Review by Choice Review
Dickstein (English and theater, CUNY) states at the outset that his aim is "to explore the role of culture in reflecting and influencing how people understand their own lives and how they cope with social and economic malaise." He concludes by saying that he has tried "to show how the expressive culture of the thirties--the books, films, murals, photographs, reportage, radio programs, dance, and music--besides telling us much about the inner life of the Depression years, played a role parallel to the leadership of FDR and the programs of the New Deal." Indeed, Dickstein succeeds brilliantly, producing an ambitious, encyclopedic tour de force, an extraordinary amalgam of history and criticism superior even to his authoritative cultural history of the 1960s, Gates of Eden (CH, Jul'77). In treating the Great Depression, Dickstein reaches back into the 1920s and ends symbolically with the New York World's Fair of 1939-40. One could find omissions, but to do so would be churlish because Dickstein's rich, varied, wide-ranging coverage; his penetrating analyses; and his eloquent writing more than compensate for minor lacunae. Few cultural historians are as well and deeply read as Dickstein, in both literature and all of the "expressive" arts, as his extensive documentation demonstrates. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. D. B. Wilmeth emeritus, Brown University
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
The gloom of the Depression fed a brilliant cultural efflorescence that's trenchantly explored here. Dickstein (Gates of Eden), a professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, surveys a panorama that includes high-brow masterpieces and mass entertainments, grim proletarian novels and frothy screwball comedies, haunting photographs of dust bowl poverty and elegant art deco designs. He finds the scene a jumble of fertile contradictions-between outward-looking naturalism and introspective modernism, social consciousness and giddy escapism, a hard-boiled, increasingly desperate individualism and a new vision of singing, dancing, collective solidarity-which somehow cohered into "extraordinary attempts to cheer people up-or else to sober them up." Dickstein's fluent, erudite, intriguing meditations turn up many resonances, comparing, for example, the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will to Busby Berkeley musicals and Gone with the Wind to gangster films. 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. 24 illus. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Just in time for our own era's economic collapse, a literary critic looks back at the unusually rich art of the 1930s. In this scholarly yet immensely readable study, Dickstein (English/CUNY; A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature in the Real World, 2005, etc.) examines how the artistic culture of the '30s served a dual function. It helped people understand and cope with the terrible economic climate, and it allowed them to escape, for a while at least, the burden of dark times. The books, music, photos, movies, plays and dances of the period both reflected and influenced the decade's unique state of mind. These wide-ranging works of art include the novels of John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Henry Roth, and the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans, which turned an unprecedented spotlight on America's poor and disenfranchised. Artists like Nathanael West, James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald "emphasize[d] the limitations and distortions of the American Dream," even as Cagney's gangster films and Busby Berkeley's backstage musicals reinvented rags-to-riches fantasies. At a time when audiences made room simultaneously for social relevance and artistic escape, singers as disparate as Bing Crosby and Woody Guthrie had a place. The big bands of Ellington and Goodman, the romantic comedies of Hawks and Capra, the dancing of Astaire and Rogers and the music of Porter and Gershwin all supplied a touch of class for the masses. Whether discussing Citizen Kane or Porgy and Bess, the poetry of Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost, Faulkner's unique achievement and odd relation to the period, the films of Cary Grant or the elegance and energy of Art Deco, Dickstein always has something smart and lively to say. 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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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