Wednesday, September 14, 2016

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World, by Zeese Papanikolas

I don’t see American Cakewalk (Stanford Univ. Press, 2015) as a systematic study.  Obviously, it covers some of the same territory as Louis Menand’s American Metaphysical Club, but with a different method and different goals.  While Menand traces the development of American intellectual thought from the mid-19th century forward, Zeese Papinokolas argues that some of the greatest American writers and thinkers and artists developed from colliding and conflicting cultural forces, and that their attempt to navigate these forces, to walk their own cakewalk, enabled them to become what they became.

Papanikolas’ choice of the cakewalk as the organizing metaphor of this book works well enough, but it is an entirely arbitrary choice.  He uses it, cleverly, too cleverly at points, to build his discussions of the ghost dancers, of Dickinson, of Henry and William James, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Thorsten Veblen, Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Mingus, and others.  These are the figures he has chosen to illustrate his thesis, but they are entirely arbitrary choices.  I find his discussion of them interesting, sometimes entertaining, and forceful—sometimes overbearing.  The conclusions he reaches aren’t always convincing.

His prose is strong and forceful but it has a tendency to run away with itself.  He has a tendency to summarize or paraphrase some of the people he writes about—I found this especially so in the chapter on Stephen Crane—where he literally paraphrases several of Crane’s stories.  I’m not sure what this achieves, except to take up space.  I have to say that as learned and widely read as Papinokolas seems to be, I don’t trust his method.  He doesn’t cite opposing views.  He doesn’t allow for opposing readings.  It’s not that he insists on his own readings—he just doesn’t seem interested in alternatives.  I think he has brilliant insights, but his book seems at points contrived and manipulative.  I don’t think he necessarily takes us to the heart of his subject.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate this book if you aren’t familiar with the figures he writes about.  I wish I knew more about ragtime music, Jelly Roll Morton, and Charlie Mingus, for example. One virtue of the book is that it introduces to unfamiliar readers writers and artists whose work is worth seeking out.  The chapter on Emily Dickinson was especially good.  And I recommend especially Henry James—the older you are, the better you can appreciate him.  He’s not for 25-year olds.

One conclusion a reader might take from this book is the idea that the strength and power of American experience comes from its diverse populations of people, cultures, and influences.  This view is contrary to the notion that the American nation is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon or even more generally European in its origins.  This is a point to consider in this year when American diversity is cited as a danger to American power and so-called greatness.

No comments: