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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 has brought together a staggering range of material-from epic. Dust Bowl migrations to zany screwball comedies, from elegant dance musicals and wildly popular swing bands to streamlined Deco designs. Exploding the myth that Depression culture was merely escapist, Dickstein concentrates on the dynamic energy of the arts and the ...
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 has brought together a staggering range of material-from epic. Dust Bowl migrations to zany screwball comedies, from elegant dance musicals and wildly popular swing bands to 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. Dancing in the Dark is a fresh and exhilarating analysis of one of America's most remarkable artistic periods.
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.
1 Introduction: Depression Culture 3
Part 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
Part 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
Part 3 The Culture of Elegance
10 Fantasy, Elegance, Mobility: The Dream Life of the 1930s 357
11 Class for the Masses: Elegance Democratized 408
Part 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
Selected Bibliography 556
Illustrations and Permissions 565
Posted April 1, 2011
I thought that Dancing in the Dark was an insightful read. Dickstein's unique goal: to analyze not the economic trends of the Great Depression, but to reveal the cultural elements during the time period, is compelling. In this way, he succeeds. Unfortunately his emphasis on detail weighs the book down, making it cluttered, repetitive, and occasionally unpleasant to read.
For me, Dancing in the Dark's strengths lie in Dickstein's approach: he introduces a popular element of American culture in the 1930's and analyzes how it reflected American sentiment at that particular period in history. When he keeps his writing basic and clean and stays with the topic, he succeeds in maintaining the reader's interest. Sadly, this doesn't happen enough: Dickstein is prone to going off-topic, without making an effort to relate anything to the Great Depression. He ends up making points that, while potentially interesting in their own right, don't really have a place in a book about the Great Depression. In these instances, Dancing in the Dark could benefit from a more discriminating editing process.
A greater focus on editing would also help another issue with Dancing in the Dark: repetitiveness. At over 550 pages, it's far longer than it needs to be, and the book is filled with unnecessary repeats ("Citizen Kane is a parable about power" and "Citizen Kane is about the human costs of exercising power," for example).
Despite these problems, Dancing in the Dark remains an incredibly perceptive work, and I would recommend it to anyone seriously interested in the Great Depression who would be willing to endure a lengthy and repetitive read.
Posted July 6, 2010
No text was provided for this review.
Posted July 29, 2010
No text was provided for this review.