Facing the Music

Dancing in the Dark
A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Morris Dickstein W. W. Norton, $29.95, 624 pp.

Many a baby boomer was raised on tales of the Great Depression, tales of sharecroppers, breadlines, NRA parades, and sparing a dime for a brother in need. These often played a bigger part in our lives than Dr. Spock. My mother, who learned about John Steinbeck’s work from a savvy nun at a Brooklyn high school, regarded the depiction of the Joad family’s struggle in The Grapes of Wrath as a moral touchstone, a must-know story of human dignity imperiled. Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, grew up hearing about the Depression-era fears and hopes of his own parents. In Dancing in the Dark, he examines some of the artistic and cultural expressions of those hopes and fears, and does so with compassion, gusto, and fine scholarship.

The title of the book comes from the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz song of 1931, a lush, moody composition about a couple in a ballroom-“waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here,” “looking for the light,” and determined to “face the music together.” The lyric serves as a distillation of several themes in the volume: yearning and wondering about our national condition, being afraid of what’s next, keeping going. Dickstein has authored two other “decade” books-one on the 1950s, another on the ’60s. He is used to making big generalizations and managing a large cast. Educated at Columbia University, where he was a pupil of Lionel Trilling, Dickstein was bred...

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About the Author

The late David Castronovo wrote many books of literary and cultural criticism, including Blokes: The Bad Boys of English Literature.