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Art and culture
Art and culture
With New York City as the visual-art capital, important art museums in major urban centers, thriving galleries in cities both large and small, and many fine collections maintained at colleges and universities, the eastern US affords abundant opportunities to absorb the grand scope of American visual art from colonial times to the present.
Painting, Sculpture and Photography
Sometimes called the father of American painting, New Englander Benjamin West spent the latter part of his career in London after touring Europe to absorb the works of the Old Masters. Artists who trained in his London studio included Charles Willson Peale, the first American resident history painter; and Gilbert Stuart, known for his oil sketch of George Washington. Bostonian John Singleton Copley became famous for his portraits of political and social leaders.
America’s first landscapist, Thomas Cole arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1818 and set out to record the unspoiled reaches of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains. He and other artists of the Hudson River school such as Frederic Edwin Church (who rendered the period’s definitive portrait of Niagara Falls) presented a romanticized view of nature imbued with moral overtones. Other important artists of this period include John James Audubon, whose studies in art and ornithology produced The Birds of America (1827-38); American marine painter Fitz Hugh Lane; Martin Johnson Heade, a Pennsylvania landscape artist; and Missourian George Caleb Bingham, the first significant American painter from the Midwest. The works of Lane, Heade and Bingham all display characteristics of Luminism, an aspect of mid-19C painting concerned with the study and depiction of light. Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French broke from the Neoclassical tradition of American sculpture to create bold, naturalistic memorials and monuments throughout the eastern US.
Massachusetts-born James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who settled in Paris in 1855, inspired a sea change in American art with his philosophy that art should exist for its own sake and not to convey a moral or narrative. John Singer Sargent, also active in Europe, is best known for his exquisitely rendered portraits of the wealthy. America’s finest Impressionist painter was Philadelphian Mary Cassatt, who lived most of her life in Paris. William Merritt Chase, who founded his own art school in New York in 1896, became one of that city’s preeminent society portraitists. In Boston, Winslow Homer produced genre scenes of American life that focused on the sea. Henry Tanner, the first black American painter to achieve renown outside the US, eschewed the stylistic traditions of his day, expressing his experiences as an African-American through his deeply spiritual works.
Postimpressionist painters Maurice Prendergast and Thomas Eakins favored a return to realism over academic theory. Eakins’ work influenced Robert Henri, who, with followers George Luks, John Sloan and George Bellows, turned to the harsh realities of everyday life in New York as subject matter; their gritty style was dubbed the Ash Can school.
Photographer Alfred Stieglitz likewise rebelled against academism. His 291 Gallery in New York City, which he cofounded in 1909, mounted works by new American artists such as Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove (America’s first abstract painter), and became a center for the city’s artistic avant-garde. The 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show, presented new works by European Postimpressionists, Fauvists, Pointillists and Cubists to a shocked American public. The show also established New York City as the art capital of the nation.
The environment and life of the nation fueled the Depression-era works of American scene painters Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper. Black life in 1930s Harlem inspired African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, who fused bold forms and primary colors to create eloquent social statements—exemplified by his famed 60-panel narrative of the black migration from the rural South to the industrial North. Also during this period, American scene painting flowered in the Midwest, where artists such as Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton and Iowan Grant Wood sought to depict rural America in the face of encroaching industrialization. Wood is perhaps best known for American Gothic (1930), a hard-edged portrait of a Midwestern farmer/preacher and his daughter.
The onset of World War II brought a wave of European artists such as Max Ernst, Ynes Tanguy and Salvador Dalí to New York City. Along with Armenian émigré Arshile Gorky and German-born Hans Hofmann, they inspired a new avant-garde that gave rise in the 1940s to Abstract Expressionism . Practitioners of this radical American art movement include “Action” painters Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline; “Color Field” painters Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman; as well as Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell. Meanwhile, artists Andrew Wyeth and magazine illustrator Norman Rockwell reacted to the effect of modernization on regional culture through their nostalgic depictions of American folkways.
Mass commercialism enabled by new advances in media and communications gave rise in the 1960s to Pop Art. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, James Rosenquist and sculptor Claes Oldenburg embraced the commonplace with works based on commercial products, comic strips and billboards. American iconography also proved integral to works by collagist Robert Rauschenberg and painter/printmaker Jasper Johns. The 1960s also saw the rise of Conceptualism, a movement based on the notion that ideas take precedence over form. Raised in Harlem, Romare Bearden was a political cartoonist before beginning to paint in the 1950s; his innovative use of collage gained him renown by the 1970s.
