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

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Morris Dickstein
Norton, 2009, 598 pg

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark is an impressive piece of scholarship that should last as one of the most important books on the subject for some time. I won’t say it is the most important book of its kind because there are a few gaps in the material but as a work of literary, film and cultural criticism it is a solid work. While one may be forgiven for thinking the books is primarily literary criticism since most of the first 200 pages are an overview of the literature of the period, one of the strengths of the book is his appraisal of the films of the 30s. No cultural history of the time could be without an investigation of film history and his understanding of how the films reflected the times is solid. In particular, when he crosses the genres of film and literature he makes some interesting cases.

He is sympathetic to Stienbeck (perhaps the most famous and most criticized depression writer) who he sees as a good writer of the times, someone who did not get caught up in the proletarian novel like Michael Gold in Jews Without Money, and instead was more interested in observing as a scientist. This led to his weakness as an artist, because he tended to write in terms of types, but it also allowed him in books like In Dubious Battle to see the labor leaders not as heroic martyrs with a degree of complexity. His take on the Grapes of Wrath is positive, calling it one of the better books of the decade, even though it has some silly slang (I remember the use of tom catting as particularly egregious) and he finds the ending too much. It is when he mixes the his film criticism with his literary that his take on the Grapes of Wrath takes its full power. For Dickstein, Grapes the book cannot be understood without the movie. It is the movie that makes the book iconic. The faithful reproduction of the book as a film amplifies the power of his lost eden and smoothes over the awkward moments. It is an interesting take, because it forces the book to be appreciated in terms of another work, and while many works need context to be understood, works typically can stand on there own at some point.

Dickstein sees several trends in the works of the times. One is a sense of mobility that expresses a freedom and a sense that things will get better. Whether in the dance films of Rodgers and Astaire or the Screwball Comedies with their irreverence, they are not so much an escape into the fantasy of being rich, but a moment of complete freedom. These he contrasts to the desperate works that marked the early years of the depression. Books such as Jews With Money where the proletarian characters have to fight their way out of the slum, or the gangster films which are a kind of nihilistic Horatio Alger story where the gangster, usually from an ethnic background, rises to the top with his own muscle and smarts, but falls, much as the American economy had. These stories show the failure of the American dream and show a people desperate and unmoored from the society they thought would hold them together. This image is reflected in countless books such as Tobacco Road and most powerfully, Miss Lonely Hearts, one of Dickstein’s primer works of the decade.

Not having read or seen many of the works it is hard to gauge some of his claims. But the works I do know I found his take to be insightful and nuanced, even if I didn’t agree with it completely, such as his take on parts of the Grapes of Wrath and the USA Trilogy. His take, for example, on Citizen Kane goes beyond the technical or the political controversies that occurred when it was first released. Instead, he sees it, along with Meet John Doe, as an examination of a dark populism, the kind that led to the rise of Hitler, and began to concern artists as World War II approached. Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, all reflect the end of an idealized dream of the people working together for a better society. It is a quite a change from the initial desperation and despair that led to the rise of the belief in the common man. The belief didn’t die just from a few men, but the works of art began to reflect a fuller picture, one where hope can be channeled into dark desires.

While Dancing in the Dark is an impressive bit of scholarship, it suffers in a few areas, in part I think, because to be as expansive as I would like it would be at least twice the size. First, he tends to concentrate on the best of the era, even if you might not think a particular book is good, it is the best of its class. In literature that isn’t such a problem, but in film I would like to have seen more than a passing reference to the silly films like those of Shirley Temple that were so popular. Another area that is missing, and is often missing in studies of the era, is a discussion of radio. Except for the usual Father Coughlin reference, radio doesn’t seem to exist. The lack of coverage of radio is indicative of the large lack of other cultural products of the area, from magazines to comics. I would like to see more of these ephemeral items. He does talk about musical theater, but I get the impression that is because he likes musicals. Musicals were certainly an important art form of the era and he has some insights, but I couldn’t help but feel he included them because he loves them.

