The development of the arts in America — music, dance, architecture, the visual arts, and literature — has been marked by a tension between two strong sources of inspiration: European sophistication and domestic originality. Frequently, the best American artists have managed to harness both sources. This chapter touches upon a number of major American figures in the arts, some of whom have grappled with the Old World-New World conflict in their work.
Until the 20th century, “serious” music in America was shaped by European standards and idioms. A notable exception was the music of composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), son of a British father and a Creole mother. Gottschalk enlivened his music with plantation melodies and Caribbean rhythms that he had heard in his native New Orleans. He was the first American pianist to achieve international recognition, but his early death contributed to his relative obscurity.
More representative of early American music were the compositions of Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), who not only patterned his works after European models but stoutly resisted the label of “American composer.” He was unable to see beyond the same notion that hampered many early American writers: To be wholly American, he thought, was to be provincial.
A distinctively American classical music came to fruition when such composers as George Gershwin (1898-1937) and Aaron Copland (1900-1990) incorporated homegrown melodies and rhythms into forms borrowed from Europe. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and his opera Porgy and Bess were influenced by jazz and African-American folk songs. Some of his music is also self-consciously urban: The opening of his “An American in Paris,” for example, mimics taxi horns.
As Harold C. Schonberg writes in The Lives of the Great Composers, Copland “helped break the stranglehold of the German domination on American music.” He studied in Paris, where he was encouraged to depart from tradition and indulge his interest in jazz (for more on jazz, see chapter 11). Besides writing symphonies, concertos, and an opera, he composed the scores for several films. He is best known, however, for his ballet scores, which draw on American folk songs; among them are “Billy the Kid“, “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring“.
Another American original was Charles Ives (1874-1954), who combined elements of popular classical music with harsh dissonance. “I found I could not go on using the familiar chords early,” he explained. “I heard something else“. His idiosyncratic music was seldom performed while he was alive, but Ives is now recognized as an innovator who anticipated later musical developments of the 20th century. Composers who followed Ives experimented with 12-tone scales, minimalism, and other innovations that some concertgoers found alienating.
In the last decades of the 20th century, there has been a trend back toward music that pleases both composer and listener, a development that may be related to the uneasy status of the symphony orchestra in America. Unlike Europe, where it is common for governments to underwrite their orchestras and opera companies, the arts in America get relatively little public support. To survive, symphony orchestras depend largely on philanthropy and paid admissions.
Some orchestra directors have found a way to keep mainstream audiences happy while introducing new music to the public: Rather than segregate the new pieces, these directors program them side-by-side with traditional fare. Meanwhile, opera, old and new, has been flourishing. Because it is so expensive to stage, however, opera depends heavily on the generosity of corporate and private donors.
Closely related to the development of American music in the early 20th century was the emergence of a new, and distinctively American, art form — modern dance. Among the early innovators was Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), who stressed pure, unstructured movement in lieu of the positions of classical ballet.
The main line of development, however, runs from the dance company of Ruth St. Denis (1878-1968) and her husband-partner, Ted Shawn (1891-1972). Her pupil Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) looked outward for inspiration, to society and human conflict. Another pupil of St. Denis, Martha Graham (1893-1991), whose New York-based company became perhaps the best known in modern dance, sought to express an inward-based passion. Many of Graham’s most popular works were produced in collaboration with leading American composers — “Appalachian Spring” with Aaron Copland, for example.
Later choreographers searched for new methods of expression. Merce Cunningham (1919-) introduced improvisation and random movement into performances. Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) incorporated African dance elements and black music into his works. Recently such choreographers as Mark Morris (1956-) and Liz Lerman (1947-) have defied the convention that dancers must be thin and young. Their belief, put into action in their hiring practices and performances, is that graceful, exciting movement is not restricted by age or body type.
In the early 20th century U.S. audiences also were introduced to classical ballet by touring companies of European dancers. The first American ballet troupes were founded in the 1930s, when dancers and choreographers teamed up with visionary lovers of ballet such as Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996). Kirstein invited Russian choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) to the United States in 1933, and the two established the School of American Ballet, which became the New York City Ballet in 1948. Ballet manager and publicity agent Richard Pleasant (1909-1961) founded America’s second leading ballet organization, American Ballet Theatre, with dancer and patron Lucia Chase (1907-1986) in 1940.
Paradoxically, native-born directors like Pleasant included Russian classics in their repertoires, while Balanchine announced that his new American company was predicated on distinguished music and new works in the classical idiom, not the standard repertory of the past. Since then, the American ballet scene has been a mix of classic revivals and original works, choreographed by such talented former dancers as Jerome Robbins (1918-), Robert Joffrey (1930-1988), Eliot Feld (1942-), Arthur Mitchell (1934-), and Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948-).