Throughout the history of the eastern US, artists and craftspeople have created paintings, textiles, sculptures, furniture, pottery, glasswork and aesthetically pleasing objects for everyday use that fall under the broad category of folk art. Like a local accent, folk art is region-based, the product of non-academically trained artists working within provincial traditions to produce objects for their communities.
Native American cultures in the east produced objects for artistic, ritual and utilitarian purposes, including intricately woven and painted baskets, pottery vessels and effigy jars; cornhusk and leather dolls and masks; and carved wooden ware and figures. Tribes of the eastern woodlands were particularly known for their fine beadwork and body ornaments of metal and mica.
Folk art traditions in the eastern US include Fraktur (from the German Frakturschrift, or “fractured writing”), a type of illuminated calligraphy used by German immigrants in Pennsylvania to illustrate formal documents; quilting, a practical art that peaked in eastern Amish communities in the late 19C; and furniture making, typified by the simple designs crafted in the Shaker communities of New York, Kentucky and New England.
Well-known folk painters include itinerant portraitist Ammi Phillips (1788-1865); Joshua Johnson (1764-1824), the first African-American painter to create a recognized body of work; and Grandma Moses (1860-1961), who at the age of seventy-six began painting realistic scenes of her early rural life in New York.
Punctuated by the skyscraper, America’s great contribution to architecture, the built environment of the eastern US reveals influences from the nation’s many immigrant groups as well as technological and aesthetic innovations that originated here; resulting in some of the world’s foremost examples of building artistry.
There were no trained architects among the European colonists who arrived in America in the 16C-17C; survival was initially more important than aesthetics. Settlers raised their own simple structures according to building traditions from their homelands, using locally available materials such as hardwood timber in New England, fieldstone in the mid-Atlantic states and cypress planks in Florida. In the southern colonies and along the Gulf Coast, raised cottages utilized opposing windows, wide porches and detached kitchens to combat heat and humidity, while on some New England farms, houses were linked to barns, sheds and other dependencies to eliminate the need for going outside in cold weather. Similar considerations of material, climate and culture gave rise to the saltbox house in New England; the Creole cottage in New Orleans; the shotgun house of the Gulf Coast, the coquina structures of St. Augustine, Florida, and other forms of vernacular residential architecture throughout the fledgling eastern US.
As settlement increased and cities took shape, colonists began to create structures that were visually pleasing as well as functional. Amateur architects and skilled builders armed with English pattern books spread the Georgian style throughout the colonies. The symmetrical façades, Classical ornamentation, ample scale and geometric proportions of Georgian buildings at the new capital of Williamsburg reflected colonial determination.
After the American Revolution, the Adam style—a British Neoclassical tradition based on Roman villas and houses—was adopted by a growing merchant class in seaport towns along the coast. Called the Federal style in the US, it displayed clarity and simplicity of form, and restraint, delicacy and refinement. Garlands, urns and festoons decorated wall surfaces, fireplace mantels and entryways, and circular or oval-shaped rooms were common.
Builders of public structures turned to Roman Classical orders for inspiration. Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol (1798) in Richmond was based on the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in Nîmes, France, giving rise to the Classical Revival, or Jeffersonian, style.
One of the first trained professional architects to work in the US was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who arrived from England in 1796. An admirer of architectural forms of ancient Greece, Latrobe patterned the Bank of Pennsylvania (1800) in Philadelphia after an Athenian temple, pioneering the Greek Revival style for public buildings in America. The Greek temple front with Classical orders became so prevalent for banks, government buildings, churches and eventually residences—particularly plantation houses in the antebellum South—that the style was dubbed the “National style.” Charles Bullfinch’s design of the Massachusetts State House, with its central dome and columned frontispiece, served as the model for state houses across the country.
