The New Yorker staff writer delivers a selective history of the difficult, chaotic, transcendent genius of arts in America.
In this cultural survey, Pierpont (Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, 2013, etc.) takes her title from George Gershwin’s original appellation for what would ultimately be known as “Rhapsody in Blue,” an epochal musical composition that embodies the wild, daring, original qualities of its nation of origin, the uniquely transformative properties that are the messy, exciting result of the American experiment. The author explores this “American-ness” (expressed at one point as “seeking a personal language to express a unique point of view”) as it applies to the arts through a series of in-depth portraits of such quintessentially American creators as Edith Wharton, Orson Welles, and Katharine Hepburn. Each chapter of this literary “rhapsody”—an informally structured sequence of distinct elements—begins in medias res with an instantly engaging significant anecdote regarding that section’s subject, deepening into a superbly researched and elegantly presented full artistic biography that unpacks the various social, political, and economic contexts of the work in question. Pierpont’s approach is neither dryly academic nor ideologically hidebound. She places the emphasis on the history and the work, not identity politics, and her witty but sober and evenhanded voice is a consistent pleasure, her prose is limpid and evocative, and her insights consistently dazzle. Deftly untangling the cultural threads that produce (and inextricably link) such geniuses as Gershwin, Nina Simone, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marlon Brando, Bert Williams, and Peggy Guggenheim (the audaciously spired Chrysler Building also receives a fascinating chapter) with grace and style, Pierpont has composed a refreshingly cleareyed piece of cultural history and an inspiring paean to the American artistic spirit.
As vital and entertaining as the creators and work it celebrates, American Rhapsody is an uncommonly satisfying celebration of the cultural kaleidoscope known as the United States.