Arts - Winter 2007

The Ballad in the Street

Listening for the muffled strains of a national culture

By Alan Trachtenberg | December 1, 2006

Certain forms of culture or collective consciousness put questions to those who live within them, questions whose answers are normally taken for granted at a level of behavior so deep that we are hardly aware of the enigmas buried in them. To call this or that familiar picture or habitual action or ritual saying enigmatic is to acknowledge and recover something uncertain, unfamiliar, and strange, something hidden and reified—turned as if to stone—within the practical normality of everyday existence. Approaching the commonplace and the familiar as if it were strange and enigmatic is to melt its protective stonelike armature, to reveal the provisional and arbitrary character of all human constructions. As a heuristic, the concept of enigma makes us aware of the role of interrogation that we typically ignore by taking it for granted. “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put,” Emerson wrote. “Let us interrogate the great apparition [by this he means nature, all that is the NOT ME, including art], that shines so peacefully around us.” The aim of interrogation is to dispel the apparition of tranquillity and to reveal how unsettled, how agitated with unanswered questions, is our common life.

Enigma, hieroglyph, apparition: these are some of the tropes or metaphors by which we name not so much things themselves but our awareness of the opacity of things and their meanings. We can add vagary to this list, a term that historian Constance Rourke used to capture a sense of capriciousness, eccentricity, and extravagance that cannot readily be pinned down. Vagary calls up frolic and prank, any “departure or straying from the ordered, regular, or usual course of conduct, decorum, or propriety” (OED). Humor, Rourke wrote, “is a lawless element, full of surprises.” The “American vagaries” that Rourke studied with her contagious enjoyment and gratitude are vernacular expressions of the shared everyday life of local and regional groups in the United States, expressions that qualify as native folk culture. High culture is symmetrical, revered as pristine. The divagating character of the vagarious, like the self-questioning character of the enigmatic, gives off for Rourke an authentic aroma of earth and sweat, the true character of the national experience, the people’s experience, of the United States.

Vagary and enigma also convey something inherent about the act of criticism, its need to break through appearances to reach fundamental meanings, even as it recognizes that what looks fundamental may in all likelihood be revealed as delusion, conceit, another riddle wrapped in an enigma. Modern criticism subjects all that exists to the corrosive power of reason in the hope of solving the riddle, defeating the enigma, capturing and holding the vagaries under the glass of analysis and deconstruction. Is that a smile half playing on the sad lips of Abraham Lincoln in the last photograph that Alexander Gardner took of him in Washington shortly before or just after his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865? The speech concludes with the famous lines of offered conciliation, which Lincoln may well have realized would hardly suffice to dispel the bitterness of defeat or the arrogance of victory: “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” If it is a smile, what does it signify? The question beguiles us. Does the smile imply that Lincoln’s war-weary face hides a secret, an undisclosed meaning? Whatever else it may mean, the smile (if that’s what it is) is an artifact of the camera. How does our knowledge of the procedures and the semiotic logic of photography mediate our interpretation of this face that photography has made so familiar? Only by responding to it as an enigma might we recover its life as a trace of an instant in the life of Lincoln, and its secondary life as cultural meaning.

Such a response would be in the spirit of historical criticism practiced by Constance Rourke and her generation—Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, William Carlos Williams, Paul Rosenfeld. These early 20th-century “critics of culture” and left-wing intellectuals were influenced by the Progressive and Socialist movements and inspired, as the historian Casey Blake has shown, by promise of a “beloved community” in place of the competitive strife of daily existence. Their works in the 1910s and 1920s laid a foundation for the academic field of American studies that appeared in the 1930s and took hold in the 1950s. The indebtedness of the “movement” known as American studies to these early pioneers in cultural studies deserves remembering and honoring as a legacy, especially as it fades from view.

