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Book Review : Russell Lynes: An Eagle Among Culture Vultures

November 28, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

The Lively Audience by Russell Lynes (Harper & Row: $25)

A pre-eminent American cultural historian, Lynes is both optimistic and generous, a rare combination of qualities in a field overrun with carpers, cavilers and viewers-with-alarm. Ever since the late '40s, when he became managing editor of Harper's magazine, his perceptive observations on the fine and lively arts have amused and enlightened a growing public. While others swoop and devour, Lynes soars and samples; a golden eagle among the culture vultures.

Though he has done his share of deploring (remember "Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow"; assorting us all by our preferences in food, clothing and shelter), Lynes was always fair, no more partial to the highbrow's unwashed salad bowl reeking of rancid oil than he was to the lowbrow's wedge of iceberg lettuce lapped in orange "French dressing." Lynes not only helped get the pink flamingos off American lawns but the iron blackamoors, too. Singlehandedly he forestalled the spread of the killer philodendron threatening to engulf the land, and may someday even be credited for moving TV sets out of the dining room. In sum, his influence has been beneficent, something you can't often say for his rivals and colleagues.

"The Lively Audience" is a generally good-humored chronicle of developing and changing American attitudes toward the arts during the last 110 years. For the purposes of this book, Lynes sets the date of a national artistic consciousness at 1876, the year of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, though he does acknowledge the existence of various cultural enclaves long before then.

Imported Culture

Until the last third of the 19th Century, however, much of our music, painting and architecture was imported from abroad; gifted American artists and craftsmen working from French and English models. Though there are those who will hotly dispute that contention, Lynes substantiates his argument so thoroughly that all but the most contentious should be tranquilized.

He believes the crucial developments changing us from a nation of borrowers to a country of originators were the state university system, the endowment of public libraries, and the proliferation of magazines and newspapers. The phenomenon that Lynes particularly emphasizes is the 19th-Century Chautauqua Movement, which flourished so dramatically that virtually every pond in the nation soon had a summer tent colony of campers eager to spend their holidays listening to lectures on economics, history, literature, politics and science.

Winter "Chautauquas" followed, with participants meeting in church basements, grange halls, schools and even stores, to study and discuss the books ordered from the society and listen to the notables sent out to the boondocks for their edification.

Iowa Meets Shakespeare

In 1885, Iowa had more than 100 Chautauqua circles; farmers hitching up and driving miles to hear the concerts and orators; to marvel at traveling exhibits of sculpture and painting, and from time to time, actually to see a fully mounted production of a Shakespearean play. "Culture was looked upon by the organizers and joiners of such meetings as a kind of group therapy to cure the ills of unsophistication and in useful ways to fill the voids of leisure . . . a social approach to sharpening the intellect and an intellectual excuse for justifying social occasions." At that point, for the first time in our short history, we were able to afford the luxury of vacations, and cultural pursuits filled the bill to perfection.

The arts required effort and built character, qualities contributing to their success in a nation still firmly bound in the Puritan work ethic and both suspicious and wary of idleness. Beginning in the 1870s, the arts gradually became a respectable pursuit, though for a long time thereafter, they were considered the province of women, a notion that still survives.

Having established its origins, Lynes follows his Lively Audience through its first tentative excursions from high art into popular culture--jazz, movies, vaudeville and photography, dealing in considerable detail with the revolution in habits and taste brought about by radio, television and the record industry.

The great and near great are handled with irony and respect according to merit; writers, film makers, actors and musicians as well as philanthropists receiving almost equal space. Though the book is enhanced by illustrations and its value increased by a small bibliography, its chief charm is that of a tolerant and knowledgeable man regarding "the interplay of people and the arts" from a singular vantage point.

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