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

Mor­ris Dickstein
  • Review
By – September 16, 2011

In this mag­is­te­r­i­al study of Amer­i­can cul­ture in the 1930’s, Mor­ris Dick­stein exam­ines a vast range of mate­r­i­al, from seri­ous fic­tion and poet­ry to pot­boil­ers, pop­u­lar songs, gang­ster films, and Bus­by Berke­ley musi­cals. He selects his case stud­ies with assured care and ana­lyzes them deft­ly and astute­ly. What emerges is a con­vinc­ing mosa­ic of an era devot­ed to the cult of live­li­ness, a metaphor for life itself. 

As his title sug­gests, Dick­stein sees the pop­u­lar cul­ture of the era not so much as a form of escapism or wish-ful­fil­ment, but as an asser­tion of the impor­tance of motion in an age when so much was shut­ting down. In the cross-coun­try trek of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, the upward social mobil­i­ty of Rico in Lit­tle Cae­sar and his part­ners in cel­lu­loid crime, the fas­ci­nat­ing rhythms of George Gersh­win, the furi­ous pace of screw­ball com­e­dy, and the nim­ble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire, we see a nation rag­ing, in its unique­ly grace­ful way, against the dying of the light.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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