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

3.06 of 5 stars 3.06  ·  rating details  ·  247 ratings  ·  52 reviews
Hailed as one of the best books of 2009 by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, 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, whom Norman Mailer called "one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature, ...more
Paperback, 598 pages
Published September 6th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2009)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,068)
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Paul
"Cultural history" is a great concept. Accepting that history is more than wars and elections and politics, books like this can offer fascinating insights into what a period of time was like for those who lived through it. Morris Dickstein's "Dancing in the Dark" is only partially successful.

While often interesting, Dickstein's saga is seldom compelling. And it's hard to beat the 1930s for cultural drama. But, if you haven't read the books or seen the movies or heard the music, this can read li
...more
Mike
Dickstein comes up with some very insightful commentary and criticism of popular culture in the 1930s... but how the hell does one write a book subtitled "A Cultural History of the Great Depression" and completely miss The Carter Family, the Grand Ole Opry, etc? The subtitle should be "An Elitist New York Urbanite's Cultural History of the Great Depression." Beyond his blatant cherry-picking of material to suit his simplistic thesis, Dickstein tends to over-analyze his subject material and overs ...more
Jim
I had always been interested in the 1930s in American history, particularly in its cultural manifestations in literature, film, and music. When I saw a favorable review in The New York Review of Books of Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, I resolved to pick it up as soon as I could.

There is an overall impression that the Depression was all I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but as Dickstein points out, there are numerous forces in play. For examp
...more
Steven Vaughan-Nichols
This history got great reviews. I don't know what they were reading.

Yes, it's very good at times, especially in his discussion of movies, but too much of the time it feels like the author was trying to shoehorn his themes dealing with American Communism and its interaction with the culture of the 30s, into a relationship that simply didn't exist. Did Communism play a role? Sure--Woody Guthrie, Diego Rivera, Mike Gold--but after that his arguments quickly run of steam.

There are also times when I
...more
Robert

This is less a cultural history of the Depression than it is an eminent critic's personal selection of the most significant art produced during the Thirties, accompanied by his brilliant analyses of these works. Although the graphic arts and music are considered, the book's primary emphasis is on fiction and cinematography. Dickstein's extensive essays on the individual literary works and films from this era, those that have entered the canon as well as those that he argues should be included, a
...more
George
MAGICAL!

"Artists and performers rarely succeed in changing the world, but they can change our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live in it."—Chapter 17

At twenty-three hours, twenty-nine minutes long, the audio book of DANCING IN THE DARK: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dirkstein offers a comprehensive critique and analysis of 1930s, Depression Era, popular art—novels, poetry, stage, movies, music, and radio—a magical kaleidoscope of delightful a
...more
Mommalibrarian
a series of in depth analysis of books - novels and poetry, plays, movies - tinpan alley and jazz, music and other assorted 'cultural' events. Some of all of these were completely new to me. As a result I am tempted to read: In Dubious Battle but John Steinbeck, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, Quicksand by Nella Larsen, A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. Just what I needed - more books to read.

The scope of the topics made me wish the author had included a master timeline. It would be nice if it h
...more
Caron Smith
A little dry and "tomey," but has some interesting points about the writers and filmmakers of the 1930s. Steinbeck, Welles, Faulkner, Kapra and many others lesser known today. Makes me want to add to me "Want to Read" list and "Want to Watch List" on Netflicks.
Gave up reading it. It's due back at the library today. Too dry, boring and many redundencies in it.
Shayla
I read this book for my American History class for a book review on the Depression Era. It was well written and informative on all matters cultural during the Great Depression. Dickstein provides insight into the mood and general mentality of the people during the separate political stages of the Depression. The last few chapters of Dancing in the Dark however, were poorly elaborated and seemed as an after thought, they barely belonged;the book would have been perfectly fine without them. After ...more
Stephen
Never were high hopes so devastatingly dashed. The author admits that it's too difficult to write an exhaustive cultural history of the Great Depression, and it is, but he chooses to focus on what I consider it's least interesting subjects. Honestly, I was 350 pages in before I was even briefly engaged. So much time was devoted to literature, and I like Steinbeck and Nathanael West, but it was bone dry. Summary after summary of works deemed important. Promises of discussing horror films of the 3 ...more
Jeff Buddle
Here's a book that contextualizes such wildly disparate artists as Henry Roth, James T. Farrell, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aaron Copland, Frank Capra, Woody Guthrie, and Cary Grant (among others). Dickstein's book roots them firmly in the Depression era and explains how these artists reflected the popular mood of the American citizenry.

