An American Cakewalk

9780804791991: Hardback
Release Date: 26th August 2015

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 256

Edition: 1st Edition

Stanford University Press

An American Cakewalk

Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

An American Cakewalk is a lively and entertaining look at a group of Americans in the arts and sciences who, in the years between the Civil War and the 1970s, challenged this country's artistic and social norms through subtle and not-so-subtle syncopations of its cultural givens.
Hardback / £14.99

The profound economic and social changes in the post-Civil War United States created new challenges to a nation founded on Enlightenment and transcendental values, religious certainties, and rural traditions. Newly-freed African Americans, emboldened women, intellectuals and artists,and a polyglot tide of immigrants found themselves in a restless new world of railroads, factories, and skyscrapers where old assumptions were being challenged and new values had yet to be created. In An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World, Zeese Papanikolas tells the lively and entertaining story of a diverse group of figures in the arts and sciences who inhabited this new America.

Just as ragtime composers subverted musical expectations by combining European march timing with African syncopation, so this book's protagonists—who range from Emily Dickinson to Thorstein Veblen and from Henry and William James to Charles Mingus—interrogated the modern American world through their own "syncopations" of cultural givens. The old antebellum slave dance, the cakewalk, with its parody of the manners and pretensions of the white folks in the Big House, provides a template of how the tricksters, shamans, poets, philosophers, ragtime pianists, and jazz musicians who inhabit this book used the arts of parody, satire, and disguise to subvert American cultural norms and to create new works of astonishing beauty and intellectual vigor.

Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The Introduction to the book presents the United States as an open-ended dialogue of voices, classes, races and ethnicity. It introduces the cakewalk as a model for a satiric intervention and opens the possibility of style as a vessel of cultural subversion.

1Ghost Dance
chapter abstract

Chapter one shows the Native American trickster shaman as a cultural model of survival and creative renewal in a hostile world. It gives a brief history of 1890 Ghost Dance and the massacre of its Indian followers and develops the idea of the Ghost Dance songs survival as a symbol of renewal. The chapter concludes with a portrait of United States in 1890 as an introduction to the historical and cultural context in which the cultural innovators taken up in subsequent chapters.

chapter abstract

Chapter Two investigates the life of Emily Dickinson and quiet subversions of her poetry. It emphasizes her manipulation of standard poetic forms and religious expectations and the social platitudes of Victorian American parlor poetry to produce sometimes dangerous but almost always surprising revelations of passion, religious heterodoxy and poetic imagery.

chapter abstract

This chapter explains the 19th century slave dance the cakewalk and its alliance with the syncopations of ragtime music to create unique place in and reflection of African American life. It explores the cakewalk and ragtime syncopation as satiric comment on the white world and as creative resources. It explores the minstrel show as racial travesty and its role in African American musical and theatrical idiom.

chapter abstract

Chapter three examines world of signs and contingency as developed by Charles Sanders Peirce and exemplified by the work of Stephen Crane. It takes up the characters of Peirce and Crane as reflected in their approach to their separate fields.

5The Soul Shepherd.
chapter abstract

Chapter Five takes up William James as philosopher of the mind. It describes his explorations of the limits of consciousness and his quest for the realms spiritual in both his own life and as a philosopher of religion. It examines his role in the development of the philosophy of pragmatism and that philosophy's relation to his search for religious meaning. Finally, Chapter Five takes up James's open-ended philosophy of radical empiricism.

6The Return of the Novelist
chapter abstract

This chapter is built around the novelist Henry James's return to America in 1904 – 05 and his published and private writings about this journey. It develops James's family life and position as an artist between two worlds, Europe and America and how he made use of this position as a writer and social thinker. His thoughts on the American South lead to a comparison to another American social thinker, who found himself between two worlds and two consciousnesses, his brother William's student W. E. B. DuBois. The chapter concludes with James's method of oral composition in the final stage of career and his championing of art as giving meaning to life.

7An Innocent at Cedro
chapter abstract

Chapter Seven takes up Thorstein Veblen and focuses on his anthropological approach to economic theory. It examines his most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class and its examination of conspicuous consumption in the social world of America's wealthy movers and shakers and gives a picture of Veblen as the consummate outsider. It sees his development the instincts of workmanship and what he called idle curiosity as a challenge to the prevailing deterministic ideas of cultural development and concludes with Veblen's unsuccessful tenure as an engaged political and economic partisan.

8The Rise of Abraham Cahan
chapter abstract

Chapter Eight takes up the life of Jewish immigrant, writer and editor of Abraham Cahan from the Old World to the New and his parallel creation of David Levinsky in his seminal novel The Rise of David Levinsky. It investigates the psychological commonalities beneath the socialist Cahan and the successful capitalist Levinsky, and in so doing gives a portrait of the social and psychological world of first generation of Jewish immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In their very different ways successes, Cahan as the long-time editor of The Jewish Daily Forward and his imaginary creation Levinsky as a millionaire clothing manufacture, these two figures exemplify men caught between two worlds, unsatisfied in each, and questioning the very meaning of success in American life

9Beyond Syncopation
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at Jelly Roll Morton and his latter-day admirer, Charles Mingus, and the role of race in their lives and in their pioneering jazz innovation. It sees Morton as jazz's "first intellectual," who took jazz from ragtime syncopation to open horizons of improvisation and true composition,. The chapter sees Morton's unconscious as self-parody as a precursor to Charles Mingus's psychological examination of his life as an African-American man and its sexual and social constraints in Beneath the Underdog. Mingus's exploitation of the liberating possibilities of a ferocious vein of satire and avant-garde innovation in his music bring this book to its conclusion.

Zeese Papanikolas lives and works in Oakland, California. He is a former Stegner Fellow and long-time member of the Humanities Department at the San Francisco Art Institute. His writing includes Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre (1982), Trickster in the Land of Dreams (1998), and American Silence (2007).

"[The author] provides a new and refreshing glimpse of a cadre of individuals he labels 'syncopators'—slightly offbeat, marginalized people who often marched to the beat of the proverbial 'different drummer'….Highly recommended" —P. D. Travis, Choice

"[The author] provides a new and refreshing glimpse of a cadre of individuals he labels 'syncopators'—slightly offbeat, marginalized people who often marched to the beat of the proverbial 'different drummer'... Highly recommended"

P. D. Travis

"More often than not, the book is more akin to a vividly impressionistic novel than most academic texts....[T]he book is undoubtedly the result of rigorous research, deep engagement and passion for the primary materials it explores. This combination of style and substance is a rare and heady mix that is ultimately far more satisfying as a result."

Adam Burns
History: The Journal of the Historical Association

"The great appeal of this book is its freedom from conventional categories, its charming, at times moving, style of writing, which captures a special rhythm in American popular culture. This is an important book, and literate Americans should read it."

John Dizikes, Professor Emeritus of American Studies
University of California, Santa Cruz

"An American Cakewalk is a delight. Once I waded in, I did not want to be called back to shore. Not a cultural history, nor an argument with others, this book is a labor of love, serious in its prose and intentions, abounding with insight, written with verve and grace."

George Cotkin
author of Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby Dick (2012)