Reviews of Dancing in the Dark

Reviews of Dancing in the Dark

New! The Guardian:
Detailed, insightful and elegantly written, this is a memorable cultural history of one of America’s darkest periods.
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New! Times Literary Supplement:
…his enthusiasm is fresh and appealing, and it lends personal force to a paradox which others have felt before him, but few so keenly – the fact that the Depression, for all the misery it spread, “also left us with the most buoyant, most effervescent popular culture of the twentieth century”.
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Morris Dickstein’s marvelous new book […] explores “the crucial role that culture can play in times of national trial.” To tell his story, Dickstein assembles a panorama—a wide-ranging pastiche of cultural works that he deals with individually before placing them alongside one another […] the total picture is chock full of insights about the fluid relation between culture and politics during a trying era.
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National Book Critics Circle:
Dickstein’s expansive and elegant reconstruction of the period doesn’t just expand the catalog of items that should define our memory of the period. He examines the style, the imagery, and the rhythms of Depression culture, paying close attention to how literature, music, and film captured—and, in a way, created—the texture of life in hard times.[…] Dickstein’s account of the culture of the Great Depression at times proves uncannily familiar, and for good reason. “Artists and performers rarely succeed in changing the world,” he writes, “but they can change our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live in it.” And by paying attention to their work, we can come to understand the way we live now.
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The Nation:
Movies really do record “the dream life of the 1930s” in ways no other form can match–and Dickstein is perhaps at his best in describing how some of the most superficially escapist films of the decade offer not just solace but a subversive sense of social possibility. […] As we again find ourselves whistling past the big, bad wolf of economic hard times, Dickstein reminds us of how much we owe the culture that taught all of us how to face the music and dance.
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Literary Review:
Dickstein has already proven himself a literary and cultural historian with astonishing gifts. Among his many fine books are Leopards in the Temple, an immensely readable study of postwar American fiction, and Gates of Eden, his provocative examination of the sixties and its culture. One looks long and hard for critics of equal stamina and panoramic vision. In a very real sense, Dickstein is a true heir of Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin. That is, he takes the work of criticism seriously, and leaves no stone unturned as he attempt huge tasks. Without a trace of academic pretense, he writes for the ordinary intelligent reader, avoiding the kind of jargon that so disfigures academic criticism in our era.
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Fresh Air:
Morris Dickstein [is] not only one of America’s most perceptive literary critics, but also one of our best critical writers […] a penetrating work of cultural history like this one gives the reader who holds fast to it a sense of dwelling in a circle of illumination amid all the shadows.
Listen to or read Fresh Air’s review of Dancing in the Dark, and read the introduction of the book

