The arts and culture flourished in many ways during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Writers such as John Steinbeck and Richard Wright, photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and the playwright Clifford Odets sought to understand and convey what was happening. Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers brought dancing to the screen in imaginative ways. George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter wrote musical standards. There was the elegant music of Duke Ellington and the audience-friendly populism of Aaron Copland, while Woody Guthrie’s songs evoked the open road and his concern for social justice.

Noted literary critic and cultural historian Morris Dickstein brings this period vividly to life in his richly insightful, endlessly fascinating and deliciously readable Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. Dickstein believes the Depression offers an incomparable case study of the function of art and media in a time of social crisis. In addition to writers whose books were bestsellers at the time, he discusses in detail the diverse writers whose work read decades later helps us to understand the period: Henry Roth, Nathanael West, Zora Neale Hurston and James Agee.

Dickstein says the Depression was probably the first time in American culture when the great myth of “a man alone,” represented by such writers as Emerson and Thoreau, yielded to images of collective activity. A significant aspect of cultural life was the fascination with American history and geography, its diverse peoples, stories of its folk culture and social myths.

Dickstein knows that artists and performers are limited in what they can do “but they can change our feelings about the world, our understanding of it, the way we live in it. . . . They were dancing in the dark, but the steps were magical.”

Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.

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