[Paleopsych] NYT: Remapping the Cultural Territories of America

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Remapping the Cultural Territories of America

    Critic's Notebook

    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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