Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Hidden Americans

“To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, 
class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to 
accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts
only as a lesson used in doing otherwise, and doing better; to 
seek the reason of things for one's self, and in one's self alone; to
tend to results without being bound to means, and to aim at the 
substance through the form;—such are the principal characteristics
of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans.”
          —Alexis de Tocqueville

In 1833, freshly returned from his tour of the United States and penning his magnum opus, De la démocratie en Amerique, the young Tocqueville weighed what he had learned from the peoples and institutions of this young society, sifted and synthesized his experiences, and derived from them these words. It is a remarkable sentence that must have cost him considerable effort. To pierce through the complexities and contradictions of a nation in flux, to seize an essential from the heart of the maelstrom—this is no mean feat. Staggering, too, is the fact that, nearly two centuries later, the “method” described by Tocqueville would be considered by many Americans an entirely accurate insight into the core of American thought.

Tocqueville speaks of what were, in the mid 19th century, revolutionary ideas: self-reliance, self-culture, a pragmatic, skeptical view of history and traditions; as of 2012, an American who praises these values—now integral strands in the fabric of American cultural identity—would hardly be regarded as unusual or subversive. Were we to look to current American political discourse, we would indeed concede their primacy in the pantheon of American values; from the staunchest of conservatives to the most daring of reformers, no shortage of praise is lavished upon the “philosophical method of the Americans”. Judging solely by this, we might well believe that the US has become the society that Emerson envisioned when he wrote “We will walk with our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

Perhaps not. Under analysis, of course, the relationship of self-reliant values to the everyday details of American society appears deeply troubled. But through the course of American history has stretched a nearly unbroken thread of individuals who epitomize the values Tocqueville described, and which Emerson so powerfully and positively articulated. They are artists, musicians, writers and philosophers. Many were born in the United States; many, perhaps most, sought learning outside of the accepted educational paths and beyond European-American culture. All insisted upon independence in thought and act and admonished others to trust in the veracity of their own beliefs in the face of popular dissent. But the strange fate of these artists has been to inhabit a world of paradox: while their lives and work seem to have been guided by exactly those values ostensibly beloved by American society, they have been, on the whole, ignored or rejected by this society.

The characteristic experiences, choices and ideas of these individuals will be our theme. Let us first try to state, in very general terms, the core principles connoted by these experiences and choices, before considering the lives of several individual artists in detail.[1]


1. Self-reliance and its corollaries—self-education, independence of thought, self-culture—are the first and perhaps primary principles we must formulate. Since Emerson's resounding Ne te quæsiveris extra announced the arrival of his monumental “Self-Reliance”[12], this concept has been an essential value of the American artist. We should briefly state what we mean by this value.

By ‘self-reliance’, I mean a belief in the value and integrity of one's own thoughts, creations and actions in absence of external approval. It means, as Emerson argues, a rejection of outside authority as a carte blanche source of knowledge, and of all impulses toward conformity: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] It further entails what we might call today the ‘DIY ethic’: a pragmatic emphasis on accomplishing goals using immediate, personal resources, and without outside assistance.

‘Self-education’ is a corollary of self-reliance. As I understand it, the principle of self-education holds that the primary agent in learning should be one's self; that knowledge can and should be sought without external frameworks or curricula, through experience, reading, and the internal dialectical processes of reason. By the entailed value of ‘independent thought’, I mean the perspective that the products of one's mind should not be rejected for contradicting accepted belief, and that no external belief is to be accepted unless, after rigorous analysis, it appears to be in agreement with the facts one believes to be true.

2. The artist in America has always been eclectic: while American culture as a whole has frequently looked to Europe for “cultural education”, the artists who are the subject of our discussion have never been so constricted. They have generally shared the sentiments of Emerson, who wrote: “There is nothing but is related to us, nothing that does not interest us”.[4] From the above, we should not find this surprising.

If we emphasize the capability of the individual to pursue knowledge guided by her own needs and interests, we must also expect her to seek sources of information when (in historical time) and where (in cultural space) she sees fit. An eclectic individual therefore learns from a wide range of sources, both from within her own culture and time period and from beyond it. She is relativistic: she does not recognize one canon of tradition, one cultural perspective, one aesthetic model, etc., but many; she is also pragmatic, recognizing no obligation to accept any of them entirely.

