1929 and America's entrance into World War II. These admirably written pieces are marked by a generosity of spirit that never deteriorates into the quarrelsome or the niggardly, even when Dickstein does not fully endorse the objects he's discussing....Dickstein is terrific on all kinds of expression.— Richard Schickel
Washington Post Book World
[A] smart, ambitious piece of work, the product of prodigious research and careful thought, and those who read it will come away with a clearer understanding of an important but widely misunderstood period in the country's cultural life.— Jonathan Yardley
Boston Globe
[A] judiciously researched, persuasively argued, elegant analysis of Depression culture.... Dickstein is...exhaustive without being exhausting, and his book is a commendable compression of a complex decade.— Saul Austerlitz
The New Yorker
[A] bighearted, rambling new survey of American culture in the nineteen-thirties.... Dickstein...values the popular culture of the Depression, and writes with enthusiasm about Cole Porter’s wit, George Gershwin’s jazz cadences, and the racing stripes and shiny surfaces of Art Deco.— Caleb Crain
The Daily Beast
“What will they be writing about our cultural endeavors 70 years from now? That’s the question that keeps coming up when you read Dancing in the Dark, Morris Dickstein’s fascinating examination of how the Great Depression influenced art, music, and literature.”
Newsday
Morris Dickstein achieves something so remarkable with Dancing in the Dark that it hovers close to the miraculous: He almost makes you wish you'd been living in America during the 1930s.— Gene Seymour
The Nation
Dancing in the Dark is a book best read slowly, perhaps with a DVD player or YouTube close at hand, so that when Dickstein invokes Fred Astaire's "refusal to dance, and the very dance in which he acts this out" in Swing Time, you can see exactly what he means.... [a]s we again find ourselves whistling past the big, bad wolf of economic hard times, Dickstein reminds us of how much we owe the culture that taught all of us how to face the music and dance.— D.D. Guttenplan
Gay Talese
“A significant historical work. A wonderful cultural historian, Morris Dickstein has written a book that lends testimony to the perseverance of the nation at that time.”
David Nasaw
“A tour de force of '30s culture, high and low. The writing is never less than scintillating, the interpretations bold and incisive, the range encyclopedic.... As timely and readable a book as any that will be published this year.”
Mark Knoblauch - Booklist
“Dickstein looks beyond the mainstream to the nation’s minorities, whose powerlessness made economic hardships even harder to bear, and he details the contributions of African Americans and immigrant Jews to American culture. Parallels to contemporary economic conditions mark this as an exceptionally relevant book.”
Richard Schickel - The Los Angeles Times
“A collection of thoughtfully linked essays on relatively few but exemplary works and their creators—novels, poems, plays, movies, art (both high and decorative) and music (both popular and classical) that defined the period between the Crash of 1929 and America's entrance into World War II. These admirably written pieces are marked by a generosity of spirit that never deteriorates into the quarrelsome or the niggardly, even when Dickstein does not fully endorse the objects he's discussing....Dickstein is terrific on all kinds of expression.”
Jonathan Yardley - Washington Post Book World
“[A] smart, ambitious piece of work, the product of prodigious research and careful thought, and those who read it will come away with a clearer understanding of an important but widely misunderstood period in the country's cultural life.”
Saul Austerlitz - Boston Globe
“[A] judiciously researched, persuasively argued, elegant analysis of Depression culture.... Dickstein is...exhaustive without being exhausting, and his book is a commendable compression of a complex decade.”
Caleb Crain - The New Yorker
“[A] bighearted, rambling new survey of American culture in the nineteen-thirties.... Dickstein...values the popular culture of the Depression, and writes with enthusiasm about Cole Porter’s wit, George Gershwin’s jazz cadences, and the racing stripes and shiny surfaces of Art Deco.”
Gene Seymour - Newsday
“Morris Dickstein achieves something so remarkable with Dancing in the Dark that it hovers close to the miraculous: He almost makes you wish you'd been living in America during the 1930s.”
D.D. Guttenplan - The Nation
“Dancing in the Dark is a book best read slowly, perhaps with a DVD player or YouTube close at hand, so that when Dickstein invokes Fred Astaire's "refusal to dance, and the very dance in which he acts this out" in Swing Time, you can see exactly what he means.... [a]s we again find ourselves whistling past the big, bad wolf of economic hard times, Dickstein reminds us of how much we owe the culture that taught all of us how to face the music and dance.”
