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March 02, 2004

1903, or Jumping on Terry

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's pile-on-Terry-Teachout time! In "An Open Letter to Terry Teachout" (here), John Massengale chides Terry for a characterization Terry once made of the American arts in 1903.

Here's Terry's passage:

What a difference a century makes. In 1903, comparatively few Americans took anything like a passionate interest in the arts. Only two living American novelists, Mark Twain and Henry James, had done major work, and Twain's was long behind him. Our best painters, the American impressionists, hewed to a style frankly derivative of their European models; our art museums were narrowly provincial in scope and ambition. We had no great composers, no great poets or playwrights, no ballet companies, and only a handful of symphony orchestras and opera companies.

Here's a bit of John's response:

I�m surprised by your endorsement of this Modernist bias towards the early 20th century. You are breezily dismissing one of the greatest artistic periods in American history ... 1903 was the heart of the period called the American Renaissance and the peak of the widespread and very popular City Beautiful movement. Without question, it was the greatest time in America for architecture and city-building.

I feel bad about letting myself be drawn into this, because Terry's a model citizen -- a terrific critic and an ultra-generous and enthusiastic blogger. Writers about the arts nearly all have a lot to learn from him.

Still, I can't resist. I think John's got Terry good: it seems perfectly clear to me that the more you learn about 1903, the more it can make 2003 look lame. But the real reason I can't hold back is that I so vehemently agree with what I take to be John's larger point, which is how surprising it is that that even educated, arty Americans lack awareness of how vibrant pre-modernist American culture was. It's a pet rant of mine too.

We often look back on early 20th century American art -- let alone 18th and 19th century American art -- and don't see much there. A few painters ... some white marble sculpture ... maybe some folk art ... Melville 'n' Poe 'n' Twain 'n' Hawthorne ... And that's about it. The rap on pre-modernist American art is that there simply wasn't much, and that what was there was provincial, derivative, rube-ish -- hardly worth paying attention to at all. Generally a dismal, almost shameful episode we'd do well to leave behind.

One example: even publishing-world pros and insiders tend to assume that there was no "real" American publishing prior to the arrival of some Euro emigres in the early 20th century, modernist figures who finally gave us a "real" book-publishing culture.

Um, er ... How many ways can you spell "bullshit"? To explain things a bit more patiently: given the kinds of educations and brainwashings we've gotten for several decades and given the ways our "educated" tastes have been formed, it's understandable that many people hold these assumptions. This is simply part of the package, the belief-set that the standard, educated American is now equipped with; if you think or believe otherwise, well, you just don't really know. (Note: I've left Massengale/Teachout long behind and have veered off onto my own self-indulgent tangent. Here's hoping it's semi-amusing, or maybe halfway useful.)

I got curious about the question of pre-modernist American art myself after spending some time in the real world of the arts, looking at things through my own eyes.

(Sigh: so much of the time I've spent since our spell at Our Lousy Ivy University has been spent unlearning the crap that got laid on us then ... Why didn't our profs simply give us trustworthy guidance in the first place?)

Could it really be the case that pre-modernist American art was such a trivial joke? The time I was spending with books, CDs, and in museums was certainly suggesting otherwise.

Sad to say that I've only been able to do spare-time poking around, and in a patchwork way -- hey, gotta make a living and live a life. But my halfway-informed conclusion nonetheless is: pre-modernist American art was anything but an embarrasment. Au contraire, it was a rowdy, large-scale, exuberant time -- multidimensional, dynamic, open, and democratic in ways that our culture has never been since. (Although electronics may be returning us to a similar state.)

A related conclusion I've arrived at is that most of us have lost the knack for enjoying and appreciating much of this art. Our tastes and brains have been shaped in modernist, po-mo, and pop ways -- and through such eyes, much pre-modernist American art looks exactly like what we've been told it is: rube-ish, and best forgotten.

Take off those blinders, though, and it's quite possible to find the groove of this art. And what a rush that can be. Euro-derivative? You bet some of it is!!! Hick? Damn straight, and often in touching, inventive and cool ways!!! Vulgar and clueless? Hell yeah, and you can eat your heart out, accursed taste-fanatics!!! Classy? Yup, there was some of that too.

The cultural scene was what it's in fact always been in America, and what it continues to be today, at least once you shake off the academic harness: an immense, ever-morphing panorama of bewildering and often wonderful activities and forms; dynamic and inventive; sometimes cringe-making, sometimes annoying, and sometimes thrilling; and nearly impossible to categorize.