America’s unmistakable contribution to architecture has been the skyscraper, whose bold, thrusting lines have made it the symbol of capitalist energy. Made possible by new construction techniques and the invention of the elevator, the first skyscraper went up in Chicago in 1884.
Many of the most graceful early towers were designed by Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), America’s first great modern architect. His most talented student was Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), who spent much of his career designing private residences with matching furniture and generous use of open space. One of his best-known buildings, however, is a public one: the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
European architects who emigrated to the United States before World War II launched what became a dominant movement in architecture, the International Style. Perhaps the most influential of these immigrants were Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969), both former directors of Germany’s famous design school, the Bauhaus. Based on geometric form, buildings in their style have been both praised as monuments to American corporate life and dismissed as “glass boxes.” In reaction, younger American architects such as Michael Graves (1945-) have rejected the austere, boxy look in favor of “postmodern” buildings with striking contours and bold decoration that alludes to historical styles of architecture.
THE VISUAL ARTS
America’s first well-known school of painting — the Hudson River school — appeared in 1820. As with music and literature, this development was delayed until artists perceived that the New World offered subjects unique to itself; in this case the westward expansion of settlement brought the transcendent beauty of frontier landscapes to painters’ attention.
The Hudson River painters’ directness and simplicity of vision influenced such later artists as Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who depicted rural America — the sea, the mountains, and the people who lived near them. Middle-class city life found its painter in Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), an uncompromising realist whose unflinching honesty undercut the genteel preference for romantic sentimentalism.
Controversy soon became a way of life for American artists. In fact, much of American painting and sculpture since 1900 has been a series of revolts against tradition. “To hell with the artistic values,” announced Robert Henri (1865-1929). He was the leader of what critics called the “ash-can” school of painting, after the group’s portrayals of the squalid aspects of city life. Soon the ash-can artists gave way to modernists arriving from Europe — the cubists and abstract painters promoted by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) at his Gallery 291 in New York City.
In the years after World War II, a group of young New York artists formed the first native American movement to exert major influence on foreign artists: abstract expressionism. Among the movement’s leaders were Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The abstract expressionists abandoned formal composition and representation of real objects to concentrate on instinctual arrangements of space and color and to demonstrate the effects of the physical action of painting on the canvas.
Members of the next artistic generation favored a different form of abstraction: works of mixed media. Among them were Robert Rauschenberg (1925-) and Jasper Johns (1930-), who used photos, newsprint, and discarded objects in their compositions. Pop artists, such as Andy Warhol (1930-1987), Larry Rivers (1923-), and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-), reproduced, with satiric care, everyday objects and images of American popular culture — Coca-Cola bottles, soup cans, comic strips.
Today artists in America tend not to restrict themselves to schools, styles, or a single medium. A work of art might be a performance on stage or a hand-written manifesto; it might be a massive design cut into a Western desert or a severe arrangement of marble panels inscribed with the names of American soldiers who died in Vietnam. Perhaps the most influential 20th-century American contribution to world art has been a mocking playfulness, a sense that a central purpose of a new work is to join the ongoing debate over the definition of art itself.
Much early American writing is derivative: European forms and styles transferred to new locales. For example, Wieland and other novels by Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) are energetic imitations of the Gothic novels then being written in England. Even the well-wrought tales of Washington Irving (1783-1859), notably “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, seem comfortably European despite their New World settings.
Perhaps the first American writer to produce boldly new fiction and poetry was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). In 1835, Poe began writing short stories — including “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — that explore previously hidden levels of human psychology and push the boundaries of fiction toward mystery and fantasy.
Meanwhile, in 1837, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) collected some of his stories as Twice-Told Tales, a volume rich in symbolism and occult incidents. Hawthorne went on to write full-length “romances”, quasi-allegorical novels that explore such themes as guilt, pride, and emotional repression in his native New England. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, is the stark drama of a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery.
Hawthorne’s fiction had a profound impact on his friend Herman Melville (1819-1891), who first made a name for himself by turning material from his seafaring days into exotic novels. Inspired by Hawthorne’s example, Melville went on to write novels rich in philosophical speculation. In Moby-Dick, an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggle against the elements. In another fine work, the short novel Billy Budd, Melville dramatizes the conflicting claims of duty and compassion on board a ship in time of war. His more profound books sold poorly, and he had been long forgotten by the time of his death. He was rediscovered in the early decades of the 20th century.
In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an ex-minister, published a startling nonfiction work called Nature, in which he claimed it was possible to dispense with organized religion and reach a lofty spiritual state by studying and responding to the natural world. His work influenced not only the writers who gathered around him, forming a movement known as Transcendentalism, but also the public, who heard him lecture.
Emerson’s most gifted fellow-thinker was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), a resolute nonconformist. After living mostly by himself for two years in a cabin by a wooded pond, Thoreau wrote Walden, a book-length memoir that urges resistance to the meddlesome dictates of organized society. His radical writings express a deep-rooted tendency toward individualism in the American character.
Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast — in the border state of Missouri. His regional masterpieces, the memoir Life on the Mississippi and the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were noted in chapter 2. Twain’s style — influenced by journalism, wedded to the vernacular, direct and unadorned but also highly evocative and irreverently funny — changed the way Americans write their language. His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, and regional accents.
Henry James (1843-1916) confronted the Old World-New World dilemma by writing directly about it. Although born in New York City, he spent most of his adult years in England. Many of his novels center on Americans who live in or travel to Europe. With its intricate, highly qualified sentences and dissection of emotional nuance, James’s fiction can be daunting. Among his more accessible works are the novellas “Daisy Miller”, about an enchanting American girl in Europe, and “The Turn of the Screw”, an enigmatic ghost story.
America’s two greatest 19th-century poets could hardly have been more different in temperament and style. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a working man, a traveler, a self-appointed nurse during the American Civil War (1861-1865), and a poetic innovator. His magnum opus was Leaves of Grass, in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. Taking that motif one step further, the poet equates the vast range of American experience with himself — and manages not to sound like a crass egotist. For example, in “Song of Myself”, the long, central poem in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me….”
Whitman was also a poet of the body — “the body electric”, as he called it. In Studies in Classic American Literature, the English novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote that Whitman “was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something `superior’ and `above’ the flesh”.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), on the other hand, lived the sheltered life of a genteel unmarried woman in small-town Massachusetts. Within its formal structure, her poetry is ingenious, witty, exquisitely wrought, and psychologically penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, and little of it was published during her lifetime.
Many of her poems dwell on death, often with a mischievous twist. “Because I could not stop for Death,” one begins, “He kindly stopped for me.” The opening of another Dickinson poem toys with her position as a woman in a male-dominated society and an unrecognized poet: “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody too?”
At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction’s social spectrum to encompass both high and low life. In her stories and novels, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) scrutinized the upper-class, Eastern-seaboard society in which she had grown up. One of her finest books, The Age of Innocence, centers on a man who chooses to marry a conventional, socially acceptable woman rather than a fascinating outsider. At about the same time, Stephen Crane (1871-1900), best known for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, depicted the life of New York City prostitutes in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. And in Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) portrayed a country girl who moves to Chicago and becomes a kept woman.
Experimentation in style and form soon joined the new freedom in subject matter. In 1909, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), by then an expatriate in Paris, published Three Lives, an innovative work of fiction influenced by her familiarity with cubism, jazz, and other movements in contemporary art and music.
The poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was born in Idaho but spent much of his adult life in Europe. His work is complex, sometimes obscure, with multiple references to other art forms and to a vast range of literature, both Western and Eastern. He influenced many other poets, notably T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), another expatriate. Eliot wrote spare, cerebral poetry, carried by a dense structure of symbols. In “The Waste Land” he embodied a jaundiced vision of post-World War I society in fragmented, haunted images. Like Pound’s, Eliot’s poetry could be highly allusive, and some editions of “The Waste Land” come with footnotes supplied by the poet. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.
American writers also expressed the disillusionment following upon the war. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. Fitzgerald’s characteristic theme, expressed poignantly in The Great Gatsby, is the tendency of youth’s golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) saw violence and death first-hand as an ambulance driver in World War I, and the senseless carnage persuaded him that abstract language was mostly empty and misleading. He cut out unnecessary words from his writing, simplified the sentence structure, and concentrated on concrete objects and actions. He adhered to a moral code that emphasized courage under pressure, and his protagonists were strong, silent men who often dealt awkwardly with women. The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms are generally considered his best novels; he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.
In addition to fiction, the 1920s were a rich period for drama. There had not been an important American dramatist until Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) began to write his plays. Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936, O’Neill drew upon classical mythology, the Bible, and the new science of psychology to explore inner life. He wrote frankly about sex and family quarrels, but his preoccupation was with the individual’s search for identity. One of his greatest works is Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a harrowing drama, small in scale but large in theme, based largely on his own family. Another strikingly original American playwright was Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), who expressed his southern heritage in poetic yet sensational plays, usually about a sensitive woman trapped in a brutish environment. Several of his plays have been made into films, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Five years before Hemingway, another American novelist had won the Nobel Prize: William Faulkner (1897-1962). Faulkner managed to encompass an enormous range of humanity in Yoknapatawpha, a Mississippi county of his own invention. He recorded his characters’ seemingly unedited ramblings in order to represent their inner states — a technique called “stream of consciousness.” (In fact, these passages are carefully crafted, and their seeming randomness is an illusion.) He also jumbled time sequences to show how the past — especially the slave-holding era of the South — endures in the present. Among his great works are The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, and The Unvanquished.
