Friday, August 08, 2014

Michael Kammen on Stephen Vincent Benét's "chauvinism"

Michael Kammen
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In Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011), Michael Kammen offers a passage on collectors of Americana that might shed light on what led some critics to charge Stephen Vincent Benét with a "narrow nationalism":
If we ask why these people collected, the answers are even more diverse than what they sought to possess. Begin with the most obvious reason, sheer love of country: old-fashioned patriotism that often verged upon chest-thumping chauvinism. We find it, for example, in a fascinating "open letter" to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., written by the editor of The Americana Collector. It is an unabashed appeal for the creation of a Rockefeller Foundation of Bibliographical and Historical Research because "such an institution would become one of our richest assets for a patriotic people. Our heritage from the heroic past must be preserved as continued guidance and inspiration to ourselves and to all mankind." The same spirit animated one of Stephen Vincent Benét's most striking ballads, written in 1927, "American Names." It opens with the line "I have fallen in love with American names," and the fourth stanza contains both the geographical range desired and the nemesis being rejected:

I will fall in love with a Salem tree.
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea.
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.
One can see why some of Benét's works were criticized for their "narrow nationalism," though today's critics would more likely be disturbed by the fourth line of the fourth stanza. But Benét probably spoke as a man of his era in his use of the N-word, and the context makes clear that he was was praising the blues singer (though this doesn't efface the offence), precisely as he was extolling the "Salem tree," the "rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz," and the "bottle of Boston sea."

This makes twice now in my research, by the way, that Benét has suggested the superiority of the American muse.

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