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huck finn modern book cover

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. mark twain

In that book, nearly every theme that identifies our art as American is established and explored: migration, race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and the comfortable informality that marks us as a people.

It’s as if Huck Finn were the instruction manual for how to be American. In that, Twain is just as clearly American as Debussy is French or Basho is Japanese. john smith We often look to our art for clues to national identity. But although Twain gives us Americanness in concentrated form, most of the arts made on this continent, from Capt. John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624) and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, all the way up to this week’s latest rap song, partake in certain common traits.

What are they? First, we need to eliminate some of the things we like to think are particularly American, such as patriotism or respect for family. Every culture feels these qualities are particularly their own, but in fact, they are universal.

Even such negatives as bigotry and racism have their American coloration, but they are evils found in every culture.

It needs to be noted, too, that what we admire in ourselves is not necessarily admired elsewhere. Americans are direct, which others often see as rude. We are informal, which others translate as slobbishness. We are optimistic, which can be taken as arrogance. We believe in individualism, which others see as selfishness. But there are six things that we can see as particularly American: migration, individualism, optimism, religiosity, informality and expansiveness. source_28

Migration

The one thing all Americans share is that we are immigrants.

Even Native Americans, although they hate to think so, came here from somewhere else, whether it is across an Arctic land bridge or up through a sipapu.

It is the parent fact that gives birth to all our other traits. jumping a freight Even after our ancestors came here from far shores, we have never ceased from peregrinating. First we moved West, populating the great wilderness.

Now, we move away from home to college or career, and find our parents retired to Florida and our siblings spread across four time zones.

To Europeans or Asians whose families have lived in the same villages for centuries, we must seem utterly rootless.

So it can hardly be surprising that the central metaphor of Huck Finn is a journey: The book is many things, from its hero’s double negatives and “ain’ts” to his climactic choice to follow his instinct instead of his schooling about runaway slave Jim, but first and foremost, it’s a “road book,” marking the peripatetic nature of American life.

Much of our art reflects this continuous travel. From the moment we arrived on the Atlantic Coast we began moving west. As art, The Godfather speaks of the immigrant experience, but so does every B Western ever filmed.

All the other traits we think of as American ultimately owe their birth to this constant moving: It gives birth to our self-reliance, our willingness to risk tomorrow on faith, and our freedom from many of the cultural straitjackets found back in the Old Country. It’s all there in the art. All either necessary for immigration or fostered by it. high noon

Individualism

Make that “rugged individualism.”

We trust our own instincts, like Huck Finn, rather then the wisdom of the group. We are Mr. Smith in Washington, Gary Cooper at high noon, Ellen Ripley blasting aliens.

The single most potent distillation of this individualism can be found in John Wayne, love him or despise him. But Wayne didn’t spring up ex nihilo; rather, he grew from the soil: He was originally Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: self-reliant, unschooled but wise and practical, with an unshaken faith in his own code of behavior. He’s Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett saying, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead,” which is just a pop culture simplification of Henry Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Sometimes it’s shocking to realize how of a piece our cultural heritage is. davy crockett march

The flip side of individualism is our tendency to isolationism: “Good fences make good neighbors,” as Robert Frost ironically wrote. Going it alone is usually seen as a virtue.

The downside of this self-reliance is our anti-intellectualism. We trust our own ignorance more than someone else’s knowledge. This is nothing new: It’s why Andrew Jackson was elected president. It’s Huck Finn fearing to be “sivilized” by his Aunt Sally. It’s why one of the most powerful political factions of the 19th century was called the “Know-Nothings.”

It’s a trait of national identity that we should never misunderestimate. oklahoma!

Optimism

Against all reason and the evidence of history, Americans believe they can do anything. It is our “can-do” attitude, and you find it in the barking joy of Walt Whitman’s poetry and the songs of Oklahoma!Doris Day

To others in the world, this makes us look naive and foolish; fatalism is not part of our makeup.

Which is why America is home to pop psychology and Doris Day. As a corollary, for Americans, the future only holds a better world. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” Annie sings. “Make it new,” said poet Ezra Pound, and although he was speaking of literature, he could just as well have been speaking of Thomas Edison, the Chrysler Building or Elvis Presley.

Take what you’re given and do something new with it. Never accept the past as the final word. billy sunday preaching

Religion

Many peoples are religious, but in America, religion is something else.

From the utopian religious communities of the 19th century to today’s fundamentalism, there is a glint of zealotry in American spirituality. Elmer Gantry would not be thinkable in France.

