Writes of Spring
APRIL 6, 1998: First published in theNew Yorker magazine in 1996, "The Fourth State of Matter" is the ballast of essayist Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth (Little, Brown & Co., $22.95 hard). Thank god it doesn't get any heavier: In 22 stunning and graceful pages, the reader loses a husband, a colleague, and a collie. In a dead-on chronicle of personal loss, the author portrays exactly how a desperate sadness can be; lonely, numbing, and sometimes unreasonably funny. Now, in her eagerly awaited first book, Beard proves her command of the other, lighter emotions, too. The title is tricky. It sounds like a book of personal essays about the defining relationships in a woman's life, and it is. The catch is that Beard's main focus is on her relationships with women - her mother, her aunt, a cousin, and her best friend since childhood.
She does write candidly of her severely alcoholic father and her breakup with her husband, but she's far from being a blanket man-basher, and far from being depressively heavy. To Beard, her father's alcoholism and her eventual divorce are small slices of a larger, happier pie. Instead of creating a bitter revisionist history, she lets the glowing moments of her 13-year marriage glow. Later, she is unusually even-handed, but hilarious, in her rage. When Beard explains to her soon-to-be ex-husband that a maniac tried to run her off the road in rural Alabama, she sums up her reality in this description of his reaction: "'Wow,' he said. Then he turned up the radio, checked his image in the rearview mirror, and smiled sincerely at the passing landscape."
From her pre-verbal perspective as a baby stuck in her crib with a scary nightlight - "It's a garish depiction of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, although I don't know that then. Jesus is about my age but he looks mean, and the mom and dad are wearing long coats and no shoes" - to capturing the essence of a relationship with her favorite cousin, Beard's descriptions are suitable to the time of life she first made them. Her baby thoughts are childish, her adult observations humble and fair, and every essay peppered with lyric imagery.
Winner of the Whiting Award before it was even available in stores, The Boys of My Youth spans the breadth of human emotions, narrowing the gap between joy and pain. -Meredith Phillips
I suppose it was my search for a good, safe fight that made me pick up James B. Twitchell's For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture (St. Martin's Press, $22.95 hard). My need to argue without later feeling guilty for offending someone tends to limit me to yelling at the television news or shouting at books before hurling them across the room at no one. Fourteen years of Catholic school made me somewhat of an expert on guilt and shame. I can't say I have ever found them to be anything but stymieing, gnawing voices that keep people from being truly productive and happy. James B. Twitchell, of course, would disagree. He is sure that our need to feel good about ourselves has dangerously eschewed society's need for us to feel bad about ourselves. Twitchell, who penned the critically acclaimed Adcult and Carnival Culture is back on the warpath with For Shame, which traces the disappearance of shame and the impact of this loss on American politics, family values, education, entertainment, and religion. The main problem is that Twitchell's expertise seems to lie in media criticism. Once he strays into other topics - particularly religion - his arguments appear bigoted and uninformed.
Twitchell begins by cautioning that he is not a proponent of the life-ruining variety of shame, but clearly he is exactly that, as he quickly begins to rant against everything he finds personally offensive. Twitchell believes the 1960s were a crucial turning point in American attitudes toward shame; since then we've been on a downward spiral where the shameless rule the world. He writes: "When I was growing up in the 1950s, public drunkenness, filing bankruptcy, having an abortion or a child out of wedlock, drug addiction, hitting a woman, looting stores, using vulgar language in public, being on the public dole or getting a divorce was enough to make you hang your head." Of course, he neglects to point out that people did get drunk, filed for bankruptcy, and that women were hit. Is it better to shame your child because he is gay or she is pregnant out of wedlock than to accept them? Twitchell seems to suggest that indeed it is. Twitchell also believes society is better off when bad marriages stay together, people don't seek help for their addictions, and any stray from the norm is ostracized. Did he ever ponder whether the restrictions, indeed the shame, that he longs for is the problem and not the cure?
Twitchell states that most of the blame lies on the school and church which have softened up and lost their ability to properly shame. Unfortunately, his arguments about education and religion are his least informed. He finds fault with education for "draining our culture dry of shame" by introducing multicultural and women's studies and making self-esteem a component in the education process: "In my estimation, ten minutes under the dunce cap may have done more than vials of Ritalin for those suffering from attention-deficit disorder, or whatever affliction du jour is conjured up by counselors and drug companies, accepted by gullible parents and haltingly paid for by insurance companies."
Twitchell states that Roman Catholicism, with its strict codes governing sexuality, is "one of the longest-lasting and most stabilizing religions." But in fact, with the exception of Islam, it is the youngest of the major world religions - and if the Crusades or present-day Northern Ireland are any indication, the faith is not particularly stabilizing. He also talks about how important the Catholic Church's stance on premarital sex and birth control are as important deterrents to teen pregnancy, but ignores that the Church still takes that stance and perhaps it is its longtime stance against birth control that is part of the problem.
What angered me the most by the end was doubt as to whether Twitchell actually believes what he writes. If he did, he probably would have done a bit more research on this one. Maybe he needed to write an additional chapter about the shameless college professor capitalizing on his previous books' success with an informed tirade dressed up like cultural criticism. It hit the wall with a nice thud. -Lisa Tozzi
The thesis put forth in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis (Pantheon, $27.50 hard) is that the singing and songs of 1920s women blues artists and jazz singer Billie Holiday not only reflected the relatively independent status of African-American working women but helped raise feminist consciousness. Her 427-page book contains only 197 pages devoted to stating and supporting her positions. Another 158 pages contain the lyrics of all the songs recorded by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, the blues singers on whom Davis focuses. Following this we have footnotes, a bibliography, index, and acknowledgments. Davis' volume, then, is slighter than it appears. Some of her claims, while reasonable, are apparent. Others she makes little attempt to substantiate. Davis says her book "...is an inquiry into the way their [Rainey's, Smith's, Holiday's] recorded performances divulge unacknowledged traditions of feminist consciousness in working-class black communities." African-American women have obviously had a much more difficult time than European-American females. Not only were many required to work as field laborers, they had to cope with the enormous difficulties and tragedies caused by slave owners destroying the fabric of their families, which to this day continues to cause tremendous societal problems. After the Civil War, black families remained more unstable than white households, about which Davis points out: "Even as women were compelled to remain at home to care for the children they had borne - and at the same time to earn money by carrying out domestic tasks for white families in the vicinity - often men had no alternative to traveling in search of work." Davis is far from the first scholar to make these observations, and, in fact, she cites the work of others who have.
Obviously, when women are left alone to run their families as single parents they are going to become more independent, more "liberated," and less likely to allow themselves to be pushed around by men to whom they owe nothing. This is true of white as well as black females. It's no surprise that as the percentage of women of all ethnic backgrounds in the workforce increases, feminism grows stronger. Davis notes that, "Beginning with W.E.B. DuBois' essay in 'Darkwater,' many studies have emphasized the extent to which black working-class women's relative economic independence summoned up various modes of female consciousness that emphasized strength, resilience, and autonomy. However, such arguments often assume a strictly causal relationship between the economic conditions of slavery - which inflicted responsibilities on women that were similar to those placed on men and the general consciousness among working-class black women that privileged independence. I want to emphasize women's blues as an important cultural mediator for the gendered consciousness that transformed collective memories of slavery as it worked with a new social construction of love and sexuality. The blues provided a space where women could express themselves in new ways, a space in which they sometimes affirmed the dominant middle-class ideology but also could deviate from it." Davis' assertion that listening to the blues singing of Smith and Rainey raised the consciousness of working-class African-American women and gave further impetus to their efforts to gain autonomy may have merit. However, she does not supply convincing evidence to substantiate this claim and, in fact, doesn't even try to do so. Instead, she merely cites the lyrics of songs sung by Rainey and Smith, some of which they didn't write, in which women are portrayed as sexually independent, strong, assertive, and unwilling to accept male dominance. In some cases, these lyrics contains descriptions or threats of violence against men and even other women.
A major factor in the rise of feminism in a number of nations since 1960 has been the increase of working women. Understandably, they do not want to be treated as second-class citizens. There are feminist movements around the world involving many non-African-American women who do not often listen to the blues. Therefore, it can safely be concluded that feminism is possible without the blues. If Davis wants readers to believe that the performances of Rainey and Smith gave significant impetus to the feminist cause, she should offer some sort of proof. Even anecdotal information would be useful, such as accounts by African-American women describing the effect that the work of female blues singers had on their social and political outlooks.
But Davis doesn't give us anything like that. She merely states her theories and provides numerous quotes which describe a pre-existing condition, i.e. that many working-class African-American women didn't put up with a lot of crap from their husbands and boyfriends. In terms of whether Smith and Rainey actually raised feminist consciousness, Davis isn't much help. She points out that in Rainey's "Countin' the Blues" the titles of 14 blues dealing with various topics are cited. Davis equates this with the West African practice of nommo or naming, "which conjures powers associated with things by ritually pronouncing their names." Davis refers to "Countin' the Blues" as a "deeply spiritual blues reflection on the socio-psychological function of the blues." She contends that this naming process indicates that African-American working people are more self-conscious and sophisticated than given credit for by most European-Americans. By this, isn't Davis only saying that blues reflect an existing condition?
