What They Get Away With in Lit’ratyoor

In his [1938] essay, “Paleface and Redskin,” the literary critic Philip Rahv claims that American writers have always tended to choose sides in a contest between two camps the result of “a dichotomy,” as he put it, “between experience and consciousness…between energy and sensibility, between conduct and theories of conduct.” Our best-selling novelists and our leaders of popular literary movements, from Walt Whitman to Hemingway to Jack Kerouac, number among the group Rahv called the redskins. They represent the restless frontier mentality, with its reverence for the sensual and intuitive over the intellect, its self-reliant individualism and enthusiasm for quick triumph over obstacles….

While the redskins took to the open road, jotting down their adventures along the way, the palefaces tended to congregate in the cities, where they drew heavily on European literary and intellectual traditions. They put at least as much stock in the value of artistic transformation and intellectual reflection as they did in capturing the raw data of the emotions and senses for their portrayals of human experience. James and Eliot would be leading figures among the palefaces. Both of them eventually left America, a society that they came to regard as crude, to spend the balance of their lives in England.

Gestalt Therapy by Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman

Of course, it would be entirely illegitimate to make any such distinction in the history of American music. No no no no no no no. Music is just music, and we shouldn’t try to draw distinctions within it. American music is just anything American composers do. Because I said so, now shut up and practice your scales.

(In other words, the above is basically what Peter Garland and I and a few others have been saying about American composers forever, to an answering, contradictory chorus of anti-intellectuals who don’t believe any distinctions should ever be drawn.)


  1. Herb Levy says

    Hi Kyle,

    I’m not sure that the Rahv essay has many fervent believers at this point, but you and I have talked about a similar issue in the politics around various strains of modern and contemporary poetry particularly in the US.

    The split in that realm is often characterized by two mid-20th century anthologies: “New Poets of England and America” edited by Donald Hall & Robert Pack, which included US writers like Donald Finkel, John Hollander, Donald Justice, Robert Lowell,James Merrill, Howard Nemerov, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Louis Simpson, WD Snodgrass, and Richard Wilbur etc; and Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry” which included Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Leroi Jones, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, Lew Welch, etc.

    Both groups sort of trace their lineage back through Ezra Pound (just as many composers, both uptown & downtown, might consider Ives as a precursor), but to oversimplify a great deal, the poets in the first group might emphasize TS Eliot as another ancestor from that period, while those in the second anthology might put more emphasis on William Carlos Williams or Gertrude Stein.

    This second group of writers had many of the same problems that downtown composers have traditionally had: difficulties getting and keeping academic teaching positions in the field (many of those who were able to get tenure worked in fields other than English and/or writing programs); difficulties getting published by the mainstream magazines and book companies, etc.

    Every aspect of this split isn’t exactly parallel, but there’s a lot of similarities in the late 20th century development of the poetry and new music worlds in the US.