Relationship between music and literature

Correspondingly, musical literature of the sort studied here asks its readers to “do” something beyond merely reading it, and in the process it challenges and transcends many of the Western world’s most persistent cultural divisions, whether between author and audience, subject and object, material and ideal, black and white, or male and female.

In addition to asking why American modernist authors wrote musical literature, this book attends to the kind of music they invoked and emulated most frequently: that of the commercial, popular tradition.

Most previous accounts of the relationship between music and literature have been highbrow and European in orientation, and they have tended to emphasize music’s ineffability, its abstract autonomy, and the promise it offers of escaping the confines of language.

The authors studied in these pages, however, draw upon the popular arts for very different reasons, attracted by their immediacy, their familiarity, and the implicit welcome they extend to diverse audiences. In regard to musical accessibility we can turn again to Small, who notes that in popular idioms, “no-one is excluded through being unable to comprehend what the musicians are doing, and no-one seems to need formal instruction in order to do so. . . .

As with speech, what the individual does in music is couched in a language that has to be learned, but that learning takes place not in a formal situation but in the encounters of everyday

Similarly, all of the authors discussed here depended on the music of “everyday life” in the hopes of reaching the greatest possible number of readers, and the coming chapters will therefore take up a popular culture that is usually considered too slight to be worthy of scholarly attention: sentimental Broadway numbers, forgotten novelty records, white travesties of African-American blues, overwrought opera highlights, and the like. Moreover, you, the reader of this book, will be asked at several points to listen to audio recordings, which will help you understand the musical effects that these authors are attempting in their works and will allow you to participate in the audience responses that such works demand.

Much of this music will sound peculiar and even unappealing to the modern ear, but for these
Authors – many of whom had dreamed in their younger days of becoming songwriters and performers and Broadway stars—it was indispensable.
The book begins, in this chapter, with a critical overview of three broad questions, each of which pertains to American musical authors their boundary-crossing, multidisciplinary works.

What did music represent to the American public and the literary establishment in the modernist period? What role does the sense of hearing play in the reading act? And what relative value does popular culture enjoy in comparison to the “high” arts? As regards the fi rst question, this chapter will go on to discuss the many changes that writers heard occurring in music, its symbolic
character, and its place in American culture between the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. Music had always been of interest to writers in previous eras, and in the
nineteenth century it was admired as an almost cosmic art, one that off ered a spiritual
transport quite unavailable in the realms of everyday experience. But at the
century’s turn, Americans found themselves surrounded by music to an extent that
earlier generations could scarcely have imagined, thanks to a spectacular expansion
of commercial entertainment and various technological advances in producing
and disseminating sound. Th e growing availability and new commodity status
of music changed its perceived character and the uses to which it could be put in
literature, with American writers attentive to and much aff ected by the change.
Th eir musical fi ction and poetry is therefore valuable in part because it registers a
historical shift in American thinking about one of the most exalted of the arts.
Th e second question taken up in this chapter—on the audibility of the written
word—can seem at fi rst blush to be somewhat absurd. Excepting the case of a book
being read aloud or the sound one makes when it is dropped on the fl oor, aft er
all, few arts are more technically silent than literature. But in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries, artists across the international modernist movement
made concerted eff orts at interweaving modes of expression and at appropriating
the varying demands that each makes on the human sensorium. Many
works of American literature, meanwhile, were quite successful at triggering perceptible,
aural stimulations in readers. As the reading public became increasingly
acquainted with the same kinds of music (and even with the same versions of the
same kinds of music), American writers found it easier to deploy musical sound
eff ects and, in some cases, to construct entire soundtracks that their readers would
mentally “fi ll in” upon receiving the necessary cues. Th e result was a literature that,

