Tags: Pop Culture

Democracy, Art, and Ralph Ellison’s “The Little Man at Chehaw Station”


“The Little Man at Chehaw Station” is Ralph Ellison’s most famous essay, and probably his best.  Originally published in 1978 in The American Scholar, it became the lead essay in the Going to the Territory collection published in 1986 (all if its essays are also available in The Collected Essays.)  To my mind it stands as a classic text of the American Canon, alongside the more explicitly political documents such as Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural,” or FDR’s “Commonwealth Club Address (see here for the top 50 of such), and the shorter literary essays or works, such as Franklin’s “Way to Wealth,” Whitman’s “Preface to Leaves of Grass,” and Faulkner’s “The Bear.” 

My friend Lucas Morel, a fine Lincoln and Ellison scholar, joined me in writing a paper about it for this year’s APSA; in this post and another, I’ll be sharing a bit of what we learned.   The main thing was, “Wow!  There is a lot more packed into this than we thought!”  

The essay begins by introducing us to a parable about American artistry, and the figure of the Little Man, at the heart of it.  The parable was the invention of Ellison’s classical music teacher at Tuskegee, Hazel Harrison, a musician impressive enough to have worked with Busoni, and to have been friends with Prokofiev, in pre-Nazi Berlin.  Ellison’s initial ambition was to become a classical composer, although he already had a strong affinity for jazz, and a rapidly growing interest in American literature. 

The subtitle of the essay is “The American Artist and His Audience,” and the key characteristic of the Little Man is that he is an audience member who is quite knowledgeable about the tradition the artist is working from.  In presenting her parable to the young Ellison, who had just shamed himself with a poor recital performance on his trumpet, Harrison tells him,

[Y]ou must always play your best” because “in this country … [t]here’ll always be the little man whom you don’t expect, and he’ll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship required for whatever you set out to perform! 

As the essay proceeds, Ellison makes this point even more emphatic in his own voice, warning the artist that “the chances are … any American audience will conceal at least one individual whose knowledge and taste will complement, or surpass, his own.”  Such individuals are typically hidden, anonymous, but they often are nonetheless there.  So the artist, out of mere self-interest lest an audience turn against him, and out of his proper ambition to enrich the common democratic culture, must always aspire to the highest standards of the traditions he is working out of, and never seek to pass a fraudulent aping of those standards over an audience’s heads.  I won’t spoil the fun for you, but essay concludes with a delightful anecdote about how a few years after Ellison received the Little Man lesson from Ms. Harrison, he came up against an example of his existence in reality, in one of the most unexpected places imaginable.

However, the essay is not all anecdote and parable, but in the bulk consists of several fairly abstract sections of argument, which (a) delineate the challenge America’s democratic nature poses to its artists, (b) defend the older ideal and metaphor of the melting pot from contemporary criticism, and (c) emphasize the non-exclusive character of American cultural transmission and guardianship.   Ellison’s Kenneth Burke-derived understanding of the American Founding is also in there, and much else.  In any case, the key to the essay would seem to be understanding all that the Little Man stands for, and his relation to the arguments presented thereafter.  Such a reading, however, would ignore the presence in the essay of a second figural image.


Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: Ralph Ellison , art , music , classical music , Pop Culture

Globally Conscious Americanism That Ain’t Globalist: Thoughts on Bayles, Tocqueville, Whitman, and Manent


This post is an essay.  I dedicate it to my foreign-yet-partly-American friends who love their homelands, and America too.

What I tout in this essay is a sympathy and mindset that has some relation to what is talked about as a “globalist” perspective, but which is different.  “Globally Conscious Americanism” is for the time being the best I can do terminology-wise to describe it, although what I mean will be better understood by noticing how it is exhibited by a particular person, namely by Martha Bayles in her new book Through a Screen Darkly:  Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. 

While America’s foreign policy in the short-term sense is not the primary subject here, know from the outset that the phrase that best encapsulates my foreign policy thinking is self-limitation.  (It comes from the title of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations.”)  America needs to limit itself, and that means reminding itself that even if it is the most unusual and important of nations, it still is a nation.  It means that America’s long-term goal cannot be either the one of nudging more and more of the world’s nations to adopt constitutional democracy until tyranny is no more, nor the one of working with international organizations to progressively develop and entrench a system of liberal world governance.  Nor can America’s goal be a combination of the two. 