3. It is difficult to find a satisfactory term for the next principle, which I shall reluctantly call pragmatism.[5] It is a belief in the essential uniformity of the physical world, the equal value of the domestic and the exotic. It is at the heart of John Cage's belief in the equal beauty of sounds, of Herman Melville's pursuit of philosophic truth on a whaling vessel, and of Emerson's ‘transcendentalism’.

By ‘pragmatism’ I mean a belief that no location in space or time is possessed of greater inherent beauty, creative fertility or ‘spirituality’, and that, because of this essential uniformity, it is not necessary to pursue happiness, beauty, or individual development at any specific location in time or space—“centers of tradition”, places of great physical beauty, etc. As applied to art, a pragmatic view rejects the idea that some subjects are, per se, more fitting material for artistic creation than others.

Having, I hope, given a more precise idea of what I assert to be the “core principles” of the artist in America, we will now consider five artists who, I believe, clearly illustrate these principles applied in life and art.


The first artists we will consider were active in a young America—a society very much in search of an identity, torn between European and domestic models of painting and literature. I have selected the novelist and poet Herman Melville (1819–1891), and the painter and engraver Winslow Homer (1836–1910).
Herman Melville
Herman Melville spent the 5 years between his 21st birthday and the publication of his first novel sailing as an enlisted man on whaling ships, and never attended a university; as his own Ishmael famously declared, a “whale-ship” was Melville's “Yale College and his Harvard”. The subject matter of Melville's first writings, Typee and Omoo, was derived from his experiences among the peoples of the South Pacific islands; Moby-Dick deals with the experiences of an enlisted sailor aboard a Nantucket whaling vessel and The Confidence Man with events taking place during a Mississippi steamboat voyage; the novella Bartleby the Scrivener takes place in the bustling world of Wall Street traders. Melville shunned both the standard locales of European fiction and the overstuffed domesticity of popular “American” literature.

This insistence on the pursuit of personal ideals of beauty, however, came at a great cost to Melville. His earliest novels were well-received as popular adventure stories, but neither the public nor any elite literary societies opened their arms to the author of Moby-Dick and Pierre; having lost his talent to please, Melville found these dark, philosophical works ignored and even cited as evidence of mental illness.[6] Drifting into obscurity during his later years, rejected entirely by publishers, and forced to make his living as a customs inspector, Melville published his new poetic works independently and despite almost complete indifference from readers.
Winslow Homer

Like Melville, Winslow Homer received little formal training in his chosen art form. Working as a commercial lithographer, Homer discovered his love of visual art and soon quit to pursue this interest. After a brief academic introduction to oil painting, Homer seems to have developed his unique approach almost entirely on his own, writing that “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any.” Known for his idiosyncratic choice of subjects, Homer's early works depict casual sporting events, Civil War camp life, agriculture, and Adirondack pioneer life in a style which owed little to contemporary European models.

As he developed toward the monumental works of his later career, the painter turned away from human events to seek models of beauty in the rough Maine wilderness. Sometimes referred to as the “Yankee Robinson Crusoe”, Homer spent the last 28 years of his life in self-imposed seclusion, focusing almost entirely on the scenery of his rough environment in the massive outpouring of works during these years.
Homer's work was unpopular for much of his life time; while some critical acclaim gained him respect in the art world, his work was generally dismissed by the public. Much more popular were the fashionable paintings of Homer's contemporary John Singer Sargent, who devoted himself primarily to depicting the plush world of Transatlantic society figures. Despite his constant financial instability, the stripped-down amenities of Homer's Maine life enabled him—with some assistance—to devote himself to his art.

Winslow Homer - Summer Squall (1904)

*       *       *

Let us now jump ahead nearly a century, to New York City in the mid 20th century. It is a very difficult task to choose two artists from this remarkable time to fuel the discussion at hand; I have chosen two composers, both of whom contributed mightily to the musical world of New York: Morton Feldman and John Cage.

Before discussing these composers, a remark or two is in order concerning the musical climate of this time in America. During the 1930's and 40's, the music of modern European composers—especially Arnold Schoenberg—was brought to America by a wave of composers and performers fleeing the rise of Nazism[7], among them Béla Bartók, Ernst Krenek, and Schoenberg himself. This music was (and remains) controversial—the words most commonly associated with it were “dissonant” and “angular”—and unpopular with all but a small group of musicians and listeners. Of these, the composers invigorated by the new European music experienced widespread rejection; the mainstream of American “classical” music, represented by composers like Aaron Copland, was dismissive of this music, and concert audiences were almost unanimously hostile. We should keep this in mind.

The elder of the two composers, John Cage (1912–1992), initially pursued a college career but quickly rejected what he saw as the conformist tendencies of university education. Cage memorably recounts the catalytic event in his departure:
“I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.”[8]
Traveling far afield from his native California[9], first throughout the Western US and then to Europe and North Africa, Cage began to write music and returned to America in 1932 a committed composer. Studying music omnivorously, Cage became fascinated both with the music of Schoenberg (with whom he studied for two years) and with the music of Java and India. An obsessive experimentalist, the young Cage evolved quickly as a composer; he wrote works for unorthodox instruments (Water Walk), complex composition cycles structured around Indian philosophical concepts (Sonatas and Interludes), and pioneering live electronic music (Imaginary Landscape no. 4).

A developing interest in Zen Buddhist philosophy led Cage to reject virtually all of the premises of European music and to emphasize the value of music as a purposeless, meditative experience. His works increasingly relied on chance as a compositional element (reflecting his devoted study of I Ching), a choice which alienated him from many of his American and European contemporaries. Major performance opportunities of the 1950's were frequently sabotaged by performers or audiences unwilling to take the music seriously (like the disastrous debut of his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, when members of the New York Philharmonic ruined the piece's electronic setup and ignored Cage's score[10]); Cage frequently found himself with only a few core supporters and without the reputation or finances necessary, in the US, to secure performances of his new works. The economic fallout of this alienation was significant, and Cage's living remained precarious until the final years of his life.

John Cage

Despite this, Cage composed vast quantities of music between the 1960's and his death in 1992. His output extended beyond music, as well; in essays, poetry, and lectures, Cage called for the relinquishing of control in all arenas of life and art, citing Thoreau and Zhuangzi as his philosophical models. Harshly critical of US policy, he called for the abolition of the American presidency and of all forms of coercive government. In music, too, he advocated an anarchic, egalitarian view in which no sound was to be regarded as aesthetically more valuable than another, and where hierarchies of sounds (such as traditional theories of line and harmony) were instead heard as coincidental relationships of equal elements.
John Cage - Freeman Etudes (1990)

*       *       *

Compared to John Cage's life of constant travel and eclectic inspiration, the first thing we must remark about Morton Feldman (1926–1987) is the introspective, rooted character of his life. Feldman was born in Brooklyn to a Russian-Jewish family; though intending for him to work in the family garment business (which he did, for all but the last 14 years of his life), his parents provided Feldman with the opportunity to study both piano and composition privately. His voracious interests in music and literature, however, led him away from mainstream education (“It never occurred to me to go to a university”[11]); learning primarily by example, Feldman immersed himself in the music of Edgard Varèse, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and John Cage, then, later, in the work of New York painters Phillip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning—these artists were, Feldman wrote, “my graduate school”.
Morton Feldman
As a composer, Feldman developed a very personal approach: determined to write music guided solely by his own sensibilities, Feldman rejected all systems of composition as obstacles to achieving his internal musical needs. Focusing on the physical sound of his music rather than the means of producing it, Feldman would not be bound to one technical approach. It is important to understand exactly how non-conformist such a philosophy was: for a composer writing in a time and place saturated with the arcane technical innovations of modern music—a world that had, in Feldman's words, “given system a new prestige”—to put complete faith in his own values, and to write music unjustified by process, was a daring choice.

A prolific writer, Feldman was critical of prominent European composers (especially Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen), and deeply scornful of those American composers whom he regarded as Europhile imitators. In his article “Boola Boola”, Feldman launched a scorching attack on the American “academic avant-garde”, represented by serialist composers like Milton Babbitt and Donald Martino; while it deserves to be quoted at length, one corrosive line captures the sentiment of the piece: “Have you ever looked into the eyes of a survivor from the composition department of Princeton or Yale? He is on his way to tenure, but he's a drop-out in art.”[12]

Feldman's rejection of the academic world cost him many performance opportunities; as of 2012, only a few of his works for larger ensembles have been performed, and the extreme demands (with regard to stamina) of his later works created additional barriers to his popularity. Financially speaking, Feldman's supporting himself with his music was never a feasible proposition; fortunately, he seems to have been entirely happy working in his parents' coat factory, a job he held until 1973, when he accepted a professorship at the University of Buffalo[13]—an ironic choice, I might add, for a composer who had spent much of his life railing against academicism.

