- Historic Sites
Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
Both Rourkeian concepts—America’s composite culture and its improvisatory aspect—were crucial as well to Ellison. “White American artists,” said Ellison in a 1976 conversation, “found the slaves’ improvisations a clue for their own improvisations. From the very beginnings of the nation, Afro-Americans were contributing to the evolution of a specifically American culture.” In 1973 Ellison told a Harvard audience, “All of us are part white, and all of y’all are part colored.” References to Rourke abound in Ellison’s essays and interviews. Just as tellingly, aspects of his thought bear an unmistakably Rourkeian imprint: his constant emphasis that art grows out of folklore (“The most vigorous American literature is based on American folklore,” he said in 1965) and his awareness of literature’s shaping role in American history (“The American novel is … a conquest of the frontier,” he said in a 1954 interview; “as it describes our experience, it creates it”). The famous last sentence of Invisible Man —“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”—expresses Ellison’s conviction, perhaps drawn partly from his reading of Rourke, that in America, regardless of race, our identities are mutually entwined.
Rourke believed, shaped itself differently; every culture evolved its own expressive forms. “Perhaps after all,” she wrote, “the American genius is not literary.” The innovative scholar John Kouwenhoven took this Rourkeian surmise seriously indeed, arguing in his books Made in America and The Beer Can by the Highway that architecture, engineering, industry, and handicrafts, not literature, contain the purest expressions of American culture. “American culture,” Kouwenhoven wrote, “is expressed more adequately in the Brooklyn Bridge than in the poem Hart Crane wrote about it.” The very kernel of Kouwenhoven’s thought—that our culture is a blend of what he calls the “vernacular” and the “cultivated—echoes Rourke’s emphasis on the interaction between highbrow and lowbrow, literary and popular expression.
Rourke died before she could fully orchestrate her insights, leaving theoretical gaps, internal contradictions, and uncharted territorv. Aoolvins her discoveries to today’s America is no rote task, but there are plenty of points of contact. Her work refutes the ideas of today’s cultural conservatives—George Will’s notion of “the autonomy of culture,” for instance, in which culture is exempt from evolution, an ideal realm beyond the din of society. If one learns anything from Rourke, it is the dual insight that culture is a work in progress, not a terminus, no aspect of which—not even the finest works of art—is “autonomous.” Threatened by what they see as the destruction of academic standards, intellectuals like the late Alien Bloom have tried to shore up the wall between high and low culture. But when he wrote in his best-selling 1987 polemic The Closing of the American Mind that “there is no relation between popular culture and high culture,” Bloom was merely echoing Van Wyck Brooks, whose arguments Rourke deflated so, long ago. Today Whitman is a high-culture icon, banished to graduate seminars. Rourke, as we’ve seen, saw the poet differently, and so did Whitman himself. “The ambitious thought of my song,” he once wrote, “is to help the forming of a great aggregate Nation.” Whitman wanted his poetry to have a practical, not merely a contemplative, role. Nor did he cast his words in stone. “No one,” he warned, “will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as literary performances.” Here is an instance in which popular culture, instead of displacing high culture, as the conservatives claim it has, has itself been displaced, its spokesman kidnapped, by the priests of high culture!
Has the influx of immigrants altered not just the surface but the underlying nature of American culture? Does the comic trio still represent our collective self-image? Can we add to their number? Why not, if the candidate resonates strongly enough? The critic W. H. Lhamon, for instance, has suggested that Rourke overlooked the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches myth.