It’s hard to imagine a more astute, more graceful guide to a remarkably creative period.

DANCING IN THE DARK

A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION

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.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-393-07225-9

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2009

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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