It's sprawling and haphazard -- anything but an easily-comprehended, centralized and hierarchical Euro-style "culture." It's a fun, if confusing, fact that the yearning for Euro-respectability and Euro-orderliness has always been one part of the American culture scene.

Today's scene includes symphony orchestras, shock-value avant-garde art, New Classical poetry, surf-style design shops, garage-band rock, car ads, reality TV, sniffily highbrow novels and trash romances.

Hey, back in pre-modernist times we had Edith Wharton fiction and dime-store Westerns; genteel white-marble allegorical sculpture and minstrel shows; society portraiture and back-country quilts; mountain music and self-conscious attempts at "important" art. One of my fave examples is the early visionary musical naif Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who once led an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000, and who kept his huge ensemble in some rough kind of synch by firing off cannons. How do you react to such tales? Me, my eyes swell up with pride and amazement, and I mutter things like, "Suck on that, Robert Wilson."

Gilmore: Why don't teachers talk about him?

It's as though American culture was designed to drive intellectuals to distraction -- at least those intellectuals who like to think they've got a thorough grasp on things, and might even be able to direct them. Part of the American panorama has always been, as far as I can tell, the presence of intellectuals claiming that we have no "real" culture. Like I say: all part of the American scene, and always 'way beyond the ability of any one class to control.

I think it's fair to say that American culture is rollicking, bewildering, category-busting, and just won't stay still. Letting the accepted, academic version of American culture blind us to how variegated and dynamic it is does a lot of work a terrible disservice.

Did I mention, by the way, my hunch that it's from the modernist attitude about "real American publishing" -- ie., we had none until some Euro immigrants finally showed us how it's "really" done -- that our awful contempo habit of dismissing a book as "not a real book" comes from? Interesting how that word "real" keeps cropping up, isn't it?

(I have no idea what Terry's view of all this is, by the way, and don't mean to be addressing him. I suspect he knows far more than I do -- he's a pro, after all. Me, I'm an amateur riding a hobbyhorse.)

Anyway, after reading John's "Open Letter" to Terry, I treated myself to a few hours surfing the web and leafing through reference books. What did American art and entertainment consist of in 1903? Was it a lively time? Or was it the drab calm before the modernist storm?

To set the scene: in 1903, cars are rare and not yet mass-produced. Roads are mostly dirt, and exist largely for the convenience of horses. Telephones are few and far-between, and radio hasn't yet been dreamed of. Most Americans still live in the countryside, and not in cities or suburbs.

Here's some of what I turned up:

  • John points out what Terry's generalization overlooks in architecture. I'll repeat some of John's finds, and try to add a little something too. Some of the buildings -- just in NYCity -- that opened within a few years of 1903: The Plaza Hotel; Grand Central Terminal; Pennsylvania Station; The US Custom House; Macy's; the Singer Building; the Flatiron Building; the NY Stock Exchange; the Lyceum theater; the New Amsterdam Theater; the "new" Metropolitan Opera House; the St Regis Hotel; the Century Club; the University Club; and the NY Yacht Club.

  • Some of the era's better-known architects include: Carrere and Hastings; McKim, Mead and White; George Post; Cass Gilbert; Daniel Burnham; Ernest Flagg; Horace Trumbauer; Warren & Wetmore; Louis Sullivan; Henry J. Hardenbergh; Ralph Cram and Bertram Goodhue. But American architecture wasn't all Beaux Arts, 24/7/365. Julia Morgan had just received her degree and was about to begin building in California, where Greene & Greene and Bernard Maybeck were already busy. The Stick and Shingle styles were still happenin'; and many of the houses in such still-treasured towns as Cape May, NJ, were either relatively new or under construction; the paint was still drying on the mansions in Newport, RI. In fact, the stretch between 1895 and the First World War was the era of some of the most-beloved of all American residential styles -- the Craftsman Bungalow, the Arts and Crafts house, the Pueblo Revival, and the Prairie Style.

  • How about the other visual arts? Some of the era's bigger names: Augustus Saint-Gaudens; Frederick MacMonnies; John La Farge; Louis Comfort Tiffany; Alfred Stieglitz; Elihu Vedder; Kenyon Cox; Mary Cassatt; Winslow Homer; Robert Henri; Thomas Eakins; Cecilia Beaux.