Faulkner was part of a southern literary renaissance that also included such figures as Truman Capote (1924-1984) and Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). Although Capote wrote short stories and novels, fiction and nonfiction, his masterpiece was In Cold Blood, a factual account of a multiple murder and its aftermath, which fused dogged reporting with a novelist’s penetrating psychology and crystalline prose. Other practitioners of the “nonfiction novel” have included Norman Mailer (1923-), who wrote about an antiwar march on the Pentagon in Armies of the Night, and Tom Wolfe (1931-), who wrote about American astronauts in The Right Stuff.
Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic — and thus an outsider in the heavily Protestant South in which she grew up. Her characters are Protestant fundamentalists obsessed with both God and Satan. She is best known for her tragicomic short stories.
The 1920s had seen the rise of an artistic black community in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. The period called the Harlem Renaissance produced such gifted poets as Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Countee Cullen (1903-1946), and Claude McKay (1889-1948). The novelist Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) combined a gift for storytelling with the study of anthropology to write vivid stories from the African-American oral tradition. Through such books as the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God — about the life and marriages of a light-skinned African-American woman — Hurston influenced a later generation of black women novelists.
After World War II, a new receptivity to diverse voices brought black writers into the mainstream of American literature. James Baldwin (1924-1987) expressed his disdain for racism and his celebration of sexuality in Giovanni’s Room. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) linked the plight of African Americans, whose race can render them all but invisible to the majority white culture, with the larger theme of the human search for identity in the modern world.
In the 1950s the West Coast spawned a literary movement, the poetry and fiction of the “Beat Generation,” a name that referred simultaneously to the rhythm of jazz music, to a sense that post-war society was worn out, and to an interest in new forms of experience through drugs, alcohol, and Eastern mysticism. Poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) set the tone of social protest and visionary ecstasy in “Howl,” a Whitmanesque work that begins with this powerful line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness….”Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) celebrated the Beats’ carefree, hedonistic life-style in his episodic novel On the Road.
From Irving and Hawthorne to the present day, the short story has been a favorite American form. One of its 20th-century masters was John Cheever (1912-1982), who brought yet another facet of American life into the realm of literature: the affluent suburbs that have grown up around most major cities. Cheever was long associated with The New Yorker, a magazine noted for its wit and sophistication.
Although trend-spotting in literature that is still being written can be dangerous, the recent emergence of fiction by members of minority groups has been striking. Here are only a few examples. Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko (1948-) uses colloquial language and traditional stories to fashion haunting, lyrical poems such as “In Cold Storm Light.” Amy Tan (1952-), of Chinese descent, has described her parents’ early struggles in California in The Joy Luck Club. Oscar Hijuelos (1951-), a writer with roots in Cuba, won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. In a series of novels beginning with A Boy’s Own Story, Edmund White (1940-) has captured the anguish and comedy of growing up homosexual in America. Finally, African-American women have produced some of the most powerful fiction of recent decades. One of them, Toni Morrison (1931-), author of Beloved and other works, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, only the second American woman to be so honored.
The sport that evokes more nostalgia among Americans than any other is baseball. So many people play the game as children (or play its close relative, softball) that it has become known as “the national pastime.” It is also a democratic game. Unlike football and basketball, baseball can be played well by people of average height and weight.
Baseball originated before the American Civil War (1861-1865) as rounders, a humble game played on sandlots. Early champions of the game fine-tuned it to include the kind of skills and mental judgment that made cricket respectable in England. In particular, scoring and record-keeping gave baseball gravity. “Today,” notes John Thorn in The Baseball Encyclopedia, “baseball without records is inconceivable.” More Americans undoubtedly know that Roger Maris’s 61 home runs in 1961 broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 in 1927 than that President Ronald Reagan’s 525 electoral-college votes in 1984 broke President Franklin Roosevelt’s record of 523 in 1936.
In 1871 the first professional baseball league was born. By the beginning of the 20th century, most large cities in the eastern United States had a professional baseball team. The teams were divided into two leagues, the National and American; during the regular season, a team played only against other teams within its league. The most victorious team in each league was said to have won the “pennant;” the two pennant winners met after the end of the regular season in the World Series. The winner of at least four games (out of a possible seven) was the champion for that year. This arrangement still holds today, although the leagues are now subdivided and pennants are decided in post-season playoff series between the winners of each division.
Baseball came of age in the 1920s, when Babe Ruth (1895-1948) led the New York Yankees to several World Series titles and became a national hero on the strength of his home runs (balls that cannot be played because they have been hit out of the field). Over the decades, every team has had its great players. One of the most noteworthy was the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), a gifted and courageous athlete who became the first African-American player in the major leagues in 1947. (Prior to Robinson, black players had been restricted to the Negro League.)
