December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
“Of late the American character has received marked and not altogether flattering attention from American critics.” The comment, from the opening page of Constance Rourke’s great, unjustly ignored book American Humor , bears one of her trademarks, a gently ironic understatement. “Not altogether flattering”—a muted characterization, indeed, of the jeremiads hurled against their homeland by the members of Rourke’s generation, the American writers who came of age just before World War I.
“Of late the American character has received marked and not altogether flattering attention from American critics.” The comment, from the opening page of Constance Rourke’s great, unjustly ignored book American Humor , bears one of her trademarks, a gently ironic understatement. “Not altogether flattering”—a muted characterization, indeed, of the jeremiads hurled against their homeland by the members of Rourke’s generation, the American writers who came of age just before World War I. To Pound and Eliot, Dreiser and Lewis, Lardner, Anderson and Mencken, America was barren soil for the spirit, a plutocracy whose only native values were greed and expediency. The post-Civil War years, when the nation’s prosperity had skyrocketed, were damned by Van Wyck Brooks, the new generation’s leading literary critic, as “a horde life, a herd life, an epoch without sun and stars, the twilight of a human spirit that had nothing on which to feed.” American intellectuals, it seemed, had but two choices: despair or exile.
Brooks suggested a third. In a famous 1918 essay he issued a call for American artists to find “a usable past.” But he had dynamited that route himself with his scathing appraisals of “a past without living value.” Given the corner he’d painted himself into, Brooks’s nervous breakdown in the late twenties was hardly surprising. How is it that he came to rhapsodize, a dozen years after his collapse, over “the rich stores of tradition that lie behind us, the many streams of native character and feeling from which the Americans of the future will be able to draw”?
The answer lies, in part, in Brooks’s own discoveries. But it also lies in the impact on him of his onetime disciple Constance Rourke. To a small group of writers and artists, Rourke’s ideas offered promise beyond Brooks’s sterile antinomies. “She seems on the way to becoming our Moses,” wrote William Carlos Williams in 1938.
Three years later Rourke was gone. Our intellectual life would be richer today if she hadn’t died, only fifty-five, at the peak of her powers. When she died (perhaps avoidably, of complications that followed a not very serious accident), she left unfinished her magnum opus, a projected three-volume history of American culture. But we do have American Humor , and to our discredit we continue to overlook it. Published in 1931, the book not only anticipated an entire field, American studies, and not only contained perhaps the first real theory of American culture—a powerful, nuanced argument whose leisurely unfolding is a pleasure to experience—but was shaped by an artist. Next to American Humor , most of today’s literary scholarship reads like the technical exercise it is. All seven of Rourke’s books, published between 1927 and 1942— Trumpets of Jubilee, Troupers of the Gold Coast, American Humor, Davy Crockett, Audubon, Charles Sheeler, and The Roots of American Culture —ring with a burnished, hard-won authority, her best writing as resonant as the myths she probed.
A freelance writer by trade (she gave up a teaching career at Vassar, her alma mater, to concentrate on writing), she had a scholar’s discipline and a novelist’s vision. She was a literary expert whose curiosity carried her beyond literature, into visual art, music, architecture, and handicrafts. A hybrid of criticism, history, and folklore, her work straddles disciplines. Rourke’s ideas are too rich for most academics to grasp in their tweezers, and her language arouses their suspicion. Her images and phrases have a poetic oscillation that draws the attentive reader back, again and again, to ponder her implications. She was, as the show-biz saying goes, too hip for the room. Ignored by the dons, she has nonetheless had a subterranean influence, which seems to be growing today. So it should. Aside from the pleasure her writing brings us, Rourke’s ideas cut as sharply as ever.
It was easy for an East Coast Brahmin like Brooks to survey the heartlands and find them culturally barren. Rourke’s predisposition was different. Born (in 1885) and raised in the Midwest, she was the descendant of pioneers. A great-great-uncle, George Mayfield, had been kidnapped and raised by Creek Indians; he knew Davy Crockett and served as Andrew Jackson’s Creek interpreter. Perhaps afraid of being typecast, Rourke always downplayed her frontier heritage; still, the past had never been less than a living presence to her.
Brooks saw passionately but not very deeply. A usable past, Rourke showed, lay all around, but in corners previously considered beneath scholarly notice: almanacs, jokebooks, pioneer theatricals, minstrel shows, burlesques, handicrafts, carpentry, political speeches, Indian treaties, and religious revivals. These were the soil from which our finest artists and writers had sprung—the “rich traditional store,” she wrote, “from which consciously or unconsciously they have drawn.” The task of the critic was to unearth this buried heritage; the artist “will steep himself in the gathered light.”