  • I do wish I were better-informed about theater history. Still, in 1903: Ethel Barrymore was a great young star; Buffalo Bill was touring his Wild West Show; the realistic-melodramatic extravanganzas of David Belasco (whose influence can be seen some years later in the films of DW Griffith) were big hits. Will Marion Cook and Paul Lawrence Dunbar had recently written and staged "Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk," a landmark African-American operetta. But the greatest of the mass-entertainment forms was vaudeville. It was huge. One observer guessed there were 1200 different vaudeville acts making the rounds of the country's vaudeville houses, many of which were palatial in scale. Vaudeville headliners were major stars who could make up to $1500 a week. Here's a Library of Congress site about vaudeville.

  • Mustn't overlook a little development called the movies. 1903 was the year Edwin S. Porter made three landmark films: "The Life of an American Fireman" (often thought to be the first film really assembled in the cutting room), "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (an ambitious example of literary adaptation), and the 12-minute-long "The Great Train Robbery," the most ambitious and accomplished fiction-story film yet made. An interesting fact, if irrelevant to this posting: between 1900 and 1920, the live theater would lose 90% of its audience to movies.

  • How about writing? A flip through "The Reader's Encyclopedia" yields the following scorecard: George Santayana; William and Henry James; William Dean Howells; Booth Tarkington; Owen ("The Virginian") Wister; Edith Wharton ("The House of Mirth" spent over a year on the bestseller list -- Wharton, a bestseller!). Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" had been published recently; James Weldon Johnson was in the process of moving away from song lyrics and taking up literary writing. Mary Roberts Rinehart, soon to be a hugely successful and influential mystery writer, was publishing her first short stories. Argosy, an early pulp-fiction magazine, was selling a half a million copies a month. The "Nick Carter" mysteries, written by a variety of authors, were helping set the stage for the crime-and-mystery genre. Dime novels were popular, and a ton of authors were giving the Holmes-derived archetype known as the Great Detective a regular workout.

  • I'm, sigh, also weaker than I should be on American music of the era. Still: Dvorak had recently visited; the fabulous Harry T. Burleigh was busy both as a composer and a performer, putting spirituals and spiritual-derived music on the concert stage; the Fisk Jubilee Singers were touring the world as they had been for decades, introducing audiences to slave songs and spirituals. In 1902, W.C. Handy -- who later liked to take credit for inventing jazz -- formed his first band. And in 1903, the African-American songwriting and performing duo Cole and Johnson signed an exclusive deal with a team of theater producers; under its terms, Cole and Johnson would each earn more than $25,000 a year from their songwriting.

I dunno: seems like a dazzling, wild, and wonderful era to me.

I can't resist linking to a couple of my own postings, where I rant on about these matters. Here I write about how wonderfully nutty and infuriatingly impossible to characterize American art and culture have always been. And here I write about the artist John La Farge, a major figure who's very little known today, even by art buffs.

Anyway, what a fun opportunity to survey the art of the time and to indulge one of my pet themes. Thanks to Terry and John both for the occasion. Terry's blog is here; John's is here. Both, of course, are highly recommended. Have I mentioned, by the way, how much more I've learned about the arts from knocking around online than I ever did in a classroom?

People eager to explore some of these facts and stories with the guidance of someone more trustworthy than a half-assed blogger could do worse than to start with these sources:

  • Lawrence Levine's eye-opening cultural history Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. It can be bought here.

  • Josef Skvorecky's fact-based novel about Dvorak's visit to America, Dvorak in Love (buyable here). I was so thunderstruck by what I was reading that I sat down with a copy of Grove's Musical Dictionary and doublechecked a number of Skvorecky's claims. As far as I could tell, all the book's facts are true. It's a terrific work of scholarship, and a beautiful novel, too -- one of the most satisfying and moving new novels I read during the 15 years I followed new lit fiction, right up there (IMHO) with the best of Kundera and Garcia Marquez.

  • A couple of Robert Winter's exciting music-history CD-ROMs, one an exploration of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, the other called Crazy for Ragtime. They're buyable ... well, where exactly? I'm not sure. The Dvorak was a Voyager CD-ROM -- has Voyager vanished? Perhaps the disc can be found on Ebay these days? In any case, it looks like you might be able to buy the Ragtime disc here.

What does po-mo have on Frank Furness?