It's good stuff, but a taxing read. I love the exegeses of Roth's "Call it Sleep" and Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy for e
...more
Lori
Mar 22, 2010 Lori rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: nostalgics, Art Deco, Great Depression
Throughout my life I have harbored a special fascination for the 1930s. The decade in which my parents were born seemed so remote from my own entree into the world some 30 years later. It was a period of extremes, testing the limits of human resourcefulness and courage, fostering the most brutal aspects of human nature, yet also issuing forth a popular culture of arts and letters that is, arguably, unsurpassed in the 20th century. Morris Dickstein has woven these threads together into an extreme ...more
Jules
Mostly, I think this just needed at least one more really intense edit -- both for content and for copy (even I was spotting a couple of dropped words here and there at the end, and some phrases and paragraphs seemed to be repeated almost verbatim at a couple of different places). The chapters themselves seemed more like a collection of separate articles, and Dickstein wasn't great at pulling them together to make one whole work. There's no question that Dickstein knows his material, but as can ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
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 t ...more
Lauri
I really wanted to like this book. The subject fascinates me and is a necessary addition to the history of the Depression era. BUT, the author is a professor at CUNY Graduate Center and the book reads like one long, tedious lecture after another. I felt like I was back in college as an English Lit major but missing all the interest and intellectual challenge of a classroom discussion with many voices participating. The book is filled with name-dropping and allusions to theories or authors which ...more
Clara
Dancing in the Dark was much lauded when it was first published, and this and its subject matter drew me the book. Clearly, Morris Dickstein knows his stuff. The book is obviously well-researched and its reach is impressive. Reading the book gave me a context for the disparate pieces of cultural history that I knew individually but had not viewed as a whole. Unfortunately, Dickstein seems to bend some of the pieces to make them fit his storyline, and this can fall flat. Still, Dickstein has done ...more
Lisa Herlocker
This was not quite the fun read I was expecting. It sorta read like a lecture series -- a little unfocused and rambling, at times looping back on itself. It also felt a little rushed on the parts I was interested in -- movies and music -- and completely lacking in radio shows and fashions.

If you want to know more about the Depression than what's normally covered in a history class this is a good read, but just know that much of the discussion is not only at a pretty high intellectual level, but
...more
Gary Land
I found this book to be very interesting and enlightening. It covers a broad swath of American culture, from high art to popular culture, during the Great Depression. I have read most of the books, listened to most of the music, and seen most of the movies that Dickstein writes about; his comments make me want to go back to these productions with my now greater awareness of their meaning. Unlike many contemporary literary and cultural critics, Dickstein avoids academic jargon and has produced a ...more
Judy
I enjoyed this book despite the fact that it was not as readable as I had hoped it would be. But then, I have a fascination with American history so, of course, I was hooked. Dickstein views the culture of the United States during the Great Depression has having a split personality. There are the plays of Clifford Odets and novels such as the Grapes of Wrath, and then there are Busby Berkeley productions and escapism through movies such as those starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. An intere ...more
Catherine Woodman
I picked this up at the library becausse the NYT thought it was one of the 50 best nonfiction books published in 2009--and I think something about what good ame out of a bad time and why would be a good thing to think about--but I was underwhelmed by this book--kind of goes over some pretty obvcious ground, adds some things I did not know, but didn't really make a new picture out of all the data, nor was I drawn in by the story itself--I really liked the Dorothea Lange 2009 biography, which did ...more
Kathy
I only made it to page 52 before I decided I couldn't keep trudging along. This book is not what I was expecting at all. With Dickstein's constant parallels to 60s literature (which is obviously his area of expertise) I found this book hard to read and, well, boring. I may pick this up later to flip to the sections where he talks about film rather than literature, but for now, I will just return it to the library. It's sad because I really wanted to like this book and he obviously did his resear ...more
Mercedes Riley
Wow. Interesting subject on the Great Depression.
Chad Walker
I'm not sure what people were expecting from this one. It struck me as a great overview of the literature and film of the era, with some interesting sections on music, dance and industrial design thrown in for good measure. Dickstein posits a convincing thesis that is buttressed by the material he analyzes. There are plenty of great *social* histories of the Depression, which is what I think people seem to have been looking for. That is not this book. Instead, it sets itself specific parameters, ...more
Lori
I didn't hear enough in this book about the culture of the "people". A bit too much time was spent on critique of books and authors of the period, gangster film, etc. While the analysis of Fitzgerald,Steinbeck, et all was interesting and often pertinent to depression culture, it often seemed a bit too academic.Perhaps I was looking for more reportage of how people lived from day to day, which of course would include seeing movies and reading books.
Jason Boog
Especially enjoyed his readings of movies and music, helped me think about the period in a whole new way--and watch some great films along the way.

QUOTE: "The sheer complication of plot in detective stories like Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1929), is another element of hard-boiled writing that found its way into screwball comedy, where the stories are invariably full of baroque complications and zany reversals."
Kenn
This as an interesting book but a tough read. Dickstein is a professor of cultural arts and is writing style is more academic than narrative.
He looks at the authors, poets, screenwriters, songwriters and artists of the era and details how the Depression affected their works.
What was missing was the public reaction to this and how they perceived the arts during America's toughest economic period
Carolyn
I hate misnamed books. This is not a *cultural* history of the Great Depression. That would include music, fashion, slang, hobbies, and other aspects of daily life. This is a *literary* history of the Great Depression, featuring novels unknown to any except English majors. Towards the end they throw in a chapter on movies and a chapter on Woody Guthrie, but that doesn't quite cut it.
Wendy Darling
Although I suppose I cannot fault its scholarship, I found this book to be dull, tedious and dry, which is a shame given the subject. While some chapters, especially those dealing with movies, were livelier than others, overall I felt like the author sucked the life out of rich, moving, sublime subjects by diving far too deep into analysis of individual works.
Joel
This book is too small for its breeches, which is to say it is highly repetitious, has an interesting but relatively modest historical perspective, and needed an editor with a weed wacker to cut about 100 pages. The book also creates its own version of the Renaissance problem (when did that Renaissance begin?)by inconsistent framing of its own historical period.
Pat
Not my cup of tea. The English professor author went through all the authors and movies impacted by the Great Depression. I guess I thought the book would be more about the lives of the people and the events surrounding the Great Depression. The book was well written,I just didn't want to attend English class and study the writers.
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Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English and Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple, among other works. He lives in New York City. "
More about Morris Dickstein...
Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970 A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law & Culture (Post-contemporary Interventions) James Baldwin

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