Some readers, rightly concerned by the way the present relative retreat of American geo-strategic power and purpose is making the world less secure, might regard this word in favor of self-limitation as an untimely one.  Others, who have gathered from other posts that I largely defend America’s decision made under George W. Bush’s leadership to overthrow Saddam Hussein, might regard it as one I have not earned the right to say.  Well, they can say what they like in comments, and I’ll do my best to respond.  But herein my eyes are straining to see past the refracted glare of present debates.

Regular Carl’s Rock Songbook readers know that Martha Bayles is not just anyone to me.  I have the highest regard for her other book, Hole in our Soul:  The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, published back in 1994.  Indeed, I judge it to be our best single-volume work of pop-music criticism.  I’m going to largely praise Through a Screen Darkly here, but it cannot touch Hole in Our Soul in terms of overall importance and brilliance.  Here is a review from The Weekly Standard, and here is how Bayles herself summarizes the book’s main arguments:

The main argument of Part Two is that the culture war played a significant role in the decline of US public diplomacy, even before the end of the Cold War, and that it continues to hamper our intermittent efforts to revive public diplomacy for the twenty-first century.  This is related to the argument of Part One, which is that the entertainment industry is not an adequate substitute for a robust and effective public diplomacy. 

The book does present itself as speaking to an American audience about the way our public diplomacy, both of the intentional and unintentional kind, impacts our foreign policy interests, and in particular, our interest in the organic spread and maintenance of democracy.  But the above summary doesn’t convey what I think is particularly distinctive and fascinating about her accomplishment here, which is the way Bayles exhibits a sympathetic awareness of and concern for the current development of globalized culture.  The TWS reviewer Sam Schulman is tuned to this side of the book:

Bayles is sore about what’s happened to American entertainment and our government’s inability to restart public diplomacy, and she has interesting ideas about what has gone wrong. But the emotional focus of Through a Screen Darkly is not public diplomacy’s message or medium; it’s the audience that fascinates her. Broadly, she defines the t­arget audience as consisting of “restive populations under authoritarian governments.” They are largely, but not completely, non-Christian. And what distinguishes this audience from its Cold War predecessors is not any specific religious difference, but the nature of its relationship to religion as part of a traditional way of life that is all-encompassing.

A slight interjection.  Bayles’s argument extends to non-Western populations not under authoritarian governments, and more broadly applies to populations everywhere outside the older democracies.  To take one example, she discusses India’s responses to our cultural imports at length.   In any case, Schulman continues, with reference to her writing about the international popularity of the television series Friends in the chapter “The American Way of Sex,” as follows:

Our fellow Friends-viewers abroad are bound by ties of kinship, custom, and belief closer to those of continental Europe during the ancien régime than to those of the world of the Founders—or even our fathers. Our devout neighbors may be offended by Friends’s treatment of casual sex and immodesty, but the shock of a traditionalist family viewing it is of another order. People bound up in family and clan relationships, who feel duties to parents, siblings, and spouses, and who have regional, tribal, and sectarian loyalties, see a world they can hardly believe, but which they believe to be ours: a grouping of utterly unmoored individuals with no human affections they can recognize, no religion, no sense of honor, and free of any social or family expectations.

Bayles tells us about an Egyptian exchange student who “was astonished to see how much time Americans spend with their families,” because in the American entertainments she was familiar with, there were “no families, just individuals.”  You can take that as a public diplomacy problem, in which we fail to communicate to the world that we are living better than we show, but you can also take it as a sign of how the sexual revolution (not to mention the freedom from arranged marriage it presumes), might reorder life around the world, particularly when its hold is exaggerated by pop culture.  If it is unfair to say about our pop culture that it “is filth,” as John Derbyshire once categorically put it, it might be correct enough to say that it “is individualism.” 


Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: global education , globalism , Martha Bayles , Pierre Manent , Alexis de Tocqueville , Friends , Walt Whitman , Pop Culture

Does Shakespeare Suck, or Is He Relatable?


Summer 2014 ended without an answer to an important cultural question: Do the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, in particular the sprawling tragedy King Lear, suck?

