American Rhapsody: Writers, Musicians, Movie Stars, and One Great Building

American Rhapsody: Writers, Musicians, Movie Stars, and One Great Building

by Claudia Roth Pierpont

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Ranging from the shattered gentility of Edith Wharton's heroines to racial confrontation in the songs of Nina Simone, American Rhapsody presents a kaleidoscopic story of the creation of a culture. Here is a series of deeply involving portraits of American artists and innovators who have helped to shape the country in the modern age.

Claudia Roth Pierpont expertly mixes biography and criticism, history and reportage, to bring these portraits to life and to link them in surprising ways. It isn't far from Wharton's brave new women to F. Scott Fitzgerald's giddy flappers, and on to the big-screen command of Katharine Hepburn and the dangerous dames of Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled world. The improvisatory jazziness of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue has its counterpart in the great jazz baby of the New York skyline, the Chrysler Building. Questions of an American acting style are traced from Orson Welles to Marlon Brando, while the new American painting emerges in the gallery of Peggy Guggenheim. And we trace the arc of racial progress from Bert Williams's blackface performances to James Baldwin's warning of the fire next time, however slow and bitter and anguished this progress may be.

American Rhapsody offers a history of twentieth-century American invention and genius. It is about the joy and profit of being a heterogeneous people, and the immense difficulty of this human experiment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374708771
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Claudia Roth Pierpont is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has written about the arts for more than twenty years. She is the author of Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, an exploration of the life and work of Philip Roth, and Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in New York City.
Claudia Roth Pierpont is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has written about the arts for more than twenty years. The subjects of her articles have ranged from James Baldwin to Katharine Hepburn, from Machiavelli to Mae West. A collection of Pierpont’s essays on women writers, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, was published in 2000 and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Pierpont has been the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library. She has a PhD in Italian Renaissance art history from New York University. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

American Rhapsody

Writers, Musicians, Movie Stars, and One Great Building

By Claudia Roth Pierpont

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Claudia Roth Pierpont
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70877-1




Writing a story called "Beatrice Palmato," Edith Wharton got no further than an outline and a single two-page scene, exquisitely detailed and explicitly pornographic, in which a father lovingly completes the sexual initiation of his daughter. The date of composition is uncertain, and has been almost as hotly debated as the significance of the story since it was discovered among Wharton's papers more than forty years ago. R.W.B. Lewis first published the fragments in his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, in 1975, along with newfound evidence that Wharton, in middle age, had carried on a wildly passionate, adulterous love affair — from 1908 to 1910, or, roughly, between The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome — and the paired disclosures revolutionized the image of America's literary dowager queen. Wharton was suddenly up-to-date: familiar, approachable, a woman with her hair coming undone and her priorities in equally fetching disarray. Even feminist critics claimed that the sexual revelations made her "more intriguing and more likable" and allowed us to view her "with new compassion and increased respect." One could reasonably fear for Wharton's new likability when Shari Benstock's 1994 biography, a work of careful if killjoy revisionism, argued that the notorious affair had been more talk than action and the action confined to just a few nights. Wharton would have understood all too well the threat of inverted scandal, the implicit diminution. As a prophet of the female condition, she had noted wearily, back in 1915, "What a woman was criticized for doing yesterday she is ridiculed for not doing today."

There has been no place for "Beatrice Palmato" in the various collections of Wharton's stories that have appeared since its discovery; it is hardly more than a sketch, after all, the most famous story that she never wrote. But, like E. M. Forster's openly homosexual novel, Maurice, or the swooningly homoerotic letters of Henry James, or Virginia Woolf's memoir of childhood sexual abuse — all posthumously published, for good and ill — its existence has inevitably cast a lurid glare across the rigorously controlled and nuanced works that define the writer's achievement. Wharton's eighty-five published stories reflect a lifetime's occupation, extending from her first story to appear in print, in 1891, to one that she sent to her agent just before her death, in 1937. Aside from the sheer pleasure she took in their creation, they served their author at various times as a workshop for her novels, or as a means of earning quick money — Wharton was one of the highest-paid short-story writers in America — or as an emotional release that was unavailable to her in any other way. Far more than her novels, the stories are rooted in the fluctuations of her life; the longer, richer works, though unquestionably her greater accomplishment, stand at a magisterial remove. In the wake of "Beatrice Palmato," scholars have scoured the stories for telltale signs of father-daughter incest. But readers are apt to be struck with the exposure of far-more-everyday varieties of horror: moral cowardice; being unloved or unloving; making rational compromises in order to live and discovering that one has reasoned one's life away; and enduring unendurable loneliness, which Wharton seems to have done from 1891 to 1937.