Those criticisms aside, Dancing in the Dark is an excellent book and filled with fascinating insights to the era. It should, as it has done for me, make anyone who reads it want to see the movies and read the books he brings to life with his descriptions.

One thought on “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression – A Review

  1. Cooperative approaches;
    Today: “Dr. France and Lopez, developed in social policy ”

    By Joseph Yorg, the cooperate

    “Little by little, you will rebuild the colonial status, reducing our people to misery, the great national ideals frustrating and humiliating conditions in satellite country,” he rightly warned Don Arturo Jauretche in the year 1955, if , the great Argentine writer and politician, but above all a great man with social sensitivity.

    So we hold on that warning to set the scene immediately called genocide “Triple Alliance” that ended with the only truly autonomous and independent process in Latin America located in his heart, Paraguay.

    The socio-economic process initiated and developed in Paraguay from 1811 until its destruction in 1870, was held under the scientific principles of economic policy advanced in that it went to build a higher social order in the evolutionary scale of political organization of humanity.

    These findings pointed arrived after making a serious analysis of science that examines the capitalist production model contrasts sharply with other models, for example, with the cooperative model, let alone the socialist model.

    Socialist ideas have emerged in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as a reaction to the calamity and remains committed to the emerging industrial, material basis of capitalism and society changed, adapting to it, did not pass, however, unnoticed Dr. France, a man of insatiable intellectual appetite who decided to put into practice the dreams of a social economy.

    Ideas and social aspirations and cooperatives in the Paraguayan soil germinated in the colonial era by the union of two amalgamated cultural trends: the Jesuit-Guarani who provided strong support to the great work then took Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia

    If we compared the adapted economic policy measures in defense of the Paraguayan nation in its internal implementation and external field then we will fully realize the necessary correspondence with the objective of building a free, sovereign and just peace in a turbulent context, aggressive that experience as it had a character against the liberal ideas of the time.

    How to survive in a world which unfolded under the laws of logic relationship is exploitative duo-robbed? How to climb to a higher stage of economic and social organization and political inequalities clearing?

    Challenges faced by Lopez and Francia tight!

    The Independent State of Paraguay, having before it the capitalist world economy, has adopted an entrepreneurial attitude of lofty dimensions, since imported and exported goods, acquired external technology, industrial engineers and technicians recruited and sent abroad to conduct specialized studies in various branches of knowledge aimed at assembling a pre-industrial nation overcome the existing feudal economic relations.

    Undertook the mammoth task of developing and implementing a production model organized and planned, avoiding anarchic economic development and clear guidance to favor the great majority and not for caste, which in turn served to power the external front.

    The Paraguayan government of France and Dr. Lee was an evolving political entity that went through stages, such as insulation, protection, and control opening, each of these economic and political links responded to the need demanded, precisely face adverse circumstances, however, the results placed in Paraguay with a developed industrial structure unparalleled in the continent and I’ve already featured in another article which reveal that Paraguay today is more backward-comparatively-then … How is it possible?, I question again.

    The undeniable importance of these experiences-beyond-the outcome is that the governments of France and then Dr. Lopez ‘(Don Carlos Antonio López and Francisco Solano López post) were auscultated social laboratories and showed a new basis of organization and directors of the company in the claim of human betterment in equal and equitable relationship.

    This history is disappointing, it has not solved the majority despite the extraordinary misfortune scientific and technological progress that has been reached, however, has deteriorated to the point of pushing the human species extinction due to destruction of nature, our unique habitat.

    The history of ideologies did not end because the fundamental problem persists: social injustice.

    And as mankind continues without fainting your search to build a better world, this experience could be truncated find receptive minds and hearts that embodied a large political movement restart that process, not start from scratch, because it has a formidable background of successes and failures that illuminate.

    Acquires great stature, not only moral but scientific, the prospect of organizing production and distribution of wealth on a cooperative basis in order to build partnerships to overcome economic cannibalism. That is why we are encouraged to say that … Dr. Francia and Lopez were developed in social policy!

    In the fraternity, a cooperative hug!

    * José Yorg is Professor and Technical Cooperative Administration and Bachelor-mora in Formosa, Argentina.

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