Jonathan Yardley
…a smart, ambitious piece of work, the product of prodigious research and careful thought, and those who read it will come away with a clearer understanding of an important but widely misunderstood period in the country's cultural life.
—The Washington Post
Adam Begley
I'd propose a moratorium on decade analysis—except that Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression proves the value of the exercise in certain special cases…engaging and perceptive …Dancing in the Dark is old-school cultural history, with a whiff of Matthew Arnold and the best that has been thought and said.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
Mr. Dickstein remains a serious and perceptive critic…adept at observations both macro…and micro.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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.)
Kirkus Reviews
Just in time for our own era's economic collapse, a literary critic looks back at the unusually rich art of the 1930s. In this scholarly yet immensely readable study, Dickstein (English/CUNY; A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature in the Real World, 2005, etc.) examines how the artistic culture of the '30s served a dual function. It helped people understand and cope with the terrible economic climate, and it allowed them to escape, for a while at least, the burden of dark times. The books, music, photos, movies, plays and dances of the period both reflected and influenced the decade's unique state of mind. These wide-ranging works of art include the novels of John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Henry Roth, and the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans, which turned an unprecedented spotlight on America's poor and disenfranchised. Artists like Nathanael West, James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald "emphasize[d] the limitations and distortions of the American Dream," even as Cagney's gangster films and Busby Berkeley's backstage musicals reinvented rags-to-riches fantasies. At a time when audiences made room simultaneously for social relevance and artistic escape, singers as disparate as Bing Crosby and Woody Guthrie had a place. The big bands of Ellington and Goodman, the romantic comedies of Hawks and Capra, the dancing of Astaire and Rogers and the music of Porter and Gershwin all supplied a touch of class for the masses. Whether discussing Citizen Kane or Porgy and Bess, the poetry of Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost, Faulkner's unique achievement and odd relation to the period, the films of Cary Grant or theelegance and energy of Art Deco, Dickstein always has something smart and lively to say. His scintillating commentary illuminates an important dimension of a decade too often considered only in political or economic terms. It's hard to imagine a more astute, more graceful guide to a remarkably creative period. Author tour to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver. Film festival tie-in at Lincoln Center in New York
NPR
“The equivalent of a Fred and Ginger dance number . . . a thrill to read.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
The Joad family's epic journey from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California, depicted in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, has become an emblem of the Depression. But as Morris Dickstein observes in Dancing in the Dark, his cultural history of the period, the Joads weren't the only ones on the move in America's novels, plays, movies, and nightlife of the '30s: there was the hobo crisscrossing the country in the film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Bigger Thomas on the run in Richard Wright's Native Son, the synchronized showgirls dancing their way through Busby Berkeley productions, clubgoers swaying to the music of Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Much of the previous literature on the Depression has erected a wall between the social criticism of, say, a Clifford Odets play and the lighthearted escapism of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. But Dickstein, in a sweeping, significant work, searches out the unifying themes of what he calls the "split personality of Depression culture." He describes this as,
on one hand, the effort to grapple with unprecedented economic disaster, to explain and interpret it; on the other hand, the need to get away, to create art and entertainment to distract people from their trouble, which was in the end another way of coming to terms with it. Looking at both sides of this cultural divide, we can see how closely linked they are.

