Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 21, 2007

Bookshelf

I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.

Read More

I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.


• Crist is also the co-editor of The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (Yale, 288 pp., $45), the first volume of Copland’s letters to be published. It should have been much longer—he wrote 111 letters to Leonard Bernstein alone, for instance, and received as many in return—but Crist and Wayne Shirley have made a good start with this well-chosen, extensively annotated selection of letters written between 1909 and 1979, after which Alzheimer’s disease made it increasingly difficult for Copland to continue corresponding with his friends and colleagues. No doubt the rest of his surviving letters and diary entries will see print sooner or later, but my guess is that The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland contains a goodly share of the cream of the crop.

• The 2005 Bard Music Festival was devoted to Copland, and one of its fruits was Aaron Copland and His World (Princeton, 503 pp., $55), a superior collection of newly commissioned essays by such noted scholars as Crist, Pollack, Morris Dickstein, Lynn Garafola, Gail Levin, and Vivian Perlis, the last of whom collaborated with Copland on his two-volume autobiography. H.L. Mencken pithily described one of Henry James’s books as “early essays by Henry James—some in the English language.” Though the contributors to Aaron Copland and His World are card-carrying academics, nearly all of them write in English, so to speak, and most of their essays are insightful, informative, and fully accessible to non-specialists.

• I should also mention Aaron Copland: A Reader (Routledge, 368 pp., $30), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, of which I made brief mention in “Composers for Communism,” my 2004 COMMENTARY essay about Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. As countless readers of What to Listen for in Music know, Copland was a wonderfully lucid and straightforward writer, and this wide-ranging collection of his essays and articles, which failed to receive the close critical attention it deserved, is a essential addition to the fast-growing literature on America’s greatest composer.

Read Less

Mailer’s Grotesquerie

Almost a month after Lee Siegel’s expansive, unfocused paean to Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, has published her own astute (and devastating) review of the novel. (It’s worth noting that Siegel, in praising Mailer as a novelist, focused for the most part on Mailer’s works of “literary non-fiction.”) Franklin’s review skirts but does not point out explicitly the novel’s Manichean theology–a vision of the positive nature of evil that has consumed Mailer from the outset of his literary career. But both pieces are worth reading, especially for the sharp relief into which Franklin’s perspicacity casts Siegel’s confused tribute. And make sure to read John Gross’s review of The Castle in the Forest in the March issue of COMMENTARY.

Almost a month after Lee Siegel’s expansive, unfocused paean to Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, has published her own astute (and devastating) review of the novel. (It’s worth noting that Siegel, in praising Mailer as a novelist, focused for the most part on Mailer’s works of “literary non-fiction.”) Franklin’s review skirts but does not point out explicitly the novel’s Manichean theology–a vision of the positive nature of evil that has consumed Mailer from the outset of his literary career. But both pieces are worth reading, especially for the sharp relief into which Franklin’s perspicacity casts Siegel’s confused tribute. And make sure to read John Gross’s review of The Castle in the Forest in the March issue of COMMENTARY.

Read Less

Conflicted Libertarians

Last week at the Cato Institute, I debated Michael Tanner and former Congressman Dick Armey, two stalwart libertarians. The occasion was the release of Tanner’s book Leviathan on the Right, one of the better distillations of the argument that George W. Bush has frittered away Reagan’s legacy, increased the size and scope of government, and betrayed conservative principles.

But Tanner’s argument is not persuasive. For one, the often-shrill complaints of a few years ago about runaway federal spending now seem overwrought. To everyone’s surprise, the size of the deficit has fallen dramatically over the past two years. This year the deficit will be 1.6 percent of the economy–a level lower than in 18 of the past 25 years. The federal budget is projected to be in surplus by 2012.

Read More

Last week at the Cato Institute, I debated Michael Tanner and former Congressman Dick Armey, two stalwart libertarians. The occasion was the release of Tanner’s book Leviathan on the Right, one of the better distillations of the argument that George W. Bush has frittered away Reagan’s legacy, increased the size and scope of government, and betrayed conservative principles.

But Tanner’s argument is not persuasive. For one, the often-shrill complaints of a few years ago about runaway federal spending now seem overwrought. To everyone’s surprise, the size of the deficit has fallen dramatically over the past two years. This year the deficit will be 1.6 percent of the economy–a level lower than in 18 of the past 25 years. The federal budget is projected to be in surplus by 2012.