Starting in the 1950s, baseball expanded its geographical range. Western cities got teams, either by luring them to move from eastern cities or by forming so-called expansion teams with players made available by established teams. Until the 1970s, because of strict contracts, the owners of baseball teams also virtually owned the players; since then, the rules have changed so that players are free, within certain limits, to sell their services to any team. The results have been bidding wars and stars who are paid millions of dollars a year. Disputes between the players’ union and the owners have at times halted baseball for months at a time. If baseball is both a sport and a business, late in the 20th century many disgruntled fans view the business side as the dominant one.
Baseball became popular in Japan after American soldiers introduced it during the occupation following World War II. In the 1990s a Japanese player, Hideo Nomo, became a star pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baseball is also widely played in Cuba and other Caribbean nations. In the 1996 Olympics, it was a measure of baseball’s appeal outside the United States that the contest for the gold medal came down to Japan and Cuba (Cuba won).
Another American game that has traveled well is basketball, now played by more than 250 million people worldwide in an organized fashion, as well as by countless others in “pick-up” games. Basketball originated in 1891 when a future Presbyterian minister named James Naismith (1861-1939) was assigned to teach a physical education class at a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. The class had been noted for being disorderly, and Naismith was told to invent a new game to keep the young men occupied. Since it was winter and very cold outside, a game that could be played indoors was desirable.
Naismith thought back to his boyhood in Canada, where he and his friends had played “duck on a rock,” which involved trying to knock a large rock off a boulder by throwing smaller rocks at it. He also recalled watching rugby players toss a ball into a box in a gymnasium. He had the idea of nailing up raised boxes into which players would attempt to throw a ball. When boxes couldn’t be found, he used peach baskets. According to Alexander Wolff, in his book 100 Years of Hoops, Naismith drew up the rules for the new game in “about an hour.” Most of them still apply in some form today.
Basketball caught on because graduates of the YMCA school traveled widely, because Naismith disseminated the rules freely, and because there was a need for a simple game that could be played indoors during winter. Naismith’s legacy included the first great college basketball coach, Forrest “Phog” Allen (1885-1974), who played for Naismith at the University of Kansas and went on to win 771 games as a coach at Kansas himself. Among Allen’s star players was Wilt Chamberlain, who became one of professional basketball’s first superstars — one night in 1962, he scored a record 100 points in a game.
The first professional basketball league was formed in 1898; players earned $2.50 for home games, $1.25 for games on the road. Not quite 100 years later, Juwan Howard, a star player for the Washington Bullets (now called the Washington Wizards), had competing offers of more than $100 million over seven seasons from the Bullets and the Miami Heat.
Many teams in the National Basketball Association now have foreign players, who return home to represent their native countries during the Olympic Games. The so-called Dream Team, made up of the top American professional basketball players, has represented the United States in recent Olympic Games. In 1996 the Dream Team trailed some opponents until fairly late in the games — an indication of basketball’s growing international status.
The American film critic Pauline Kael gave a 1968 collection of her reviews the title Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. By way of explanation, she said that the words, which came from an Italian movie poster, were “perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies.” Certainly, they sum up the raw energy of many American films.
If moving pictures were not an American invention, they have nonetheless been the preeminent American contribution to world entertainment. In the early 1900s, when the medium was new, many immigrants, particularly Jews, found employment in the U.S. film industry. Kept out of other occupations by racial prejudice, they were able to make their mark in a brand-new business: the exhibition of short films in storefront theaters called nickelodeons, after their admission price of a nickel (five cents). Within a few years, ambitious men like Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner Brothers — Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack — had switched to the production side of the business. Soon they were the heads of a new kind of enterprise: the movie studio.
The major studios were located in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, California. Before World War I, movies were made in several U.S. cities, but filmmakers gravitated to southern California as the industry developed. They were attracted by the mild climate, which made it possible to film movies outdoors year-round, and by the varied scenery that was available.
Other moviemakers arrived from Europe after World War I: directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Jean Renoir; actors like Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Ronald Colman, and Charles Boyer. They joined a homegrown supply of actors — lured west from the New York City stage after the introduction of sound films — to form one of the 20th century’s most remarkable growth industries. At motion pictures’ height of popularity in the mid-1940s, the studios were cranking out a total of about 400 movies a year, seen by an audience of 90 million Americans per week.
During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1930s and 1940s, movies issued from the Hollywood studios rather like the cars rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly lines. No two movies were exactly the same, but most followed a formula: Western, slapstick comedy, film noir, musical, animated cartoon, biopic (biographical picture), etc. Yet each movie was a little different, and, unlike the craftsmen who made cars, many of the people who made movies were artists. To Have and Have Not (1944) is famous not only for the first pairing of actors Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Lauren Bacall (1924-) but also for being written by two future winners of the Nobel Prize for literature: Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), author of the novel on which the script was based, and William Faulkner (1897-1962), who worked on the screen adaptation.