We have gone through at least four “Great Awakenings,” in which we rediscover the old-time religion and the narrow virtues of belief. rev whitefield

It was, after all, religion that founded this country, whether it is Congregationalists in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland. Each of them came here for religious freedom, although they were perfectly willing to oppress any religion not their own.

The separation of church and state in our Constitution is there not because we were an agnostic nation, but because everyone was so nuts on the subject and we wanted to keep from each others’ throats.

You hear the religion in the symphonic music of Charles Ives and in Negro spirituals. It echoes in Moby-Dick, and even the window behind the dour couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. leaves of grass frontispiece

Informality

“I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass,” Whitman writes in a poem of expansive informality, turning his back on the formal expression of European art: No villanelles for Americans, no Rime Royal.

In Europe, you have Oedipus, in America, Stanley Kowalski.stanley kowalski Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in colloquial American English and even put a note about it at the beginning of the book. Take that, Henry James!

“Whatever is not of the street,” wrote novelist Henry Miller, “is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” And he wasn’t using the word as a compliment.

You can see it in the portrait of Whitman at the front of his book, Leaves of Grass: There he is, sleeves rolled back, collar unbuttoned, hips shifted comfortably, hat at a rakish angle. You could never imagine Tennyson like that. manifest destiny gast

Expansiveness

Everything in America is supersized, whether it’s fast food or our landscape.

In America, bigger is better: We drive SUVs and watch blockbuster movies. It’s a Texas mentality. Star Wars isn’t big enough; we need a director’s cut, added scenes, a DVD packed with extras. A movie isn’t a success unless it makes $200 million. And the TVs on which we watch those DVDs continue to grow; soon they’ll cover our living room walls. larry hagman with cash

One Marilyn Monroe isn’t enough; Warhol must print her by the dozens, just as Babe Ruth must eat hot dogs by the score.

The tall tale is our national mythology, from Paul Bunyan to Jim Carrey’s face.

Of course, how could it be otherwise with the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains? Our very landscape calls out for grandiosity and grandiloquence. Over the top is America’s starting line, and the next frontier is our constant goal.

OH, AND AMERICANS LOVE LISTS:

Most-American Americans

John_Wayne - overland stage raidersJohn Wayne: Love him or hate him, we can’t think of him as merely an actor. He has become an icon, the movie roles and the man bound into one, indivisible: the lone, laconic hero, man of action rather than words, graceful and bullying in turns.

4 more:

Louis Armstrong: American as soul.

Eleanor Roosevelt: American as do-gooder.

Babe Ruth: American as appetite.

Thomas Edison: American as inventor.

Most American Movies godfather

The Godfather Saga, Francis Ford Coppola, 1977: The conflated version of the first two Godfather films tells the immigrant experience writ large: family, business, love, loyalty, betrayal and the move west, told with the force and mythology of opera.

4 more:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Star Wars, George Lucas, 1977: Good vs. evil supersized.

Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick, 1939: History whitewashed.

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989: Race will not go away.

American Contributions to global culture constitution go

The Constitution: Our “governmental instruction manual” has become a model for the world, and its first 10 amendments have become the guiding principles of many an emerging nation. It’s more than merely political, it’s at the center of our culture, and the one thing the world really does want from us.

4 more:

Jazz: From which all popular music ultimately derives.

Hollywood: America’s secret plan for world domination.

Technology: The physical evidence of the can-do spirit.

Coca-Cola: Las aguas negras del imperialismo.

Most American Novels

huck finn book coverHuckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: The Great American Novel, filled with everything, good and bad, about ourselves: race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and our comfortable informality.

4 more:

On the Road, Jack Kerouac: An essential national theme takes center stage.

Beloved, Toni Morrison: The evils of slavery haunt even the freed.

The Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper: The invention of John Wayne.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Money, glamour, celebrity and loss.

Most American Plays angels in america

Angels in America, Tony Kushner: The hugely ambitious “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” takes on more American themes than anything since Huck Finn: politics, sex, generations, religious revelation, Reaganism, bigotry and forgiveness; so expansive a single night can’t hold it.

4 more:

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller: The underside of the American dream.

Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein: Gushy, American cornpone classic.

Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams: Torn T-shirts and sweaty thighs.

Fences, August Wilson: Black view from Pisgah.

American Classical-music compositions

ives album coverThree Places in New England, Charles Ives: The crusty New England composer reinvents classical music to make it more American: loud, brash, nostalgic and patriotic at turns, and finds its subject in landscape and history.

4 more:

Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin: Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Chopin and Carnegie Hall.

Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland: Shaker hymn goes mainstream.

Symphony No. 3, Roy Harris: The type of the American symphony.

New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak: Is the Most American Symphony written by a Czech?

American Architecture

monticello stampMonticello, Thomas Jefferson: Just as equivocal as its owner and designer, this icon from the back of the common nickel is both paean to Europe’s classical past and the American’s love of invention, gimmickry and nature: Palladian windows and a moose head.

4 more:

Chrysler Building: American industrial dynamism with grace.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland: Architecture as play-pretend.

Fenway Park: So cranky we actually love it.

Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright: Built over a waterfall like a diving board.

American Poems

Whitman at 50Song of Myself, Walt Whitman: The “good gray poet” could not have arisen anywhere else; he is completely American, from his deification of democracy to his catalogs of diversity to his “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

4 more:

Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Closest thing we have to a national epic poem.

Poems, Emily Dickenson: Nothing more American than her quirky New England eccentricity.

Howl, Allen Ginsberg: “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!”

Mending Wall, Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

American Visual arts

American gothicAmerican Gothic, Grant Wood: This iconic painting is more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa: encomium of hardcore American values or satire of Midwestern provincialism? Conservative or avant-garde? He’s not telling.

4 more:

Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley: Art ripped from the headlines, circa 1777.

Marilyn Monroe multiple, Andy Warhol: If one is good, a dozen must be better.

Dogs Playing Poker series, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge: Now, that’s OTT!

Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell: Turkey, potatoes and lots of corn.

American Popular music

shenandoahShenandoah: A folk song of undetermined origin, this is the quintessential song about migration and loss; with its odd strophic form and 19th-century sentiment, it borrows elements from Irish shanties and African-American blues.

4 more:

One O’Clock Jump: Count Basie and swing.

Born to Run: Rebels on wheels, a la the Boss.

Hound Dog: Elvis frees America all over again.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The suffering of a people, caught in the throat.

View from Craggy Gardens

The East Coast of North America varies more widely than any other region of the continent. Westerners are Westerners, but no one could confuse a Manhattanite with a Cajun, a Down Easter with Virginia gentry.

There are drawls in the South, missing R’s in New England, even French in Quebec.

But there is one thing that ties the East together, a kind of central nervous system that defines both its history and emotional core: the Appalachian Mountains.

Running from southwest to northeast for 2,000 miles from Alabama to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Appalachians are a true cordillera, not a single mountain range of peaks but a chain of ranges that span a continent.

There are the Unakas, the Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies, the Green, White, Black, Blue and Brown mountains, the Berkshires and Catskills, the Notre Dames and Shickshocks.

They were this nation’s first frontier, a physical barrier to continental expansion in the 18th century that helped define the original 13 colonies.

It took an unusual sort of pioneer to settle the green stony hills, and their inhabitants to this day maintain much of their independent nature. It is one of the strengths of the Appalachians.

They are among the oldest mountains — parts are more than a billion years old — and they are also structurally complex. Appalachian map

They can be divided into three very different sections from east to west. This structure is clearest in Virginia.

There in the front range of the Appalachians are the old, volcanic Blue Ridge, rising abruptly from the Piedmont. Behind it lies the broad, fertile Great Valley — a kind of cordillera of valleys — best-known in northern Virginia as the Shenandoah Valley. The Ridge and Valley Province comes next, fronted by the Alleghenies. It is a long series of low sedimentary ridges, like a line of breakers at the shore. In these loaf mountains are some of the nation’s early iron and copper mines.

Behind that is the Appalachian, or Cumberland Plateau, the wide belt of rocky bumps of almost equal height extending through most of West Virginia and into Kentucky. In these hills, miners still dig out the soft, bituminous coal that is the nation’s greatest single natural resource.

But the Appalachians are also partitioned from north to south. It is traditionally divided into the southern, central and northern sections: The first, from Alabama to Maryland, includes the highest peaks in the East. The second, running through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, are mostly long ridges. And in the north, encompassing New England and Atlantic Canada, the mountains grow once more in height and ruggedness.

For the several blog entries, we will look at the Appalachians and the people who live in them, taking them section by section.

NEXT: The Southern Appalachians

There are two pieces of music that never fail to set off the waterworks in me.

I’m sure we all have some signature tune that turns us into maudlin fools crying into our beer.

Lots of music can have that effect, when you’re in the right mood. Mozart is full of such tunes. No one ever wrote about the forgiveness of human foibles like Mozart. It isn’t only in his “forgiveness arias,” but the same tone of music turns up in piano concertos and wind sextets. He had some tap into divine understanding.

When I’m in the right mood, Mozart wells up in my throat. But heck, if I’m really depressed, Stars and Stripes Forever can set me off.

But I’m talking about something that doesn’t require the right mood to work.

