The Charlotte News



My Country 'Tis of Thee:

From Zola To--Swing!

--Novels to Jazz, by W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: To our ever-mellowed and eclectic(?) ears, fashioned in the hi-fi- stereophonic-quadrophonic-eight-track-sixteen track-forty-eight track-cassette- CD-digitized, titinabulated milieu of today, Cash's slings and arrows thrown at swing and jazz, and, later, "hillbilly"music, (see "What America Reads" - January 22, 1939), has to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Ever listened to a 78 r.p.m.'er of this stuff? Cash liked the booming feel of bass, judging by his taste for "The Ride of the Valkyries" and Beethoven. Had he lived long enough to taste the enlivened feel of "realism" produced by modern recording techniques, he might have come to like some "hillbilly", swing, and jazz--yea, and even some of the more eclectic forms of rock 'n' roll. But--we shall never know. And so, we are left perhaps thinking him an old stuffed-shirt? Judging by his contemporary taste in literature of the time--Cabell, Faulkner, Wolfe, Caldwell, Hemingway, Dreiser, Glasgow, et al., and for poetic pens in general, exhibited throughout his book-page writing, that would probably be a calumnious slander of the worst sort. For from this taste in literature, as well as in his own writing, can always be discerned his taste for the rhythmic beat of the drum, the bing-bong of the cymbal, and the punch of the horn. Taradiddle, taradiddle, boom, boom, taradiddle... You don't believe me? Put on your favorite Coltrane, Adderley, Getz, Beatles, Stones, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Johnny Cash or what have you and read W. J. Cash as you listen. Then try Bach, Beethoven, or even Orff--and voila!

Remember, it was the latter 1930's, and Cash's ever-present crusade was to elevate the tastes of those about him so as to enable them to reach higher for truth and wisdom and thereby not fall victim to the tasteless oppressors abroad in the world. So laboring, the critic may sometime wax unduly harsh at that category of thing which is generally characterized by the banal. And the exceptional entry is the one of course which always and invariably proves the rule of the category.

For an earlier jab along the same lines, aimed at the college-educated, read "College-Bred Balloons" - December 6, 1936.

And Boo! It was Halloween.


Sinclair Lewis, I observe by the papers, has been popping off again. What weighs upon Dorothy Thompson's Nobel Prize husband this time is that we have here at the--well, shall we make our devoirs to Hollywood and say the most colossal country ever heard of in time: and that practically no Americans ever get around to really looking at, with all its rich heartbreaking, and ribald native stuff, or to really writing about it as it is.

That's right, too, so far as that goes. Nine-tenths of the superior books that have appeared in the country in the last quarter of a century have been books which looked at the American scene through the eyes of Emile Zola, just as practically all of them that appeared before that looked at it through the eyes of sentimental European novelists of the early Nineteeenth century. So much is certainly true of Dreiser, now rapidly becoming a shadowy old man of legend, and all the schools of little fish which have stemmed from him. Dr. Lewis himself saw largely with the eyes of Zola when he was at the height of his powers--with some aid from the eyes of Balzac, the Concourt, Stendhal, and Turgieneff.


If the same holds for an Erskine Caldwell, "Tobacco Road" is only another "La Terre" done in English by a much more inept hand than Zola's. And that holds, too, in spite of the fact that Mr. Caldwell boasts that he has no models. He merely means that he has none of which he is consciously aware. Then there's Old Man William Faulkner, the Mississippi strong man, who has done almost nothing but translate Dostoievesky into the American idiom. Or the mighty Mr. Hemingway who is only a combination of the Frenchmen who came after Gide, with a dash of the modern Spaniards.

As I think I have argued in this place before, a certain amount of this sort of thing is inevitable and healthy to a live literature. It has been healthy for us in a great many ways. At least we are beginning to have books now that are not simply romantic tripe. But it does mean that we are really quite as far away from seeing the great body of Americans with understanding eyes--with eyes that understand in an American fashion, other than a foreign one, as ever.


But what does Mr. Lewis expect? It has been a good many years now since Ludwig Lewisohn coined the phrase, "Our Superficial Civilization," and Henry Mencken began to unlimber his guns against "the booboisie." So long ago has it been, indeed, that the cycle has been completed, and reaction against the whole Lewisohn-Mencken view has set in, for some years has ruled the field. It is fashionable now to do what Mr. Thomas Wolfe, more or less reversing himself from "Look Homeward, Angel," does in "Of Time and the River"--to speak of this land of ours as one of incomparably rich life, of infinite variety, of the most astonishing fecundity. Well, it's all that, I think. And I believe the reaction against the mere dismissal of the country as a barren waste in comparison with Europe was salutary and necessary.

All the same, we ought not to lean too far over. We must remember that ultimately, the Lewisohn-Mencken view had an enormous lot of truth in it. As matters stand now and have always stood, the great richness and infinite variety of American life subsist almost entirely below the level of and despite our prevailing culture pattern. And so far as that culture pattern runs, the indictment lodged by these men long ago still runs. From that standpoint, we remain a purely superficial civilization.


If you question it--why, let us turn away from books altogether to look at our American music. Most critics of the arts will agree, I imagine, that music is probably the most crucial of all for the guaging of the true cultural level of people. And by that stand--God help us all! Was there ever a country on earth before where music fell to the level it has fallen among us in the new Hollywood era? For under that dispensation the music that actually represents the American people is--swing!

I used to think that jazz was the last step downward in the scale. Thin and shrill, it always seemed to me the saddest music in the world--the music of a people fleeing desperately from their own emptiness. Yet it had primitive strength in it--in its frank animality, proceed at least that the basic life impulses still ran strong in American veins. But swing--the thing is the music of people who are no longer running desperately away from their emptiness but actually revelling in it. Jazz stripped of every element of strength it had and made wholly and absolutely the music of the skimmed surface. And so a sadder music even than jazz.

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