Moviemaking was still a business, however, and motion picture companies made money by operating under the so-called studio system. The major studios kept thousands of people on salary — actors, producers, directors, writers, stuntmen, craftspersons, and technicians. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation — theaters that showed their films and that were always in need of fresh material.
What is remarkable is how much quality entertainment emerged from such a regimented process. One reason this was possible is that, with so many movies being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles (1915-1985) and widely regarded as the greatest of all American movies, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks (1896-1977) and Frank Capra (1897-1991) battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (directed by Capra), Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks), Ninotchka (Lubitsch), and Midnight.
The studio system succumbed to two forces in the late 1940s: (1) a federal antitrust action that separated the production of films from their exhibition; and (2) the advent of television. The number of movies being made dropped sharply, even as the average budget soared, because Hollywood wanted to offer audiences the kind of spectacle they couldn’t see on television.
This blockbuster syndrome has continued to affect Hollywood. Added to the skyrocketing salaries paid actors, studio heads, and deal-making agents, it means that movies released today tend to be either huge successes or huge failures, depending on how well their enormous costs match up with the public taste.
The studios still exist, often in partnership with other media companies, but many of the most interesting American movies are now independent productions. The films of Woody Allen (1935-), for example, fall into this category. Critics rate them highly and most of them make a profit, but since good actors are willing to work with Allen for relatively little money, the films are inexpensive to make. Thus, if one happens to fail at the box office, the loss is not crushing. In contrast, a movie featuring Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger typically begins with a cost of $10 million or more just for the star’s salary. With multiples of a sum like that at stake, Hollywood studio executives tend to play it safe.
The first major composer of popular music with a uniquely American style was Stephen Foster (1826-1864). He established a pattern that has shaped American music ever since — combining elements of the European musical tradition with African-American rhythms and themes. Of Irish ancestry, Foster grew up in the South, where he heard slave music and saw minstrel shows, which featured white performers in black make-up performing African-American songs and dances. Such material inspired some of Foster’s best songs, which many Americans still know by heart: “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Ring the Banjo,” “Old Folks at Home” (better known by its opening line: “Way down upon the Swanee River”).
Before the movies and radio, most Americans had to entertain themselves or wait for the arrival in town of lecturers, circuses, or the traveling stage revues known as vaudeville. Dozens of prominent American entertainers got their starts in vaudeville — W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Buster Keaton, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, and the Three Stooges, to name just a few — and the medium demanded a steady supply of new songs. Late in the 19th century, music publishing became a big business in the United States, with many firms clustered in New York City, on a street that became known as Tin Pan Alley.
Vaudeville and the European genre of operetta spawned the Broadway musical, which integrates songs and dancing into a continuous story with spoken dialogue. The first successful example of the new genre — and still one of the best — was Jerome Kern’s Showboat, which premiered in 1927.
Interestingly, Showboat pays tribute to the black influence on mainstream American music with a story centered on miscegenation and, as its most poignant song, the slave lament “Ol’ Man River.”
Songwriter Irving Berlin (1888-1989) made a smooth transition from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway. An immigrant of Russian-Jewish extraction, he wrote some of the most popular American songs: “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “Cheek to Cheek.” Cole Porter (1891-1964) took the Broadway show song to new heights of sophistication with his witty lyrics and rousing melodies, combined in such songs as “Anything Goes,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “It’s De-Lovely.”
Black composers such as Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and Eubie Blake (1883-1983) drew on their own heritage to compose songs, ragtime pieces for piano, and, in Joplin’s case, an opera. Joplin was all but forgotten after his death, but his music made a comeback starting in the 1970s. Blake wrote the music for Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical by and about blacks, and continued to perform well into his 90s. Blues songs, which had evolved from slaves’ work songs, became the rage in New York City and elsewhere during the 1920s and 1930s; two of the blues’ finest practitioners were Ma Rainey (1886-1939) and Bessie Smith (c.1898-1937).
W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” is one of the most frequently recorded songs written in the 20th century. Of all those recordings, one stands out: Bessie Smith’s 1925 version, with Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) accompanying her on the cornet — a collaboration of three great figures (composer, singer, instrumentalist) in a new kind of music called jazz. Though the meaning of “jazz” is obscure, originally the term almost certainly had to do with sex. The music, which originated in New Orleans early in the 20th century, brought together elements from ragtime, slave songs, and brass bands. One of the distinguishing elements of jazz was its fluidity: in live performances, the musicians would almost never play a song the same way twice but would improvise variations on its notes and words.
