- Historic Sites
Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
Another high point is Rourke’s treatment of Henry James. Even in this most refined of all American stylists, she found strong resonances of folklore. “As a small boy,” Rourke wrote, “[James] frequented Barnum’s, where the Yankee farces were often performed, where the whole American legend was racily sketched, with the backwoodsman and the minstrel as occasional figures, and with melodrama well to the fore.” His novel The American (with its suitably named hero, Newman) was the fullest expression yet of the mythical conflict between ex-colonist and Briton. The conflict, first spelled out in Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast , was so fundamental to Rourke that she called it first “the Yankee fable” or “the fable of the contrast,” then “the original fable,” later simply “the fable.” James transmuted folklore…“as a great artist, James moved immeasurably beyond the simple limits of the original fable”—but he remained rooted in it.
The prevailing tone of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street , wrote Rourke, was that of fable, everyday material invested with romance. Rourke’s high opinion of Ring Lardner, a skilled miniaturist, hasn’t worn especially well. In Lardner’s tales she claimed to find what our humor had tended to all along: the convergence of the comic trio into the generic American. Lardner’s characters are nomads, rootless; they lack biographies. “They are American,” Rourke wrote; “they are nothing but American… . That is the triumph too of Lardner’s portrayal.” There were ominous signs in Lardner. In “Haircut,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Alibi Ike,” and other stories, said Rourke, “that innocence which once was made a strong strain in American portrayal is seen uncombined with shrewdness and revealed as abysmal stupidity.” In Lardner, as in James before him (and many since), “the note of triumph has diminished as the decades have proved that the land is not altogether an Eden and that defeat is a common human portion.”
thinkers close off their systems with their own eras—Hegel, for instance, who saw the Prussian state of the 1820s as the culmination of history. Rourke was not so solipsistic. American culture, she wrote at the end of American Humor , was an unfinished project. “A society has not been palpably defined either in life or in literature,” she said. Our culture in general still had a rushed, improvisatory air; if this gave it a dynamism, it also made it makeshift, a patchwork, a donning and doffing of roles. Nonetheless, Rourke had shown that the American past was far from a wasteland. “A consistent native tradition has been formed,” she wrote a few pages from the end of American Humor , “spreading over the country, surviving cleavages and dispersals, often growing underground, but rising to the surface like some rough vine.” She had met her goal: giving American artists a tradition on which to nourish themselves.
Rourke was discussed in her day (one thinks of William Carlos Williams’s encomium), but not widely. F. O. Matthiessen and other founders of the so-called American Studies movement admired her, yet scholars like Matthiessen and the later Brooks were interested mostly in literature; to them the usable past was the past of letters. Rourke’s synthesizing impulse, her search for crossgenre correspondences, was paid lip service in academe but not emulated. It was up to nonacademics and maverick scholars to continue her work.
Two writers in particular came under Rourke’s influence not long after her death. It is an appropriately Rourkeian twist, one of those exhilarating convergences that characterize American culture, that she, a white Midwesterner of frontier ancestry, should find as her two most vocal disciples a pair of black authors: the late Ralph Ellison, whose essays are becoming as influential as his classic novel Invisible Man , and Ellison’s long-time colleague, the novelist and essayist Albert Murray.
Murray, whose ideas are just now beginning to penetrate the mainstream in books like South to a Very Old Place and Stomping the Blues , has often cited Rourke’s comic trio as the source of one of his central tenets: the “incontestably mulatto nature,” as Murray puts it, of American culture. Another of Rourke’s ideas is important to Murray: the improvisatory aspect of American culture. One particular sentence of Rourke’s had a galvanizing effect on him: “The mythic trio’s comedy, their irreverent wisdom, their sudden changes and adroit adaptations, provided emblems for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait.”
“That sentence,” Murray said, “pulled everything together for me,” not only his thoughts about American culture as a whole but his argument that jazz is the quintessential American art. “I thought, ‘What is the musical emblem for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait?’ Jazz! That is why it’s so easy for all Americans, of whatever color, to identify with jazz as something basic to them.”