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Allan Bloom, Identity Politics, and “Closed Minds”

Looking for another book not long ago, I stumbled upon Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. In 1987, it was a national sensation, a trigger-point for debate over the legacy of the sixties and its “counter-culture.”

Subtitled “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” Bloom’s salvo attacked from the right. It was less a polemic than a closely reasoned argument fortified with lofty philosophic learning and grounded classroom experience. 

My copy of The Closing of the American Mindis a paperback with scant evidence of close scrutiny. Some three dozen pages are heavily marked with dismissive marginalia. Bloom took aim at my own generation (I was born in 1948). And its political complexion was anathema. 

But times have changed and so have I. Rather than replacing it on the shelf, I re-opened The Closing of the American Mind– and discovered that Allan Bloom was prophetic. In effect, he prophesied identity politics and political rectitude – and closed minds and “impoverished souls.” 

This is the gist of my long piece in last weekend’s edition of The American Interest. You can read the whole thing here.

And here (from my article) is some of what I have to say about the impact of closed minds and impoverished souls on my own professional endeavors:

American classical music is today a scholarly minefield. The question “What is America?” is central. So is the topic of race. The American music that most matters, nationally and internationally, is black. But classical music in the US has mainly rejected this influence – which is one reason it has remained impossibly Eurocentric. As the visiting Czech composer Antonin Dvorak emphasized in 1893, two obvious sources for an “American” concert idiom are the sorrow songs of the slave, and the songs and rituals of Native America. Issues of appropriation are front and center. It is a perfect storm.  

Dvorak directed New York City’s National Conservatory of Music from 1892 to 1895 – in the rise-and-fall of American classical music, a period of peak promise and high achievement. It speaks volumes that he chose as his personal assistant a young African-American baritone who had eloquently acquired the sorrow songs from his grandfather, a former slave. This was Harry Burleigh, who after Dvorak died turned spirituals into concert songs with electrifying success. (If you’ve ever heard Marian Anderson or Paul Robeson sing “Deep River,” that’s Burleigh.) During the Harlem Renaissance, Burleigh’s arrangements were reconsidered by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, both of whom detected a “flight from blackness” to the white concert stage. Today, Burleigh’s “appropriation” of the black vernacular is of course newly controversial. That he was inspired by a white composer of genius becomes an uncomfortable fact. An alternative reading, based not on fact but on theory, is that racist Americans impelled him to “whiten” black roots. Burleigh emerges a victim, his agency diminished. 

Compounding this confusion is another prophet: W E. B. Du Bois, who like Dvorak foresaw a black American classical music to come. The pertinent lineage from Dvorak to Burleigh includes the ragtime king Scott Joplin (who considered himself a concert composer) and the once famous black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, urged by Du Bois, Burleigh, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar to take up Dvorak’s prophecy. After Coleridge-Taylor came notable black symphonists of the 1930s and forties: William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price, all of them today being belatedly and deservedly rediscovered.

But the same lineage leads to George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess: a further source of discomfort. I have even been advised, at an American university, to omit Gershwin’s name from a two-day Coleridge-Taylor celebration. But Coleridge-Taylor’s failure to fulfill Dvorak’s prophecy – he was too decorous, too Victorian – cannot be contextualized without exploring the ways and reasons that Gershwin did it better. As for Gershwin’s opera: even though Porgy is a hero, a moral paragon, it today seems virtually impossible to deflect accusations of derogatory “stereotyping.” The mere fact that he is a physical cripple, ambulating on a goat-cart, frightens producers and directors into minimizing Porgy’s physical debility. But a Porgy who can stand is paradoxically diminished: the trajectory of his triumphant odyssey – of a “cripple made whole” — is truncated. (On Porgy and Bess at the Met, click here.)

Gershwin discomfort is mild compared to the consternation Arthur Farwell (1872-1952)invites. He, too, embraced Dvorak’s prophecy. As the leading composer in an “Indianists” movement lasting into the 1930s, Farwell believed it was a democratic obligation of Americans of European descent to try to understand the indigenous Americans they displaced and oppressed – to preserve something of their civilization; to find a path toward reconciliation. His Indianist compositions attempt to mediate between Native American ritual and the Western concert tradition. Like Bela Bartok in Transylvania, like Igor Stravinsky in rural Russia, he endeavored to fashion a concert idiom that would paradoxically project the integrity of unvarnished vernacular dance and song. He aspired to capture specific musical characteristics – but also something additional, something ineffable and elemental, “religious and legendary.” He called it – a phrase anachronistic today – “race spirit.”

As a young man, Farwell visited with Indians on Lake Superior. He hunted with Indian guides. He had out-of-body experiences. Later, in the Southwest, he collaborated with the charismatic Charles Lummis, a pioneer ethnographer. For Lummis, Farwell transcribed hundreds of Indian and Hispanic melodies, using either a phonograph or local singers.  If he was subject to criticism during his lifetime, it was for being naïve and irrelevant, not disrespectful or false. The music historian Beth Levy – a rare contemporary student of the Indianists movement in music – pithily summarizes that Farwell embodies a state of tension intermingling “a scientific emphasis on anthropological fact” with “a subjective identification bordering on rapture.” Considered purely as music, his best Indianist are memorably original – and so, to my ears, is their ecstasy.

These days, one of the challenges of presenting Farwell in concert is enlisting Native American participants. For a recent festival in Washington, D.C. – “Native American Inspirations,” surveying 125 years of music inspired by Native America — I unsuccessfully attempted to engage Native American scholars and musicians from as far away as Texas, New Mexico, and California. My greatest disappointment was the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which declined to partner. A staff member explained that Farwell lacked “authenticity.” But Farwell’s most ambitious Indianist composition — the Hako String Quartet (1922), a centerpiece of our festival– claims no authenticity. Though its inspiration is a Great Plains ritual celebrating a symbolic union of Father and Son, though it incorporates passages evoking a processional, or an owl, or a lighting storm, it does not chart a programmatic narrative. Rather, it is a 20-minute sonata-form that documents the composer’s enthralled subjective response to a gripping Native American ceremony. 

A hostile newspaper review of “Native American Inspirations” ignited a torrent of tweets condemning Farwell for cultural appropriation. This crusade, mounted by culture-arbiters who have never heard a note of Farwell’s music, was moral, not aesthetic. It mounted a chilling war cry. If Farwell is today off limits, it is partly because of fear – of castigation by a neighbor. I know because I have seen it. (To listen to the music of Arthur Farwell, click here.)

Arthur Farwell is an essential component of the American musical odyssey. So is Harry Burleigh. So are the blackface minstrel shows Burleigh abhorred – they were a seedbed for ragtime and what came after. Even alongside the fullest possible acknowledgement of odious minstrel caricatures, a more nuanced reading of this most popular American entertainment genre is generally unwelcome. It is, for instance, not widely known that pre-bellum minstrelsy was an instrument of political dissent from below. Blackface minstrelsy was not invariably racist. 

Charles Ives’s Second Symphony is one of the supreme American achievements in symphonic music. Its Civil War finale quotes Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe” by way of expressing sympathy for the slave. When there are students in the classroom who cannot get past that, the outcome is Bloomsian: closed minds.

Comments

  1. P Monaghan says

    All this is very well, and Farwell, e.g., is worthy of (some) attention (and, yes, we are all syncretists, at least now and were pretty much in 1922, too), but this post’s simple, extremely common flaw is to ignore that “political rectitude” very much preexisted the creation of the term “political correctness.”

    It existed. Blinkered, self-serving, presumptuous majorities ran Bloom’s idealized ivied universities and imposed their variants of PC. Those PCs limited and distorted. They excluded. Simple. And you’d have to admit, wouldn’t you, that today’s champions of those who imposed those regimes often are not particularly interested in correcting those long-ago, pre-invention-of-the-term-PC shortcomings? Their minds are closed. In contrast to you, they wouldn’t want Harry Burleigh properly considered any more — or less — than you say “students in the classroom” don’t.

