American rhapsody Writers, musicians, movie stars, and one great building

Claudia Roth Pierpont

Book - 2016

"Incisive biographical profiles of some of the most iconic American artists and creations of the twentieth century"--

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New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2016.
First edition
Item Description
The majority of essays were previously published in The New Yorker.
Includes index.
Physical Description
309 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Main Author
Claudia Roth Pierpont (-)
  • Introduction
  • Cries and Whispers: Edith Wharton
  • For Love and Money: F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Behind the Mask: Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit
  • Jazzbo: George Gershwin
  • The Silver Spire: The Chrysler Building
  • Tough Guy: Dashiell Hammett
  • The Collector: Peggy Guggenheim
  • Born For The Part: Katharine Hepburn
  • The Player Kings: Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier
  • Method Man: Marlon Brando
  • Another Country: James Baldwin
  • A Raised Voice: Nina Simone.
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* A longtime New Yorker staff writer on the arts beat and a virtuoso of the profile form, Pierpont (Roth Unbound, 2013) has substantially reworked a dozen magazine pieces to create this scintillating portrait gallery under a title borrowed from one of her subjects, George Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blue was originally American Rhapsody, a phrase expressing Gershwin's vision of the promise of American equality, freedom, and success; Pierpont uses this idea as a polestar in her keenly distilled considerations of embattled but profoundly influential artists. On the literary front, she discerns the creative repercussions of Edith Wharton's struggle with loneliness and sexism, takes an exceptionally crisp and penetrating look at Dashiell Hammett's ups and downs, and offers a deeply moving response to James Baldwin's genius and courage. Exquisitely precise in perception and language, Pierpont captures Katharine Hepburn's "mixture of comedy and pathos" and, in one of her most extensive inquiries, explores the cruel paradoxes faced by the groundbreaking black actor Bert Williams. Incisive portraits of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Peggy Guggenheim, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, and Nina Simone also surround the intriguing story behind New York's boldly designed and incandescent Chrysler Building, an obelisk marking the glittering terrain Pierpont so insightfully maps as she reinvigorates our appreciation for artists instrumental in shaping our culture and propelling our ongoing struggle to realize our ideals. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

A staff writer for The New Yorker whose Passionate Minds was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Pierpont here chronicles key individuals who defined 20th-century American culture. You'll meet Edith Wharton and Nina Simone, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett, Katharine Hepburn, George Gershwin, and the soaring Chrysler Building, with Jazz Age genius paralleling bitter racial struggle. [Page 75]. (c) Copyright 2016 Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

New Yorker staff writer Pierpont (Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books; Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World) presents a loosely connected collection of essays (11 about people, one on the Chrysler Building) that alternately celebrate and skewer the American spirit. In "The Player Kings," about Orson Welles, the author finds it necessary to bring in a Brit—in this case, Sir Laurence Olivier—to compare and contrast the men's performing and directing styles. A general feeling of thwarted potential pervades, with such figures as Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Bert Williams, and George Gershwin experiencing personal or societal setbacks, sometimes both. Though all the persons profiled made their mark on the world, Pierpont's essays ponder the possibilities of how much more each could have accomplished, if only…. Particularly dispiriting is the chapter featuring Dashiell Hammett, whose writing "dry spell" lasted so much longer than his fleeting years of success and fame. Although there is no bibliography, the author cites plenty of biographies and back matter for readers who want to know more. VERDICT This sharp-eyed look at some American originals will stimulate further interest in its subjects. [See Prepub Alert, 11/9/15.]—Liz French, Library Journal [Page 79]. (c) Copyright 2016 Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Pierpont's (Roth Unbound) colorful portraits of writers, actors, and musicians including Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Nina Simone, and George Gershwin, among others, offer a kaleidoscopic mural of America's cultural coming-of-age in the early to mid-20th century. In spite of the book's disjointed nature, though, Pierpont's shining prose provides some bright and memorable moments. Hepburn, she declares, overcomes many obstacles to present us with an image of strength: "We held her close not because she could act but because of the insistent life that hummed through every taut and peremptory inch of her." Dashiell Hammett turns "inarticulateness into a style" and seeks, even more than Gertrude Stein, to strip writing down radically to its essence. Gershwin's music endures because of his vision of the ways that music brings people together: as he wrote, "music always repeats the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time." Both Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit use their comic genius to turn the ugliness of racism into a painfully hilarious commentary on American life in the early 20th century. Though each of these characters is interesting in her or his own right, Pierpont doesn't tie them together in any convincing manner, nor do her profiles offer us much in the way of new readings of their lives and work. (May) [Page ]. Copyright 2016 PWxyz LLC

Review by Publisher Summary 1

A series of portraits of American artists and innovators who have helped to shape the country in the modern age covers such luminaries as Edith Wharton, George Gershwin, Peggy Guggenheim, and Marlon Brando.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

"Incisive biographical profiles of some of the most iconic American artists and creations of the twentieth century"--

Review by Publisher Summary 3

Ranging from the shattered gentility of Edith Wharton's heroines to racial confrontation in the songs of Nina Simone, American Rhapsody presents a kaleidoscopic story of the creation of a culture. Here is a series of deeply involving portraits of American artists and innovators who have helped to shape the country in the modern age.Claudia Roth Pierpont expertly mixes biography and criticism, history and reportage, to bring these portraits to life and to link them in surprising ways. It isn't far from Wharton's brave new women to F. Scott Fitzgerald's giddy flappers, and on to the big-screen command of Katharine Hepburn and the dangerous dames of Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled world. The improvisatory jazziness of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue has its counterpart in the great jazz baby of the New York skyline, the Chrysler Building. Questions of an American acting style are traced from Orson Welles to Marlon Brando, while the new American painting emerges in the gallery of Peggy Guggenheim. And we trace the arc of racial progress from Bert Williams's blackface performances to James Baldwin's warning of the fire next time, however slow and bitter and anguished this progress may be.American Rhapsody offers a history of twentieth-century American invention and genius. It is about the joy and profit of being a heterogeneous people, and the immense difficulty of this human experiment.