Rourke’s American Humor (1931) has been one of the most durable of responses to Van Wyck Brooks’s call in 1918 for a “usable past,” a new heritage in opposition to the complacent aestheticism of “the genteel tradition.” But Rourke dissociated herself from two of Brooks’s precepts: that America has “had no cumulative culture” and that “the spiritual welfare of this country depends altogether upon the fate of its creative minds.” Brooks thought the American cultural tradition was impoverished, in need of regen­eration from above by liberated artists and intellectuals. Evoking vagaries that were full of surprises, Rourke took Brooks’s high-flown motives down a peg or two. In place of impoverishment, she showed the indebtedness of major writers from Emerson to Henry James and contemporaries like Frost and Eliot to the bursting, lawless energies of the vernacular comedy of everyday life in America. Even as she accepted the cultural mission of inventing a “usable past,” Rourke revised Brooks’s view that America’s national culture was undernourished, puritanical, chauvinistic, given to celebration of violent individualism, and crippled by antagonistic separation between highbrow and lowbrow. With the broad scholarship in folk life at her command, Rourke demonstrated that “high” art in the United States has always been nurtured by roots in folk cultures.

A woman of the cultural left, modernist rather than antiquarian in her tastes, a friendly critic of 1930s Marxism, an anti-Fascist activist in the years before her early death in 1941, Rourke pledged herself to the goals of democratic cultural criticism. Americans, she wrote, “do not have that strong and natural association with evidences of the past which is still commonplace in other countries.” By evidence she meant not only verbal culture but also things, sounds, tales, songs, furniture, paintings and photographs, theater and dance. When she died at the age of 56, she was at work on a projected three-volume history of American culture—“evidence of enough native culture to convert a generation of disenchanted artists,” as the historian Joan Shelley Rubin has written. In a review of the posthumous collection of Rourke’s work, The Roots of American Culture, edited by Van Wyck Brooks, Alfred Kazin wrote: “She sought what so many modern Americans have lost, what so many Europeans have established as the first principle of a human existence—the sense of locality, the simple happiness of belonging to a particular culture.”

What Rourke and her colleagues sought was a nation, an America rooted in particular places, languages, ethnicities, ways of life: America not as a single dominating culture but as a medley of cultures, a harmonious multiplicity of cultures. The word culture itself has a multiplicity of meanings. Raymond Williams, a cultural historian, points out in his book Culture and Society (1958) that the word as we understand it today arose in England in response to industrialization; culture came to stand for communal traditions and patterns of behavior and feeling, relations between natural and man-made places that undergo rapid change with the rise of industrial capitalism. It came to mean a whole way of life, something that might offer a model for newly formed communal relations imagined by socialist critics of the ferociously selfish and destructive capitalist order. It is what Van Wyck Brooks called “a living culture,” which he imagined still survived “everywhere in Europe, in spite of the industrialization of society.”

For Brooks this beguiling image of an organic culture projected an impression of a “nation”—“a living, homogeneous entity, with its own faith and consciousness of self.” The vision of a culture both organic and national lay at the base of the idea of an emergent democratic America that Brooks shared with Rourke and others of their generation. But the vision foundered in contradiction. America’s entry into World War I represented, as Randolph Bourne saw more clearly than others, a fateful step toward imperialism, away from the democratic ethos the critics had assumed as foundational to “our America.” Mass immigration and cultural multiplicity had created millions of acculturated city dwellers who had only the poisonous distractions of patriotic fervor and debased commercial culture to prop up their lost sense of identity and of belonging somewhere.

In its origins, the academic field of American studies took from Emerson, Whitman, Brooks, and their followers the idea of America as a yet unrealized ideal, an idea necessary as motive and goal to the practice of historical cultural criticism. “The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and gait of the body,” Emerson wrote in 1837; “show me the ultimate reason of these matters . . . and the world no longer lies a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order.” Through an art of the common, the familiar, the low, and indeed the enigmatic, Emerson believed that “a nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” This was echoed by Van Wyck Brooks 80 years later:

As soon as the foundations of our life have been reconstructed and made solid on the basis of our own experience, all these extraneous, ill-regulated forces will rally about their newly found center; they will fit in, each where it belongs, contributing to the essential architecture of our life. Then, and only then, shall we cease to be a blind, selfish, disorderly people; we shall become a luminous people, dwelling in the light and sharing our light.