Blessed with composers and performers of genius — Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941) and Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman (1909-1986) and Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931), Billie Holiday (1915-1959), and Ella Fitzgerald (1918-1996) — jazz was the reigning popular American music from the 1920s through the 1940s. In the 1930s and 1940s the most popular form of jazz was “big-band swing,” so called after large ensembles conducted by the likes of Glenn Miller (1909-1944) and William “Count” Basie (1904-1984). In the late 1940s a new, more cerebral form of mostly instrumental jazz, called be-bop, began to attract audiences. Its practitioners included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) and saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955). Trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991) experimented with a wide range of musical influences, including classical music, which he incorporated into such compositions as “Sketches from Spain.”
ROCK AND ROLL AND COUNTRY
By the early 1950s, however, jazz had lost some of its appeal to a mass audience. A new form of pop music, rock and roll, evolved from a black style known as rhythm and blues: songs with strong beats and often risqué lyrics. Though written by and for blacks, rhythm and blues also appealed to white teenagers, for whom listening to it over black-oriented radio stations late at night became a secret pleasure. To make the new music more acceptable to a mainstream audience, white performers and arrangers began to “cover” rhythm and blues songs — singing them with the beat toned down and the lyrics cleaned up. A typical example is “Ain’t That a Shame,” a 1955 hit in a rock version by its black composer, Antoine “Fats” Domino, but an even bigger hit as a ballad-like cover by a white performer, Pat Boone.
Shrewd record producers of the time realized that a magnetic white man who could sing with the energy of a black man would have enormous appeal. Just such a figure appeared in the person of Elvis Presley (1935-1977), who had grown up poor in the South. Besides an emotional singing voice, Presley had sultry good looks and a way of shaking his hips that struck adults as obscene but teenagers as natural to rock and roll. At first, Presley, too, covered black singers: One of his first big hits was “Hound Dog,” which had been sung by blues artist Big Mama Thornton. Soon, however, Presley was singing original material, supplied by a new breed of rock-and-roll songwriters.
A few years after its debut, rock and roll was well on its way to becoming the American form of pop music, especially among the young. It spread quickly to Great Britain, where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones got their starts in the early 1960s. In the meantime, however, a challenge to rock had appeared in the form of folk music, based largely on ballads brought over from Scotland, England, and Ireland and preserved in such enclaves as the mountains of North Carolina and West Virginia. Often accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar or banjo, such performers as the Weavers, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul, and Mary offered a low-tech alternative to rock and roll.
Bob Dylan (1941-) extended the reach of folk music by writing striking new songs that addressed contemporary social problems, especially the denial of civil rights to black Americans. The division between the two camps — rock enthusiasts and folk purists — came to a head when Dylan was booed for “going electric” (accompanying himself on electric guitar) at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Far from being deterred, Dylan led virtually the entire folk movement into a blend of rock and folk.
This merger was a watershed event, setting a pattern that holds true to this day. Rock remains the prevalent pop music of America — and much of the rest of the world — largely because it can assimilate almost any other kind of music, along with new varieties of outlandish showmanship, into its strong rhythmical framework. Whenever rock shows signs of creative exhaustion, it seems to get a transfusion, often from African Americans, as happened in the 1980s with the rise of rap: rhyming, often rude lyrics set to minimalist tunes.
Like folk, country music descends from the songs brought to the United States from England, Scotland, and Ireland. The original form of country music, called “old-time” and played by string bands (typically made up of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and base fiddle), can still be heard at festivals held each year in Virginia, North Carolina, and other southern states.
Modern country music — original songs about contemporary concerns — developed in the 1920s, roughly coinciding with a mass migration of rural people to big cities in search of work. Country music tends to have a melancholy sound, and many classic songs are about loss or separation — lost homes, parents left behind, lost loves. Like many other forms of American pop music, country lends itself easily to a rock-and-roll beat, and country rock has been yet another successful American merger. Overall, country is second only to rock in popularity, and country singer Garth Brooks (1962- ) has sold more albums than any other single artist in American musical history — including Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
Some countries resent the American cultural juggernaut. The French periodically campaign to rid their language of invading English terms, and the Canadians have placed limits on American publications in Canada. Many Americans, too, complain about the media’s tendency to pitch programs toward the lowest common denominator.
And yet the common denominator need not be a low one, and the American knack for making entertainment that appeals to virtually all of humanity is no small gift. In his book The Hollywood Eye, writer and producer Jon Boorstin defends the movies’ orientation to mass-market tastes in terms that can be applied to other branches of American pop culture: “In their simple-minded, greedy, democratic way Hollywood filmmakers know deep in their gut that they can have it both ways — they can make a film they are terrifically proud of that masses of people will want to see, too. That means tuning out their more rarefied sensibilities and using that part of themselves they share with their parents and their siblings, with Wall Street lawyers and small-town Rotarians and waiters and engineering students, with cops and pacifists and the guys at the car wash and perhaps even second graders and junkies and bigots;…the common human currency of joy and sorrow and anger and excitement and loss and pain and love.”