Speaking for myself, I found repeated visits to Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts invaluable. All those stilted cigar-box-style statues, those rigid portraits, the cluelessness, the anxieties about Euro art ... And finally I started to get it. Everything about the art that made me wince is in fact where what's terrific about it begins. The building itself, an exuberant, polychrome, Victorian/Gothic 1870s beauty by the Philadelphia giant Frank Furness, is an education (and major delight) in itself. The museum's website is here.

Eager to hear corrections and contributions -- I'm sure I've overlooked many names, and I wouldn't be surprised if I've goofed on a few facts. (Where'd my damn fact-checker go?) And I'd be very interested to hear hunches about why we tend to do such a disservice to the art and culture of the pre-modernist period. Can we blame it entirely on modernism? I sure hope so.



posted by Michael at March 2, 2004


From the same era, in 1904 St. Louis, MO held both a World's Fair and the 1904 Olympics.

The link above shows some fairly interesting architecture (I think), and the World's Fair saw the invention of both iced tea and ice cream cones (at least according to the source I found).

The Washington Conservatory of Music was founded in 1903, in part to combat the pernicious influence of ragtime. Scott Joplin was near the height of his popularity in 1903, for instance. Your opinion may be different, but I love good ragtime, and it seems to be authentically American.

According to this site, both "Babes in Toyland" and "The Wizard of Oz" were on the stage on Broadway. L. Frank Baum published "The Wizard of Oz" (book) in 1900; "The Land of Oz" was published in 1904.

I completely agree with you that Mr. Teachout's dismissal was premature.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on March 3, 2004 2:20 PM

Michael Lind had a great article on this subject in the February '98 _Harper's Magazine_, called "Where Have You Gone, Louis Sullivan?"

Posted by: Steve Casburn on March 3, 2004 2:43 PM

I intend to get back to this subject further, but as a short riposte, on the visual side, check out a web page of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts concerning "Paris 1900: The 'American School' at the Universal Exposition. (The link is It discusses, among other painters: Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, and George Inness. Funny, none of them would be described as American Impressionists. Maybe Mr. Teachout needs to hit the history books a bit harder before ripping off such sloppy generalizations; these artists aren't exactly obscure.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 3, 2004 3:36 PM

I know nobody ever thinks of golf course architecture as an art, but it's history followed the same patterns as architecture.

It's now almost universally admitted among experts on golf course architecture that the premodernist era in America was the Golden Age, and that the modernist era of the late 1940s until recently was a dud. In recent years, however, neo-traditionalist architects like Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore, and Tom Doak have revived the classical styles to great acclaim.

Granted, there wasn't much good architecture yet by 1903. (The game had only been introduced to America 15 years earlier and British architects were just beginning to figure out how to create artificial inland courses that could compare to the great natural courses found in the sand dunes of Scotland and England.) But by 1909 when Charles Blair MacDonald's National Golf Links of America was built on Long Island, American golf architecture entered a glorious quarter of a century run of enormous creativity and quirkiness. Most of the major championship tournaments are still played on premodern courses.

After the Depression and WWII ended new golf course construction for over 10 years, Robert Trent Jones introduced in the late 1940s a self-consciously rationalized style, rather like the Seagram's Building compared to the Chrysler Building of the premodern courses. This allowed the building at fairly moderate cost of courses that provided strong tests of golf for all levels of players (an achievement that should not be disdained), but they lacked charm.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 3, 2004 3:55 PM

How come I never heard of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore before? He used cannons to keep everyone (more or less) in time???!!! What a fabulous, outrageous, goofball American stunt. You're right, it makes my heart swell with pride to be of the same nationality as such a guy.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 3, 2004 6:19 PM

- The Washington Conservatory of Music was founded in 1903, in part to combat the pernicious influence of ragtime. -

That's interesting because Scott Joplin actually wanted to be a classical composer and had some education in that direction. In addition to his well known ragtime pieces he also composed two operas, (one of which is lost) waltzes and, if I remember correctly, a ballet. I often wonder, if he had been able to complete his education, and if he had been white, whether his ragtime might have been considered a great innovation instead of a "pernicious influence."

You can find out more about Scott Joplin here:

Searching for sites about American classical music I came across this book review that has a few names to look into.

Posted by: Lynn S on March 3, 2004 9:18 PM

Oooh - I second the 'blame the modernists,' but one of the arguments I find most annoying is the 'it was all derivative' line of thought. The anxiety of influence never ran so high as it did in America from 1910 to 1950, and we were not better for it.

