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

Morris Dickstein, Author . Norton $29.95 (598p) ISBN 978-0-393-07225-9

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.)

Reviewed on: 07/13/2009
Release date: 09/01/2009
Genre: Nonfiction
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