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  • When Men and Mountains Meet:Ruggles, Whitman, and Their Landscapes
  • Deniz Ertan (bio)

Carl Ruggles (1876–1971) advised his painter friend Rockwell Kent in 1915, "Go right on in the same way, and when you are a bit blue read Walt Whitman."1 In another instance, criticizing the state of American music represented by such figures as Edward MacDowell and John Alden Carpenter, Ruggles proclaimed in a typically passionate and subjective outburst: "Fat-Heads always imitate the surface things. . . . It is all a reflection of the black-walnut marble top period, Venus de Melos [sic] with a clock in her belly. Tiddies, the gilding of everything from False teeth to coal hods. Now think of Walt Whitman coming clean out of that mess."2 Like that of many other American composers, Ruggles's admiration for Whitman (1819–92) led him to pay explicit homage in his works. The title "Lilacs" (second movement of Men and Mountains [1924/rev. 1936/rev. 1941]) comes from the poet's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and his "turgid seascape" in oil bears an inscription from Whitman, With Husky Haughty Lips, Oh Sea!3

Ruggles and Whitman each adopted the role of the self-made man, the character of the proud, solitary, and self-sufficient frontiersman. For Whitman these qualities signified a "deathless attachment to freedom," an aversion to anything "soft or mean," a "curiosity and welcome of [End Page 227] novelty" as well as "wonderful sympathy."4 Writing in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner linked the frontier to the quintessentially American character thus: "That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind . . . that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism . . . and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom." This rich collection of meanings suited Whitman and Ruggles as well: both welcomed the mystery of ordinariness and yearned to push beyond the boundaries of identity and locality. Ives's friend (and Elliott Carter's teacher) Clifton J. Furness explained that in 1864, Whitman "felt every thing from an American point of view which is no local standard" and that to the poet America stood for humanity and universalism.5 Ruggles, who carefully constructed his (ultra)modernist American composer identity, often declared his pride in the fact that neither he nor Charles Ives had studied abroad, and that they were the first "genuinely American" composers.6 In order to produce "genuinely American" works, one had to make the journey (not just venture on it) through immediate experiences and pressures, oscillating between resistance and adaptation.

While Ruggles embraced the poetry of Whitman, a generation removed from him, Whitman himself was deeply affected by music, especially by the Italian opera of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi—again a generation removed (with the exception of Verdi [1813–1901] who was his contemporary). Both Whitman and Ruggles affirmed their collective histories despite their appropriation of Emersonian notions of self-reliance, which frequently invoke doctrines of solitude and singularity. By seeking to produce works that were entirely their own, both the poet and the composer attempted to define themselves as creative American subjects who thirsted for immunity and solitude. The self that they sought embraced both memory (tradition, habit) and hope (aspiration, progress)—the two forces that have perennially divided the American fictive self since Emerson.

The Self


Many twentieth-century American artists tended to reveal themselves openly, at times stubbornly, embracing such attributes as simplicity, rawness, and intuition. Like Rockwell Kent, who stressed that the instruction of the trained artist only "violates that tender innocence of self expression,"7 Whitman and Ruggles claimed to create works that did not need to be justified or defended against institutional or tradition-bound assaults. Despite affirming a moral obligation to produce honest and clean work—apparent, for example, in Ruggles's self-critical perfectionism—their [End Page 228] priorities were experience and expression. America's ideological conception based on experience was apparent as early as the 1620s; the early seventeenth-century settlers of Virginia, for example, "had already gone through the cycle of exploration, religious dedication, disillusionment, and then reconciliation to a world in which making a living was the ultimate reality."8...


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