Far from merely doing Brooks’s spadework, Rourke redrew the lines of his playing field. For her, culture was the entire spectrum of a people’s self-expressive products; Brooks, like most intellectuals of his day (and not a few in ours), saw culture as that spectrum’s upper frequencies only, as “the best that has been thought and known in the world,” in Matthew Arnold’s classic formulation —Culture, in other words, with a capital C. For Brooks, “culture” meant “high culture,” and between it and popular culture “there is no community,” he argued, “no genial middle ground.” No such abyss existed for Rourke. “The same character,” she emphasized in American Humor —the same few myths and collective images—“was at work on both levels.” A good part of her book’s power lies in the grand upward sweep of those myths and images from their bedrock of “songs and primitive ballads and a folk-theater and rude chronicles” through Hawthorne, Twain, and Whitman to the most ethereal of Emily Dickinson’s poems, the archest of Henry James’s musings.
For culture doesn’t trickle down from an elite, argued Rourke; it flows up from below: “American literature … has had roots in common soil.” In a memorable passage, she wrote of how our basic myths took shape in “the turbulent era of Jacksonian democracy, that stormy time when the whole mixed population of the United States seemed to pour into the streets of Washington.” The self-portraits Americans live by were painted by the many, not by the few. “These portraits,” wrote Rourke, “came up from below. They were the folk, they belonged to the mass of the people, and they belonged to the insurgent, the revolutionary class.”
Instead of focusing on solitary geniuses, Rourke, anticipating the much later work of social historians like England’s E. P. Thompson, Marc Bloch of the French Annales school and the American Herbert Gutman, was drawn to the crowd, the anonymous stream. If her first book, Trumpets of Jubilee , was a gallery of profiles, it was because its subjects—P. T. Barnum, Horace Greeley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a few others—had crystallized public longings. “The popular leader,” Rourke wrote in the foreword to Trumpets , “is nothing less than the vicarious crowd, registering … hopes and joys and conflicts and aspirations which may be crude and transitory, but none the less are the stuff out of which the foundations of social life are made.” The foreword to Trumpets reads like a manifesto. “In the expectancy of considerable rewards,” the new author said, “we shall fix our gaze upon success.” The same affirmative spirit launches American Humor . “This book has no quarrel with the American character,” announced Rourke; “one might as well dispute with some established feature in the natural landscape.” She wasn’t apologizing for the status quo; she was merely aware, and keenly so, that the treasure for which her contemporaries pined was already here, ripe for the harvest: a native tradition that was “various, subtle, sinewy, scant at times but not poor. …its makers had been the nation.” With that she left behind the representative individuals of Trumpets for her true subject: the throng, the populace, the protagonists of American Humor .
American Humor to be a light anthology, a compendium of native wit and wisdom, is in for a surprise. The book indeed teems with lore, but gathering it was only a first step. American Humor is a case study—a demonstration, using humor as a sample cultural trait, of Rourke’s central thesis: that a nation’s literature is an outgrowth of its folklore and popular culture, that “the strollers of the theater and of the cults and revivals, the innumerable comic storytellers and myth makers … made a groundwork for [American] literature.”
But Rourke’s ambitions were bigger still. The book’s subtitle, A Study of the National Character , reveals its scope. The title itself harbors a crucial pun. The book is, of course, about American humor—that is, our comic spirit—but it is also about the American humor: our national temperament. To talk about one is to talk about the other, for “there is scarcely an aspect of the American character,” wrote Rourke, “to which humor is not related, few which … it has not governed.” What allowed us to settle a vast and dangerous land, to create political structures that fostered an unprecedented degree of freedom, to inaugurate the machine age, was a deep resilience, an optimism, a sanguinity: a sense of humor.
In America the comic spirit took on its own, highly specific coloration. It was democratic, assaulting aristocracy and privilege. The values it fostered were flexibility and resilience, qualities essential in frontier life. Our humor, in other words, was improvisatory, our comic heroes capable of “sudden changes and adroit adaptations.” The popular theater, perhaps our emblematic early-nineteenth-century genre, was “full of experiment, finding its way to audiences by their quick responses and rejections.” Brougham and Burton, burlesque masters of the 1840s, could “improvise at random and at comical length, twisting a play to new effects offhand.” How could the American spirit have been other than improvisatory? By trial and error, fits and starts, we were inventing ourselves.
Whichever of its aspects one considers, American humor had a single, all-important function: “[It] created … a sense of unity among a people who were not yet a nation and who were seldom joined in stable communities.” Our tall tales and theatricals, said Rourke, “served the ends of communication among a people unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.” What Rourke tried to convey was nothing less than the collective, half-unconscious effort with which America willed itself into being.
Poring over her homely sources, Rourke sought what she called “ideal images, those symbols which peoples spontaneously adopt and by which in some measure they live.” American Humor ’s first three chapters—“Corn Cobs Twist Your Hair,” “The Gamecock of the Wilderness,” and “That Long-Tail’d Blue”—trace the emergence, between the Revolution and the mid-1820s, of three such symbols, her “comic trio”: the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the Negro.
was the bony-kneed Yankee, a swapper and a bargainer, protean, a master of disguise. Gestating in hidden colonial wellsprings, the Yankee sprang to life during the Revolution, as if created by the need for a rallying symbol. Born in New England, he soon became a national possession. In fact, American Humor ’s very first sentence shows him already at large, preparing to fleece a whole Southern village: “Toward evening of a midsummer day at the latter end of the eighteenth century a traveler was seen descending a steep red road into a fertile Carolina valley. He carried a staff and walked with a wide, fast, sprawling gait, his tall shadow cutting across the lengthening shadows….” Rourke’s semifictional style immediately marks hers as a singular brand of criticism. Not content merely to analyze myths, she wanted to reimagine them, to restore America’s living tradition to itself.