The commercial availability of good-quality nails and lumber in uniform sizes brought about the invention in the 1830s of the light, inexpensive and speedily constructed “balloon frame.” Other mass-produced components included pressed brick, cut stone, plate glass, cast iron and jigsawed wood. Houses were built rapidly, and, as the country entered the Victorian age in the latter half of the 19C, were designed and embellished in a plethora of eclectic substyles that quickly rose and fell in popularity. Gothic Revival-style structures sported pointed-arch windows, steep cross-gables and dormers decorated with intricately cut-out bargeboards. The architecture of Italy inspired the more formal Italianate style, characterized by square towers, shallow roofs, wide eaves with imposing cornices supported by brackets, and rounded windows and doors with hooded moldings. More elaborate still, Second Empire-style buildings sported Italianate features, with the addition of an imposing mansard roof and Classical ornamentation. Some clapboard or board-and-batten homes displayed post-and-beam structural members or diagonal braces as part of the exterior ornamentation in a variant known as the Stick style. The immensely influential New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White initially rose to popularity with their Shingle-style homes, in which a continuous flow of variously patterned shingles covered walls, dormers and trim. The most eclectic and picturesque of the Victorian substyles, however, is the Queen Anne. Homes in this fanciful style were laid in irregular plans of projecting wings, bays, towers, turrets and cross axes, lavishly ornamented with latticework, shingles, scrollwork, spindles and balusters, and painted in eye-catching colors.
Toward the end of the 19C, Boston-born, Paris-trained architect Henry Hobson Richardson adapted Romanesque forms from France and Spain in a distinctly American style known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Characterized by heavy, rounded arches, rusticated stone surfaces and deeply inset doors and windows, the style was popular for public structures including churches and railroad terminals.
Commercial architecture underwent a revolution following the Civil War as iron mills previously devoted to the war effort turned to production of cast-iron building components. By the 1870s structures framed entirely in iron, hung with prefabricated cast-iron façade panels and equipped with improved passenger elevators rose to heights not possible with masonry construction. Cast-iron façades were especially popular in New York, St. Louis, Charleston and New Orleans.
In 1893 a team of architects including Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s most influential landscape architect, created a “White City” of classically ornamented buildings for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, stimulating a national taste for the illustrious past in public architecture and city planning. Domes, pedimented porticoes and sweeping staircases characterized Neoclassical federal buildings in Washington, while Richard Morris Hunt and other practitioners of the more ornate Beaux-Arts style adorned courthouses, libraries, museums and mansions with paired columns, wreaths, swags, festoons, cartouches and statuary.
Turning away from the past, Chicago architect Louis Henri Sullivan espoused instead the notion that architectural design should be of its time. Sullivan and colleagues William Le Baron Jenney, Dankmar Adler, William Holabird and Martin Roche formed the Chicago school in the 1880s, and set about utilizing new advances in construction technology to create ever-taller commercial buildings in which non-load-bearing “curtain” walls were draped on a steel framework. The skeleton was visible on the façade in the horizontal spandrels and vertical piers separating windows of unprecedented size, and the shaft, rising from a defined base at entry level, was capped by an emphatically decorated cornice. Chicago school buildings achieved heights of up to 20 stories, prefiguring the modern skyscraper.
In the boom decade following World War I, developers in Manhattan latched onto the concept of the vertical city as a means of multiplying the profits of small building sites by creating rentable space out of the air. New technologies pushed buildings higher, necessitating a 1916 city ordinance requiring architects to create setbacks at the upper levels to allow sunlight to reach the street.
By the 1930s, a number of European architects working in America, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius—founder of the Bauhaus design school in Germany—introduced Bauhaus principles of minimalism and functionalism in what became known as the International style.
Influenced by the simple forms and austere surfaces of the International style, coupled with the ideas displayed at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Art Deco adopted the sleek lines, cubic massing and new materials of the technology-oriented modernist aesthetic. Deco’s geometric, abstracted motifs such as chevrons, sunbursts and lightning bolts worked in sleek, reflective materials were wildly popular throughout America for corporate headquarters, theaters and hotels—the latter particularly in Miami Beach, Florida. Pyramidal Art Deco skyscrapers such as New York City’s Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building came to symbolize American power and ingenuity.
In the Midwest, Frank Lloyd Wright led a group of architects known as the Prairie school in development of a new style incorporating the natural environment into planning and design. Remaking the concept of horizontality, Wright’s Prairie-style houses—typified by his Robie House in Chicago—hugged the flat Midwestern landscape; movable room partitions created flexible interior spaces and flat or shallow roofs surmounted long bands of windows.