Whitman understood the stakes in this exceptionalist view of the nation to be fateful. In “Democratic Vistas” (1871) he wrote that America and democracy are “convertible terms,” or had better be. Otherwise, America is a failed idea, “the most tremendous failure of time,” “merely a passing gleam.” Following Whitman, Rourke wanted to contribute to the conversion of America into a democracy by recovering vagaries of native cultures scorned by the genteel guardians of high culture. The enemy were those who denied that the United States could achieve a discrete cultural nationality on the basis of its native arts and habits. After World War II, in the years of the Cold War, American studies more or less adopted the same position, with the query “What is American?” as a core, defining issue.

Recently the field has experienced an almost 180-degree reversal on this score. The day has long passed when any hint of national celebration has appeared in discourse associated with American studies. To the contrary, the concept of nation has been virtually exorcised as incongruous in an age of globalism. To confine a field of studies to the boundaries of a nation-state has come to seem deliberate blindness. Leading questions now are likely to be about the global menace of the American military and economic hegemony, the rhetorical conflation of America and democracy as a disguise for imperial intentions and practices. The quest for cultural nationality has been almost entirely surpassed by a quest for transnational and postnational identities and prospects. That American studies faces an uncertain future is a sign of the faded status of the early 20th-century “critics of culture,” since Americanist critics give so little credibility to Whitman’s aporia about the convertibility of America and democracy, its having been debased by being used so cynically in U.S. foreign policy.

The notion of interchangeability of the terms democracy and America mystifies both terms, removes them from actual histories of struggle and conflict, and makes racism, sexism, and economic exploitation seem aberrations rather than structural features of a harshly divided society. To view the United States in a secular way, as a society torn by conflicting interests, pulled apart by struggles over power and wealth, divided by color and gender and social class as much as by region and ethnic distinctiveness, its history shaped more by commodity production and the degradation of labor than by sacral ideals, continually restructured by the privileged to maintain and reproduce privilege—to view it in such a way cannot but jolt the tradition in which the name America was once considered a precondition for cultural democracy.

And the idea of the United States as a singular, coherent nationality, based, as Lincoln believed, on universal principles as articulated in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, now faces an impasse. It is worth recalling the alternative that Randolph Bourne posed in his famous essay of 1916, “Trans-National America.” Bourne urged that we think again “of what Americanism may rightly mean.” “No intense nationalism of the European plan can be ours,” he wrote, and proposed “a new and more adventurous ideal: Do we not see how the national colonies in America, deriving power from the deep cultural heart of Europe and yet living here in mutual toleration, freed from the age-long tangles of races, creeds, and dynasties, may work out a federated ideal?” Colonies of difference, vagarious and enigmatic to each other, “live here inextricably mingled, yet not homogeneous. They merge but they do not fuse.” Their lesson is that “we shall have to give up the search for our native ‘American’ culture.”

Bourne proposed to embrace these multiple cultural languages, the heteroglossia of the practical democracy of American streets. His late essays on “war and the intellectuals” implicitly asked whether it was enough for cultural criticism to study culture alone. “The cultural question,” wrote John Dewey, “is a political and economic one before it is a definitely cultural one.” Historical cultural criticism can desanctify the terms culture, democracy, and America, freeing them from their reified state, flushing out the enigmas and vagaries hidden within their apparently normal and familiar meanings, submitting them to rigorous social and political scrutiny. As the Latin origin of scrutiny reveals, the word refers to rubbish or trash, scruta, and the search by rummaging (like ragpicking) for something worth keeping. It’s a matter of opening our eyes to what lies hidden plainly in sight, under clouds of neglect, indifference, or deliberate obfuscation. Scrutiny implies an act of vision to light a way ahead. “In a dark time,” wrote Theodore Roethke, “the eye begins to see.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments are closed for this post.