*       *       *

The last musician I wish to discuss, Anthony Braxton (1945–), is, I believe, one of the most remarkable musicians in America today; his life and work are supremely illustrative of the independence and non-conformity that I have called characteristic of the artist in America.
Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton's origins in Chicago[14] brought him into contact early on with the complex improvisational music that owed its origins to Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie—bebop. Studying saxophone and eventually developing a formidable technique on the instrument, Braxton began his musical career playing with jazz groups in Chicago (where he met Sun Ra, a lifelong influence) and New York City; although he studied music at the Chicago School of Music and philosophy at Roosevelt University (in Chicago), Braxton chose not pursue a degree and moved to New York full-time in the early 1970's. There, he came into contact with the music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Paul Desmond, Warne Marsh, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, as well as the works of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Braxton's musical tendencies were highly exploratory, a characteristic which quickly brought him into conflict with the orthodoxies of the New York jazz world; abandoning bebop forms very early in his career, he began to integrate new sonic and formal possibilities into his compositions and playing that placed him on the boundaries of the popular definition of “jazz”. His music, which contained both rigorously determinate notation and scope for individual interpretation and improvisation, reflected his increasingly all-inclusive view of human activity. Albums like For Alto and Four Compositions 1973 were rejected by jazz musicians, audiences and critics, and Braxton found himself alienated from all but the most progressive record labels and performance venues.

Composing prolifically through the late 70's and publishing his massive Tri-Axium Writings and Composition Notes independently, Braxton nevertheless suffered intense financial and psychological hardships; he “lived on Twinkies and Valium” during these difficult years, even dedicating an album to the manufacturer of the tranquilizing drug.[15] Braxton found the European “modern music” scene only slightly more welcoming; rejected by the jazz world for his “classical” tendencies, his European contemporaries regarded him, ironically enough, as too jazz-oriented to be taken seriously as a modern composer. Unable to secure large ensemble performances, Braxton wrote instrument-independent compositions that could be realized with even the most limited means, and focused on working with his long-lived quartet.

Now a composition professor at Wesleyan, Braxton's music is more frequently performed, and his financial circumstances have (one supposes) stabilized. However, his isolated status as an artist between categories has not changed; though revered in experimental and new music circles in New York and Europe, Braxton and his work still have not received recognition from mainstream jazz and classical venues and institutions in America, and is generally unknown to American listeners outside the Northern East coast.


As inadequate as this selection of biographical information is, the similar affinity of these artists for the values of self-reliance, eclecticism, and pragmatism is clear. The art, life choices, and philosophies of these five men differ immensely; in their demand for independence with regard to each of these categories, though, they are unanimous. Each is a powerful example of the individual who pursues his own objectives at complete odds with the external world, and with himself as sole guide and master. Trust in the value of one's own creations finds a powerful model in Morton Feldman's conviction and scorn for theoretical crutches, and Anthony Braxton's refusal to adapt his music to a narrow category. No better example of pragmatic acceptance occurs to me than Cage's near-religious insistence on the beauty of the immediate, the mundane, and the unwanted. The years of self-imposed isolation undergone by Homer and Melville evoke the image of Thoreau feeling his way to Walden in the dead of night. Looking beyond our few examples, we find that these experiences, these beliefs, are by no means atypical of the artist in America.

I have said that the principles under discussion have been called quintessential “American” values, and have been associated with American culture since the time of Jefferson and Paine. If these are indeed ‘American’ values, then we must consider these artists to be among the most ‘American’ individuals in history.

