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New International, April 1947


Calder Willingham

Correspondence ...

[On Cultural Diffusion]


From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 4, April 1947, p. 124.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



I’d like to comment on the Avel Victor review of Philip Rahv’s current anthology: Discovery of Europe. Victor seems to misunderstand the process of cultural diffusion and draw false conclusions concerning American art. His opening remarks state that whereas America is long on pocketbook, it is short on culture: “Modern European economy must be oiled with a steady stream of American credits; the American culture must be nourished on the stimulation of European art and writing. There is little more bleak than the credit outlook of a French bank or a purely American style in art.”

Is Victor suggesting here an astonishing, and hitherto unknown, law of cultural values? – that a nation possesses or does not possess a “culture” according to whether it possesses wealth? Precisely what is meant by this term, “culture”? According to the sociologist (but perhaps not to the Marxist?) any society owns a culture. Or does Victor use the term to mean, roughly, “formal art”? If so, he misuses it; that usage remains illegitimate, despite all the thousands of literary tea parties, and in any case Victor should spell his word properly – “cultchah.”

But to return to the case of the cultured French bank: is the bleak outlook of this French bank meaningfully related in any manner with “a purely American style in art”? Just what is “a purely American style in art”? Could there be such a thing? How? Would Victor illustrate this? But perhaps he has in mind the sand paintings of the American Indian. If so, I absolutely fail to see any connection with a French bank.

I stand, with tomahawk in hand, upon this thesis. My thesis is: that Columbus’ Discovery of America is more important than Philip Rahv’s Discovery of Europe. I believe it is vastly more important. To elaborate:

The Discovery of America eventuated in the development of a society founded on materials and placed in a situation without historical precedent. There was never any such great happy raping of an entire continent in modern times. This terrific rape was a thing unto itself. And, it produced certain societal peculiarities.

First, there were no situations in those days for the origination or continuation of formal art, such as literature, scored music, etc. Such things are naturally an increment of leisure time, social circumstance. But wherever trods the human foot you’ll find art, if not formal art. America was not only touched by the human foot, it was totally trampled.

The “original” Americans were themselves mostly Europeans. Three non-European influences can be detected: the American Indian, the African Negro, and the the American continent itself, or, more exactly, the American situation. These influences tended to re-shape the culture of the European-Americans. During the process, cultural ties with Europe played a tremendous role, and they certainly continue to play such a tremendous role. What has been evolved, however, is a society or culture that can only be called American. It is a synthesis of many different things. It was not a few writers visiting Europe and discovering it – the process was far grander, and it must be added, a great deal more subtle.

Contrary to Victor’s mournful remarks, which amount to fashionable pessimism among other things, America possesses a powerful store, or foundation, of “art.” It can be mentioned that there have been a number of great American writers, particularly in the past two generations. Among a handful of New Orleans Negroes has developed an astounding and revolutionary art in music: New Orleans jazz. In both these fields has come the self-conscious and self-determining maturity of formal art. In questions of art or culture, nationalism is in a sense not to be avoided. At present it does not need to be pointed out that this is not an internationalistic world, that intercultural exchanges suffer many severe and well-known limitations. Victor has attacked the cultural heritage of those human beings now living in the United States. Thus, he says, the American artist must not merely look to Europe and attempt to learn as much as possible from Europe, he must look only to Europe. He may study James Joyce and Stendhal, but why bother with bumbling old Theodore Dreiser, an uncultured American French bank specialist and money bag?

This attitude is not only naive, but it reflects an abysmal snobbery. When alienation from American capitalist forces seemingly results in such a childlike alienation from all aspects of American culture, snobbery is the word. A pure, bold, snobbish expropriation of the values of literature is what takes place here. Or is it so bold and pure? Consider the style in which Victor presents these attitudes.

The literary effect of the review is that of jargon decked out in stylistic celophane. When will the prose of the long-deceased English gentleman of letters return permanently to its coffin? When will the gift of literary Stalinism – i.e., jargonistic incoherence – cease to plague defenseless readers? Will the day come when a reviewer will modestly sit down and try to communicate his ideas in simple, direct language? Victor’s review is a combination of such dead prose and tiresome jargon. His opening sentence is totally beyond comprehension: “Since the future of the world is certain to be international if it is not barbaric, Americans will be the solvent or insolvent heirs of the culture of ages.” No – such infuriating jargon as this is not very bold, and not very pure.

In passing, it might be well to indicate that the attitudes embraced by Victor are doomed to result in cultural impotence, an impotence of spirit. The practical effects of this snobbery and impotence can be seen in the dead pages of Partisan Review.

Calder Willingham

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