That was the question at the end of July, when public-radio personality Ira Glass tweeted praise at Lear portrayer John Lithgow but (presumably because the Swan of Avon lacks a Twitter handle) took the playwright harshly to task: “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing,” Glass wrote. “Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”#ad#

That slam might have passed quietly except that the Anglosphere in the last few months has been seeing a King Lear storm. “In Chicago and New York, in London and Toronto and Washington, actors in shredded costumes are raging on tempest-tossed sets as stories unfold around them of woebegone fathers and callous children and realms ankle deep in stage blood,” Washington Post critic Peter Marks writes. “The theater world, in short, is having a ‘King Lear’ moment.” That kind of trend could be just an accident of scheduling, but it’s also notable that among the early responses to the suicide of Robin Williams was wide circulation of a 2013 Reddit interview in which the comedian identified Lear’s Fool as his dream role; and various commentators on Williams’s death, among them the late Joan Rivers, gushed about how he should have done King Lear. (Whether the idea was for Williams to play the fool or the foolish fond old king himself is not clear. They are, as the saying goes, all equal now.)

Glass came between the dragon and its wrath with his very broad Shakespeare put-down. (In a subsequent tweet he elevated leading anti-Stratfordian Mark Rylance to Lithgowian status while doubling down on his claim that the the playwright was “unemotional” in addition to being not relatable.) His cult-leader status did earn Glass a few nods of agreement, such as one from the son of a famous economist who took the opportunity to curl up and get a pat on the head from a bigshot. The negative responses, however, came not single spies but in battalions. A large force of ordinary citizens lined up to tell Glass he was wrong.

That seems to have settled the matter on Twitter, and Glass didn’t do his argument any favors by repeatedly invoking the Hollywood hack’s adjective “relatable.” But a Twitter hubbub doesn’t prove the value of a play one way or the other. “Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion,” George Orwell wrote in a defense of Shakespeare way back in 1947, when women’s roles were played by beardless boys.

Orwell was responding to a very famous attack on Shakespeare by Leo Tolstoy, who was no slouch himself. Like Glass, Tolstoy took Lear as his specific target. “Every man of our society and time, from the first period of his conscious life, has been inoculated with the idea that Shakespeare is a genius, a poet, and a dramatist, and that all his writings are the height of perfection,” the Anna Karenina author wrote. “Yet, however hopeless it may seem, I will endeavor to demonstrate in the selected drama — King Lear — all those faults equally characteristic also of all the other tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare, on account of which he not only is not representing a model of dramatic art, but does not satisfy the most elementary demands of art recognized by all.”

Tolstoy too found few supporters, but his 22,000-word attack has stood the test of time. (A slam in fewer than 140 characters is just a sneer; a novella-length evisceration at least shows respect for the target.) And he wasn’t alone. Proponents of French neoclassical theater disdained Shakespeare for his constant violations of the Aristotelian unities, dramatic balance, and strict rationality that gave French drama its serene charm. A young James Joyce, wowed by the breakthroughs of psychology and realism in the dramas of Henrik Ibsen, accused Shakespeare of being strictly literary rather than dramatic. That Hamlet’s dilemma is not fully dramatized, that King Lear is unwieldy to stage, and that Shakespeare could have used an editor have never been controversial points. “The players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line,” Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson said. “My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand,’ which they thought a malevolent speech.”

It’s probably a sign of a more individualized, more sappily disposable age that today’s paramount concern is whether audiences can relate to the characters. Given the types of characters contemporary audiences do relate to, it’s still a very weird criticism. You could make Hamlet a tragic robot unable to grasp human emotion, Macbeth a broken-down ballplayer looking for one more chance, Rosalind a tough girl who dispatches her uncle’s henchmen with a crossbow and wire fu, Coriolanus a wisecracking green superhero, and so on. Some of these things have probably been done already. (There’s been a high-school-basketball Othello, for example, and a fast-food Macbeth.) Whatever you do, you’re not allowed to bore the audience, any more than you were in the 16th century.