depending on one’s familiarity with the music it contained, could become remarkably
audible. And while the American works discussed in this book are exceptionally
rich in their musicality, they suggest more generally how one might go about
listening to other, less obviously musical novels and poems, as well.
Th ird and fi nally, this chapter will consider a sometimes bedeviling aesthetic
problem, the place and relative value of the popular arts in literary culture. Th e
very idea of a “popular culture” that was qualitatively diff erent from both the high
and folk arts was still fairly new in America at century’s turn, and the attitudes
of the literary establishment toward that culture were oft en ambivalent. In many
American musical-literary works, however, one fi nds the stirrings of a broadmindedness
that would eventually be a central part of the nation’s collective thought:
audible in them are the beginnings of a miscellaneous sensibility, a cultural perspective
that rejects rigid, categorical delineations of the “high” and the “low” and
instead considers how “art” and “popular culture” can be appreciated and valued
on their own, unique terms. Th is sensibility, moreover, is ultimately greater than
the sum of its parts, concerned not just with evaluating music or literature but
also with considering the problem of aesthetic apprehension in general. Th e writers
discussed in this book frequently use music as an occasion for pondering the
larger, complex question of how one identifi es the good and the bad in a crowded
culture, and they suggest that to comment upon or engage eff ectively with such a
culture is oft en to be contradictory and paradoxical. More oft en than not, these
writers present themselves as modernist eclectics who are both guardians of an
august literary tradition and connoisseurs of a popular one, and in many cases
they are able to thrive in these dual roles precisely because they are aware how
incongruous they might initially seem.
Subsequent chapters of this book focus more specifi cally on individual writers,
and they will still be useful to readers who skip the historical, theoretical, and critical
material contained in the present one. Th e second chapter discusses the ways
in which poetry, the most obviously musical of literary genres, was transformed
between the middle of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth,
with Walt Whitman’s singing and T. S. Eliot’s musical quotation serving as representative
examples. Both men draw on popular music in their verse, and their
bodies of work refl ect their very diff erent historical and cultural moments. When
their writings are considered in tandem, several contrasts can be heard: opera and
Tin Pan Alley, the expansive singing voice and the overwhelmed listening ear, and
music’s elusive ideality in live performance and its recorded materiality in the age
of the phonograph. But there is common ground between Whitman and Eliot as
well, a shared sense that poetry, when infused with the power of song, can become

an inclusive, participatory process: both men use music to cross those boundaries
usually thought to separate poets from their audiences, and both invite musical
performances of their texts.
Turning to prose, the third chapter fi nds that novels of the early twentieth century
frequently asked readers to bring their musical knowledge to bear upon fi ction,
thereby creating an inventive, multisensory experience. F. Scott Fitzgerald is
the central fi gure here, as he was an early practitioner of what will be somewhat
anachronistically referred to as “the literary soundtrack”—a series of identifi able,
well-known pieces of music that punctuate plots and are intended to be listened
to in conjunction with the reading act. Fitzgerald was fascinated by the ways that
music could intrude upon or harmonize with narrative, and his novels oft en seem
to emulate the method of the Broadway stage, the techniques of silent fi lm, and
the musically allusive, magpie-like aesthetic of James Joyce’s novels. Th e resulting
textual experience can be ecstatic, insidious, immediate, or ineff able in Fitzgerald’s
hands, but in all cases his fi ction is strikingly audible, existing in states of
cross-aesthetic tension that demand to be physically heard and responded to as
well as read.
Th e fourth chapter explores the notion of sung poetry in relation to race, turning
to Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and other poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
Here, twentieth-century African American verse forms are studied alongside the
slave spirituals, folk songs, and blues that they so frequently saluted and emulated.
Toomer and Hughes, however, are shown to be using black music not just in the
service of racial affi rmation (as is commonly assumed) but also as a means of complicating
the very idea of racial categorization. At the time of their publication,
both men’s works relied on musical forms—spirituals in the case of Toomer, blues
in the case of Hughes—that could be recognized and sung by readers of various
ethnic backgrounds. Th e musicality and performability of both men’s texts, moreover,
serve to promote interracial empathy and elide racial diff erence; for readers
and writers of this literary tradition, to sing a race’s music through the medium of
poetry is to be made to identify with that race.
Th e fi ft h chapter is less about music per se than about musical theater, turning
to a subgenre of fi ction termed “the chorus girl novel.” Such novels, among them
Th eodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer , depict
lowly heroines who are in the process of becoming theater stars, and their plots
are somewhat twisted adaptations of Broadway shows. While such novels are less
literally audible than some of the other texts under review here, they are every bit
as concerned with the ways in which popular music and the popular arts invite
readerly participation. Th e “chorus girl novel,” generally speaking, gives readers a

