American show business has always had a strong element of surrealism. One can read American show business as the arena in which Americans have attempted to come to terms with the dislocations and paradoxes of the American experiment itself. American culture owed a debt to but also wanted to break free of European culture. It has always tried to reconcile Puritanism with a penchant for frontier license. Although initially Anglo-centric, it welcomed a wide variety of other cultures and tried to incorporate them into the American sensibility.
The crucial dialogue of American culture has been conducted between its European and its African roots. Official separation of our white and black populations, undermined by a practical proximity and integration, led to a complex and profound conversation, conducted in code, which in many ways has defined American culture. The minstrel tradition, spirituals, blues, jazz, swing and rock were the result of a musical intercourse that has always remained problematic on a conscious level, deeply engaging on a spiritual and emotional level — not just because it raised the issue of unsettled social questions, but because it exemplified the very essence of our national character.
The essence of our national character is that it doesn't know itself, that it has no core — that it consists of one long negotiation between heterogeneous elements that resist synthesis. That is, of course, what makes American culture so alive and dynamic and fertile — its improvisatory nature, its fundamental instability, which is also a fundamental openness to anything. Liberty, in a political sense, would have no “legs”, would close on Saturday night, if it weren't reflected in this liberty of the everyday imagination — and this liberty of the imagination could probably not have survived if we were required to take it too seriously, to think it through . . . if it weren't dressed up in shameless, unadulterated hokum.
So Louis Armstrong, one of the two or three greatest artists of the 20th Century, who happened to be black, had to appear in public rolling his eyes comically, with a minstrel-show smile.
So Elvis Presley could celebrate black musical culture in the Neverland of rock and roll — as long as he presented the public face of a nice, buttoned-up Southern white boy when he wasn't performing.
The madness of it all is breathtaking, but it's madness with a method. Hokum is what leads us by the back door into the heart of the American dream.
The Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn are
a paradigm of all American show business. Claiming a bogus descent
from European royalty, these two rogues peddle their preposterous spectacle (a little misremembered Shakespeare here, a little gross-out humor there) from
town to town, from meeting hall to meeting hall. They don't quite
deliver what they promise, and sometimes get run out of town for their unfulfilled claims — but, hey, that's entertainment, too. Who could ever
forget them? Clearly the Royal Nonesuch will become part of the legend of any town they play, just as it has become part of the mythology of American literature.
They incarnate the spirit of the minstrel show, the circus, vaudeville, the Hollywood musical and American Idol. They are the patron saints of sublime American hokum — one part hooey, one part bunkum, seasoned with chutzpah and a dash of sheer genius — and even when we're tarring and feathering them, we love them . . . because they are us and, on some level, the best of us.