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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

3.14  ·  Rating Details  ·  307 Ratings  ·  60 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, 624 pages
Published September 6th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2009)
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Oct 13, 2009 Mike rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 15, 2010 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
"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
Jul 07, 2010 Jim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 18, 2012 Robert rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-us

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
Nov 13, 2013 George rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction

"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
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
Dancing in the Dark has a couple of flaws, keeping it from a 5 star rating. The first flaw is the author states the cause of the Great Depression to have been the 1929 stockmarket crash. In point of fact, it was the international trade barriers/tariffs thrown up after the crash that was the cause of the depression. The consequences of these barriers was to put the final nail in the coffin of the first global economy founded via the British Empire. The second flaw is that the cultural elements an ...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.
An interesting but necessarily very selective look at some of the art of the Great Depression. If I had written it I would have made many different choices. There is no Disney at all, very little discussion of WPA murals and the Federal Theater Project. The Great Gatsby, written long before the Depression and having nothing to do with it that I can see, gets a detailed look (as does Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo), but Gone With the Wind, published in 1936 and even according to the autho ...more
Apr 12, 2014 Shayla rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 14, 2014 Stephen rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 22, 2010 Lori rated it really liked it  ·  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
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
Howard Goodman
Apr 10, 2015 Howard Goodman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An ambitious tour of the endlessly interesting 1930s, from Erskine Caldwell to Orson Welles, Busby Berkeley to John Steinbeck, Bing Crosby to Frank Capra, F. Scott Fitzgerald to Woody Guthrie. Dickstein shows how the great books, movies and songs of the era were far more than escapist; they couldn't escape the age's anxieties about the deepest held American beliefs --in success, in democracy -- and how vividly they talk to us today.
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
Feb 26, 2014 Lauri rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
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
May 05, 2015 Benjamin rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
I did not take the subtitle seriously enough. I suppose I thought it would be a popular-cultural history of the Depression, like talking about putting the WPA together and general art/literature trends or stories or something? Nope. This is a book for lit majors who are already v. familiar with novelists from the 1930s and have read their less popular titles -- the narrative basically discusses specific characters and storylines from works the casual reader won't know or care about or want to re ...more
May 24, 2013 Clara rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Bobi Jensen
Jan 10, 2016 Bobi Jensen rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I am so fascinated by this subject that the uninteresting writing was disappointing. It has so much potential, just needs good storytelling to package it with.
Lisa Herlocker
Dec 29, 2014 Lisa Herlocker rated it liked it
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
Gary Land
Nov 22, 2010 Gary Land rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 14, 2009 Judy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 01, 2011 Kathy rated it it was ok
Shelves: gave-up-on-it
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
Jul 17, 2014 Mercedes Riley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 12, 2011 Lori rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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."
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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. "
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