In the mid-20C, the Seagram Building (1958, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) in New York City, a rectangular skyscraper sheathed in glass and set amid a large plaza, strongly influenced the “glass box” look of office buildings in urban centers such as Boston, Detroit, Atlanta and Miami. The advent of rigid-tube construction in the 1970s allowed the soaring height of Chicago’s 110-story Sears Tower by the prolific architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Contemporary architects such as Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Michael Graves and Robert Venturi have since broken from the strict functionalism of International school design, altering the urban landscape with Postmodern structures that honor the past through free interpretations of historical motifs while utilizing new technologies and materials.
With its beginnings in the writings of early Virginia and New England settlers, the development of American literature has reflected the development of the US through nationhood, expansion, industrialization, war and urbanization. In colonial times, publishing was confined mostly to sermons, journals, religious writings, political treatises and almanacs. In 1732 Benjamin Franklin began writing his Poor Richard’s Almanack, a compendium of calendars, proverbs, practical information, popular science and humor. Various newspapers, broadsheets and political tracts disseminated opinion during the years leading up to the American Revolution. Englishman Thomas Paine turned the tide of colonial opinion toward a break from Great Britain with his pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense (1776).
Popular literature in the early 19C found its way to readers via newspapers and chapbooks and inexpensive digests of moral musings. James Fenimore Cooper charted the disappearing wilderness of the American frontier with his Leatherstocking Tales, which included the novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826). The first American author to achieve international fame was Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle (1820) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). The poems and short stories of romantic Gothicist Edgar Allan Poe (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839) chilled readers with their themes of horror.
By the 1840s the transcendentalist movement leaders, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, settled in the Boston area, establishing New England at the forefront of American thought and literary expression. In Boston, James Russell Lowell helped found the Atlantic Monthly, a literary periodical whose contributors included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most widely read poet of his day. Nathaniel Hawthorne explored Puritan ethics with novels such as The Scarlet Letter (1850). In Amherst, Massachusetts, reclusive poet Emily Dickinson penned more than a thousand short lyric verses, most of them undiscovered during her lifetime. Elsewhere in the northeast, Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick (1851), his epic novel of the sea, after spending 18 months on a whaler; and Harriet Beecher Stowe fanned the flames of abolitionist sentiment with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Poet Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855.
As the nation expanded in the last half of the 19C, a literary movement known as regionalism sought to preserve awareness of regional differences in scenery and speech. Humorist Mark Twain (né Samuel Clemens) captured the era of his boyhood in a Mississippi River town in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). In the South, Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories rank among the greatest in black folk literature; Richard M. Johnston penned humorous sketches of life in rural Georgia; and George Washington Cable described the Creole society of New Orleans.
A preponderance of writers, artists and thespians made New York City’s Greenwich Village the bohemian capital of the US in the first decades of the 20C. The cultural ferment there produced a number of literary magazines whose contributors included experimental poet e.e. cummings and novelist Floyd Dell. The Greenwich Village productions of the plays of Eugene O’Neill (Desire Under the Elms, 1924) brought him recognition as the period’s preeminent American playwright. And F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, 1925) established himself as the foremost chronicler of the jazz age.
In Chicago, the aftermath of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition spawned a literary renaissance in that city, which served as the backdrop for social realists Henry Blake Fuller (The Cliff Dwellers, 1893), Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie, 1900), Frank Norris (The Pit, 1903) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906). The life and character of rural New England formed the subject for the poems of Robert Frost, who lived most of his life in the region, while works by Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio, 1919), Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, 1920) and playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town, 1938) explored the nature of small-town America.
A number of writers fled the political upheaval of America in the aftermath of World War I for Paris. There, the literary salon of Gertrude Stein nurtured dozens of young American writers, among them Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams and Ernest Hemingway, who later described the brilliantly intellectual atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s in A Moveable Feast (1964).
In the 1930s, Mississippi native William Faulkner fictionalized the setting of his boyhood in a series of tales that explored societal, racial and moral tensions in the South. Faulkner’s work began a revival of Southern literature by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling, 1938), Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940), Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men, 1946), Eudora Welty (Delta Wedding, 1946), Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood, 1952) and playwright Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955).
The celebration of black culture, the struggle for integration and civil rights, and the experiences of African Americans in both the South and the North have provided the themes of African-American writing in the 20C. The ] of arts beginning in the 1920s drew black writers from around the eastern US, including poet Langston Hughes (Shakespeare in Harlem, 1942), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952) and Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937). Chicago’s slums formed the backdrop for works by Richard Wright (Native Son, 1940) and poet Gwendolyn Brooks (The Bean Eaters, 1960). Contemporary African-American writers include Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969), who wrote and delivered a poem at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration; poet Rita Dove (Thomas and Beulah, 1986) and authors Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987) and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982).