Morris Dickstein achieves something so remarkable with “Dancing in the Dark” that it hovers close to the miraculous: He almost makes you wish you’d been living in America during the 1930s. […] there are so many vivid personalities, so many layers of rumination and revelation coursing through “Dancing in the Dark” that it almost reads like the kind of all-embracing narrative an ambitious 20th century writer might have offered as a candidate for the Great American Novel.
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San Francisco Chronicle:
Dickstein has written the definitive book about Depression culture for our time, which, with the economic downturn, has unmistakable echoes of that decade.
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The New Yorker:
… a bighearted, rambling new survey of American culture in the nineteen-thirties […] Dickstein values the popular culture of the Depression, and writes with enthusiasm about Cole Porter’s wit, George Gershwin’s jazz cadences, and the racing stripes and shiny surfaces of Art Deco.
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The New Republic:
Morris Dickstein’s lively and omnivorous book […] explores the whole range of the expressive culture of the thirties–the books, films, murals, photographs, reportage, radio programs, dance, and music.
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LA Times:
Dickstein is terrific on all kinds of expression: the decade’s cult of speed or the process of streamlining; the elegance of Art Deco and its employment of new materials (Bakelite anyone? Fred and Ginger?); the raucous raptures of Louis Armstrong and the insinuating ease of his good, jazz-singing buddy, Bing Crosby.
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Columbia Magazine:
Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English and Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center, is one of our best literary and cultural critics, in part because he writes with more personal passion and engagement than academics usually do. The many subjects he treats in Dancing in the Dark are tied together by his central argument about the power of the arts to unite and inspire in dark times, but Dickstein also relishes each book, song, and movie for its own sake, and his pleasure is infectious. As he says, the artists he writes about may have been “dancing in the dark, but the steps were magical.”
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Publishers Weekly:
Dickstein’s fluent, erudite, intriguing meditations turn up many resonances, […] 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.
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Financial Times:
[Dickstein] carries the reader onwards with fine writing and enthusiasm for his material […] The cumulative weight of the cultural moments he covers reminds us of the profound shock the Depression delivered to America’s view of itself, and to its self-esteem. The resulting images, stories and songs helped create a new view of collective national wellbeing that lasted until the deregulation of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Even without its merits, this work would probably win prizes for timeliness.
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Kirkus Reviews:
His scintillating commentary illuminates an important dimension of a decade too often considered only in political or economic terms….It’s hard to imagine a more astute, more graceful guide to a remarkably creative period.
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New York Times:
Mr. Dickstein remains a serious and perceptive critic […] adept at observations both macro (“Epic scenes from the Dust Bowl are part of our permanent shorthand for rural poverty and natural desolation”) and micro. He describes the subject of “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange’s searing 1936 photograph, as “a woman whose brow is furrowed like tractored-out land.”
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Washington Post:
…a smart, ambitious piece of work, the product of prodigious research and careful thought, and those who read it will come away with a clearer understanding of an important but widely misunderstood period in the country’s cultural life.
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Times Literary Supplement:
When Dickstein turns to films and music, there can be no mistaking the pleasure he takes in his material […] at his best, his enthusiasm is fresh and appealing, and it lends personal force to a paradox which others have felt before him, but few so keenly – the fact that the Depression, for all the misery it spread, “also left us with the most buoyant, most effervescent popular culture of the twentieth century”.
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Dickstein makes compelling sense of a bewildering decade’s art and expression for an America much further removed from that time than the current economic uncertainties would suggest (there are no bread lines, at least not yet). In the process, he reveals those essential elements of Depression-era culture—a passion to chronicle the hardest of knocks, speak truth to power seen and unseen, and keep dancing anyway—that have continued to play out in our art these last 70-odd years, and counting.
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New York Times Book Review:
[Dickstein] has organized his engaging and perceptive study around the American response to dire economic conditions and the attendant psychological damage — as sadly relevant a topic as any author could wish for.
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The Mark:
Now a year and a half into the Great Recession, his project has the kind of contemporary relevance most historians can only dream about. The topic – America’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decade and the artistic attempts to interpret its meaning – is interesting enough in itself, but it contains what should – but unfortunately probably won’t – be important lessons for our current condition.
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New! Rain Taxi:
An engrossing tour de force of criticism, hearkening readers to a not-very-distant time when writers, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians concentrated less on ego and self-expression and more on equality and public spiritedness
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Express Milwaukee:
Morris Dickstein, CUNY professor of English and theater, writes perceptively of many things in this lucid and lengthy account of a time when Americans turned to popular music, movies and literature for emotional sustenance against economic collapse.
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Jonathan Rosenbaum:
How refreshing it is to encounter a treatment of Busby Berkeley’s Depression musicals as something other than escapism — as genuine engagements with their own period and audience. Part literary criticism, part film and art criticism, part history of popular as well as intellectual culture, Morris Dickstein’s magnum opus is full of sensible revisionist observations of this kind to counter received wisdom, and it’s always a pleasure to read.
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The Jewish Week:
In defining the decade, [Dickstein] relates the expressive culture to the leadership of President Roosevelt and the programs of the New Deal. Cultural historians of other eras would do well to use Dickstein’s book as a model.
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Book Bargains and Previews
While tracing the social meanings of culture, Dickstein 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. Read more…

Zócalo Public Square:
Dickstein captures the decade’s contradictions as expressed through its art — collectivism and individualism, the grimness of rural poverty and the flash of Hollywood — and its impact on American life since. He mines the Depression for its cultural gems: the movies, songs, books, and photographs, some well-known and well-loved, some overlooked and undervalued. He pores over them minutely, magnifying the clever rhymes to tunes we’ve hummed for generations, catching how they reflect the rich artistic world and political currents of a dark decade.
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Morris Dickstein has done an extraordinary job, in this cultural history of the Great Depression, of weaving together his own acute appreciation of literature and movies with a sweeping understanding of the political and social realities of American life.
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NY Observer profile:
“It’s very difficult to go to a publisher and say, ‘Look, I have this author here; it’s true he’s already 20 years late, but I think within the next 20 he really will finish this book.’ You’re in a much stronger position if you actually have a manuscript in hand, and you’re in an even stronger position if the book is brilliant, as it turned out to be in this case.”
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Fine Books & Collections Magazine:
Dip into this, and you will quickly appreciate why Norman Mailer called Dickstein “one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature.”
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I would sum this book up in the following words: literate, accurate, informative, intimate, enjoyable, and entertaining. This was a fine reading experience.


Highly recommended. A classic of its kind!
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John Batchelor Show:
Morris Dickstein’s sweeping, fluent, thoughtful survey of the novels, plays, poetry, photos, songs and movies of the period, from approximately 1931 to 1941 is a thrilling and also sentimental journey into the imagination when it is down and out.


Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is a sweeping, stirring, disturbing, and more than occasionally thrilling account of a period unsettlingly like our own.
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Boston Globe:
Dickstein […] is exhaustive without being exhausting, and his book is a commendable compression of a complex decade.
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Interviews with Morris Dickstein

Interview with Inside Higher Ed on Dancing in the Dark and the 1930s, March 10, 2010.
Q: What was it like to find that a project you’d been working on for years suddenly turned out to be all too timely?
A: I actually began working on it in the Reagan era, when it was timely, since Reagan set about to upend the New Deal consensus in many ways, especially about the role of government in our lives and about our need, beautifully articulated in FDR’s second Inaugural address, to take collective responsibility for each other, and especially for the worst off among us.
My wonderful editor at Norton, Bob Weill, said “I would have bought this book even without the financial meltdown.” I reminded him that he did — two months before. But I’m sure this timeliness is responsible for much of the attention the book has received, including an amazing number of reviews and pretty healthy sales.


The Author Speaks: Art in Times of Despair. Interview conducted by AARP Bulletin Today’s Krista Walton, October 2009.
In Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, Morris Dickstein dives into art of the 1930s and explores what he calls the “inner history” of the Depression—the country’s collective hopes, insecurities, dreams and fears that sprang from dark financial days. Dickstein talks to AARP Bulletin Today about why times of social crisis can inspire artists and what that might mean for culture today.

Video interview with Business Week

Reading Into the Great Depression: Humanities Magazine interviews Morris Dickstein

When I was first working on the book, I was at a party talking with Diana Trilling, the widow of Lionel Trilling, and a very forthright and forceful woman with a strong literary reputation in her own right. Someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, what are you working on?’ And I said, ‘A book of the 1930s.’ And they said, ‘What aspect of the 1930s?’ And without waiting for me to say anything, she answered for me, ‘Of course, the Communist experience, that was the most important thing in the 1930s.’
And I said, ‘Well, no. That was certainly important, but it’s actually the movies of the thirties that first drew me in.’ ‘The movies of the thirties?,’ she said, incredulously, looking somewhere between puzzled and disapproving. Most intellectuals, like most other Americans, actually loved the movies, but couldn’t take them seriously.

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Interview with Morris Dickstein by the Dallas Morning News’s Chris Vognar.
“When you look at the escapist art, it’s full of either direct or covert allusions to the Depression,” Dickstein says. “There are still ways you can think about it as escapist, but it’s certainly not escapist by not dealing with the Depression. On the other hand, if you look at some of the supposedly socially conscious works, like The Grapes of Wrath, it’s damn entertaining in all sorts of ways, especially the movie version.”
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Quoted in the Press-Enterprise on psychological and cultural effects of the current economic downturn.

Audio of interview on NPR’s Between the Lines

Podcast of an interview conducted by WABE’s Valerie Jackson.
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Video of interview conducted by Lewis Lapham on


Interview with WNYC’s On the Media.

Read the transcript, or listen to the interview here:

Advance Comments

“Our greatest literary critic and best overall chronicler of the 1960s now gives us the definitive cultural history of the 1930s, producing an unlikely but undeniable page-turner in the process. You expect Dickstein to make you rethink William Carlos Williams or James Agee (“an authentic if beseiged Christian”), but not necessarily to have Fred Astaire dancing nimbly on the page or Duke Ellington shedding his grace on that of the prose. He misses nothing, from Porgy to Kane, and through an add stroke of cosmic timing, makes our own troubled times feel a lot brighter.”
—Gary Giddins


“Morris Dickstein has fashioned a delightful multi-media meditation on the literary, cinematic and musical responses to the dire and dismal social atmosphere of the Great Depression in the 1930s. His stirring reappraisals of long since neglected realists like Nelson Algren and Erskine Caldwell make Dancing in the Dark mandatory reading.”
—Andrew Sarris.

“Dancing in the Dark is a brilliant tour de force of narrative history. Morris Dickstein flashes through the American cultural landscape of the Great Depression as if cloaked in day-glo, expertly weaving analysis and anecdotes together like an old-time master craftsman. This is one of the great history books of the decade.”
—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.

Dancing in the Dark is a significant historical work. A wonderful cultural historian, Morris Dickstein has written a book that lends testimony to the perservance of the nation at that time.”
—Gay Talese

“A tour de force of ‘30s culture, high and low. The writing is never less than scintillating, the interpretations bold and incisive, the range encyclopedic. As we turn the pages, we bear witness to the breadth and strength of the expressive arts and the marvelous and multiple ways in which they can enlighten, illuminate, energize, encourage, and bring new hope to a nation—and its people—in the grip of depression and despair. As timely and readable a book as any that will be published this year.”
—David Nasaw, author of Andrew Carnegie

“Music, images and words; Fred Astaire, Frank Capra, Ira Gershwin, John Steinbeck and Nathanael West: Dancing in the Dark delves into the great and near-great works that both spoke to the Depression and lifted people out of it. With the far-reaching empathy that we have come to treasure in this writer and scholar, Morris Dickstein reassesses underrated or culturally neglected writers, while exposing more familiar works to the invigorating perspective of the Depression theme. A wonderful read, chock-full of the joys of rediscovery, this remarkable volume will serve as a thirties reference book for years to come.”
—Molly Haskell