Short Reviews

Conversations: Literature and the Modernist Deviation

by George P. Elliott
Dutton, 240 pp., $7.95

Who Owns America?

by Walter J. Hickel
Prentice-Hall, 348 pp., $6.95

No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark

by Ron Porambo
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 398 pp., $6.95

The Mythology of Imperialism

by Jonah Raskin
Random House, 331 pp., $7.95

Most of these essays are anecdotal or journalistic or slapdash, the tone both crotchety and ingratiating. They come to us, however, heavy with moral concerns since the author pretends to deep thoughts on Nothingness and the literature of Extremity. It is as if one were reading about existential anguish in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post. Here is Elliott on Proust: “Among other things, the profoundest Modern told us, Don’t be like me if you can help it. Let us honor Proust for his terrible honesty, and then try something different—perhaps something old.” But does Remembrance of Things Past really say that? Or is it merely what Elliott wishes to hear, just as he apparently wishes, once aesthetic aspects have been swept away, to consider all modernist nonconformist art and characters as cautionary tales and cautionary figures?

It is a narrow, reductive, and philistine (despite a show of erudition) approach to the intricacies and revolutionary nature of the modernist sensibility, reminiscent, here and there, of those old saws about the “beastliness of Nietzsche” or the “decadence of Gide.” Predictably it produces a tiresome irony: “I yearn to be an anarchist and tear apart our blatantly wrong society—Yippie!—and I yearn even more to be a dictator and impose my will as law.” The approach is sociopolitical or socioreligious and the autonomy of art suffers from it. “In respect of pornography and nihilism, my consciousness has expanded enough. There are things I want not to know.” Brave words. Elliott appeals to those intellectuals with conservative (not, one should emphasize, classicist) taste, who don’t want, after all, to be considered squares—which, like Elliott, they resoundingly are.

This is a long overdue introduction to gospel music. While the black blues tradition has been thoroughly mined by rock and folk musicians, gospel singers—Mahalia Jackson notwithstanding—have by and large remained unknown outside the ghettos: The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Staple Singers, Marion Williams, and Alex Bradford, for example, have rarely been heard by whites. Heilbut blames intellectual disdain of the Holy Roller tradition for the musical neglect—whites see it as the product of possessed freaks, while young blacks deplore the Sanctified Churches as a socially retrograde force. In fact these profiles of the saints of gospel do challenge the stigma of ignorance, naïveté, and Uncle Tomism attached to gospel music. Heilbut sees the collective frenzy of gospel’s moans and shouts as an expression of “spirit and community welded by art” and stresses that gospel singers (“the most underpaid in America”) minister to “winos, prostitutes, and workmen”—human wreckage with nowhere else to go. He does well by the music too, noting the stylistic similarities to soul and the “overwhelming sexual presences” of its performers and sensibly stopping short of psychologizing on ecstatic conversions and orgiastic celebrations of redemption. The rhythms and harmonies defy exposition on the printed page but this book nevertheless has useful information in it.

Hickel’s buoyant political memoir will disappoint many of those misty liberals who belatedly adopted him during the early Nixon years…

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