Cultural Studies

June 26, 1998

A CENTURY OF ARTS AND LETTERS. John Updike, editor. 346pp. New York: Columbia University Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley. Pounds 32.50. - 0 231 10248 8.

It is the centenary of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, which once functioned as two layered organizations - an Institute of 250 members and an Academy of fifty elected from the members of the former - but was merged, in an access of collegiality, in 1993. The original Arnoldian intention was to create an Academie Francaise for the United States which might honour the great, and set dignified standards for a worryingly democratic culture. As the eleven Academicians who have written this history-cum-celebration make clear, dignity was better served than standards well into the 1930s. The organization(s) acquired a Venetian palazzo on 155th Street and a Huntington for a patron, but mostly functioned as an inconveniently placed gentleman's club, which passed around medals, planned regalia and elected mediocrities from the New York region, whom Ezra Pound was to call "fossilized old jossers". The present Academicians make much fun of these early blunderings: the Secretary who thought T. S. Eliot was "eccentric and in very bad taste", the centennial celebration for Edmund Clarence Stedman (sic), Hamlin Garland's raging against "pornographers" and "the Semitic rot", the annual award for good diction among radio announcers and the frequent contempt of the truly great for its doings. (e. e. cummings succinctly refused election with a letter that read, "Dear Dr. Canby - no sale", but disappointingly joined a few years later.) Of all the chapters, Cynthia Ozick's on the years 1918- is the best, a comic gem, though John Updike on 1938-47 is a close second and Norman Mailer on 1958-67 is dead last. We are assured, of course, that things are much better now, not a josser to be seen. MO'B

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