My own life path has persuaded me that King Lear is in fact more than just relatable: It is a work of documentary realism capturing in unsparing detail what life is truly like for a man with three daughters. But life-path familiarity is no more valid than any other mark of relatability. During August’s pro-Shakespeare counteroffensive, the Wall Street Journal’s Perri Klass also drew on Lithgow’s Lear (from New York’s free Shakespeare in the Park production by the Public Theater) to limn the senescence and death of her very accomplished mother, in an article with the book-club-ready title “Shakespeare as a Life Coach.” Klass, a pediatrician and journalist, writes beautifully, and the result is both relatable and emotional.

“For me, in this stage of my life, it’s a play about taking care — or failing to take proper care — of an aging parent,” Klass writes, “about watching that aging parent lose the pieces of himself, and about the ways that grown-up and even middle-aged siblings replay their rivalries and relationships as they watch their parents grow old.”

I accepted long ago that my existence would play out in the shadow of the Baby Boomers’ life rhythms, but it doesn’t seem likely that the surge in older people caring for much-older parents explains King Lear’s enduring appeal to audiences. In fact, until it briefly became an issue, I would have thought King Lear’s general appeal was both clear and ample: There is a fairy tale opening involving a king and an inheritance. There are women who hate each other deep down, as well as their male stooges. An important supporting character gets his eyes poked out on the stage, and the plot turns on a failed-rescue buildup and reversal that modern people may think was first used in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. The betrayal of the senile father is affecting not just because of its bloody results but because it originates in a wholly domestic situation — over which child has to endure the old parent’s presence — that I suspect people will still recognize in another 500 years. The play is theoretically ungainly because it jams the story of Lear and his daughters together with the story of an illegitimate son’s scheme to undermine his half-brother, a fusion that dilutes the dramatic unity but enhances the overall spectacle. It plays very well, or so I thought.

It’s important to remember that the greatest violence to Shakespeare has been done by schools. A happy few works of syllabus literature (The Great Gatsby seems to be the most recent) still manage to retain a hold on public affection, but for most art, the good-for-you scent of required classroom reading is death. Shakespeare has been around longer than some, and he has been subjected to particularly cruel academic tortures, from Harold Bloom’s allegation that he “invented the human” to the standard classroom teaching that the storm on the heath in King Lear is some kind of existential symbol fraught with dread theological meaning.

Performers are mercifully free of such garbage, because they have a clear job to do. They have to entertain an audience, and they recognize how little subtext ultimately matters. Sometimes a script is the way it is because some bit of stage business worked in some other show, because some actor wanted more lines, because some patron or investor insisted on a particular addition. A storm on a heath may or may not dramatize deep ideas about a godless universe, but it damn well had better convince the audience that it’s a storm, and that you don’t want to be homeless during a storm.

Everybody, even people who are not deposed kings, can relate to that idea. A good fictional character is both relatable and totally alien. That’s pretty much the point of a good fictional character. It is indeed impossible to prove or disprove literary merit, but the relatability of Old Swanny’s creations can be demonstrated in various ways: Actors still like to play them; people still like to read about them; and audiences still sometimes pack the house to watch them — even when, unlike Ira Glass, they have to pay for the tickets.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Leo Tolstoy as a Nobel Laureate. In fact, though he was eligible for the first ten year’s of the Prize for Literature’s existence, he never won.

Tags: Shakespeare , Pop Culture

William F. Buckley, Recurring Pop Culture Icon


In today’s Morning Jolt, I asked readers for any long-forgotten references to National Review in popular culture. The other day in the office, other NRO-niks and I tried to come up with all the movies and television shows that have referenced or mentioned National Review Annie Hall, obviously; spider-killing is proud tradition at NR. Tom Selleck picked up a copy of National Review in an episode of Magnum, P.I. Robin Williams’s Genie briefly imitated William F. Buckley in Aladdin. NBC’s Community offered a bizarre reference, although perhaps the magazine needs a “Make-Out Meter.”

Readers already offered three we missed.

First, perhaps the best thing you’ll see all day: This bit of brilliance from the old Canadian sketch comedy series, SCTV, featuring Joe Flaherty as William F. Buckley, Catherine O’Hara as Jane Fonda, and Martin Short as Tom Hayden:

Then, from the old WB animated series Animaniacs, Yakko Warner briefly morphs into “William Yakkley, Jr.” in a segment that features a Sam Donaldson clone, “Fonaldson.”

Finally, Dustin Hoffman said he based his Captain Hook in 1991’s big-budget “Hook” upon Buckley’s voice and mannerisms.