One of the links he finds, as suggested above, is movement. Dickstein, an English and theater professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Gates of Eden, a cultural history of another mythic decade, the 1960s, takes his title from a 1931 ballad written by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz and recorded at the height of the Depression by Bing Crosby. The lyrics describe a couple dancing in the dark but "[facing] the music together." Similarly, in the 1936 Astaire/Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (with songs by Irving Berlin), the two put on a show in which they play gamblers who are wiped out in Monte Carlo but who console each other with a performance of "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

"Incessant, often aimless movement was at once a key metaphor of the 1930s and a pervasive social reality," Dickstein writes. While authors like Steinbeck strove to capture the reality, other artists explored the metaphor. (Dickstein himself has a nice metaphor for the false promise of mobility, likening it to "marathon dancers, circling the floor in total exhaustion, almost asleep on their feet, leaning on each other in pursuit of a small prize.") What further unites the serious works of social protest and the more fantasy-based pop-culture fare (how many Depression-era moviegoers were ever going to make it to Monte Carlo?), Dickstein ventures, is their leftist, populist impulse. Many of them shared the message that "separately we fail, we lose heart and fall into confusion; together we have a chance."

Dickstein delves deeply into other elements of the Depression's "split personality," finding connections between the period's seemingly contradictory naturalism and modernism, its individualism and collectivism. Despite his caveat that he "made no effort to cover everything" in the book -- and Shirley Temple, for one, is nowhere to be found -- it would take a much longer review for me to even scratch the surface in terms of the number of works Dickstein tames with his smart, at times biting, textual analysis. (He is particularly hard on Steinbeck, whom he calls "no intellectual heavyweight," describing The Grapes of Wrath as didactic, preachy, and sentimental.) Henry Roth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Cary Grant, Frank Capra, gangster films, screwball comedies, the Farm Security Administration photographers, and many others come in for extended treatment. But whatever the topic, he writes with ease and authority, as when he declares of Odets, author of Awake and Sing, "No playwright is closer to his characters or less capable of judging them."

The book also benefits from Dickstein's occasional recollections from his life as a student, a teacher ("When I've assigned it to undergraduates," he writes of the notoriously difficult text of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, "the results have been disastrous"), and a fan (he refers delightedly to "the sheer lunacy of Hepburn and Grant singing 'I can't give you anything but love' to a leopard" in the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby). While such personal touches make this erudite book immensely readable, his insistence on the connections between the Depression and our own time of economic crisis make it immensely relevant.

Dickstein also makes a strong case for the special importance of the culture of the 1930s, when advances in technology and the New Deal's rural electrification program meant that America's various regional cultures began to develop into a more cohesive national culture. He doesn't quite deliver on all of his promises. For instance, he writes in the introduction that he will explore the part culture plays in how people "cope with social and economic malaise," but ultimately he has much less to say about the effects of Depression-era culture than about the works themselves. Still, his great achievement is in bringing so many of those works to life and, by demonstrating that so much serious art "became hugely popular while many popular artists...proved deeply serious," helping us rethink our common conceptions of the culture of the Depression. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393072259
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/14/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 624
  • Sales rank: 644,397
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Morris Dickstein

Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor
Emeritus of English and Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Dancing in the Dark, a renowned cultural history of the Great Depression. He lives in New York City

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Depression Culture 3

Pt. 1 Discovering Poverty

2 The Tenement and the World: Immigrant Lives 15

3 The Starvation Army 50

4 The Country and the City 92

5 Hard Times for Poets 154

6 Black Girls and Native Sons 173

Pt. 2 Success and Failure

7 Beyond the American Dream 215

8 What Price Hollywood? 311

9 The Last Film of the 1930s; or, Nothing Fails like Success 342

Pt. 3 The Culture of Elegance

10 Fantasy, Elegance, Mobility: The Dream Life of the 1930s 357

11 Class for the Masses: Elegance Democratized 408

Pt. 4 The Search for Community

12 The Populist Turn: Copland and the Popular Front 441

13 Who Cares?: The World of Porgy and Bess 464

14 The People vs. Frank Capra: Populism against Itself 477

15 Shakespeare in Overalls: An American Troubadour 496

16 Gender Trouble: Exposing the Intellectuals 507

17 Conclusion: The Work of Culture in Depression America 522

Acknowledgments 531

Notes 533

Selected Bibliography 556

Illustrations and Permissions 565

Index 569

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