* * *

Her life was, to all appearances, brilliantly social and successful — hardly a writer's life at all. Born into the commercial aristocracy of New York City in 1862, Edith Newbold Jones was the only daughter of a woman so fashionable that she was rumored to have made "keeping up with the Joneses" a proverbial necessity. Edith's father was a being of a different order: a devourer of books on exotic travel, deeply moved by Tennyson, a man who taught his small daughter to read and who might have embraced a literary life if his wife had not been closed to all it represented. At least this was how their daughter depicted the mismatched pair, in a memoir written during the last years of her life. There is some evidence that Lucretia Rhinelander Jones was not entirely indifferent to her daughter's literary calling; she did, for example, have a volume of Edith's adolescent Verses privately printed. What Wharton best remembered, though, was her mother's stern discouragement. Edith's father, the tall and blue-eyed George Frederic Jones, has left few records. Anything beyond what his daughter intended to reveal must be sought in what she may have revealed without intention.

The unearthing of "Beatrice Palmato" did not bring biographers to believe, en masse, that Edith Wharton had been the victim of her father's sexual advances. Lewis was quick to assert that the incest motif was "pure and utter fantasy." Cynthia Griffin Wolff, who discovered the fragment, wrote that, biographically, it provided no more than "an aperçu into the wellsprings of the girl's fantasy life," and Wharton's most recent biographer, Hermione Lee, takes a similar position. But some scholars have gone a more literal route. The legitimate desire to redress long-held, Freud-sanctioned doubts about women's reports of early abuse has led, alas, to the wresting of sexual "facts" from the haziest of fictions. Barbara A. White, the author of the only book-length study of Wharton's stories, strenuously argues for linking Wharton's identity with the ravished Beatrice, on the basis of evidence that becomes less convincing with every stretch on the rack of interpretation. Dead husbands, claustrophobic wives, anything remotely resembling a secret, even a voice speaking a foreign language on a radio: all become "a perfect paradigm for child sexual abuse." One cannot state with certainty that White is wrong, but with a different selection of plot details, one could as easily "prove" that Wharton had borne an illegitimate child or committed a murder.

Still, might there be something more to those dead husbands and claustrophobic wives? Edith Jones was twenty-three when, abandoned by two earlier suitors, she married the guileless and hapless Edward Wharton, a decision that Henry James would later call the "inconceivable thing." The marriage was a disaster: intellectually, emotionally, and, above all, sexually. Setting down the particulars forty-nine years later, Wharton reserved all blame for her mother, writing that Lucretia's refusal to answer her desperate questions, on the eve of her wedding, about what happened between married men and women "did more than anything else to falsify and misdirect my whole life." After what seems to have been one or two attempts at grappling with their mysterious bodies, Teddy and Edith lived together in celibacy for twenty-eight years.

Perhaps the only thing more difficult to conceive is how all this may apply to literature. And yet it is undeniably striking that among the four major female writers in the English language of this period — Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Wharton — there was so astoundingly little practicing of heterosexuality, so much aversion to the male. If one accepts Woolf's account of her early abuse by her stepbrothers, and the intimations of abuse by an uncle to be found in Stein, it is Wharton's two-year affair with a man rather than the possibility of incest in her childhood that is the truly anomalous part of her experience. The causes of these sexual unorthodoxies may be a matter for psychologists, but the results are a matter for us all. It seems fair to say that, in the generation that made the dangerous crossing from the nineteenth century into modernity, an ambitious woman who wanted to write could choose any but the traditional feminine role, and suffer anything but thralldom to a man. Lesbianism, celibacy, repression, suppression, stepbrothers, uncles, trauma: How many books do we owe them?

