Friday, April 22, 2005

The long arm of the salon

On display through July 10 at the Jewish Museum in New York is a multimedia exhibit on "The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons." Gertrude Stein is at home here. So are other women less familiar. Writing in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Tom Teicholz captures the breadth of it:

[T]he show is a fascinating exhibit on 14 influential Jewish women from the 18th, 19th and 20th century who created salons where people of different classes and artists of all stripes, could sponsor, discuss and support new art and social change. Henriette Herz and Rahel Vargahen's salons in 1780s Berlin nurtured the new romantic movement, while Fanny Mendelssohn's music salon welcomed Nicola Paganini, Clara Schumann and also premiered new works including her own compositions. Genevieve Straus in Paris was the close friend and inspiration of Marcel Proust (she was the model for the Duchess de Guermantes), while Gertrude Stein launched modernism in her salon (imagine being in the room when Stein said, "Picasso, meet Matisse"). [Salka] Viertel is featured . . . , her Santa Monica home the locus where Bertol Brecht could mingle with the Great Garbo, Thomas Mann and Eisenstein on the beach.

To step into these re-created parlors is to begin to understand the way the lines of culture, art, politics, and class have over the centuries intersected and overlapped, sometimes clashing but more often resulting in surprising, inventive collaborations. As Brook Mason writes in the Financial Times,

What is astonishing is the degree to which this group of heroines, themselves largely uneducated, nurtured extraordinary talents, premiered new works, documented their personal milieus and established an egalitarian social tradition, during eras riddled with class division.

By stroke of luck, we happened on to this exhibit fairly early into our New York trip, little knowing that these women would follow us as we traveled further around the city. At the Met, we saw Picasso's painting of Stein as well as more works by Florentine Stettheimer, who, with her two New York sisters, entertained Marcel Duchamp, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Stieglitz, and others on the modern art scene. When we heard the Emerson String Quartet play a number that Felix Mendelssohn wrote in memory of his dead sister Fanny, a musician in her own right, we could imagine being in her drawing room, and we knew that she died an untimely death while rehearsing for one of her Sunday afternoon performances.

With just hours left before the plane, wireless-less in Bryant park, reduced to reading a book, I came up against it again--the salon culture. The book, Arc of Justice, is about a race riot, the killing it provoked, and the ensuing trial, all happening in 1925 Detroit. The trouble came about when a black family moved into a white neighborhood. (In the same year, the NAACP was taking its first challenge to race-based restrictive covenants to the Supreme Court, but it was not until 1948 that they got a clear victory.) Clarence Darrow, just resting up from the Scopes trial, is called in for the defense. By way of his Chicago background we learn,

Late-nineteenth-century Chicago had its share of sin, doled out in dingy working-class saloons and first-class sporting clubs, steaming Turkish baths and smoke-filled gambling dens. Mostly, though, Chicago had the throbbing energy of a great industrial center; where the natural bounty of the West met the manufacturing might of the East and the two were transferred in a massive tangle of railroad lines. Just sixteen years removed from the cataclysmic Great Fire, Chicago had become "the heart of the nation," has Frank Norris said, "brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires." It was teeming with people, a million in 1890, almost 80 percent of them immigrants or their progeny. It roiled with class conflict, the byproduct of industrialists' relentless drive for profit. And it absolutely seethed with ideas. Social Darwinism, populism, progressivism, socialism: Darrow raced through them all, an intellectual drunkard on a decade-long binge. Eventually, he found his place not in any of the city's political circles but rather in the slightly seedy salons of the artistic avant-garde [see Kenneth Rexroth], where the iconoclasm of his father's generation was being updated for the Machine Age. It proved a perfect fit.

Eventually Darrow moved into a co-op "tucked in among the immigrant slums of Chicago's west side, and created his own bohemian salon filled with writers, painters, and assorted hangers-on." He even thought of leaving the law to take up writing. He didn't, of course, but the influence of the company he kept in Chicago is surely apparent in the passion that he devoted to the argument in a Detroit courtroom in the second of the two trials of The People v. Sweet:

By now, Darrow had been speaking for more than six hours, and those who knew him best thought him too drained to continue. "Twice he almost concluded," said a friend, "and then, as if some deep instinct warned him that he had not yet said quite all--that perhaps he had left uncovered in the minds of those men before him some tiny point upon which might hinge that kind, splended young colored chap's whole future--he would go on." He recounted the horrors of slavery, just as he had in the first trial--ancestors trapped by slavers, the Middle Passage with its clank of chains and stench of death, generations spent in the sun-baked fields making other men rich--and as he spoke, the spirit of his beloved abolitionists seemed to surge through him. "Now that is their history," he said, every bit his father's son. "These people are the children of slavery. If the race that we belong to owes anything to any human being, or to any power in this Universe, they owe it to these black men. Above all other men, they owe an obligation and a duty to these black men which can never be repaid. I never see one of them that I do not feel I ought to pay part of the debt of my race--and if you gentlemen feel as you should feel in this case, your emotions will be like mine."

And he stretched his arms out toward the jury box, palms lifted upward in a gesture he often used, and offered redemption, thin and frail as it was. "I do not believe in the law of hate," he said. "I may not be true to my ideals always, but I believe in the law of love, and I believe you can do nothing with hatred. I would like to see a time when many loves his fellow man, and forgets his color or his creed. We will never be civilized until that time comes. I know the Negro race has a long road to go. I believe the life of a Negro has been a life full of tragedy, of injustice, of oppression. The law has made him equal--but man has not. . . . I know there is a long road ahead of him, before he can take the place which I believe he should take. I know that before him there is suffering, tribulation, and death among the blacks, and perhaps among the whites. I am sorry. I would do what I can to avert it. I would advise patience; I would advise toleration; I would advise understanding. I would advise all those things which are necessary for men who live together. . . . This is all. I ask you, gentlemen, on behalf of this defendant, on behalf of the helpless ones who turn to you, and more than that--on behalf of this great state, and this great city which must face this problem, and face it fairly--I ask you in the name of progress and the human race, to return a verdict of not guilty in this case!"

Prof. Douglas Linder at the Univ. of Missouri-Kansas City has a great web page on Darrow, which includes background and transcript excerpts from both of the Sweet trials. Somewhere in there might be a good topic for a paper in a seminar on the law and rhetoric of the civil rights movement. A seminar's a poor substitute for a salon, but it's as close as I'm likely to get.

No comments: