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America’s Least-Wanted ‘Negro’ Critic Rides Again

‘Victory Is Assured: Uncollected Writings of Stanley Crouch’

by
Paul Devlin
December 15, 2022
ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy
Stanley Crouch in 2013ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy
Stanley Crouch in 2013ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy

Stanley Crouch, enigmatic man of letters and booming personality, died in September 2020 at 74 after a miserable battle with various ailments. Author of eight books, decades’ worth of newspaper columns, and liner notes to dozens of well-known jazz albums, familiar face on C-SPAN and the Charlie Rose Show and all over Manhattan in jazz clubs and at literary events, Crouch was famous for punches he threw on paper—and in person. This legendary (and like most legends, overblown) combativeness was not only a product of Crouch’s personality, it was an outgrowth of his aesthetic commitments.

Despite his famous self-confidence, or perhaps because of it, Crouch was always keen to find mentors, from poets Bert Meyers and trumpeter Bobby Bradford in the early ’70s, to Saul Bellow in the ’90s. But above all, his work was grounded in the thought of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, men of his parents’ generation who recongized his potential when he moved to New York in 1975. Ellison and Murray argued that African American experience and creativity was central to an composite American culture. Working with a vast resevoir of mostly self-taught knowledge about literary modernism and jazz, Crouch believed thatAmerican culture was protean—to use one of his favorite words—and achieved its greatest heights through improvisations and integration.

In setting up an essay on his grandmother, born circa 1890, “the daughter of an African sailor from Madagascar and a Chocktaw woman from Mississippi,” Crouch writes of a student of his in the early 1970s, an African American man who had memorized all of Clark Gable’s costume changes in Gone with the Wind. For Crouch, the episode is representative of the countless unexpected stories that cannot be explained by resorting to cliches about race in America: “That’s actual Americana for you, always stronger than race politics.” There can be no doubt as to what Crouch would have made of HBO Max’s decision to pull Gone with the Wind from streaming, in response to a frenzied attempt to cancel the film.

In this rigidly conformist decade (so far), it can be tempting to see Crouch as a model for taking a variety of dissident positions against whatever the current object of whipped-up mania happens to be, which is a tribute to his critical reasoning powers. However, it’s more interesting to read him for what he knew about and appreciated and studied than for some of his late critiques (such as of rap, which he took a myopic view of and wasted much time and energy on). This book is marketed with a suggestions and associations of boxing, and why not? Crouch promoted himself with boxing imagery, even at one time including a pair of gloves on his business card. But as often as not, he was teaching people how to appreciate someone else’s art, rather than squaring off in an argument.

A selection of the unpublished and uncollected works that Crouch left behind when he died can be found in the new anthology Victory Is Assured: Uncollected Writings of Stanley Crouch, edited by Glenn Mott. Titled for the phrase with which Crouch signed most emails (via the acronym VIA), Victory Is Assured has 28 essays on music (all but two on jazz) and 27 on other topics, mainly on literature, cinema, and racial issues (although race permeates most of the pieces), along with a few on visual art, a few personal essays, and two poems. It is framed by three outstanding essays: a preface by its editor, Mott (titled “Great Bouts to Come”), an introduction by scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb (titled “The Championship Rounds”), and an afterword (Crouch’s eulogy) by his longtime collaborator and close friend Wynton Marsalis. Cobb writes at the end of a perfect and interestingly personal introduction, “So here is Stanley Crouch, archival like an old Joe Louis or Archie Moore newsreel, a showcase of what made him truly great. […] He works his combinations and lands shots you never expected him to throw—the ones you never saw coming.” Cobb aptly refers to Crouch’s first essay collection, Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990), as “a slaughterhouse of sacred cows.”

While Crouch’s combativeness made him famous, however, most of his best writing was in praise and appreciation. Even in Notes, he is appreciating: Lionel Mitchell, Albert Murray, Charles Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Bob Thompson. For all his supposed iconoclasm, Crouch had a reverential orientation, a deep attachment to tradition, and a knack for paying tribute. That talent is on display here, with earnest yet lively considerations of Fred Astaire, Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday, Larry Neal, Sidney Poitier, Bette Davis, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Jayne Cortez, John Ford, Robert Mitchum, Harold Cruse, and others.

Crouch swerved around ideologically across the decades, thinking of himself as a “radical pragmatist,” but he held the line on what was most important to him. Case in point: the word “Negro,” which he defended his use of in a 2010 Daily News column “Then and Now, I Am A Negro,” included in Victory Is Assured, a sequel of sorts (so Mott’s helpful note explains) to his 1996 defense of the term, “Why I Choose to Say ‘Negro.’” Crouch wrote in 2010:

As a writer, I find the term African American unwieldy. I use terms such as Negro, Black, and am sometimes tempted to use colored because that range of skin tones is so undeniably epic. All of them are no more than words, but there is something far from backward about the sound of Negro and the magnificent people who used that word to describe themselves. They gave it majesty; they made it luminous.

