This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The United States and the Artist
Excerpted from the July 1, 1925 Issue
Can an artist exist and function freely in the United States? I think that he can do so if he knows where and how.
Certain hazards among us are to be conceded and survived, and if the artist is a Negro, his difficulties are needlessly greater in this country than in any other land in the civilized world. In general, [though,] the great United States handicap is none of these. It lies deeper and is not to be conquered by praise or fellowship or loaf and flask.
It is the lack in the national life of that indefinable control by the ordered, the accustomed, the mellow, the dreaming, the old. We know that we are without memories or echoes. Time is neither our asset nor our despair, but merely our hope. We are not the old world.
If I were an artist I should, in the light of my experience, stay here and confidently expect to do my work. I should know that from out the decays of Italy and the fatigues of France and the deepening impassivities of Great Britain one could look and imagine no more challenging artistic adventure than waits in this land with the unimaginative name. I should know that if in the ancient days I had gone questing for a field I should very likely have renounced everything in exchange for the terms of our unique life.
Art seeks to interpret the human spirit, naked in the universe, itself without nationality or academy or learned society or pension or past. If, then, an artist looks out upon that spirit hard enough, even in this land so lacking in the scrutiny, the pattern, or the label of the past, albeit not without something of the fragrance of the universal breath, it may be that he will forget the difficulties of keeping his covenant in the United States.
He will be in no illusion. He will know, sadly enough, that he has turned from the flowered debris, the resonant footsteps, the delicate somnolence, the emanations of genius and of ruin. And when our one hundred percenters come and tell him that he has the best country on earth to write in, he will emphatically demur. He will reply that there is no best country to write in. There are only an old world and a new. You make your choice.
Zona Gale (1874–1938), a novelist and playwright, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, in 1921.