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Dancing in the Dark : A Cultural History of the Great Depression
From Agee to Astaire, Steinbeck to Ellington, the creative energies of the Depression against a backdrop of poverty and economic disaster.
In this timely and long-awaited cultural history of the 1930s, Morris Dickstein, whom Norman Mailer called "one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature," explores the anxiety and hope, the despair and surprising optimism of distressed Americans at a time of dire economic dislocation. Bringing together a staggering range of materials--from epic Dust Bowl migrations and sharecropper photographs to zany screwball comedies, wildly popular swing bands, and streamlined Deco designs--this eloquent work highlights the pivotal role of culture and government intervention in hard times. Exploding the myth that Depression culture was merely escapist, it concentrates instead on the dynamic energy and insight the arts could provide and the enormous lift they gave to the nation's morale. Dancing in the Dark shows how our worst economic crisis, as it eroded American individualism and punctured the American dream, produced some of the greatest writing, photography, and mass entertainment ever seen in this country.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
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.)
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W. W. Norton & Company
September 11, 2009
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