Crouch would have been glad to see this included, but with the essay’s content in mind, it is curious that “Black” is capitalized in the piece and throughout the book, something that Crouch never did in the writing he published during his lifetime, as far as I can tell. Uppercase “B” is a very recent convention adopted almost everywhere and is probably the publisher’s house style. In Crouch’s case, in light of the above, it seems rather incongruous. Additionally and separately, it is also poor textual editing practice to change previously published material. In a new edition of The Souls of Black Folk, would an editor even dream of capitalizing “black” (or decapitalizing “Twentieth Century”?) in the phrase by W.E.B. Du Bois “the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century?” Unlikely.

Crouch was born in Los Angeles and lived in California until he was 30. In those years he wrote poems and plays (including a version of Benito Cereno), played drums and led the band Black Music Infinity, and taught literature and theater at the Claremont Colleges, including Pomona. (Crouch attended only three semesters of junior college.) He saved almost nothing unpublished from this period and only seems to have written about those years at length on one occasion, in the introduction to his book Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006). His plays, produced across California, are all lost, unless someone who acted in one still has a script or if one has found its way into an archive.

In a rare glance back at that disowned era, Crouch reviewed Will You Die With Me?, the memoir of Flores Forbes, a former Black Panther, for the New York Times Book Review in 2006. Crouch recognizes Forbes’ contribution to the history of the era and is intrigued by the way he narrates his break with the Panthers. It must have seemed to many people mightily provocative of the Book Review to have assigned Crouch to review such a book. But what most people would not have known in 2006, and indeed few know today, is that in his California years, Crouch ran in some overlapping social circles as the Panthers. For reasons about which we can only speculate, Crouch never mentions these experiences in the review. The connection takes on another dimension considering what Elaine Brown, former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party wrote of him in her memoir A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (1992), “Whenever I saw him, I would end up in a ball of laughter about this or that bit of pretentiousness of the latter-day militants. I had saved a chair next to him [at a poetry reading] so I could share his funny fire.”

I have an angle on Crouch almost akin to a biographer’s perch. I knew him for 16 years, but I was also the editor and annotator of The Stanley Crouch Oral History Project, a 375,000-word behemoth of interviews with 35 people who knew him well or in some special capacity, conducted between 2018 and 2021, overseen by Loren Schoenberg, and currently under review by the foundation that commissioned it. I also wrote the introduction to the interviews. I have perused many in-depth and complex perspectives on the man, from contemporaries who knew him in the 1960s in California to now-prominent writers and musicians he mentored in the 2000s.

As such, I ended up tangentially involved with the creation of Victory Is Assured: my input was sought by the editor, Glenn Mott, and I recommended and provided copies of a few pieces that made it in and a few that did not. I am thanked in the acknowledgements along with others who also provided unknown or little-known Crouch material as well. Readers old and new should tip their caps to Mott, for without his efforts, some of this work would not have seen the light of day.

Yet despite the collection’s inarguable merits, Victory Is Assured also seems like a missed opportunity to showcase more of Crouch’s eclecticism. Mott’s personal, idiosyncratic selection is impossible to characterize as an impartial “best of” Crouch’s uncollected works. A number of Mott’s decisions, undoubtedly difficult to make, do not add up for me. Among the most intriguing works that did not make the cut is Crouch’s 12-round demolition of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club in the Village Voice (1985), which would have been valuable to consider alongside his pans of Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, which are both included. Other significant omitted works include a contribution to a roundtable of papers on the August Wilson/Robert Brustein debate about race in the theater business for the journal Theater (1997), a tribute to Bobby Short in the New York Daily News (where Crouch had a column from 1995-2014) that doubles as a paean to New York (2002), a review of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America for Salon (2004), a review of a Sam Peckinpah DVD set for Slate (2007), an unpublished review of Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures (2011), and a reflection on Pierre Chenal’s Native Son for Film Comment (2011). Including such material (and there is much more) might have given posterity a better sense of Crouch’s range rather than including, say, more writing on Charlie Parker’s early career, overlapping with his well-received book on Parker, Kansas City Lightning (2013).

Crouch was an uneven writer, and the quality here mirrors that unevenness, from the highly polished and important, a profile of Sonny Rollins for The New Yorker (2005), the take-down “Tarantino Enchained,” for The Oxford American (2013), an essay on Krazy Kat for a coffee table book on classic comics (2005), to some notes and notions and borderline throwaway pieces, to the searing, previously unpublished personal essay “Black and Tan Fantasy: A Letter from the Blues.” A meditation on his declining health and prospects, it is unique within his oeuvre, yet as it is addressed enigmatically to Jorge Luis Borges (whom Crouch did not know), it could have benefited here from a note pointing to one of Crouch’s best essays “The Novel as Blues Suite,” in The Artificial White Man (2005, which may prove his most enduring book), in which he considers Borges’s first story collection, “A Universal History of Iniquity.”