Tags: WFB , Pop Culture , Something Lighter

Missing the 1980s Era of Nationally Shared Cultural Experiences


Today’s Jolt also featured a look at our ongoing 1980s pop-cultural revival. Readers of The Weed Agency probably noticed the music and other little cultural markers of the decade in the early chapters, revealing a bit of my Eighties obsession.

This Section of the Morning Jolt Comes With Its Own 80s Music Playlist

The other night I caught a few episodes of National Geographic Television’s series,The 80s: The Decade That Made Us and found myself feeling intense nostalgia.

We’re in a boom time for 80s flashbacks. AMC is offering “Halt and Catch Fire,” an intriguing drama series set in the nascent personal-computer industry in Dallas in 1983.

This is a commanding haircut.

There’s a new album out from Michael Jackson. The multiplex features the Transformers again, as well as a remake of 21 Jump Street, and a slew of more 1980s remakes are on the way. A new Star Wars film will be back in a few more years. The Duke Boys are riding again in a commercial for Auto Trader. Two summers ago, Gotye gave us a song that feels like it came from a long-lost Sting or Peter Gabriel cassette. You can’t tell me that those robots of Daft Punk wouldn’t have fit in well with Devo’s red plastic flowerpot hats, Thomas Dolby’s blinding science, or Toni Basil’s so-fine cheerleader Mickey.

Macintosh HD:Users:jimgeraghty:Pictures:Daft Punk x Storm Troopers.jpg
“The Emperor has judged you overplayed.”

Even the iconic A-ha “Take on Me” video reappeared in the form of a Volkswagen commercial late last year.

Watching National Geographic’s fast-moving documentary series on the major world events and cultural trends of the 1980s, I was struck by how many events seemed like truly nationally shared experiences. It is entirely possible that I am misremembering and romanticizing my years of childhood and early adolescence. But am I wrong that almost everybody who was old enough to understand the event remembers the Challenger explosion? Or how about Hands Across America? Laughing about “New Coke”? I wasn’t old enough to watch The Day After, but I remember some of the hubbub and news coverage of it. I was stunned to learn that an estimated 100 million Americans watched it. (The U.S. population in 1983 when it aired was 233 million!)

We have a cornucopia of entertainment, news, lifestyle, and media options that were absolutely unthinkable back in the 1980s, and there are a lot of advantages to the modern world. Today Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels and Nothing On” would be considered a crappy basic-cable package. We’re in the era of a couple hundred channels, and as a result, very little, if anything, gets our collective attention anymore. This means nationally shared experiences are fewer and far between.

When VH1 creates its “I Love (whatever we end up calling this decade),” the comedians and minor celebrities will spend time discussing “major” pop-culture phenomena, figures, and, trends that I simply never encounter.

For example, as far as I can tell, the Kardashian family consists of Kim . . . and the other ones. Breaking Bad was one of the most-discussed television shows of recent years — a cover subject in National Review! — and its biggest audience was . . . 6.4 million viewers.

The performers of the top five singles on iTunes right now:

1) Five Seconds of Summer
3) Sam Smith
4) Ariana Grande
5) Nico & Vinz

I have never heard of any of these people. “Ariana Grande” is something I hear called out at Starbucks.

I don’t think this just reflects me being an old fogey. (“You mean older fogey!” — The Couch. Shut up, Jonah’s couch! Get back in the Goldberg File where you belong.) This isn’t me complaining that these kids today play music that sounds like noise. I’m saying that you can have a top-five single in the U.S. and not permeate my cultural bubble, and I think there’s a good chance that these five haven’t permeated your bubble, either.

We’ve seen this Balkanization in the news world, where conservatives believe that there is some sort of news that they think is hugely important, and extensively covered by the media they consume — Kermit Gosnell, Benghazi, the IRS scandal —and that same news barely makes a ripple among the apolitical or “low-information voter.” (Perhaps the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union prompted Americans to ensure they remained “steady-baseline-of-information voters.”)

Maybe the only truly shared national experiences we have in today’s America are in the realm of sports. Perhaps U.S. national-team goalkeeper Tim Howard is the new little baby Jessica stuck in the well.

Tags: 1980s , Culture , Pop Culture

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