One of the most interesting developments of the c. 1900 period is the decline of America's (mainly) fruitful relationship with German-speaking European civilization in most of its forms. Painting in America in the 19th century is as dependent on the schools in Germany as those in Paris (me, I prefer Bierstadt to any number of paintings of Breton peasants) and Bierstadt's brothers were into the tech-side of visuality -- they manufactured stereocards!

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on March 3, 2004 10:45 PM

Mike, links to the original pieces you commented on would be nice. Excerpts rarely give you a full picture of the original argument.

BTW, I did expound on your composition.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 3, 2004 11:07 PM

The American Fireman film is problematic as an example of a film "really assembled in the cutting room". One of my old film theory books from my university days has an extended article on the film, according to which there exist two radically different cuts; one uses cross-cutting within scenes and the other uses parallel cutting. The former was given to the Museum of Modern Art in 1944, the latter submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes in 1903.

There's various theories accounting for the existence of both. One theory says the MOMA print is a much later (i.e. 1930s/40s) re-edit carried out for uncertain reasons, and that the LOC print without cross-cutting is the real deal. Another says Porter did intend to use cross-cutting in the film and the LOC print is merely the unedited film. The author of the article is inclined to think the LOC print is the real thing, as a third print was rediscovered in the 1970s which tends to agree with the LOC copy, but he notes that just because one version might be shown to be inauthentic doesn't necessarily mean the other is the "real" film; the description of the film in the 1903 Edison catalogue doesn't entirely match either version, which has led some critics to wonder if the catalogue itself is correct.

So the American Fireman, poor bastard, is the centre of something of a historical minefield. It might be the first cross-cut film, it might not. One thing we can say about it, though, is that whoever wrote the trivia notes for the film's IMDB entry and said it was the first film to use editing (i.e. more than one shot) and the first story film ever made is talking bollocks. Presumably this individual has never heard of Georges Melies or seen any of his films such as 1902's "Voyage to the Moon", which looks suspiciously like a multi-shot fiction film to me. Either that or they thought it was a continuous 17-minute single-shot actuality film of a real trip to the moon.

Posted by: James Russell on March 4, 2004 1:19 AM

Wow. Great post. The preference for post-WWI writing is a pet peeve of mine. I like modernist writing, but its luster always seemed somewhat due to the supposed poverty of what preceded it; and once I got a taste of Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, and Stephen Crane, the luster started to wear off.

Crane especially. I love his irony, which is stoic and resigned, but oddly comforting. My reaction to Crane is often like Michael's to Bruegel: I "muse on my mortality, but in a pleasant kind of way." Here's Crane's poem The Wayfarer:

The wayfarer, \ Perceiving the pathway to truth, \ Was struck with astonishment. \ It was thickly grown with weeds. \ "Ha," he said, \ "I see that none has passed here \ In a long time." \ Later he saw that each weed \ Was a singular knife. \ "Well," he mumbled at last, \ "Doubtless there are other roads."

I instinctively compare this every time I read it to that other road poem, The Road Not Taken. Frost's is probably superior, but I prefer Crane's for its half-wondering, half-annoyed tone. Crane seems to be with us trudging about in the weeds. His poem also seems less contrived to make the reader revere the author. Where Frost dispenses wisdom like a distant uncle, Crane is more like the friend who's been there before. And in "doubtless there are other roads," I sense Crane, in his amusingly ironic way, trying to keep up his own spirits as well as ours.

And Crane is witty and funny -- something I didn't expect from the progenitor of the "modern war novel." I laughed out loud the first time I read The Red Badge of Courage. The thoughts of the hero, Henry Fleming, are just too ridiculous, too true-to-life, not to laugh at. Fleming is by turns olympian hero and flaming coward. And his thoughts are so raw they made me squirm. Here is Henry Fleming ("the youth") after he ignominiously flees from battle (and after a "tattered" soldier asks innocently where he's been injured):

The youth fell back in the procession until the tattered soldier was not in sight. Then he started to walk on with the others.

But he was amid wounds. The mob of men was bleeding. Because of the tattered soldier's question he now felt that his shame could be viewed. He was continually casting sidelong glances to see if the men were contemplating the letters of guilt he felt burned into his brow.

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a little red badge of courage.