Americans share three national holidays with many countries: Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Easter, which falls on a spring Sunday that varies from year to year, celebrates the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Christians, Easter is a day of religious services and the gathering of family. Many Americans follow old traditions of coloring hard-boiled eggs and giving children baskets of candy. On the next day, Easter Monday, the president of the United States holds an annual Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn for young children.
Christmas Day, December 25, is another Christian holiday; it marks the birth of the Christ Child. Decorating houses and yards with lights, putting up Christmas trees, giving gifts, and sending greeting cards have become traditions even for many non-Christian Americans.
New Year’s Day, of course, is January 1. The celebration of this holiday begins the night before, when Americans gather to wish each other a happy and prosperous coming year.
UNIQUELY AMERICAN HOLIDAYS
Eight other holidays are uniquely American (although some of them have counterparts in other nations). For most Americans, two of these stand out above the others as occasions to cherish national origins: Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
Thanksgiving Day is the fourth Thursday in November, but many Americans take a day of vacation on the following Friday to make a four-day weekend, during which they may travel long distances to visit family and friends. The holiday dates back to 1621, the year after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, determined to practice their dissenting religion without interference.
After a rough winter, in which about half of them died, they turned for help to neighboring Indians, who taught them how to plant corn and other crops. The next fall’s bountiful harvest inspired the Pilgrims to give thanks by holding a feast. The Thanksgiving feast became a national tradition — not only because so many other Americans have found prosperity but also because the Pilgrims’ sacrifices for their freedom still captivate the imagination. To this day, Thanksgiving dinner almost always includes some of the foods served at the first feast: roast turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, pumpkin pie. Before the meal begins, families or friends usually pause to give thanks for their blessings, including the joy of being united for the occasion.
The Fourth of July, or Independence Day, honors the nation’s birthday — the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It is a day of picnics and patriotic parades, a night of concerts and fireworks. The flying of the American flag (which also occurs on Memorial Day and other holidays) is widespread. On July 4, 1976, the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was marked by grand festivals across the nation.
Besides Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, there are six other uniquely American holidays.
Martin Luther King Day: The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African-American clergyman, is considered a great American because of his tireless efforts to win civil rights for all people through nonviolent means. Since his assassination in 1968, memorial services have marked his birthday on January 15. In 1986, that day was replaced by the third Monday of January, which was declared a national holiday.
Presidents’ Day: Until the mid-1970s, the February 22 birthday of George Washington, hero of the Revolutionary War and first president of the United States, was a national holiday. In addition, the February 12 birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the president during the Civil War, was a holiday in most states. The two days have been joined, and the holiday has been expanded to embrace all past presidents. It is celebrated on the third Monday in February.
Memorial Day: Celebrated on the fourth Monday of May, this holiday honors the dead. Although it originated in the aftermath of the Civil War, it has become a day on which the dead of all wars, and the dead generally, are remembered in special programs held in cemeteries, churches, and other public meeting places.
Labor Day: The first Monday of September, this holiday honors the nation’s working people, typically with parades. For most Americans it marks the end of the summer vacation season, and for many students the opening of the school year.
Columbus Day: On October 12, 1492, Italian navigator Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. Although most other nations of the Americas observe this holiday on October 12, in the United States it takes place on the second Monday in October.
Veterans Day: Originally called Armistice Day, this holiday was established to honor Americans who had served in World War I. It falls on November 11, the day when that war ended in 1918, but it now honors veterans of all wars in which the United States has fought. Veterans’ organizations hold parades, and the president customarily places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
While not holidays, two other days of the year inspire colorful celebrations in the United States. On February 14, Valentine’s Day, (named after an early Christian martyr), Americans give presents, usually candy or flowers, to the ones they love. On October 31, Halloween (the evening before All Saints or All Hallows Day), American children dress up in funny or scary costumes and go “trick or treating”: knocking on doors in their neighborhood. The neighbors are expected to respond by giving them small gifts of candy or money. Adults may also dress in costume for Halloween parties.
Various ethnic groups in America celebrate days with special meaning to them even though these are not national holidays. Jews, for example, observe their high holy days in September, and most employers show consideration by allowing them to take these days off. Irish Americans celebrate the old country’s patron saint, St. Patrick, on March 17; this is a high-spirited day on which many Americans wear green clothing in honor of the “Emerald Isle.” The celebration of Mardi Gras — the day before the Christian season of Lent begins in late winter — is a big occasion in New Orleans, Louisiana, where huge parades and wild revels take place. As its French name implies (Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of hearty eating before the penitential season of Lent), the tradition goes back to the city’s settlement by French immigrants. There are many other such ethnic celebrations, and New York City is particularly rich in them.
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