backstage view of an archetypal variety of musical entertainment, and it inducts
them into otherwise exclusive realms of artistic production. In the case of Dreiser,
the view behind the curtain reveals a higher music than Broadway can itself provide,
whereas in the case of Dos Passos, commercial entertainment is revealed to
be bankrupt and deleterious to performers and consumers alike. For both novelists,
however, the act of peeking into the backstages of musical theater presupposes readerly
interest in popular culture, and it advances an argument that when all is said
and done, the apprehension of such culture is of real and signifi cant importance.
Taken together, these literary works will be referred to as the “Great American
Songbooks,” with the designation derived from the so-called Great American
Songbook of the jazz era. For the uninitiated, the Great American Songbook was a
collection of “standard” tunes that any musician worth his or her salt would have
been expected to have mastered and been able to sing or play in the days before
the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Constituting something like a musical canon, the Great
American Songbook depended above all else on audience familiarity, on listeners
who were capable of recognizing and responding appreciatively to music that
was performed for them. Th e literary Songbook, meanwhile, attempts to reach its
readers in a similar way, relying on their common musical knowledge and asking
them to bring that knowledge to bear on a poem, novel, or story. But the Great
American Songbook was also a facilitator of cultural improvisation and change, as
it invited vocalists, instrumentalists, and any number of other performers to make
their own marks on the musical tradition, to tweak the established order, and to
create something new and original out of something old and well known. And
musical literature of the sort discussed in the pages that follow represents one of
many possible responses to this invitation, with the Songbooks studied here oft en
coming to sound as unique and distinctive as the great musicians of the twentieth
century were. A fundamental tension between similitude and diff erence, accessibility
and experimentation, and continuity and change was always at the heart of
the Great American Songbook, and ultimately, it is the central motif of the Great
American Songbooks taken up here, as well.
Th is story of modernism’s moment should sound quite familiar to
twenty-fi rst-century audiences, for many of the techniques that these authors
pioneered have become utterly commonplace in the years since. As long as the
music in question is familiar to them, aft er all, most of today’s readers understand
instinctively what it means to infl ect a novel or poem with popular song, and they
have ample assistance in doing so from various quarters. When Th omas Pynchon’s
novel Inherent Vice was published in 2009, for example, his narrative of a stoned,
1960s-era California was so littered with references to specifi c musical pieces that

the online merchant advertised a twenty-seven-song, downloadable
playlist “designed exclusively” by the author, with Pynchon’s selections promising
an enriched reading experience when purchased and listened to in tandem with
the text. 10 “Can’t Buy Me Love” by the Beatles, “God Only Knows” by the Beach
Boys, and “Interstellar Overdrive” by Pink Floyd were but a click away, and so too
were several less famous songs by obscure bands that Pynchon’s novel generously
introduces to new audiences. Subsequent innovations in digitality have promised
to streamline the practice of musical reading yet further: at the time of this writing,
a start-up publisher called “Booktrack” is beginning to release e-books whose
plots are synched to continuous musical accompaniments. 11
But for all their cutting-edge intermediacy, Pynchon and Booktrack’s experiments
in merging literature with music have had a long foregrounding. At the end
of his life more than a hundred years before, Whitman found a comparable but even
larger dynamic of synthesis at work in every aesthetic mode that humanity had yet
produced: “ Art is one , is not partial, but includes all times and forms and sorts,” he
argued. 12 For Whitman, each individual artistic work, no matter how distinct it may
seem, still has a place in a vast, all-containing aesthetic totality. And if he is correct,
then the expansive, boundary-crossing Songbooks discussed in the pages that follow
will not only have something to say to their present readers and listeners, but
will also sing to any other kind of artist or audience, now or in the years to come.

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