three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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A Cultural History of the Great Depression

A-Dancing in the DarkMorris Dickstein, critic and professor of literature, has written on culture and literature in Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties and Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945–1970. In Dancing in the Dark, he examines the forces that "kindled America’s social imagination" during the Great Depression.

The Topic: Far from stifling the creative impulses of American artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and actors, the Great Depression, according to Dickstein, "bound people together in a collaborative effort to interpret and alleviate their plight." The names are familiar: Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, James Agee and Walker Evans, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Tess Slesinger, John Steinbeck, Aaron Copland, Woody Guthrie, and Clifford Odets—just to scratch the surface. Dickstein sets this cast of artists against the backdrop of the Crash, the Dust Bowl, unprecedented unemployment, and FDR’s New Deal to illustrate the resilience and optimism that came to characterize one of the darkest times in American history.
Norton. 598 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 9780393072259

Newsday 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … There are so many vivid personalities, so many layers of rumination and revelation coursing through Dancing in the Dark that it almost reads like the kind of all-embracing narrative an ambitious 20th century writer might have offered as a candidate for the Great American Novel." Gene Seymour

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Dancing in the Dark is not encyclopedic. … Dickstein, however, is exhaustive without being exhausting, and his book is a commendable compression of a complex decade." Saul Austerlitz

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark is not exactly the syncretic ‘Cultural History of the Great Depression’ that its subtitle promises—at best, the book treats inferentially the broad political and social trends of that desperate, crucial era. Let me quickly add, the book is something better than that: 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." Richard Schickel

New Yorker 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A bighearted, rambling new survey of American culture in the nineteen-thirties. … There is no easy way to weave … intimate vision into an argument about politics, and, to his credit, Dickstein, whose style runs more to appreciation than to analysis, doesn’t much try to." Caleb Crain

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I only wish Dickstein had taken a somewhat more catholic approach and embraced ordinary things people did, like snap photos and listen to the Lone Ranger on the radio and play pinball down at the drugstore. Dancing in the Dark is a fine, high-minded survey of the decade’s cultural history, but it did leave me hungry for a glimpse of everyday life." Adam Begley

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"To my mind the omission of country music seriously weakens Dancing in the Dark, as does its author’s tendency to overanalyze just about everything that crosses his desk. But it’s 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

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Dickstein remains a serious and perceptive critic … adept at observations both macro (‘Epic scenes from the Dust Bowl are part of our permanent shorthand for rural poverty and natural desolation’) and micro. … [The author] front-loads (and back-loads) his book’s sections with his essential thoughts, and stirs almost anything—mostly his plot summaries—into the lumpen middle." Dwight Garner

Critical Summary

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." n