Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In Rourke’s day research had uncovered barely a smattering of undiluted pre-Civil War black folklore. Prompted by necessity, Rourke made a typically maverick move. She located her “definite portraiture” of the Negro in minstrelsy, a genre almost universally regarded as deeply racist. The white minstrels’ songs, dances, and stories bore unmistakable traces of black origin, she argued: “Negro humor was always abundant, and from it, early minstrelsy drew as from a primal source.” Thomas D. Rice, the popularizer of Jim Crow, the minstrel prototype, and Dan Emmett, who claimed authorship of “Dixie” and “Old Dan Tucker,” could “only have borrowed the [Negro] fables, probably with their tunes,” said Rourke; Stephen Foster himself, the nineteenth century’s greatest songwriter, “haunted Negro camp-meetings for rhythms and melodies.” If one scraped away minstrelsy’s racist distortions, one found it “deeply grounded in reality,” its portrayals “whole and rich.” Challenging the conventional opinion that suffering under slavery was unalleviated, Rourke inaugurated a view of the enslaved African-American as resilient, Aesopian, inventing ways to be human in an intolerable situation.

We’re lucky

the lack of direct evidence forced Rourke’s hand; it obliged her to play her strong suit. She was interested in interaction, not purity. If minstrelsy was a racist distortion, it became in Rourke’s hands a rich and complex instance of the interpenetration of our several American strains, “of the long stream of expression,” she wrote, “in which the white American and the Negro have joined.” What she said of Dan Emmett—“Negro memories and fables had possessed his mind”—applies equally to white popular artists from Emmett and Rice to Al Jolson and Jimmy Rodgers to Elvis Presley and his English stepchildren Lennon and Jagger and beyond. Thomas D. Rice’s immense popularity (his fame, Rourke tells us, was unmatched by any other comedian of his time) was only the first instance of an American phenomenon of which Elvis’s discoverer, Sam Phillips, was well aware when he prayed, more than a century later, “Give me a white boy who sounds like a Negro and I’ll make a million bucks.”

The three figures merged in the national imagination. The minstrel corked his face but donned a Yankee’s redand-white striped pants and long-tailed blue coat, an early symbol of the emerging composite, Homo americanus . Backwoodsman and Negro, Rourke wrote, “danced the same jigs and reels; the breakdown was an invention which each might have claimed.” The prima ballerina Taglioni turned up in a minstrel song, just one instance of the cultural stew the new nation was brewing up. Rolling westward our geographical boundary became a cultural frontier too.

If minstrelsy was a racist distortion, it became in Rourke’s hands a rich and complex instance of “the long stream of expression in which the white American and the Negro have joined.”

In her book’s

first half Rourke had proved that America had a folk tradition and a potent one. What remained was to show how this seed took flower as art, how the groundwork wrought by our anonymous bards—the monologue, the rhapsody, the tale, laced with the fantastic and spun on the improviser’s loom—in turn informed our literary classics. Rourke went looking to find the comic trio at play in the fields of literature.

Some of her findings jar at first—Poe a cousin to the backwoodsman?—but Rourke was interested in correspondences of mood, not subject matter. Given Poe’s wild flights of grotesque humor, the fit was right (documented too; with her typical thoroughness Rourke dug up an enthusiastic notice by Poe of A. B. Longstreet’s Georgia Tales , a classic of backwoods humor). Emerson was a monologist with a streak of Yankee humor, an improviser of whom George Santayana once wrote, “He was like a young god making experiments in creation: he blotched the work, and always began on a new and better plan.” Thoreau, another Yankee monologist, prided himself on driving a good bargain. He was always calculating, reckoning; one thinks of those expense lists in Waiden, of’his comically deliberate effort to measure the pond’s depth.

Melville transformed sea lore into art, his great novel fueled by seamen’s legends of “Mocha Dick,” the murderous whale. Twain was a raconteur whose first famous work “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was a backwoods tale he’d appropriated. Twain’s talent “was consistently a pioneer talent.” He was “never the conscious artist, always the improviser.” Whitman had the backwoodsman’s vaulting high spirits, his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world” an urban echo of Crockett’s self-intoxicated crowing. “To enter the world of Whitman,” wrote Rourke, “is to touch the spirit of American popular comedy.” The Whitman chapter is one of American Humor’s best drawn and most deeply felt. Whitman’s poems were sometimes “more notations for poetry than poetry itself. … he failed to draw his immeasurable gift into the realm of great and final poetry. For the most part he remained an improviser of immense genius.” Yet he refined backwoods rhapsody into art.