Does naming, in addition to demonstrating that African-Americans are far more insightful than a lot of white people realize, have the same effect on African-Americans that it's supposed to have had on West Africans? How widespread was it in the U.S.A.? Is what Rainey does in "Countin' the Blues," i.e. merely reciting a list, really the same thing as the West African nommo process? And, in any case, what concrete proof does Davis offer to make readers believe that the sort of list Rainey uses had a noticeable effect in furthering the cause of feminism? Davis doesn't answer these questions, she merely cites a process and assumes readers will believe it is what she says it is and does what she says it's supposed to do.
The final two chapters of the book are devoted to Billie Holiday, who sang far more pop tunes than blues. Davis says she wants to examine Holiday's work "as an effort to transform social relations aesthetically beyond the shallow notions of love contained in the songs she remade through her art." Davis suggests that a significant proportion of Holiday's repertoire consisted of "insipid" Tin Pan Alley material and states further, "This is not to say that there were no flashes of brilliance in the songs produced during this era. It was, after all, the era of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and George and Ira Gershwin. However, black musicians generally received the worst material." Actually, Holiday recorded a large number of great pop tunes, called "standards," during her career. Does Davis believe that John Hammond, who is given credit for "discovering" Holiday and supervised her first recordings, wanted to give her crappy songs to sing? Does she think that white producers of recording dates by black performers make a practice of sabotaging their efforts by giving them inferior material? Everybody would be hurt then, everybody would lose out economically. It makes no sense to make the claim that black artists were given the worst songs to sing even if their white producers were racist, because they'd lose money for their companies. Money is the bottom line for them. For this reason the commercially successful, white Glenn Miller was given schmaltzy pieces to record; they may have been lame but the public bought them. Jazz singers like Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Anita O'Day were expected by their fans to sing standards and they did. When Holiday was with Verve (1946-57) her repertoire was loaded with great pop songs by people like Gershwin.
Davis seems understandably very offended by remarks about Holiday that did not put her in the very best light. She cites accounts by three white men, two biographers of Holiday and clubowner Barney Josephson, in which they claim that Holiday didn't grasp the importance of "Strange Fruit" immediately after being presented with the lyrics by their author, poet Lewis Allen. Two of the three accounts mention that Holiday did get their meaning "after a few readings" but Davis contends that Billie was described in extremely insulting terms by them since they mentioned that she did not instantly appreciate Allen's work. She cites Holiday's own memory of meeting with Allen and saying of "Strange Fruit" that "I dug it right off" as completely refuting the other accounts.
But are these accounts so different? If Holiday got the meaning after only "a few readings" it's understandable that she would say she "dug it right off." After all, it's not like it took her several months. The imagery and metaphors in "Strange Fruit" are "high flown" enough to give a vast number of intelligent people of various colors and ethnic backgrounds comprehension difficulties on first reading. Most people don't read poetry or anything like it on a regular basis. It seems that Davis wants to idealize Holiday in this instance.
Davis acknowledges that there is such a thing as Black English, praises its invention, in fact, and then takes umbrage when Josephson quotes Holiday as speaking it, all but calling him a racist even as she credits him with opening "New York's first fully interracial nightclub." Davis is correct in implying that there should not be a hierarchy of American dialects but wrong to be upset when someone suggests that Holiday didn't speak standard English. Davis can't have it both ways. "I dug it right off" isn't standard English, something Davis doesn't mention. Davis, too, uses phonetic spelling when she transcribes lyrics sung by Smith and Rainey, both of whom employed a dialect as well.
If Holiday sings a love song with corny lyrics and transforms it into something beautiful, Davis thinks she's parodying it. "By playing with the lyrics, she ventures a serious statement about the possibilities of women's independence," says Davis. Holiday was a brilliant improviser who added freshness to themes of all kinds by altering them. There may be some irony in her work, but she's not a satirist like Fats Waller. Holiday was motivated to rework compositions primarily for aesthetic reasons. She was a great artist first, not a singing political or social reformer. Davis seriously underrates the aesthetic considerations that motivated Rainey, Smith, and Holiday, despite the fact that they were insightful observers of their society.
Davis' book contains some interesting material and assertions, which, however, she does a poor job of substantiating. This often happens when writers cite musical developments to support their political views and historical interpretations, rather than discussing them as ends in themselves. -Harvey Pekar
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