Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul

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In the end what the engaged reader absorbs from Constance Rourke is her great, only partly fulfilled, ambition: to answer the question What does it mean to be an American?

Would Rourke have been depressed by the explosion of popular culture, especially of television? Instead of a culture that offers us insights into ourselves, we have one that obscures and distorts reality. On the other hand, in some respects Rourke’s ideas fit our world better than her own. The glare of the mass media has intensified the interplay between high and low culture, producing new classics: the music of Ellington and, more questionably, Warhol’s pop art. Popular culture has thrown some of Rourke’s themes into bolder relief than ever, producing the sort of caricatures that leaped up on the nineteenth-century frontier. The “outlaws” of seventies country music, or jet pilot Chuck Yeager, mythicized in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff —what are these if not tokens of the backwoodsman’s enduring presence? What is Mick Jagger but a late-twentieth-century minstrel? The comic monologue, born in the theatricals and tales of the 1820s, lives on in the filmed concerts of Richard Pryor, whose best work rivals that of an earlier stand-up comic, Twain. In 1931 Rourke wrote that “the extravagant vein in American humor has reached no ultimate expression”; America had produced no Rabelais, no Ulysses. Perhaps it has now, in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow , a long comic shriek in the face of nothingness.

Rourke never had time to absorb the work of perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest American writer, Faulkner, who merged vernacular storytelling with ultrasophisticated literary devices; whose novels ( As I Lay Dying for one) were often nothing but juxtaposed monologues; whose Negro and white characters aren’t only culturally, but literally, interrelated; whose overheated tone and fascination with the grotesque echo the fabulism of our earliest tales. Members of the comic trio pop up all over Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Ratliff, for instance, the sewing-machine salesman of The Hamlet , The Town , and The Mansion , is, despite his Mississippi drawl, the very image of Rourke’s Yankee, who “[seeks] to learn everything and tell nothing.” Ratliff’s real trade is in information; his silences, like the Yankee’s, are a poker-faced conversational gambit (“direct replies,” as Rourke wrote, “would end many a colloquy: questions or evasions prolonged the talk and might open the way for more“).

Before anyone else, Rourke pointed out not only the centrality of the Negro in America’s emotional life but the racial cross-fertilization that characterizes our culture. Acknowledging both points is becoming downright fashionable. To the authors of “The Afro-American Century,” the opening essay in The New Yorker ’s thick recent special issue on black America, the black presence “makes American art and culture, high and low, the most dynamic and pervasive on the planet —makes American culture American, in fact.” We’ve come a long way from the day when Rourke’s insights into our composite identity made hers a lonely voice.

Rourke offers

us a profound model of artistic creation: the artist’s transformation of popular materials, of lore, into a personal statement. She offers an antidote to any and all efforts to freeze culture into separate poles. Her insistence that form, not subject matter, is what constitutes a tradition puts the lie to many a muddled nostalgist’s sentimental attempt to recapture the past. She offers us ways to bridge gulfs of genre and time, to perceive the broad shapes that underlie our collective self-portrait.

In the end what the engaged reader absorbs from Rourke is her great, only partly fulfilled, ambition: to answer the question, What does it mean to be an American? Since the American character is always being shaped—since culture is a process, simultaneously inventing and viewing itself—the answer may lie permanently out of reach. But in trying to reach it, Rourke wrote a masterpiece.