Although New York City is considered the nation’s literary capital, contemporary writers flourish all over the eastern US. Recognized figures include novelists Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987) and John Updike (the Rabbit series, ending with Rabbit at Rest, 1990); and playwrights Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles, 1988) and Edward Albee (Three Tall Women, 1994).
Music and Dance
Musicians of the eastern US have created and refashioned an astonishing variety of musical styles. Cutting-edge and traditional forms can be heard live in concert halls, nightclubs and outdoor music festivals. Most cities of even modest size support a symphony or chamber orchestra as well as a club scene that nurtures local pop artists. Although New York City has traditionally been the home of music production facilities in the East, today one of the largest segments of the US recording industry is based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Classical composers in Europe and the US have been inspired by American hymns and folk songs. New England businessman and part-time composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), for example, borrowed dance tunes, church music and the raw sounds of bells and parades, mixing them into complex scores using 20C innovations of dissonance and contrasting rhythms. Pennsylvania native Samuel Barber (1910-81), best known for his serenely beautiful “Adagio for Strings,” chose a more melodic approach. No composer embodied the American frontier spirit more than Brooklynite Aaron Copland (1900-90), who based his “Appalachian Spring” on a Shaker song. George Gershwin (1898-1937), also from Brooklyn, captured an urban electricity with “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Piano Concerto in F,” both strongly influenced by jazz techniques.
Singin’ The Blues
Along the Mississippi delta from the late 1890s, a style of music called “the blues” evolved primarily among African Americans playing guitars, harmonicas and other simple instruments. Sung by performers such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Etta James, the blues have become one of America’s most enduring music genres, inspiring countless musicians including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and other rock-and-roll greats. The music flourishes in Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City, where blues artists have thrived since the days of speakeasies—bars where alcohol was sold illegally during Prohibition.
All That Jazz
The amalgam of styles known as jazz has many roots, including blues. “Ragtime,” the earliest form of jazz to have a wide appeal, began its long period of popularity in the 1890s. A piano style, ragtime emphasized syncopation and polyrhythm, best interpreted by composer Scott Joplin.
New Orleans is widely accepted as the birthplace of jazz. Its earliest influences might have been slave dances held in Congo Square, but the style grew up in the Storyville prostitution houses, riverboats and social clubs in the early 20C. Small ensembles of cornets, clarinets, trombones and, later, saxophones played standard and improvised melodies backed by lively, mixed rhythms. As the style evolved, colorful Dixieland music added banjo beats and a wild mix of instrumental solos played at once in a magical blend.
New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton and clarinet player Sidney Bichet were two of the greatest influences of early jazz. The most famous jazzman of all, trumpet player Louis Armstrong, grew up in New Orleans but left in 1922 to join his mentor, King Oliver, in Chicago. The second great city of jazz, Chicago harbored many musicians who, like Armstrong, sought to escape the South’s racial restrictions.
Closely following the development of jazz was the Big Band movement, large ensembles of horns that, with the help of radio, flourished from the 1920s to World War II. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were among its greatest proponents. Swing bands brought a more jazzy big-band sound that introduced energetic swing dancing, popular from 1930 to 1945 and recently revived. Duke Ellington was a giant on the music scene for years as a band leader, composer and performer from the time he worked at New York’s famous Cotton Club (1927-32) until his later years writing religious music (he died in 1974). Crooners like New Jersey-born Frank Sinatra got their start singing with big bands.
Around the mid-1950s, rock and roll exploded on the American popular music scene as several artists, including Fats Domino, Little Richard, and especially Memphis-based Elvis Presley, began combining jazz and blues influences with electrically amplified guitars, intricate bass lines and hopped-up rhythms. Wildly popular with teenagers, the pounding beat of rock came to represent a culture of sex, drugs and youthful rejection of societal norms. Guitarist Chuck Berry, vocalist Buddy Holly and pianist Jerry Lee Lewis all claimed huge followings, and Elvis Presley’s theatrical sex appeal catapulted him to international fame.
Pickin’ and Grinnin’
By far the most popular music in America is country & western, or simply Country . The music’s performance and recording capital is still Nashville, where the Grand Ole Opry was once the undisputed hall of fame for country music artists. Taking its roots in pioneer folk music, country is epitomized in the singing style of Hank Williams. A variant of country music, bluegrass music grew up in the Appalachian region, highlighted by the virtuoso guitarist Doc Watson and bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs.
