An Alternative American Culture III

Having stated the errors we hope to avoid and the goals we hope to accomplish, I would like to point out some good American traditions and cultural achievements upon which we hope to build. The categories I have chosen are military culture, thought, music, architecture, painting, crafts, and letters. This list makes no pretense at being complete, neither in the headings under which I am grouping my catalogue, nor in the items under those headings.

Before proceeding, I would like to thank Gary Potter for his helpful suggestions. I am also indebted to an architect (and my father), Wilfred Villarrubia, for pointing out some good architects. To the Bryan family goes my gratitude for helping me to appreciate some genres of music I used to look down upon. Lastly, I thank our sisters for their helpful criticisms and suggestions. My thanking these good folks for their help should not lead the reader to blame them for the final product, concerning which they were all quite helpless. Because of certain constraints I was under, I have left considerations on statecraft and film for another day.

Military Culture. I once went to hear a certain congressman address a group of New Hampshire pro-lifers. Relevant to his stance on the Iraq war, he made reference to “the Christian Just War Doctrine.” This notable statesman, who is not a Catholic, referred to an ethical principle derived from scripture, but which, in its developed form, really began with Saint Augustine, to be later refined by scholastic theologians. In other words, what the congressman was talking about was the “Catholic Just War Doctrine.” Now, this man served time in our country’s armed forces – in his case it was the Air Force. To some extent, then, he was schooled in the martial tradition of the West – derived from Catholic morals and enshrined in the Code of Chivalry. Just as Bach, a Lutheran, could write an arrestingly beautiful and “Catholic” Mass in B Minor, so could this Protestant airman and statesman speak of a Catholic ethical principle enshrined in our best American military traditions.

General George Washington, General Robert E. Lee, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and General George F. Patton all provide examples of the noble military culture of our nation. Modern military personnel and politicians would do well to note General Lee’s horror at the thought of killing non-combatants, as testified in his biographies. His chivalric approach to warfare stands as a reproach to the barbarity our government inflicted on the Japanese civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as on German civilian populations, during World War II. That there were American military personnel at the time who objected to the outrage of “nuking” two Japanese cities testifies to the fact that honor and military ethics meant something to them.

Thought. By “thought,” I mainly have in mind philosophy, but not that exclusively. There are American thinkers whose social and political ideals reflect the heritage of Christendom. Some notables are: Orestes Brownson, Richard Weaver, Allen Tate, Dr. Mortimer Adler, and, more recently, Joseph Sobran, and Patrick J. Buchanan. Brownson is one we’ve lauded much already. I would like briefly to highlight Weaver.

The man was a Tar Heel – that is, a North Carolinian – therefore he came from the least Catholic state in the union. Reading his work, though, we find ourselves struck with the Catholic ideas upon which his thinking rests. His seminal Ideas Have Consequences is a must-read for anyone interested in political philosophy and what might be termed “social criticism.” A man of letters as well as a philosopher, he taught English at the University of Chicago for many years. As a philosopher, he was a Platonic who detested nominalism and blamed it for many of the social ills of our day (indeed, this is the central thesis of Ideas; but even to those who disagree with its thesis, the book has much to offer.) What he says there of liberal education could have come from the pen of Brother Francis. In fact, I found myself hearing certain passages of Ideas Have Consequences in Brother Francis’ Lebanese accent!

For those who don’t want to check out the book just yet, there are two fine draughts of Weaver to be imbibed online: “Up from Liberalism” and “The Image of Culture.” These articles are from old issues of Modern Age, a publication whose founding editor, Russell Kirk, deserves at least passing mention here as another great American thinker. Kirk converted to Catholicism in 1963. Perhaps this was due to the admiration he cultivated for Orestes Brownson, whose constitutional theories as expressed in The American Republic Kirk came to espouse. Brownson’s political theories were drenched with Catholicity. Although Weaver had a mind imbued with Catholic principles, it does not appear that he ever converted, as Kirk did. I was told that the brilliant Catholic philosopher, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, walked away from a conversation with Weaver thinking the Tar Heel was a Catholic. Wilhelmsen was no slouch, so his impression reveals much about Weaver’s “Catholic thinking.” We can hope for him. Who knows how the man entered eternity?

Music. American folk music – not the flower-child version popular in the 60’s and 70’s – is a rich collection of genres we inherited from Europe and further developed here. In Part II of this series, I mentioned Cajun music. It is obviously French Canadian in origin, but developed on its own in the 200 plus years the Cajuns were in Louisiana. A distinct folk tradition, and a very fertile one, is found in the Irish and Scottish varieties of Celtic music. Both in the Old World and the New, Celtic music is undergoing a renaissance now. The main stream of American folk music was largely Celtic in origin, but was also influenced by the English folk-song. As an example of great folk music, I would point to the beautiful song “Minstrel Boy.” It’s actually Irish, but soldiers on both sides of the War Between the States sang it, adding a third verse – a notably Christian one – here in America. The WikiPedia article on Old Time Music lists numerous American folk genres, named after their proper regions: Appalachia, New England, Midwest, The non-Appalachian South, Texas and the West, and Canada.

The Negro spiritual cannot be left out, regardless of its Protestant roots. It was so impressive to the great Czeck composer, Antonín Dvořák, that he used it as the basis of his Ninth Symphony (“the New World Symphony”), along with influences of Indian music and the native sounds of his own Bohemia. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Dvořák’s Ninth is the most popular of his symphonies, and one of the most popular pieces in all the orchestral repertoire.

For “long hair” music, we have a few notables. Samuel Barber is one. His gripping “Adagio for Strings,” full of power and pathos, has been used to stirring effect in film scores as well as in concert performance. It became fashionable to perform the piece at funerals, as it was at FDR’s. I am told that hearing it caused Monaco’s Prince Rainier to break down in tears at his wife’s funeral. Though originally composed as the second movement of his Opus 11 String Quartet, as it is commonly known, the piece was orchestrated by the composer himself for a full string orchestra. Don’t look for much explicit Catholicism in Barber’s artistry, but he did compose “Hermit Songs,” a cycle of ten songs for soprano and piano. The texts are poems written by Irish Monks from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, translated by several literati, including the poet W.H. Auden. Barber himself was the pianist at the premiere in the Library of Congress, accompanying the great American soprano, Leontyne Price. (Now there’s an American original: a Negro woman from the South, reared on soul food, and best known for the formidable title role in Verdi’s Aida!).

Another American composer of note would be Howard Hanson, the romantic who learned orchestration from the great Italian Respighi (The Pines of Rome), who, in turn, learned that craft from the great Russian Nickolai Rimsky-Korsakoff (Scheherazade, Russian Easter Overture). Charles Ives also deserves mention (even if he could get weird), as do George Whitefield Chadwick, Ferde Grofé (Grand Canyon Suite) and an American composer often compared to the Norwegian great, Edvard Grieg: E.A. MacDowell. MacDowell’s piano concierti are worthy of serious attention.

One striking aspect of American musicianship is the “crossover artist,” that is, a musician who can perform multiple genres well. Bela Fleck, a bluegrass performer, who fell in love with the banjo from hearing Earl Scruggs’ pickin’ on the Beverly Hillbillies, has won Grammies for his recordings of jazz and classical music: that’s right, classical banjo – and it sounds good. Similarly, Mark O’Connor fledged his musical wings as an old time fiddle player, moving to Texas style, then to bluegrass, and expanding his versatility to include guitar, mandolin, and cello. He crossed over into the classical and jazz worlds, and has composed music for film, where an “old American” sound was desired. Wynton Marsalis plays his native New Orleans Jazz as well as the Haydn and Hummel trumpet concierti and other pieces of the baroque and classical repertoire.

And let’s not forget John Philip Sousa‘s Marches! They are world-renowned. I once heard an amusing account of a German priest – a man of some refinement – who, upon hearing a Sousa march, exclaimed in all seriousness: “Now that’s culture!” High praise, indeed, for the Germans are known for superb marches. The military band, the ensemble for which Sousa composed, has a great tradition in the U.S. Sousa himself directed “The President’s Own” – the Marine Band, which is to this day a world-class performing ensemble. All of the branches of our armed forces have fine wind bands.