I marvel at the way Crane's precise mental descriptions ("he felt his shame could be viewed") prepare the ground for hideous ironies ("He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy"). The passage also shows Crane's superb use of figurative language ("the letters of guilt he felt burned into his brow") and his craftsmanship (the placing of "But he was amid wounds" is impeccable). He's a virtuoso stylist. Here's another, funnier, passage (Fleming reacts to an officer calling him a "mule driver"):

A dagger-pointed gaze from without his blackened face was held toward the enemy, but his greater hatred was riveted upon the man, who, not knowing him, had called him a mule driver.

When he knew that he and his comrades had failed to do anything in successful ways that might bring the little pangs of a kind of remorse upon the officer, the youth allowed the rage of the baffled to possess him. This cold officer upon a monument, who dropped epithets unconcernedly down, would be finer as a dead man, he thought. So grievous did he think it that he could never possess the secret right to taunt truly in answer.

He had pictured red letters of curious revenge. "We are mule drivers, are we?" And now he was compelled to throw them away.

I love his language: “rage of the baffled,” “cold officer upon a monument,” “finer as a dead man,” “the secret right to taunt truly.” He probably overdoes it a bit with "red letters of a curious revenge,” but I can’t fault a metaphor that ends on such a decent note of dejection: "and now he was compelled to throw them away." There are perfect touches too, like the officer “not knowing him.” That must really have teed-off poor old Henry.

There’s also something hilarious about a boy at war with a "dagger-pointed gaze from without his blackened face" obsessing over being called a "mule driver." That's laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also fairly typical of Crane’s style. He seems to have enjoyed black, situational humor. But he was also a skilled light-satirist. Here’s Crane assuming the vantage of a 19th-century streetcar driver:

The greatest cases of aggravated idiocy were, to his mind, rampant upon the front platforms of all the streetcars. At first his tongue strove with these beings, but he eventually became superior. In him grew a majestic contempt for those strings of street-cars that followed him like intent bugs. [...] Foot passengers were mere pestering flies with an insane disregard for their legs and his convenience. He could not comprehend their desire to cross the streets. Their madness smote him with eternal amazement.

Crane lampooned “road rage” a hundred years before anyone thought to label it. And this is from the “socially conscious” “problem novel," Maggie: a Girl of the Streets.

I've never once heard critics (and I’ve heard a few) mention Crane’s excellent sense of humor. And that’s too bad. I’m sure there are many people out there that don't read prewar American novels because they think it’s all demented whalers and fornicating Puritans. But they'd be surprised, I think. American writers were for the first time creating novels uniquely American – and first-rate.

Of course the war changed all that. Afterwards America produced many first-rate writers -- more, in fact, than ever before -- but writers less idiosyncratically American, more devoted to trends in Europe.

And that too is a shame, in my opinion, because writers like Crane set trends of their own, and helped put American letters on the map. It’s not for nothing Joseph Conrad called The Red Badge of Courage “one of the most enduring memories of my literary life” and said that it detonated “on our literary sensibilities with the impact and force of a twelve-inch shell.” This from a man who knew about shells.

In Crane Conrad recognized something new in American letters, something he probably assumed future American generations would build upon. But the postwar generation, and generations since, chose European modernism instead.

Posted by: average joe on March 4, 2004 4:19 AM

Some more artistic works and events from 1902-1904 that still have significance today.


The Call of the Wild (1903), The People of the Abyss (1903) and The Sea Wolf (1904), Jack London
The Sport of the Gods (1902) Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Souls of Black Folk (1903) W.E.B. Du Bois
The Pit (1903), Frank Norris
The Shame of the Cities (1904), Lincoln Steffens
The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Ida Tarbell
The Common Lot (1904), Robert Herrick

Music and Theater

“Jack Tar March" by John Philip Sousa is published
“Give My Regards To Broadway" (1904) by George M. Cohan is published
Enrico Caruso joins cast of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company (1903) and makes first records for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The happy combination results in two decades of great success for both Caruso and Victor.
"In Dahomey" opens (1903), the first all-black musical in a major Broadway theater and the only one of the period to have its score published
Mississippi John Hurt begins performing
Leadbelly begins performing

Other cultural

Fred Thompson opens Luna Park at Coney Island (1903), thus inventing the theme park with adventure rides, and prefiguring Disneyland. Luna Park was second to none for its over-the-top, exotic architecture based on Arabian and Oriental fantasies. (For a fun historical essay, see
Windsor McCay launches a series of comic strips for the New York Herald in 1904, culminating in the debut of “Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905)
Baseball’s first World Series is held (1903)
Teddy Roosevelt’s cartoon (1902) inspires the first line of teddy bears
The edible chocolate phonograph record is invented (1903)

Bonus Audio Files

The “Poppy Song” from the Wizard of Oz has a suitably dreamy Victorian charm:

Do the funky cakewalk! From the musical “In Dahomey”:

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on March 4, 2004 4:33 AM

It's not 1903, but Irving Berlin published "Alexander's Ragtime Band" before WWI (1911).