Traditions and Trends
Regions in the eastern US lay claim to several musical traditions. Detroit, known as Motown (short for Motor Town) for its auto-making industry, is famous for its Motown Sound, a mix of gospel, pop, and rhythm and blues. Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and Diana Ross and the Supremes were some of Motown’s greatest stars. The lyrics of American folksingers Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were inspired by civil rights and societal protest from the 1930s through the 60s.
Popular American music today reflects myriad styles and influences. Alternative rock bands have for the most part succeeded the heavy-metal and acid-rock groups that formed during the 1970s and 80s. The sound of urban protest, rap features hard-driving rhythms, booming bass and raging lyrics often laced with profanity. And the bouncing beats of Latin music, much of it based in South Florida, are leaving a growing mark on the American music scene.
The rise of dance as a performance art came relatively late to the US. Since the turn of the 20C, the American dance environment has nurtured preeminent classical ballet companies such as New York’s American Ballet Theater (ABT) and the distinguished New York City Ballet, which flourished for years under the guidance of artistic director George Balanchine. Choreographers Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, both associated with ABT, transferred their talents to Broadway; de Mille’s use of traditional folk themes in musicals such as Oklahoma! inspired distinctively American ballet forms.
The intriguing history of modern dance in America began with Isadora Duncan, who in the 1890s introduced her revolutionary belief that the body should be free to improvise and express personal feelings. Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn laid the foundations for modern dance in America with their influential Denishawn School, founded in 1915. But it was innovator Martha Graham who made America the center of modern dance in the middle of the century. Her studies of physical structure and movement, coupled with the belief that energy originates in the center of the body and not in its extremities, made for a stark, percussive style that was at first derided by critics and audiences. Graham’s work influenced nearly every important modern choreographer, including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, all of whom founded their own companies in New York.
Scottish, English and Irish jigs and reels inspired distinctly American folk-dance forms, including the square dances and contra dances that grew to popularity as a means of group recreation in rural areas. Irish clog dances were combined with elements of African step dances and the rhythms of jazz music to form the basis of complex tap dances that have enlivened many a Broadway musical and Hollywood film. Adapted by music-hall performers, tap was performed on vaudeville stages by greats such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles, and has enjoyed a recent revival.
Theater and Film
Theatrical fare in the eastern US indulges virtually every taste. Companies throughout the US stage timeless explorations of the human condition by mid-century dramatists Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder and William Inge as well as the sparkling comedies of prolific playwright Neil Simon. Avant-garde works by Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and South African Athol Fugard are taking their place in the modern repertoire, as are contemporary works by New Yorker Wendy Wasserstein, Chicago-born David Mamet and Iowan David Rabe. Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Laurie Anderson, performance artists create genre-bending works combining music, dance, poetry and visual art.
Currently claiming some 240 theaters, New York City has always been the theater capital of the US. Mainstream professional theater here is synonymous with Broadway, the renowned entertainment district in Manhattan. The first theaters were established here around the turn of the 20C, and the rise of the musical comedy in the 1920s catapulted the area to worldwide prominence. Today Broadway boasts some 40 legitimate theaters, most of them presenting big-budget musicals that can run for many years. Smaller Off Broadway theaters mounting lower-budget productions also flourish in the city. And nonprofit Off-Off Broadway theaters favor experimental works by emerging playwrights.
Elsewhere in the East, performance halls frequently host traveling companies of major Broadway productions, and many large cities support their own professional theaters and repertory troupes. Minneapolis, for example, boasts more theaters per capita than any American city besides New York, and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company and Second City Theater are famous for spawning the careers of numerous actors and comedians. Stars of stage, screen and television frequently can be seen performing in summer festivals and regional theater companies such as Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina, and the Red Barn Playhouse in Saugatuck, Michigan.
Although California has long been the filmmaking capital of the world, the American film industry got its start in New Jersey, where Thomas Edison perfected the mechanisms for making and projecting 35mm movies in 1893. As cinema progressed from novelty to industry during the first decade of the 20C, American movie studios set up shop in New Jersey, Connecticut and Philadelphia, with the most important companies headquartered in Chicago (Selig and Essanay) and New York (Edison, Vitagraph and Biograph). Rural New Jersey even served as the exterior location for Edison’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), and other early Westerns. Several studios also established facilities in Jacksonville, Florida, to take advantage of year-round filming opportunities as well as lush tropical backdrops.