* * *

"The marriage law of the new dispensation will be: Thou shalt not be unfaithful — to thyself." So concludes the speech of a powerful drawing-room orator on the subject of "the new ethics" in a story called "The Reckoning," which Wharton published in 1902, when she was forty and had been married for seventeen years. Divorce was in many quarters still a scandal but no longer an impossibility. The quest for personal fulfillment — even, in some ways, the sexual revolution — had begun. Divorce in all its ramifications is one of the constant themes of Wharton's fiction, and, even at her most satiric, she gives it something of the anguished moral weight that abortion has for us today. Obviously, it was a matter of much personal relevance. In her earliest stories, a weak husband is compared to a grandmother and a poodle before he turns up as a corpse, stiffening in an upper berth while accompanying his wife on a train home to New York. Wharton declined to include these stories in her first collection because she found them so emotionally overwrought. From the time of her marriage, in 1885, through nearly the turn of the century, she wrote stories and poetry only sporadically — when she needed to, it might be said. This lack of steady focus was partly due to the social schedule of a wealthy young lady of good family, and partly due to the fact that the young lady kept breaking down.

Throughout this period, Wharton suffered the classic symptoms of hysteria: asthma — literally, she could not breathe — an inability to eat, and a depression so increasingly dire that, in 1898, she underwent a version of the standard "cure" (Woolf was given much the same treatment), consisting of isolation, bed rest, no writing, and much food. This happened on the brink of the publication of her first collection of stories, which doubtless added to the state of her nerves, since she was convinced that "there isn't a single sentence in the book with natural magic in it." As it happened, the reviews were so radiantly encouraging that she set to work at last on a long-delayed novel and was, basically, as strong as a horse for the rest of her life. Not so Teddy, who began to crumble almost as soon as his wife started thriving. Over the next decade, she published some thirty stories and three novels, while he acquired a full complement of the symptoms she had overcome.

Her first collection is, in fact, one of the best she ever published and contains several indisputable marvels. "The Pelican," "Souls Belated," and "The Muse's Tragedy" are enormously varied in color and tone, and yield an equally varied series of insights into women's hearts and strategies. The first is a character portrait, as startlingly fresh as a Sargent watercolor, of a doting mother who turns to public speaking in order to support her son, and who cannot admit that she comes to love the work rather more than she does him. The second, a socially inflected romance of the kind that Wharton was to make her own, tells of a married woman who runs away with her lover and discovers what Anna Karenina could not bear to know — that love feeds on the duties and distractions of a shared society ("those common obligations which make the most imperfect marriage in some sort a centre of gravity"). The third is a rich reimagining of a genre belonging to James, in which a poet's muse, looking back, rues the inspiration she has given.

Wharton was not by any standard measure a feminist. The muse's tragedy is not the fact that she is not a poet herself but that the poet never loved her as a woman. The public speaker is ridiculously bad at the work she can't bear to give up. But no one between Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir was so ruthlessly clear in depicting the deforming effects of social history on the human female, in examining the dreadful methods she has been constrained to use to obtain the trivial things she has been taught to want. And no one has given us so many ways to love and to hate, often simultaneously, the weak, manipulative, pitiful, dangerous, and beautiful creatures this history produced.

The great women writers of the English tradition have always been eager to express their disdain for the conventionally desirable, professionally feminine women of their day. This less than sororal attitude goes back at least to Jane Eyre's contempt for the meretricious arts and curls of the undeniably magnificent Blanche Ingram ("Miss Ingram," thanks to her moral faults, "was a mark beneath jealousy") and to George Eliot's poisonous Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, patting her fair hair and despoiling her husband's soul. A secondary character by necessity, the conniving woman is the one sitting across the room, batting her eyes at the hero while the far more worthy authoress watches and writhes and plots her revenge in print. Wharton has often been criticized for a lack of sympathy for her characters. But, in daring to place the fashionable beauty at the center of her story, she was offering a glimpse into a rarely visited consciousness, far more complex, if not assuredly more noble, than it had ever been taken to be.

Wharton's most forthright statement about this woman is contained in a buoyant little satire titled "The Other Two," of 1904. The story traces a man's growing awareness that his beloved wife has not only climbed her way to wealth, husband by husband, but easily adapted herself to be a perfectly fitting mate to each. "Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett — Alice Varick — Alice Waythorn — she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides." In Wharton's strongest novel, The House of Mirth, published just a year after this story, the heroine, Lily Bart, similarly "disciplined by years of enforced compliance," pretends not to smoke or gamble or think in order to catch a rich and priggish bore. ("We could none of us imagine your putting up with him for a moment," a friend remarks, "unless you meant to marry him.") But Lily, Wharton's most profound and subtle portrait of a lady, is as repulsed by her slavish tactics as she is dependent on their results. And in Wharton's world, the conflict ensures that she will not survive.

