What is so American about Edward Hopper?

This is the question I pondered at this huge retrospective of his work in the heart of Paris. There seems to be a Hopper retrospective ever few years or so in the United States. His images have become so familiar, so iconic in their simple compositions and their isolated characters sitting silently in public and private spaces. His most famous painting, “Nighthawks” (1942), has been reproduced and caricatured so often you are surprised when you actually stand in front of it, the dramatic contrasting light between the diner’s inner, yellow hues and the shadowy street never match a reproduction. The painting practically glows from the interior outward, the light indistinct in source. It seems as if the whole canvas must be illuminated from behind. “Nighthawks,” like many of his works of the era, have become iconic of the mid-century era, their compositions inspiring… More…

One of the most amazing thoughts in that most amazing of documents, the Declaration of Independence, comes in the second half of the second paragraph. The lines directly follow the more famous ones about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They address the question of (for lack of a better term) revolution. The case is stated thusly: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

 

In essence, it argues that the American people have a right to make up a new form of government, of whatever sort they like, any… More…

 

 

In the 19th century, Americans really turned to the business of thinking about themselves. “What have we got here, anyway?” was the operational question. They came up with two big answers. The first answer was that America is nothing. The second answer was that America is everything. Simple and obscure all at once, just like so many Americans.

The nothing part was about wiping the slate clean. European civilization had come to America to be obliterated, and America happily obliged. The everything part was about what you’re left with after the obliteration. For 19th-century America, the everything was in Nature, which you spelled with a capital “N” and then let Ralph Waldo Emerson do the rest. Ralph would write sentences like, “The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it… More…

These things are by nature impossible to see, but the Florida Atlantic University parking lots in Boca Raton are built on a lost civilization.

 

In 1903, 29-year-old Japanese pioneer and recent NYU graduate Jo Sakai had a notion. He would gather together a small band of enthusiasts, investors, and hangers-on, he told the Jacksonville Board of Trade. Together, they would grow pineapples and rearrange a little piece of America based on utopian ideals and Japanese know-how. “A Jap here at Rickard’s looking for a tract of land for a colony,” noted Frank Chesebro, Boca banana pioneer, in his diary. By 1905 the Yamato Colony set sail. The educated colonists were few at first, and they didn’t actually know how to farm, but they worked hard for their new tropical micro-paradise. Clusters of shacks sprouted up on the half-flooded,… More…

The funny thing about Rome is that anyone can invoke it. The whole death-to-Caesar thing is popular. John Wilkes Booth seems like something of a quack, quoting Brutus’ “Sic semper tyrannis” as he jumped to the stage after shooting Lincoln. But Abigail Adams thought the same of George III, and signed her wartime letters to her husband John with the name “Portia” — Brutus’ wife. Everyone also seems to love thinking themselves Rome to their enemies’ Carthage. Washington’s victory over Britain was often compared to Rome’s ultimate victory in the Punic Wars. But back before the war ended, Britain’s Charles Van told Parliament, “Delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage must be destroyed”) in discussing the trouble with the colonies — lines spoken by Cato the Elder when Carthage broke the treaty ending the Second Punic War. Tyrants and Carthage, it seems, are in the eye of the oppressed and those facing a… More…

 

Philip the Second is an afterthought. That’s what a college professor once said. We were reading Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. The professor was pointing out the significance of the book’s title. Philip II comes at the end, and he’s really just the name for an Age, an Age defined by The Mediterranean and The Mediterranean World. The beginning of the book is mostly about geography, weather, seasonal migrations of various kinds of animals. Braudel was of the Annales School, a group of historians for whom history ought to be told in the little stories, the ground level (literally), the details of life as it is experienced by the mostly unnamed creatures who toil for their time and then pass away.

Wandering through the New York State… More…

Christmas music has never ranked highly among music aficionados. It exists, but no one likes to think about it much. Still, to create Christmas music is to belong in America. I don’t think this is a religious phenomenon. It is about homely feelings, about playing at tradition in a land that hasn’t any real ones. Americans imported their traditions from other lands and then went on to neglect them generally. Christmas is our pathetic, if charming, attempt at compensation.

The big question no one was asking in the 1980s was whether rap music could ever go that far. Was rap American enough to accomplish the Christmas song? When you do the Christmas song you are solid, you are in the club. Moreover, you are in the club to stay. A successful Christmas song will make it into a radio-cum-internet rotation that is beyond the vicissitudes of time. Think of “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. No one… More…