The early movie-going public paid a nickel for admission to films screened in small theaters known as nickelodeons. In 1913 New York entrepreneurs erected the first “movie palaces”—large, fantastically decorated theaters where live vaudeville shows preceded movie screenings.
Even after the film industry headed west in the 1920s, “underground” films by Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes and Andy Warhol in the 1960s and 70s signaled the presence of an avant-garde film movement in New York. Today, Orlando, Florida, brings Hollywood back east with its theme parks/production facilities—established by both Universal and Disney-MGM studios in the 1980s.
Sports and Recreation
For exercise, for entertainment, for drama and for fellowship, Americans love to play and watch sports. Almost no event inspires more patriotic spirit than the quadrennial Olympic Games, and a year-round slate of professional, collegiate and amateur competition keeps the fever pitch high. Collegiate sports, particularly football and basketball, attract the excited attention of fans and alumni nationwide, especially during the annual college football “bowl games” in January and the “Final Four” basketball tournament in March.
Take Me Out to the Ball Games
Sometimes called the “national pastime,” baseball originated in 1845 in New York City, when the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club set down the rules that eventually developed into the modern game. Played on a diamond-shaped field, the corners of which are marked by three bases and a home plate, baseball inspires legions of devoted fans who follow teams with religious intensity. Although it may appear slow-paced, the game can be fraught with suspense, the outcome often resting on a final confrontation between pitcher and batter—when victory can vanish with a ball thrown just off-center or a bat swung seconds too late. Following spring training, which many teams spend at practice facilities in Florida, the professional season runs from April to October, culminating in the World Series, a best-of-seven-games match between the American and National League champs.
Fast-paced basketball draws participants and spectators from every walk of life. Players in this sport score goals by successfully throwing a ball through hoops suspended at either end of an indoor court. The National Basketball Association (NBA) organizes some 29 professional teams throughout the US, all competing for a berth in the NBA Finals held in June. Founded in 1997, the 12-team Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) brought women’s basketball to the professional level.
Appealing for its potent combination of brute force and skilled maneuvering, American football demands strength, speed and agility from its players in their quest to carry, pass and kick the football down a 300ft-long field to the goal. The National Football League (NFL) oversees some 32 teams in two conferences: the American and the National Football Conference. Football season begins in late summer and culminates in late January with the annual Super Bowl contest between the conference champions; the game draws more viewers each year than any other televised event.
Other Professional Sports
Though ice hockey was born in Canada, it was in the US that the sport rose to the professional level. In this breakneck sport, skated players use sticks to maneuver a hard rubber puck into a goal at either end of an ice arena. The 29-team National Hockey League (NHL) pits Canadian and American teams in an annual race for the coveted Stanley Cup, with finals held in June.
Golf originated in Scotland; however, the US now ranks as the preeminent golf nation. Public and private courses abound, especially in the Southeast, where the climate allows play nearly year-round—Florida alone claims more than 1,000 golf courses. Audiences flock to important international tournaments, such as the annual Masters in Augusta, Georgia. America also hosts the US Open; held in Flushing Meadow, New York, this tournament ranks among the top four in the world. The world’s largest single-day sporting event, the annual Indianapolis 500 pits 33 top international contenders against each other, while Florida’s Daytona 500 attracts diehard stock-car fans. An aura of romance surrounds the annual Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville; the race marks the first contest in the famed Triple Crown series of Thoroughbred horseracing. The prestigious Boston Marathon footrace, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 1996, numbers among the world’s important marathons.
A Recreational Paradise
From skiing in New England’s White Mountains to surfing off the coast of Florida, from white-water rafting on Pennsylvania’s Youghiogheny River to hiking the 2,050mi Appalachian Trail, the eastern US offers countless opportunities for recreation. Seekers of physical fitness and natural beauty take full advantage of the East’s wealth of mountains, forests, rivers and oceanfront, as well as urban parks and bike and running paths. In-line skating, snowboarding and mountain biking are all relatively recent additions to the panoply of popular recreational sports. In recent years thrill-seekers ever in search of a new challenge have popularized extreme sports, riskier versions of already established pursuits, with names like big-air snowboarding, skysurfing, and downhill skating.