Robert's Reviews > Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression

Dancing in the Dark by Morris Dickstein
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Mar 05, 2012

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bookshelves: history-us
Read from March 05 to 19, 2012

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, are the soul of the book - are the reason to read it. His critiques, even of the better known novels and films, are always fresh, insightful, illuminating; and his discussions of the lesser known works (for example: Gold's "Jews without Money" or West's "A Cool Million") had me regretting my ignorance of them - had me searching for copies. Less impressive is his survey of the music and art of this period - here he is solid, interesting, but much less comprehensive.

This book was a stretch for me - beyond my usual reading genre - do not usually read fiction much less literary criticism. Still, Dickstein held my interest - particularly when he went beyond the consideration of individual works and attempted to draw the overarching themes of the Depression Culture - its need for escapist fantasy, its need for movement, for hope, for community, for political action - and used these needs, these longings, as his hermeneutics for understanding the art.

Two minor disappointments were that the book was too New York-centric, placing far too much emphasis on the influence of the Left, in particular on the influence of the "Popular Front" tactic of the Communist Party, and, secondly, that it mostly ignored the trivial, ephemeral culture, the popular arts and activities that had no lasting significance, left no enduring legacy, but that formed the everyday lives, the 'culture', of the people - ignored the things that should be included in a real cultural history of the era. Course, this is not intended to be a historical work - is intended to be a work of criticism - and as such, is simply brilliant.

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