Charles Ives did most of his composing between about 1895 and the end of WWI, though little was performed or recorded until much later.

Posted by: Raymund on March 4, 2004 10:35 AM

Anyplace that gave the world ice cream cones and iced tea in the same year is pretty darn great!

What happened to all the World's Fair Buildings?

Posted by: annette on March 4, 2004 11:12 AM

P.S.---Apparently, hotdogs came from that World's Fair, too.

Posted by: annette on March 4, 2004 11:14 AM

Two incredible posts from Steve Sailer and average joe.
Thanks to both.

Posted by: ricpic on March 4, 2004 11:37 AM

Wow -- Many thanks to everyone for links, thoughts, etc, I'll be exploring those for a long time -- lots of holes in my education yet to plug up, apparently. Keep 'em coming.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 4, 2004 12:44 PM

annette asked:

"Anyplace that gave the world ice cream cones and iced tea in the same year is pretty darn great!

"What happened to all the World's Fair Buildings?"

It's been years since I went to Washington University, but the fair was (largely?) in Forest Park, which is one of the great municipal parks in the US. (nb. It is approximately 500 acres larger than Central Park.) The art building is still in use as the St. Louis Art Museum, the World's Fair Pavillion is still in use, the Grand Basin is still used for boating. Most of the buildings were built to be torn down soon after the end of the fair, though.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on March 4, 2004 1:32 PM


Regarding the times of the early 1900's in the USA as not being times of Artistic merit, tangentially related is that I recall cleaning out a basement and running into boxes of magazines dated from that period, upon perusing was astounded at the amount of innovative products advertised. It was a magical wonderland of discovery and application taking place. Another current in the magazines was commentary on the rumblings of War emanating out of Germany.

[necessary context, hit the "next" button to conserve productive time]

Teachout seems a fine chap, from what I've read of his commentary over the past six months (?), and his cursory exclusion of this period of time, I read as more of just a passing anomaly (that fortunately was the impetus to your post here) rather than a gross oversight of one of whom should know better; as his commentaries seem to cover a wide array. A good portion of which I'll never entertain the thought of investigating moreso. Great, great post, by the way. Good stuff!

Posted by: reader on March 4, 2004 3:48 PM

One of the more interesting periods in American history (and history of art in part.) for me, may be because it was more authentic time in arts and crafts, and more sincere.
In fact, before leaving for America I fell in love with New York by reading excellently visual Jack Finney'Time and again' wich describes the city in the 1890's, 1900's and 1910's; it remains one of my favorites since. [Sequel is not as good, BTW]. My first walks in the city were to the Gramercy and than to Dacota, and it was quite a thrill to see "in flesh" the sites of action and imagine them in colors, smells and street noise of 1895...

Posted by: Tatyana on March 4, 2004 3:51 PM


Forest Park is still beautiful, including the Art Museum, but I didn't know it was from the World's Fair. I haven't seen the Basin.

Posted by: annette on March 4, 2004 4:22 PM

I'm sorry if I've made this posting look like an attack on Teachout. I was hoping it wouldn't come off that way. He's first class, and we'd all be better off if more critics were anything like as good as he is. And for all I know he 1) knows a lot about this period than any of us do and just doesn't think much of it, or 2) was busy that day and in need of some rhetoric to help him negotiate a passage in what he was writing. Whatever. Really, I was just happy to have an opportunity to gas on a bit about pre-modernist American art. Apologies to all if I didn't make that clear.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 4, 2004 5:47 PM

Off the top of my head, and I'm probably repeating other commenters' info because I haven't read all 21 of them in detail, but what about:

Jack London
Ford Maddox Ford
O. Henry
William Dean Howells
Frank Spearman
Jacques Futrelle (born in Georgia)
Zane Grey (okay, he came a little later, but only a little)

George M. Cohan

Ragtime, especially Scott Joplin
Irving Berlin

Again, that's just off the top of my head. I think you're right, this stuff is too easily dismissed.

Posted by: Ian on March 4, 2004 11:02 PM

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