Anyone playing Shenandoah, for instance. I don’t care what the arrangement. You can play it on a chorus of kazoos and trombones. You can play it calypso style on steel drums — the moment I’m transported “across the wide Missouri,” I’m reduced to a blubbering mass.

Clearly, I’m responding to some sort of deep seated nostalgia, some trauma of childhood or failed romance. But strike up the tune and I’m like some drunk in a bar yelling “Play Melancholy Baby.”

Actually, I know what it is with Shenandoah: I know the Shenandoah River and the great valley it troughs through in northern Virginia, heading north to join the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry.

It is an especially beautiful river, and only more so on a cool autumn morning when a low fog hangs over the water and the sycamore trees along its banks seem to grow out of white nothing.

The Shenandoah Valley separates the Blue Ridge in the east from the great ridges of iron- and coal-laden mountains to the west. The river rises in twin forks, one on either side of Massanutten Mountain, which rises like a long, low bread loaf in the middle of the valley.

I used to live in the Blue Ridge; I have just moved back. It was the most beautiful place I ever knew. I missed it.

And when the song says, “I long to see your smiling valley,” I knew just what it meant. “Tis seven long years since I last saw thee,” the song continues. It was 25 years since my wife and I lived in the Appalachians.

We lived in Arizona, which has a beauty all its own, but is different from the Blue Ridge. And when the song reaches its climax, “across the wide Missouri,” I knew that I was on the wrong side of the Missouri, too, in a kind of self-imposed Babylonian captivity.

“By the waters of the Rio Salado, there we sat down, yea, we wept.”

The song speaks to me — as it does to so many other people — of that lost Eden we know we can never regain.

And so, I blubber.

But that second tune that sets me off is something different.

It is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits.

Gluck was a Czech-born composer of the 18th century who rebelled against the ornate and conventional opera of the time. His opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, tells a simple myth in simple music. Almost too simple.

Two set pieces from that opera still are widely known. The Dance of the Furies was used behind the chase scene in almost every Hopalong Cassidy movie ever made. In those “B” Westerns, budgets didn’t allow new music, so they played old classics behind the action. The music was loud and furious.

But Dance of the Blessed Spirits was something else: quiet, almost  static, and with the grace only utter simplicity can convey.

Two flutes play the song-like melody over the accompaniment of strings. Chords change slowly and never stray from simple diatonic harmonies.

And when the tune’s first phrase reaches conclusion, it stretches out in a feminine ending, a slow suspension off the beat. Nothing is insistent in the music, but rather, like the Grecian maiden on Keats’ urn, it seems suspended in time, permanently in a state of grace.

I melt when I hear it.

But its power comes from the same kind of emotion that drives Shenandoah: a sense of loss and a sense that somewhere there is an Eden where spirits are blessed.

Yet the tunes are very different, too. My reaction to Shenandoah is personal, very personal. Its power — for me — comes from my biography. I don’t expect everyone will react the same way.

The Gluck, though, has a more ritualized, formal power. It comes from its stylization.

For Gluck was aiming not for biography, but for the universal.

Art’s emotional wallop often comes not from its literal portrayal of raw feelings, but from the Apollonian distancing and formalization of those feelings. By understatement, it draws up a skeleton that we flesh out with our own experience.

The so-called Romantic artist often fails to exactly the extent he overplays his hand. Such an artist wants us to feel his feelings.

The Classic speaks not of his personal emotion, but of human emotion. Hence, they are our emotions.

In other words, when I hear Shenandoah, I feel the turns my life has taken; when I hear the Gluck I weep for the inescapable lot of humankind. The one traps me in my ego, the other frees me from it.

This is the power one feels in Homer, in Joyce, in Flaubert. It is the reason Haydn is still played along with the more personal Berlioz.

And it is the power at the end of Beethoven’s immense Diabelli Variations, those 32 monumental changes on the “cobbler’s patch” waltz sent to Beethoven by music publisher Anton Diabelli, who asked the great composer for a variation he might publish.

Through those variations, Beethoven dives deep into some of the most personal music he ever wrote, with adagios of desolation and pathos, culminating in a clattering, raging fugue that is as hard to listen to as to play.

But he winds up in Arcadia, just like Gluck: His final overwhelming variation is a dignified minuet, which takes all the terror and anger, all the humor and misery of the previous 31 variations and sublimates all that personal angst into an Olympian, stylized dance.

It is this ritualization of the overwhelming emotions that make those emotions important: The personal is mere autobiography. The ritual dispenses grace: the freedom from ego.

It is why our most important thoughts and feelings are turned into meter and rhyme, why our bodies move to the numbers of choreography, why the novel is the “bright book of life.”

And why art matters.