Sunday, July 10, 2016

Mount TBR #29

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

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

Released in 2009 to wide acclaim, this accessible cultural history explores the response of writers, moviemakers, composers, photographers, dancers, artists and ordinary hard-pressed Americans to the Great Depression. Dickstein takes the title of his book from a 1931 ballad  about feeling joy despite the trials of life such as economic insecurity and instability. This song becomes a metaphor for this study of the role of the arts – creative works that bring joy – in a decade of economic crisis. Cultural creation plays a crucial role in rallying people when times are hard. Remember that when mouth-breathing louts in the legislature want to cut funding to the humanities in public education and state universities.

Dickstein, a literature critic, examines a range of topics such as Dust Bowl photography and writing such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the forgotten man meme, and Art Deco design, to name just a few. He provides fresh interesting takes on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  He also discusses a variety of movies: the inevitable Frank Capra, Citizen Kane, gangster movies, screwball comedies such as It Happened One Night, and Fred & Ginger dance musicals. His treatment of Busby Berkeley movies made me re-evaluate my previous dismissive attitude (see Remember My Forgotten Man). Dickstein makes persuasive arguments that pop entertainment was not merely escapist but uplifting as well.

The chapters are easy to read because they focus around a theme. One is that the Depression beat up the old meme of “the rugged individualist” so the arts depicted an alternative model of community ideas. Programs in the New Deal represented investments not only in infrastructure and the social safety net but also in the arts such as in photography, post office murals, folklore collecting and travel writing, with an accent on developing an inspirational consciousness and attitudes among ordinary Americans.

Another chapter focuses on the theme of motion, or movement. He sees It Happened One Night, a wacky comedy, as representing high speed, rapid wit, energy and independence that contributed to the  can-do attitude that we associate with old-timey American values. The dancing of Astaire and Rogers “appealed to people whose lives felt pinched, anxious, graceless, and static.”

In a book of almost 600 pages, there are bound to be assertions that a reader finds dubious. For instance, Dickstein posits the characters in The Wizard of Oz experience a disaster in the form of tornado (the Great Depression) and they band together to face visible (cops and bureaucrats) and invisible (economic forces). Well, maybe some people made those connections but it seems a stretch.

Still, I think this is a lively read for readers interested in cultural history or those readers interested in comparing how pop entertainment dealt with prolonged economic insecurity from 1930 to WWII and from 2008 to our present. Dickstein writes clear prose for the thinking reader, not the jargon of Theory for fellow experts.

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