[Paleopsych] NYT: Remapping the Cultural Territories of America
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Mon Nov 21 18:43:17 UTC 2005
Remapping the Cultural Territories of America
By MARGO JEFFERSON
The Believer is a monthly magazine as smartly designed as the comics
we call graphic novels. It is filled with what was once labeled new
journalism and is now called experimental or creative nonfiction.
So I was drawn to the September issue, advertising as it did an essay
about "cultural criticism as experimental fiction" by Greg Bottoms. As
it turned out, the subject was George W. S. Trow, a founder of
National Lampoon and a staff writer at The New Yorker for some 20
years. But a Believer essay flings a wide net. This one included
references to "WASP civilization," Gertrude Stein, Donald Barthelme
and Gap jeans.
I started thinking about those who had helped pioneer this bold and
eccentric tradition of creative nonfiction, which uses many voices and
techniques: storytelling, from the monologue to the novel; analysis,
historical and literary; travel writing; reflection and confession. I
thought of that forgotten poet Vachel Lindsay and his wonderful 1915
book, "The Art of the Moving Picture"; of the novelist and biographer
Thomas Beer, whose "Mauve Decade" (1926) reads like a satiric
historical novel about the 1890's.
I also thought of two women, Constance Rourke and Zora Neale Hurston,
whose cultural obsessions match those of critics today. They were out
to remap the cultural territories; shift the boundaries that separated
folk, popular and high art; explore the American character (what we
now call the national psyche).
I'll save Lindsay and Beer for another time because Rourke and Hurston
are cultural cousins. They did some of their best work in the late
1920's and 30's. Both had scholarly training, though neither had a
Ph.D. Rourke was a historian drawn to myth and legend; Hurston an
anthropologist drawn to fiction and theater. Rourke was white, Hurston
black. But in the end, their investigations linked them as surely as
DNA tests have linked the white and black descendants of Thomas
They began in what I'll call separate but equal neighborhoods. Rourke
wrote about white cultural myths and traditions, iconic figures from
Paul Bunyan to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Hurston wrote about the roots
and characteristics of black American culture: language, folklore,
music and dance, the will to improvise.
Imagination helped them vault past intellectual barriers put up by
other critics and scholars. Hurston exploded claims that black America
lacked a past, a coherent body of social and artistic practices that
make up a civilization. Rourke's greatest book, "American Humor"
(1931), erased the notion that American culture was deficient because
it lacked Europe's stable and polished lineage. It begins: "Toward
evening of a midsummer day at the latter end of the eighteenth century
a traveler was seen descending a steep red road into a fertile
Carolina valley. He carried a staff and walked with a wide, fast,
sprawling gait, his tall shadow cutting across the lengthening shadows
of the trees. His head was crouched, his back long; a heavy pack lay
across his shoulders."
It's the beginning of a story - the story of an American type, the
Yankee peddler with his shrewd talk and deadpan delivery. By the time
she has fully drawn his portrait, we can see that his descendants
include Johnny Carson and Bill Maher. Then she goes on to the
extravagant Southwest frontiersman (think of the young Elvis Presley)
and the minstrel, with his fables and eccentric rhythms, shifting
between black and white masks (think of hip-hop).
Rourke is a quiet writer, but her observations can sting. The
American, she notes, "envisages himself as an innocent in relation to
other peoples; he showed the enduring conviction during the Great
War." And in most wars that followed, a modern reader can add.
A few years after "American Humor," Zora Neale Hurston published a
series of brilliant essays with titles like "Characteristics of Negro
Expression" and "Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals." She laid out some of
the principles of black vernacular, from double descriptives like
"low-down" and "sham-polish" to verbal nouns like "uglying away."
("Dissed" is today's best example.)
"Mules and Men" is her 1935 chronicle of black folklore and folk life:
storytelling contests and juke joint blues in Florida (where she grew
up) and voodoo in New Orleans.
We see the process by which folk life becomes the stuff of myth and
art. But Hurston never insists that this progression goes from simple
to complex. The gospel hymns sung in a Southern church, she observes,
are likely to be far more rhythmically complex than those arranged for
a choir with classical training.
Always theatrical, she frames her tales with the adventures she had
while collecting them. (Of her escape from a juke joint fight, she
writes: "Blood was on the floor. I fell out of the door over a man
lying on the steps, who either fell himself trying to run or got
knocked down.") She narrates in her own vivid standardized English,
but speaks black English with the people of Florida and New Orleans.
When necessary she lies. One night at a dance, a man tells her that
she looks wealthy compared to everyone else. She confides to the
reader: "I mentally cursed the $12.74 dress from Macy's that I had on
among all the $1.98 mail-order dresses. I looked about and noted the
number of bungalow aprons and even the rolled down paper bags on the
heads of several women. I did look different and resolved to fix all
that no later than the next morning.
" 'Oh, Ah ain't got doodley squat,' I countered. 'Mah man brought me
dis dress de las' time he went to Jacksonville. We wuz sellin' plenty
stuff den and makin' good money. Wisht Ah had dat money now.' "
This certainly exposes the issues anthropologists still struggle with:
the conflict between being a participant and an observer, the morality
of being an outsider passing as an insider.
And then, there is the power of the language that she recorded,
embellished and reinvented. Here is an excerpt from her version of a
curse made famous by Marie Leveau, the queen of hoodoo:
"That the South wind shall scorch their bodies and make them wither
and shall not be tempered to them. That the North wind shall freeze
their blood and numb their muscles and that it shall not be tempered
to them. That the West wind shall blow away their life's breath and
will not leave their hair grow, and that their finger nails shall fall
off and their bones shall crumble. That the East wind shall make their
minds grow dark, their sight shall fail and their seed dry up so that
they shall not multiply."
Both she and Rourke knew, as all cultural critics must, that what
Hurston called "our so-called civilization" is nothing more - or less
- than "the exchange and re-exchange of ideas between groups."
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