But, then, in Wharton's world, all the alternatives are bleak. The essential experience behind every choice is loneliness. Wharton's first published story, "Mrs. Manstey's View," written when she was twenty-eight, is about an old lady so alone that her nearest connections are with the magnolia and the caged parrot that she sees from the window of her New York rooming house. Marriage possibly makes things worse. Wharton was an admirer of George Eliot's observation that "marriage is so unlike anything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings." Yet she added to this her own belief that love outside a marriage-like union simply made for a different sort of misery, characterized by a starved inadequacy of common bonds. In her work, the explicit unhappiness of a marriage often forms a major premise of the action. And yet divorce, for all of Wharton's brooding on it as a subject and her tacit support of it as a right, is possibly the most fearsome enterprise of all.

Wharton concludes "The Reckoning" with a stunning social prophecy, delivered by the drawing-room orator's wife, a woman who left her own boring husband years before to marry this ardent freethinker, and who is devastated now at being left, in her turn, for a more exciting, younger woman. "The law represents material rights," she begins, threading her way hesitantly through her thoughts. "It can't go beyond. If we don't recognize an inner law ... the obligation that love creates ... being loved as well as loving ... there is nothing to prevent our spreading ruin unhindered ... is there?"

* * *

Edmund Wilson observed, rather testily, just a few years after Wharton's death, that "there are no first-rate men" in her novels. No heroes: no Mr. Darcy, no Mr. Rochester, no Will Ladislaw or Tom Outland, no one even to offer a hand and help the lady out. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart is badly damaged by the man who, in the work of another novelist, might have carried her away. Lawrence Selden, Lily's companion, offers her the regard of a connoisseur admiring an exquisite bit of animated porcelain, a regard that he nevertheless encourages her to confuse with love. It is Selden's peculiar function to draw out Lily's feelings and to continually subvert her marital plans, while refusing to make any claim on her himself. Instead, he presents her with sublime, if hypocritical, ideals — indifference to money, to society — which serve only to mock the realities that she confronts. ("Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me," Lily cries, "if you have nothing to give me instead?") Whether Selden is cruel or a coward or simply unable to love the heroine as she might wish — or, perhaps, as he might wish — is left to the reader to decide. Wharton herself vacillates; as much as Lily and Selden, she seems uncertain about what this character intends by his soul-shattering advances and retreats.

There are several versions of this "negative hero," as Wharton referred to Selden, in her early stories, in which he may be said to form an equally sorry counterpart to the marital corpse. The muse of "The Muse's Tragedy" seeks to forgive the poet: "He had never made love to me; it was no fault of his if I wanted more than he could give me." In "The Touchstone," published in 1900, a great woman novelist also suffers the pain that such a negative hero inflicts: "the physical reluctance" — on his part — "had, inexplicably, so overborne the intellectual attraction, that the last years had been, to both of them, an agony of conflicting impulses." When Wharton attempts the man's point of view — as late as 1912, in "The Long Run" — there is no further enlightenment. All he recalls of fleeing an ideal romance at its sexual threshold is panic, numbness, and loss. Of course, this lack of comprehension must be qualified: this is all that Wharton allows him to recall. The confusion remains very much her own.


Excerpted from American Rhapsody by Claudia Roth Pierpont. Copyright © 2016 Claudia Roth Pierpont. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Cries and Whispers • Edith Wharton,
For Love and Money • F. Scott Fitzgerald,
Behind the Mask • Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit,
Jazzbo • George Gershwin,
The Silver Spire • The Chrysler Building,
Tough Guy • Dashiell Hammett,
The Collector • Peggy Guggenheim,
Born for the Part • Katharine Hepburn,
The Player Kings • Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier,
Method Man • Marlon Brando,
Another Country • James Baldwin,
A Raised Voice • Nina Simone,
Also by Claudia Roth Pierpont,
A Note About the Author,
Illustration Credits,

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