Architecture. Although he detested the kind of Gothic architecture Catholics like me often love, Frank Lloyd Wright ranks as a great architect. His “Fallingwater,” a home built partly over a waterfall in southwestern Pennsylvania, illustrates a love of natural beauty found in many American artists and poets. The Fallingwater blends delicately with the natural topography around it. Wright’s work often included designing everything in the house, in addition to the building itself. His furniture is beautiful, even if it isn’t very comfortable. Wright was a moral anarchist, so, again, let us not look to the man for inspiration, even though his art is impressive. (Another moral anarchist, the Russian-American Ayn Rand, used the Fallingwater, and indeed, Wright himself, for inspiration in her novel The Fountainhead.)

The nineteenth-century American architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, has a style named after him: Richardson Romanesque. Combining elements of Spanish and French Romanesque, he designed churches and other buildings all across the country. Trinity Church in Boston is one of his most famous. When several architects followed Richardson’s lead, the style became common enough to deserve a name of its own.

Another American great was Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Unlike Richardson, there is thankfully at least one example of his work in a Catholic house of worship, the exquisitely beautiful Dominican parish in Manhattan, Saint Vincent Ferrer Church. Goodhue was part of a Gothic revival in America in the early twentieth century. He later did some work in the art deco style. The state capitol of Lincoln, Nebraska is a specimen of Goodhue’s art deco work.

Speaking of art deco, whatever one thinks of sky scrapers (I hate them), the art deco design for the crown of the Chrysler Building has serious artistic merit. Brooklyn-born William Van Alen was its architect.

Painting. James McNeill Whistler (Whistler’s Mother, The White Girl), the Massachusetts-born nineteenth-century painter and etcher, achieved something in art that was actually controversial at his time: Beauty. His work resembles that of contemporary Russian artists, and for good reason: Whistler studied in St. Petersburg. Also worthy of mention are Sargent, Homer, and the Wyeths. John Singer Sargent’s self portrait hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. That says a lot. Winslow Homer’s Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, set in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, will give the reader some idea of that artist’s talents. He is known especially for his marine scenes. N. C. Wyeth was accomplished in his own right, and added to the American art scene with several talented children: Andrew Wyeth, Henriette Wyeth Hurd, Carolyn Wyeth, and Ann Wyeth McCoy. The inventor, Nathaniel C. Wyeth is also his son.

Crafts. Yes, they held very strange doctrines, but the Shakers produced simple, beautiful, and useful furniture that will long endure. Indeed, their furniture has outlasted their sect. The Amish have also preserved certain pre-industrial crafts and trades that we can admire, even as we object to their creed. Quality folk arts and crafts can be found all across the U.S.

Letters. Our Language comes to us from England (hence the name), so the study and enjoyment of English classics should be important to us. Need a catalogue? Get The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. Notable Americans would include: Edgar Allen Poe, whose “Catholic Hymn” from Morella is a lovely prayer to Our Lady. Mark Twain was an irreverent, anti-Catholic bigot whose favorite of his own works was the life of Saint Joan of Arc, a book quite worth reading. Willa Cather was not a Catholic, but her worthy Death Comes to the Archbishop is based on the life of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, the missionary and founding Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Joyce Kilmer (“Trees”) was a great poet who converted to Catholicism and died in World War I. For children, Laura Ingells Wilder (Little House on the Prairie), provides some good literary Americana. The “Hillbilly Thomist,” Flannery O’Connor, was a Catholic from the Southern Bible Belt whose dark Southern Gothic short stories reveal parts of our humanity we would often prefer to ignore. Another Catholic novelist worthy of mention is the convert, Walker Percy. He was a Benedictine Oblate and is buried on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, Louisiana.

Conclusion. Inasmuch as America has inherited a European (i.e., Western and Christian) patrimony, it can boast a certain level of cultural achievement, both in the “low” and “high” culture that we have mentioned. Where our national fabric is woven through with principles of the Protestant Revolt, the Enlightenment, and other revolutions against Christian order, the tapestry needs to be mended, but there is much good in it to preserve and restore. We Catholics are not revolutionaries, and are obliged to defend sound traditions. Wherever the true, the good, and the beautiful are, there is a glimmer of a Catholic culture. This noble heritage is one that homosexualists, feminists, secularists, and multiculturalists want to rob us and our children of.

With God’s help, we will not let them.