The sparkling crown jewel of Victory Is Assured is “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Dues: Duke Ellington at Disneyland,” published in 1976 in Players (which was like an African American Playboy, based in Los Angeles). Written two years after Ellington died, this wide-ranging and lively 7000-word panoramic essay on a concert at Disneyland on a cool October evening a few years earlier is one of Crouch’s finest pieces of descriptive prose, and surely could have appeared contemporaneously in a national general interest magazine. The essay gleams with descriptions like this:

… the Maestro, the Chief, comes on stage in that walk, that stride that is itself as much a garment or a place as a form of travel. It is a sucession of moves that contain the wit, the sensuality, the timidity, precision, and good-natured arrogance that are the center of the Blues. It is shrouded in myth and a familiarity with wicked and aristocratic places and befits the Lord of the Worlds of Sound, who is also a folk hero, a warrior, a historian, a dignity, and a homemade [b]lack American aristocrat. The Chief is here.

Ellington, for Crouch (as for Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray) was a representative not only of the heights of African American achievement but of global accomplishment, traversing many worlds and holding them in balance as he epitomized personal and musical sophistication. Victory Is Assured contains two other pieces on Ellington, “Ellington the Player” (1984) and “The Electric Company” (2009), a review of John Fass Morton’s Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport ’56. Here he notes that in the 1930s, “Ellington brought off a decidedly avant-garde series of compositions that startled classical composers as much as they excited the dancers who came to the tobacco barns, the college proms held in gymnasiums, and the dance halls high and low.” Concluding with praise for Morton’s book, doubling as praise of Ellington and what he represented, Crouch writes that this “this book makes its way to great importance by showing that one should not be spooked by the range and complications of humanity that appear across the classes, the races, the religions, the professions, and the causes that usually drive the great events in our nation.” This advice is deflected off Ellington comes from the depths of Crouch’s personal experience: he got around among different professions, ethnicities, and neighborhoods. As the novelist Charles Johnson memorably put it, Stanley “was washed by all waters.”

Misconceptions about Crouch abound and to some extent are contradictory. Was he harsh on female novelists or did he not read them at all? High-prestige legacy publications advanced both claims in 2020. “Crouch was hard on female novelists,” wrote Wesley Morris in an otherwise appreciative piece for The New York Times Magazine, perhaps thinking of Crouch’s notorious review of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in 1987, ignoring subsequent, detailed praise for books by Danzy Senna, Z.Z. Packer, Lore Segal, Andrea Lee, and Joyce Carol Oates. Adam Shatz wrote in a memorial essay for the website of The New York Review of Books in 2020, “To my knowledge, Crouch did not read women novelists,” a statement that is patently false.

Mott includes Crouch’s 2006 review of Oates’ Black Girl, White Girl—enough to dispel the false impression. But Mott omits (perhaps because the book is still in print) Crouch’s inspired 2004 foreword to Lore Segal’s Her First American (1985), about a Jewish woman refugee following World War II who falls in love with an African American man. Crouch writes that this is “surely the most complex black character to appear in our fiction in the thirty years since the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man took his literary place in 1952. With few exceptions, the work of Leon Forrest, Charles Johnson, and Edward P. Jones come to mind, he remains far, far, above the majority of the shallow black male characters created since by either black or white writers.” By extension, Crouch is implicitly including the characters in his own novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome (2000).

Crouch may have staked out some lonely territory in the world of American letters but he did receive some significant accolades int the years before his death: a Wyndham-Cambell Award from Yale University (2016), the NEA Jazz Master Award for his writings on the music (2018), which included a musical tribute by David Murray at the Kennedy Center, and a standing-room-only, daylong symposium at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (2016), which he attended and at which Jon Batiste peformed. After a few rocky years in which Crouch had trouble getting some pieces published, he found himself on a trajectory toward cultural canonization even as rapidly declining health and loneliness of the nursing home, where he moved in 2018, made life excruciating. That trajectory helped pave the way for Victory Is Assured, which despite its imperfections from a specialist’s perspective is one of Crouch’s top two or three books, a must-read for people who have been reading him for decades or just hearing of him now.

Crouch wrote of the writer Darcy O’Brien, another early mentor in California, that he was “made of cowboys and James Joyce and America.” Crouch, too, was made of those things, and also of Elaine’s and the Village Vanguard and the Tin Palace (which he booked in the late ’70s) and Herman Melville and Ben Webster and John Huston and Bessie Smith and zuppa di pesce and pinot grigio and a thousand more items in a list worthy of Borges and Whitman and Rabelais. Unlikely combinations led to unlikely combinations (literary boxingwise), which led to him becoming a champ.

Paul Devlin is the editor, most recently, of Ralph Ellison in Context (2021).

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