What then, are we to make of the rejection and alienation they suffered in the US? None of the artists we have discussed enjoyed (or are enjoying) anything like widespread popularity during their lifetimes; financially, most struggled to secure even the basic material necessities of life. Seeking, among the halls of American history, scenes of an American public placing laurels on the brows of the self-reliant non-conformist, we instead enter a dark gallery, hung with tableaus of a different tenor indeed: of Melville in his New York apartment, ridiculed as insane, laboring over poems that went unpublished or ignored; of Braxton, collecting wood to burn for his family, after returning from a European tour to a house without electricity. On the whole, these images present no great contrast to the life-scenes of the artist of Europe, or of any other culture where the mantra of “individual independence” is not incessantly trumpeted. Perhaps we must echo Melville when he writes:

“Our New World bold
Had fain improved upon the old;
But the hemispheres are counterparts.”[15]

This, then, is the paradox of the artist in America, of the individuals who exhibited their belief in self-reliance, independent thought, and the value of the immediate, yet found themselves internal exiles in a society fond of endlessly declaring its allegiance to those same values. The paradox is easily solved if we admit that these declarations are mere lip service, their emptiness revealed by the experiences of the artist in America. This society has worshipped independence in the arts only long after the fact. After the work of an original artist has become popularly accepted—that is, as soon as it no longer requires the expression of an unconventional, independent opinion to praise him—American society flocks to the altar. In the present, it saves its laurels for the accessible artists who flatter its sensibilities and leave its dogmatic slumbers undisturbed.

I shall close, however, on a more positive note. Though America, as a whole, has shown little regard for the values of intellectual self-reliance, the example of these artists and thinkers, who stretch in an unbroken thread from Emerson to the present day, should council us not to consider these principles dead. They are the carriers of an American culture that bears little resemblance to the majority culture of the United States, and which has been ignored and execrated by its massive cousin; nevertheless, its citizens have historically mounted a strong defense against all attempts at assimilation: its insular edifice yet stands. What future generations will regard as the cultural legacy of the United States is still unknown. If we seek truly positive factors in American history, and true embodiments of what were once America's revolutionary values, I can imagine no better future than one in which these individuals—the “hidden Americans”—and their achievements go down as a reminder of what some Americans were, of what the United States might have been, and as a testament to the dignity of the self-reliant individual.

1. A person's biography should not be forced to appear as an instantiation of abstract principles; in this article, I have tried to proceed inductively, to seek similarities among these artists, rather than to force them into the mold, so to speak. I also do not mean to assert that these ‘core principles’ describe some universal truth about artists in America and only in America. Even a cursory glance at some of the lives of artists in Europe, for example, will reveal biographical similarities.
2. The full text of this essay may be found here.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”.
4. Emerson, “History”.
5. I do not use this term to mean what is meant by it in the works of William James or John Dewey.
6. In 1852, shortly after the publication of Pierre, the New York Day Book published an article bearing the headline “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY”: “A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, ‘[Pierre, or the] Ambiguities’, between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.” (from Wikipedia)
7. The music of Schoenberg and anyone officially labeled as one of his disciples (which, in effect, amounted to anyone writing chromatic, non-harmonic music) was banned as Entartete Musik (“Degenerate Music”) under Nazi rule; the few avant-garde composers (viz. Anton von Webern) who remained in Germany after the rise of Hitler were unable to hold teaching positions and found their compositions barred from performance.
9. I have used Kenneth Silverman's John Cage: Begin Again (Knopf, 2010) for the biographical details of this section.
10. “The seventy or so Philharmonic musicians, their contact microphones attached to a bank of amplifiers, were supposed to play through Cage's piece for eight minutes. Instead, many of them improvised freely, ran through scales, quoted other works, talked, fooled with the electronic devices, or simply sat on stage without playing. ‘They acted criminally’, Cage said, some even stomping on the microphones.” (Silverman, p. 202)
11. Morton Feldman, “Boola Boola”, published in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, B.H. Friedman, ed. (Exact Change, 2000), p. 45
12. Friedman, p. 48
13. All of the information used for this section is from Graham Lock's excellent Forces in Motion: The Music of Anthony Braxton (Da Capo, 1989), or from Wikipedia. As I did not have access to a copy of Lock's book while preparing this manuscript, I have been forced to rely on my memory of certain details. I apologize for any inaccuracies.
14. Lock, p. 137. The album is In the Tradition, Vol. 1, released in 1974.
15. Clarel, IV, 5:61

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