  2. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind couldn’t be more relevant today. The supplanting of

    great music (and canonical literature) by an ephemeral pop culture — one that is vapid notwithstanding

    how loud it can be– makes this professor wonder how vulgar and low-brow our society may eventually reach.

    Ironically, what professor Bloom decried more than thirty years ago is even more in evidence today.

    In Philadelphia where I was raised (not to mention New York), there were several Classical Music Radio stations

    in 1987.

    Now, we must content ourselves with one and only just (WRTI features Jazz as well).

    When teaching French or Italian (the languages as well as their respective Literatures), I always attempt to inject

    serious music into the discussion. Sadly, our students are losing reference points and cultural markers to

    appreciate poetry and “Classical Music” (not just Mozart and Haydn, I mean) is relegated to an esoteric never-

    never land.

    As to Arthur Farwell, I know virtually nothing of him. But I do admire and am fascinated by Ives. In addition to the

    Four Symphonies, his Three Places in New England should be a concert staple.

  3. Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    Moreover, anyone who reads or even glimpses the New York Times Arts page,

    will look in vain for good coverage on serious music.

    Admittedly, there’s the perfunctoryl nod by way of review of the NY Philharmonic.

    Or the occasional visit from a visiting orchestra gets a critique. Maybe it’s just me who wishes, like

    the late Allen Bloom, that more of our young knew the Beethoven sonatas, Debussy’s Sirènes

    or were excited by Verdi’s Aida and Otello. Just sayin’

  4. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    Moreover, anyone who reads or even glimpses the New York Times Arts page,

    will look in vain for good coverage on serious music.

    Admittedly, there’s the perfunctoryl nod by way of review of the NY Philharmonic.

    Or the occasional visit from a visiting orchestra gets a critique. Maybe it’s just me who wishes, like

    the late Allen Bloom, that more of our young knew Beethoven sonatas, Debussy’s Sirènes

    or were excited by Verdi’s Aida and Otello. Just sayin’

  5. Eileen Carr says

    Thank you for your brave work and commentary. They reflect the real complexity of our cultural history and hint at the deep importance of the role of influences which have not and should not be closed to artists and scholars based on their identities. Moreover, it suggests the importance of historical place and context, which is key to understanding–and yes, even appreciating–a work. Today is indeed a culture of closing minds; Bloom was right. Sadly, the current intolerance for works and commentary that diverge from today’s pious boundaries of Identity is smothering creativity in both academia and the arts. Instead of creative work, much of what is produced today is polemical, political and didactic–which is hardly the route to creating great art.

  6. While reading your essay, I couldn’t help reflecting on a recent experience I had in my theory and analysis course. I am a white male with an Ivy League degree teaching at an historical black university with a terrific jazz program but very little to offer in terms of the western European music canon. As in most public universities, we are charged with making our curriculum relevant to our diverse student body and I think I’ve been doing a rather good job at contextualizing what I teach to a student body essentially indifferent to the body of work from which these techniques and structures originate. This semester I tried an experiment: students were to present music of their choice and advocate for its merits based on the analysis techniques taught in my courses. The experiment was a terrific success, with an assortment of excellent presentations in which the students were able to do exactly what was asked. Riding high on my own enthusiasm for their work, I complemented the students for their excellent application of what we had learned. The response undid everything I had hoped to accomplish: “Why can’t we just look at music we like from now on?”.

  7. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    This morning, driving to work, I happened to hear David Diamond’s Fourth Symphony.

    As I was in the car, I could only hear the marvelous last movement. And it gave me pause.

    Why are the great symphonies of 20th century American Composers so poorly represented

    in the concert hall?! Aren’t Schuman, Piston, Creston, Mennin, Barber, Copland, Persichetti (just to

    name some) worthy of being played? A rhetorical question, one hopes this !

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