The “rhapsodic, leaping, crowing” backwoodsman vaulted onto the stage just after the War of 1812. Cheerfully indifferent to peril, he followed the bulging frontier, keeping a “comic oblivious tone” although “horror, terror, death were written large in the life of the rivers and forests.” The backwoodsman’s “heel-crackings and competitive matches,” wrote Rourke, “were like savage efforts to create strength for the tribe by exhibiting strength.” In one frontier tale an Ohio traveler in a dreadful swamp spies a beaver hat in the mud. It moves, and he gingerly lifts it with his whip. Beneath the hat is a man’s grinning head, which shouts, “Hello, stranger!” The traveler offers help, but the head refuses, saying he has a good horse under him.
The Indian left his mark on the backwoodsman, in the latter’s place-names, his costumes, his forest sense. “The backwoodsman conquered the Indian,” wrote Rourke, “but the Indian also conquered him.” She claimed Audubon for her backwoods pantheon. The great naturalist was a fiddler, a crack shot, and a colorful liar who claimed to have ridden a wild horse through six states and gave an account of the Ohio River’s “Devil-Jack Diamond Fish,” ten feet long and armored with bulletproof diamond-shaped stone scales that struck fire with steel. But the type’s exemplars were Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, the flatboatmen’s king. Each started out a flesh-and-blood man and wound up a myth, for in the early nineteenth century the boundary between life and legend was porous indeed. We were a colorful, noisy, exaggeration-prone people, in love with the theater and with oratory (the close ties between the stage and politics were symbolized by the friendship of Sam Houston and the actor Junius Brutus Booth). The inflations and hyperbole of the day’s public speakers were part of the same language that created Crockett and Fink, “those minor deities men create in their own image and magnify to magnify themselves.” As the novelist Ralph Ellison, who was deeply influenced by Rourke, pointed out, “Constance Rourke reminded us that we began to define ourselves and to create ourselves through the agency of the word, of the imagination, the fictional imagination—and that basically we are liars.” Or tall-tale tellers.
tended to be highly self-conscious, the Yankee in his ruminations, the backwoodsman in his noisy preening. Their self-absorption mirrored that of their creators. We grew up well aware of our newness on the world’s stage—aware, too, of the Old World’s often scornful gaze. We winced, but we also learned to flaunt the very traits Europe ridiculed. We were noisy, bumptious, unfeignedly curious; we built our identity not by aping the Europeans but by going out of our way to irritate them.
The two mythic figures were usually portrayed as solitary, “never part of a complex human situation, always nomadic.” The earlynineteenth-century American imagination could go no further; the social fabric was too thin, the flux too absolute. No sooner did we settle down than we were off again, echoing Daniel Boone’s cry of “More elbow-room!” The precondition for a nuanced realism —a layered, textured society—did not yet exist. Neither Yankee nor backwoodsman “invited the literal view or the prosaic touch.” They were types, their features writ large. The forms our pre-literature took—the monologue, the rhapsody, the tale, loosely structured, improvised, shot through with the supernatural—were not those of realism but of fantasy. American writers early on tapped a vein of fabulism, of comic exaggeration, and have mined it ever since.
We touched a moment ago on a basic Rourkeian idea, even if she left it merely implicit in American Humor . It wasn’t content, she said, but form—the basic shape an artist gave his product—that determined his relationship to tradition. “It is the consistent print of form in successive periods,” she wrote in her later book on the twentiethcentury painter Charles Sheeler, “that gives a national tradition its character.” Old-fashioned subject matter guaranteed nothing; what rooted an artist in a tradition was his skillful adaptation of inherited forms. Sheeler often painted modern industrial buildings, but his work had the same purity of line as nineteenth-century Shaker crafts. The Shakers’ work was utilitarian, Sheeler’s strictly for contemplation, yet they were organically linked; they expressed the same tradition.
Taking leave of Yankee and backwoodsman, Rourke sketched her comedy’s third player. “The young American Narcissus,” she wrote, “had looked at himself in the narrow rocky pools of New England and by the waters of the Mississippi; he also gazed long at a darker image.” To identify the Negro as a crucial element of America’s self-image was a radical step in 1931. It made sense to Rourke. “The Negro was to be seen everywhere in the South and in the new Southwest, on small farms and great plantations, on roads and levees,” she wrote. “He was often an all but equal member of many a pioneering expedition. He became, in short, a dominant figure in spite of his condition, and commanded a definite portraiture.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.