My Mount Rushmore of American Culture

After spending part of the morning listening to the hosts of the Slate Culture Gabfest say who they would put on a Mount Rushmore of American Culture a few months ago, I was inspired to make my own list. Not that I’m dissatisfied with who they chose, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I want them to like me, plus I have my own ideas and I want to explore them. And since Stephen Metcalf ignored the rule about picks for this project having to be dead (why should they have to be dead, anyway?), I have ignored that in two cases, though in one of those cases the person has been inactive for fifteen years, which is not to say may as well be dead. Their biases and areas of interest informed their decisions, and so mine will inform my decisions. And here they are:

Chita Rivera. They made more of an effort than Slate usually does to include theatre in their discussion, with Dana Stevens including Irving Berlin on her Mount Rushmore and Dan Kois saying that he’d include Stephen Sondheim were Sondheim dead and settling on Joseph Papp. Sondheim was one of my first thoughts as well, but these days whenever I think of the most interesting legendary theatrical career, I settle on Chita Rivera’s. Her involvement with landmark musicals like West Side Story, in part about the immigrant experience, Bye, Bye Birdie, one of the very earliest rock musicals, and Chicago, about America’s obsession with sensational news stories, is just the tip of the iceberg of the career of a Hispanic woman who became one of the most important people in Broadway history when many ethnic roles were still being played by white people. Her most recent Broadway musical, The Visit, about a woman whose wealth comes from the many men she has outlived, is a kind of metaphor for her life and career: she lives on, today, as so many of those she worked with have gone, and she is rich with the songs, dances, and dialogue they gave her.

Willa Cather. All the Slate people included poets (either Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman), but I’m not that into poetry. Willa Cather published some poetry, so she checks that off the list, but is of course more well known for her novels, which explore the Great Plains and South West regions of the United States, and also frequently involve immigrants like those she grew up with, and their experiences in America, particularly in the afore mentioned regions. In addition to those themes, she also frequently brought other kinds of art into her fiction, most notably opera, and even dealt with being gay and unable to say anything about it, albeit subtly. Her own sexuality (and gender, really) remain a mystery, for the most part, and one of the more fascinating ones among literary figures, and this kind of makes her the ultimate queer artist no longer living to include on a Mount Rushmore of American Culture.

Jerome Robbins. Though Irving Berlin was mentioned, and Dan Kois’s point about not having involved theatre could be applied to all Slate culture coverage, even less mentioned, on Slate and on the gabfest, and particularly important to me just now, having finished up performances with Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance (not as a dancer, but as a member of the pit chorus), is dance. I’m as solid with dance as I am poetry, which is to say least of all art forms, but whereas most of the expression represented in any discussion of expression is mostly audible, it seemed to me something mostly visual should be taken into account. Taylor himself is not dead, and his work is not as entwined with Americana as that of others. I thought to go with George Balanchine, but while he’s one of the most important figures in dance history, he means very little to me, and I had plenty of fodder from the world of musical theatre. I briefly considered going with Bob Fosse, but settled on Jerome Robbins, creator of the bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof, which has become a staple of Yiddish dance, and the legendary opening of West Side Story, and just a man who started in dance and, over the course of his career, worked with nearly every important musical theatre figure. He may not have created the flying effects for the 1954 musical Peter Pan, but he was the driving force behind that project as well, and probably had some say in them.

Sidney Poitier. Also not dead, though not active. When I started getting assigned movies in school where there had previously only been books, one thing the movies tended to have in common was Sidney Poitier. Whether Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, or Blackboard Jungle, Poitier’s movies dealt with difficult issues with beautiful sensitivity. While he was not the first black person to be given an Oscar, he was the first black man to be nominated for a competitive Oscar and to win a Best Actor Oscar. He was in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, and later in the movie adaptation, and he directed movies as well. While he hasn’t made a new movie since I really started paying attention to acting and the arts in general, he’s been part of my consciousness since I saw him receive his Honorary Academy Award for his place in American movie history, and the accompanying retrospective.

So there they are, no more or less right than your own champions. I doubt this will become as popular to do as that “Ten Books That Changed Your Life” thing that was big a few years ago, but I’d probably read more of these than I did of those, since it’s a more interesting thing to ponder. For sentimental reasons I might also have included George Bellows or George Gershwin, or Zora Neale Hurston or Aaron Copeland or Richard Wright. Truman Capote created an entire genre of literature, for better or for worse, and I love his writing. But I think the four I picked represent what I want to represent and celebrate about American culture. I couldn’t justify putting Ethel Merman up there, though the thought of her face, mid-belt, etched in stone does appeal to me. Or Rodney Dangerfield. No one on the gabfest gave him respect. Neither did I, nor anyone of us mention anyone from stand-up comedy. I should stop, or I’ll keep going. It is really hard to choose. Good luck, if you choose to try.