Claudia Roth Pierpont's title is taken from George Gershwin's original name for his 1924 Rhapsody in Blue. He wanted to call the work American Rhapsody to convey the "musical kaleidoscope of America — of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness." Bursting with the energy and ecstasy of Jazz Age America, Gershwin's Rhapsody gave the American spirit a pulse.
A longtime arts writer for the New Yorker, Pierpont is the author of Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books and Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. Here, she tracks the American spirit in 12 essays that portray individuals who have created the books, songs, films and architecture "that have become the common air we breathe and that we call a culture." The result is a compelling group portrait of modern America.
The first profile is of Edith Wharton, who serves as a bridge to modernism. Wharton was a creature of the upper class who wrote fluidly about such "new women" as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (1905) — young women drawn to New York by the promise of jobs and freedom in the early 20th century. Wharton's own economic independence allowed her to live an untraditional life, traveling in Europe, spending time with men she enjoyed and divorcing a husband she didn't. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence but thought her writing had become "the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers."
She thanked F. Scott Fitzgerald for sending her a copy of The Great Gatsby in 1925. Fitzgerald gave voice to a decade that roared, and although Wharton continued to write, Pierpont describes her later efforts as "elaborately staged and stiffly posed tableaux vivants, like the frozen theatrical scenes put on at society parties in The House of Mirth."
Gatsby's author was the writer who defined America's Jazz Age. In 1924, the same year as the debut of Rhapsody in Blue, Fitzgerald announced to his editor Max Perkins that he was completing "the best American novel ever written." Twenty-eight years old when The Great Gatsby came out the next year, Fitzgerald was already a celebrity because of his two popular Jazz Age novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. But Gatsby was a surprising commercial failure and achieved success only after Fitzgerald's death in 1940. His lasting importance, Pierpont suggests, grows from his relentless embrace of romance. In his final completed novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), Fitzgerald rhapsodized about ordinary places where "chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories." He never stopped relishing the wonder of it all.
Another of Pierpont's revealing profiles describes an architectural "wonder" that sent the modernist spirit soaring. The Chrysler Building, completed in 1930, was the product of automobile titan Walter Chrysler's ego. He felt no embarrassment about naming the building after himself and saw it as a way to generate an "epic of publicity" for his business. Designed by William Van Alen, the art deco skyscraper featured a stunning crown made of always lustrous steel and a spire that was "cloud-piercing." Pierpont writes that the building's "illusion" was essential to its identity: The spire rises to "an impossible slenderness that disappears gradually, like a bird flying out of sight." The implication is that "somewhere in the empyrean, infinitely tall, the Chrysler Building is still rising."
Illusion as a profession is central to Pierpont's essays on Orson Welles, Marlon Brando and particularly Katharine Hepburn. Since Charlie Chaplin leapt off the screen and into the popular imagination in 1914, movie stars have been central to the evolution of America's personality culture. But box office popularity is a harrowing existence, as Hepburn's career testifies. She was a success in the early 1930s but lapsed into "box office poison" by 1938. Playwright Philip Barry soon rescued her with a Broadway success, The Philadelphia Story, and her then-boyfriend Howard Hughes lent her money to buy the film rights. The tremendous success of that film gave her economic independence and control over her career. Ultimately, Pierpont writes, Hepburn created an image that "embodied the most sought-after strengths of modern women ... intelligence, independence, gall."
Three of the 12 essays focus on important African-Americans whose careers spanned the century: performer Bert Williams, writer James Baldwin and musical legend Nina Simone. Each of their lives chronicles a search for inclusiveness in mainstream American culture. The idea of illusion was central to Williams' minstrelsy: Light-skinned, he "blacked up" to perform, a tradition Paul Laurence Dunbar described in 1896 as a mask "that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes."
Baldwin wrote about race and yearning amid the civil rights turmoil of the 1950s and '60s; Pierpont writes that although he often left the United States to live in Paris and Istanbul, the '60s "were inescapably Baldwin's decade." His bestsellers Another Country and The Fire Next Time landed him on Time magazine's cover in 1963.
Pierpont's concluding profile focuses on the remarkable but troubled Simone (1933-2003). She has recently been rediscovered, but not without controversy. A new biopic, Nina, stars Zoe Saldana, who is lighter-skinned than Simone. As Pierpont writes, "There is no escaping the fact that her casting represents exactly the sort of prejudice that Simone was always up against."
In one guise or another, illusion plays a central role in each of Pierpont's profiles. Her book is an ingenious and captivating way to spotlight the kaleidoscopic rhapsody of America's spirit.
Amy Henderson is historian emerita of the National Portrait Gallery.