But the real flaw of the anti-“big-government conservative” argument is that the adherence to libertarian orthodoxy often stands in the way of long-sought conservative and free-market goals. A recent development in New Orleans’s public school system makes the case vividly. Many conservatives castigated President Bush when he approved billions in post-Katrina relief for New Orleans. No doubt they were right when they predicted that much of it would be wasted, if not pilfered, by dishonest bureaucrats.

Yet the funds have also made possible one of the most interesting experiments in American education. Prior to Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board was among the worst in the country. Barely any of its 8th-graders were performing at an adequate level. Post-Katrina, with federal money to spread around, the school board has been disbanded. In its place is a new organization that has been approving a wide range of competitive charter schools run by entrepreneurs and dedicated education leaders. A recent article in The Atlantic described it as “the most market-driven system in the United States.”

So the long list of conservatives and libertarians who have assaulted the Bush Administration over reckless spending on New Orleans have to make up their minds. Either they are intractably against big-government spending, or they are in favor of the most successful effort to undo the teachers’ unions and create a competitive system of public schools. But they can’t be on both sides.

Read Less

The Wrong Enemy

Dinesh D’Souza’s execrable new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, has gotten the trashing it deserves in various articles and reviews—though perhaps not as many as the author would like, since controversy is essential to sell a book this meretricious.

Most of the reviews have focused, understandably, on D’Souza’s risible claim that Islamists attack us because of our popular culture, and that if only we would adopt the buttoned-down lifestyle of the “Greatest Generation,” the jihadists would leave us alone. As several reviewers have noted, Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of Islamist ideology, actually visited the U.S. in the late 1940’s and was thoroughly repulsed by our culture even in those “Ozzie and Harriet” days.

Read More

Dinesh D’Souza’s execrable new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, has gotten the trashing it deserves in various articles and reviews—though perhaps not as many as the author would like, since controversy is essential to sell a book this meretricious.

Most of the reviews have focused, understandably, on D’Souza’s risible claim that Islamists attack us because of our popular culture, and that if only we would adopt the buttoned-down lifestyle of the “Greatest Generation,” the jihadists would leave us alone. As several reviewers have noted, Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of Islamist ideology, actually visited the U.S. in the late 1940’s and was thoroughly repulsed by our culture even in those “Ozzie and Harriet” days.


I have little to add to the many well-deserved criticisms except to focus on one point that, to my mind, hasn’t gotten enough attention: D’Souza’s contention that, as he puts it in his introduction, “The Left has produced a moral shift in American society that has resulted in a deluge of gross depravity and immorality.” Personally, I don’t think “gross depravity and immorality” are the defining characteristics of America today. I’m not unduly bothered by most of the examples D’Souza cites—everything from “reality shows where contestants eat maggots” to “talk shows where guests reveal the humiliating details of their sex lives” to The Vagina Monologues.

But let’s say you are bothered by them, or by the more serious issues of abortion and divorce that D’Souza also raises. Is it really tenable to blame all these trends on “the Left?” Are Andrea Dworkin, Noam Chomsky, and Tom Hayden responsible for the prevalence of pornography, trash TV, violent videogames, and raunchy music? Are they corrupting upstanding citizens who would otherwise never think of aborting a fetus or divorcing a spouse?

Hardly. In fact, leftist ideologues tend to be pretty prudish. (D’Souza should admire the efficiency with which Soviet censors kept sex out of the public domain.) The reason we have so many “degenerate” movies, books, TV shows, and songs is that the public wants them. The purveyors of these products are seldom motivated by ideology. They are pure profit-maximizers.

Perhaps liberals did help open the door by, for example, overturning obscenity laws. But just as important has been the great increase in leisure time and disposable income available to the average American since World War II. Ordinary people now devote far more energy and resources to being entertained—and, not surprisingly, the stuff they want does not meet favor with the guardians of high culture and morality.

Another important trend that has changed America is the entry of women into the workforce. This too had an ideological component, but it was driven primarily by the desire for greater income and a more comfortable lifestyle. As women have acquired independent means of support, they have been more willing to delay marriage, leave a spouse, or have an abortion in their pursuit of happiness.

It’s simply untenable to blame a handful of “sixties radicals” for the tectonic shifts in American society over the past several decades. But it’s hard for many conservatives to acknowledge that the villains responsible for the trends they deplore might also be the heroes they celebrate as “entrepreneurs.” For a more sophisticated view of this question, readers should take a pass on D’Souza’s tome and pick up David Frum’s How We Got Here: The ‘70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.