- John Jeremiah Sullivan on Shuffle Along, one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway: “The blacks-in-blackface tradition, which lasted more than a century in this country, strikes most people, on first hearing of its existence, as deeply bizarre, and it was. But it emerged from a single crude reality: African American people were not allowed to perform onstage for much of the nineteenth century. They could not, that is, appear as themselves … In Shuffle Along, two black people fell in love onstage, and [the journalist Les] Walton wanted to see how a white audience would handle this … What he expected to see was not rage or revolt but something more ambiguous, an occasional discomfort passing through the room, and perhaps at certain moments a holding-back too, on the part of the cast. ‘White audiences, for some reason,’ Walton wrote, ‘do not want colored people to indulge in too much lovemaking.’ ”
- Speaking of musicals: American Psycho is one now. When Bret Easton Ellis’s novel came out, in 1991, some bookstores refused to stock it. Times have changed. As Dwight Garner writes, “This novel was ahead of its time. The culture has shifted to make room for Bateman. We’ve developed a taste for barbaric libertines with twinkling eyes and some zing in their tortured souls … Reading Mr. Ellis’s novel today, the hysteria of 1991 is almost inexplicable to me. It’s apparent from the start that Patrick Bateman is a sendup of a blank Wall Street generation. He’s a male mannequin, the ultimate soulless product of a soulless time … Something has happened since 1991 to our response to violence, especially when it is seasoned with a shake of wet or, especially, dry humor. Increasingly inured to the mess, we’ve learned to savor the wit.”
- What about Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary? Was it, too, ahead of its time? Though its observations about youth and work have long been dismissed as pedestrian, the economy has made them radically prescient, as Daniel Wenger writes: “Two years before Sex and the City, Fielding offered a third-wave route around the battleground between love and power … Today, Bridget Jones needn’t be limited to the confines of its chick-lit designation. The notion that the equations of life do not add up is still a particular problem for women of all ages, but many young people, no matter their gender, will find some of Bridget’s story familiar. Within a couple of years of graduating college, Bridget would have found her job prospects threatened by the global recession of the late eighties and early nineties; even when we first meet her, she’s flitting from position to position. Millennials began joining the workforce in the wake of the Great Recession, and according to a 2014 Council of Economic Advisers report, the consequence is an almost epigenetic stain on professional lives.”
- Sometimes people talk about fiction and nonfiction, and I’m like, What’s really the difference, you know? And they sort of phumpher and mumble a bit before they throw their hands up. But a lot of us feel this way: “According to Geoff Dyer, who says his next book is ‘a mixture of both fiction and non- but will be published as non-,’ the strength of the distinction in anglophone culture has waxed and waned … The nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer blurred the lines again in the 1960s, he continues, and the boundary is ‘perhaps going through another porous phase right now’ … ‘You’d have to go back to the early nineteenth century or earlier to a time when “literature” referred to fiction and nonfiction rather than to a particular, highly regarded form of imaginative writing,’ he adds. Dyer cites Raymond Williams, who suggested that ‘the special regard in which fiction comes to be held … is probably connected to romanticism and the emphasis put on the imagination—which is itself a response to the rise of industrialization: a very fact-based process as Dickens emphasizes later in Hard Times.’ ”
- But why stop there? Why knock down the walls between genres when you can mount an assault on the separation between language and culture? On Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: “He argues that language, like everything else that matters to human beings, cannot be understood as a kind of semantic Lego, where we acquire individual words with firm, clear shapes and string them together to form sentences, paragraphs, essays, and books. Language is shaped by the culture that has produced it, which means that it, in turn, shapes those who go on to use it. Hence: ‘The basic thesis of this book is that language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life’ … He agrees that ‘speech is the expression of thought,’ but insists ‘it isn’t simply an outer clothing for what could exist independently.’ The broadly Wittgensteinian alternative he offers to this reductionism is a kind of holism, in which the meanings of words hang together in complex webs in which culture and semantics cannot be disentangled.”
I never really got the Blues, though I have certainly gotten the blues. Maybe that’s why, until recently, I had never heard of Alberta Hunter and why her recordings and I are now inseparable. If Bessie Smith’s blues are a wail to the world, Alberta’s are a conversational tête à tête. She wrote and sang throughout her life but refused to be classified as a singer of any particular genre. “Just call me a singer of songs,” she insisted.
Last summer, a pianist friend handed me Amtrak Blues, an album Alberta recorded in 1978, at age eight-three. “You’ll get this,” he assured me. When I put it on, a frank, earthy voice radiated from the stereo speakers, and I started wondering who this lady could be. I found photos of a moon-eyed Chicago saloon singer with gold hoop earrings, a Parisian flapper in a filmy evening dress, a nurse in whites, a USO entertainer in khakis, and a sibylline old lady.
There was, as it turned out, a variegated life behind such variety. “I’ve been more places by accident than most people have been on purpose,” Alberta once quipped. A singer, actress, composer, and journalist, she was a kind of musical Marco Polo whose talents were as diverse as the many places her career carried her. Read More