One of the seemingly unintentional ironies of American Rhapsody is that most of the artists Pierpont takes up didn’t find life in America to be rhapsodic at all.
American Rhapsody: Writers, Movie Stars, and One Great Building by Claudia Roth Pierpont. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $26.
By Matt Hanson
Claudia Roth Pierpont’s American Rhapsody is a collection of detailed, informative essays on a virtual who’s who of 20th Century American culture: she analyzes writers (Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, and James Baldwin), actors (Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn), performers Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit) and other figures, including George Gershwin, Peggy Guggenheim, and The Chrysler Building, to see how each subject helped contribute to and define what we talk about when we talk about American culture.
Pierpont is the kind of writer who, as they used to say, “takes up” her subjects, weaving her analysis of their work into a biographical narrative, a venerable critical approach that’s fallen into disrepute after the academy became fascinated with the so-called ‘death of the author.’
The fact that most of her subjects were deeply rooted in New York City is a bit problematic. If a Martian read this volume as an introduction to American culture, he or she might easily assume that nothing important culturally ever happened outside the borders of the island of Manhattan. Wouldn’t a proper (and inclusive) American rhapsody profit from some voices coming from elsewhere in the country? Pierpont is a staff writer for The New Yorker, so all the Gotham-obsession is most likely a matter of her knowing her likely audience rather than an interest in reinforcing the Big Apple’s perpetual chauvinism about running the American cultural show.
Putting the exuberance of the title aside, one of the seemingly unintentional ironies of American Rhapsody is that most of the people she takes up often didn’t find life in America to be rhapsodic at all. In fact, it’s slightly unnerving how many of her subjects decided that leaving their country provided their best shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Like one of the heroines in her expertly observed novels, Edith Wharton fled the gilded cage of high brow New York (and its curdled disapproval of her terrible marriage), in order to breath the pure serene air of France. Fitzgerald, fresh off the commercial triumph of This Side of Paradise and fearful that his glittery hedonism and its symbiotic relationship to his growing celebrity would drain his talent, followed Edmund Wilson’s advice to head for Europe, where people got real work done. This he did, penning The Great Gatsby only to see it flop, his fame dwindle, and his ever-hectic romantic life come crashing down.
Peggy Guggenheim, though surrounded by her brilliant friends and priceless art collection, eventually bought a one-way ticket to Venice and amused local police by sunbathing nude every day well into her sixties. Welles and Brando, in different ways but for similar reasons, ultimately decided to outrun the many professional disasters generated by their all-consuming egomania and moved abroad, with mixed results. Nina Simone and James Baldwin each escaped American society’s bigotry and intolerance in Europe. Hearing these stories adds credence to the notion that in order to keep your talent intact in America you’ve to get out of it.
Those who stayed a part of the American scene, such as Katherine Hepburn, Dashiell Hammett, and George Gershwin, often found themselves overwhelmed by their celebrity.
As Pierpont tells it, the marketability of Hepburn’s fierce moxie as a willful Modern Woman faded over time. The shy and surprisingly vulnerable Hammett willfully stopped writing in order to drink, read, hang out with
Lillian Hellman and to sleep around. Weary of the somewhat justified racial criticism of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s enigmatic personal and professional life suffered under the pressure to produce another masterpiece, a follow-up to the legendary debut of Rhapsody In Blue.
It’s interesting to see how often many of these lives overlapped. Wharton swapped manuscripts with Fitzgerald and loved Gatsby. Fitzgerald returned the favor by raving about The Age of Innocence, but eventually he agreed with critics that her later work was “just lousy.” A teenage James Baldwin was taken by a high school teacher to see Welles’ legendary all-black voodoo Macbeth in Harlem and became lifelong friends with Marlon Brando while both were hanging out at The Actor’s Studio in New York. Orson Welles once intriguingly claimed that at one time he’d wanted to play Don Corleone, but didn’t press his interest when he heard that Brando was on board. In an early version of Gatsby, a popular American composer with a Russian surname uncannily like Gershwin’s performs “A Jazz History of the World’ under the stars at one of Gatsby’s incandescent lawn parties.
The vagaries of mass taste often drives its alienated creative class into seeking out their own for understanding and support. Bert Williams may well have been the finest comic of his generation, but he would have to survive being treated as less than human by white audiences for most of his career. Baldwin and Simone spent years reassuring each other that they weren’t wasting their time trying to make lasting art given the hostility of white America. In many ways their triumphs went hand-in-hand with their failures to transcend their love/hate for their homeland.
What becomes apparent from Pierpont’s lucid and informed readings is how many now-revered American artists were the victims of a bitter irony: their voices were ignored in a country that prides itself on its belief in free expression. Luckily, re-reading the story of their struggles to make art within the context of their times isn’t depressing. However difficult the lives chronicled in American Rhapsody are, the fact that books like this one are being written and read suggests that what the artists had to tell us then still matters now. “There are no second acts in American lives,” said Fitzgerald. Of course, there are — often scenes of defeat, perhaps, but not of oblivion.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.
tim jackson says
Love this review. Another book I feel I have to read. Thanks for this.
Matt Hanson says
Thanks Tim! It’s an interesting collections of essays that entertains and informs whether you’re more interested in the critical or the biographical. Like they used to say about Elizabeth Hardwick, her essays have plots.