Teachout, the critic, touring cultural divides

May 09, 2004|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

A Terry Teachout Reader, by Terry Teachout. Yale University Press. 438 pages. $35.

In 1977, at the tender age of 21, the Missouri-born Terry Teachout was reviewing concerts for The Kansas City Star, still working on the IBM Selectric typewriter that was a staple for those of us who were journalists then.

Music may have been Teachout's first critical romance (he was himself a jazz bassist in Kansas City, one of the nation's great jazz towns), but dance, movies, TV and books soon followed as he moved to New York and "set up shop as a critic-for-hire," as he describes it in his introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader. The Reader collects pieces written on popular culture over the last 15 years for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, National Review, Weekly Standard and more, which Teachout asserts -- accurately -- give an overview of the evolution of pop culture over that period.

Teachout's engaging style and diversity of tastes means there is something for everyone in this book as he covers subjects from Elvis Presley to John Steinbeck (the newly adopted darling of the Oprah book club) to the end of vinyl to the horrific lynching of an African-American man in the town he grew up in. For those who enjoy criticism, this Reader is a book to savor, get angry with and reflect upon.

If Teachout has one consistent topic it is genius -- great (Louis Armstrong), middling (Dawn Powell) and small (Randolph Scott) -- and the majority of pieces collected here -- essays, profiles, reviews -- reflect that attraction. One charming trait of Teachout the cultural critic is he appears to genuinely want his readers to enjoy what he enjoys (those who read criticism know how rare that is in a critic) or at the very least understand why he so enjoys it.

Take Merce Cunningham. Those who either don't know or don't like modern dance and who live outside New York may be unfamiliar with the work of this brilliant (and terribly difficult) choreographer / dancer. But Teachout explicates what makes Cunningham great while also acknowledging how hard he is to access; rather than making the audience / reader feel stupid, Teachout opens up his subject.

Thus -- even if one has never had even a tiny perverse desire to watch dance and music in opposition to each other -- Teachout makes one want to see a Cunningham triptych. It isn't that Teachout's reviews and critiques read like paeans (although some do, like his luminous and haunting description of cabaret singer Nancy LaMott or the lovingly elucidated foreword to dancer / choreographer Paul Taylor's autobiography), it's that they read like the perspective of a man engaged -- a critic looking critically not merely to criticize but also to convey.

There is biting commentary of course, such as the wonderful "Norman Mailer: Forgotten but Not Gone," the liberal-slapping "Cradle of Lies," and the Mencken-esque "Seven Hundred Pretty Good Books." A few pieces begin deceptively, as if the author doesn't like his subject, as do the pieces on Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and John Sayles, but this is a ruse -- surprise, he does like them, and the pieces are richer for the construct.

Teachout's anti-liberalism leaches out in the totality of the critical pieces. Cultural criticism is, by its very nature, ideological, and Teachout's proves no exception.

If there is one flaw in this collection, however, it is the manner in which that conservatism informs the perspective on women. Those few who appear in the book are no surprise, nor is his small, swift kick aside of Toni Morrison.

Nevertheless, all books worth reading are fraught with flaws, as Teachout's own fine criticisms attest, and his Reader reads superbly, whether one agrees in lock-step or disagrees violently. A Terry Teachout Reader does indeed, as its author intended, take the reader on a tour of America's cultural divides of the last decade and a half and proffers a rich, compelling and utterly engaging collection of work by a master critic.

Victoria A. Brownworth has been a critic-for-hire for many years. She is also the author and editor of numerous books, including the award-winning Too Queer: Essays From a Radical Life and the forthcoming Day of the Dead and Other Collected Stories. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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