Always in Pursuit

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When one boils down Stanley Crouch’s ALWAYS IN PURSUIT: FRESH AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, 1995-1997 to its bare essence, it turns out to be saying that race essentialism, founded on a discredited, biological discourse of race, has to be abandoned in America’s courts, schools, businesses, and university departments of African American studies. However, the Negro culture (he chafes at the term “African American”) has to be respected and developed.

This is a rich position, well worth exploring. Unfortunately, Stanley Crouch is so in love with the sound of his own voice that he sometimes drowns out his own best insights. Much of ALWAYS IN PURSUIT was first published in Crouch’s newspaper columns, and though he tries to fuse these columns together in interesting ways, the simple fact is that very few newspaper columns deserve to be preserved for posterity between the covers of a book. A crime bill that passed two years before ALWAYS IN PURSUIT was published demands, if anything, a thorough, retrospective analysis, and not a simple recycling of an old opinion piece. No writer less enamored of himself could convince himself that such intellectual flotsam and jetsam retains its value long after the facts have changed.

In his pieces on Duke Ellington, Albert Murray, and John Ford, Crouch shows himself to have a keen critical eye (and ear), one quite capable of distinguishing good from mediocre, and great from good. When it comes to evaluating people, though, Crouch seems to have one criterion: success counts. The late Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, is presented in glowing terms; Christopher Darden, however, is a whiner for wanting to tell his side of the story about why the O. J. Simpson prosecution failed. Johnny Cochran, by contrast, proves to be a genius for beating the apparently incapable Mr. Darden.

As a showcase for Crouch’s ability to opine on the wealth and poverty of American culture, this collection of essays is a success. As a forum for serious discussion on serious issues, the best that can be said for it is that it is not empty of merit.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, December 1, 1997, p. 586.

Emerge. IX, April, 1998, p. 68.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, December 1, 1997, p. 1749.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 8, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, November 24, 1997, p. 58.

The Village Voice. March 17, 1998, p. 124.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIV, Summer, 1998, p. 426.

Always in Pursuit

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

For years the New York Daily News, which publishes a regular column by Stanley Crouch in which many of the essays included in Always in Pursuit first appeared, published a sports column by the crusty, cranky sportswriter Dick Young titled “Young Ideas.” The title was something of a joke: Although Young had indeed been on the cutting edge of sports journalism at one time in his career, by the time he became a Daily News columnist, he had already calcified into a cranky version of himself, and the misnomer that attempted to hide this fact inevitably called attention to the emptiness of his bombast. In adding the subtitle, Fresh American Perspectives, to his new collection of essays, Always in Pursuit, Stanley Crouch risks making a similar mockery of himself if the reader does not happen to find his perspectives fresh. In fact, some of them do live up to the billing of “fresh” but, occasionally, only because they express ideas that have been around long enough that there are no longer many people expressing them. Yet whether or not his perspectives are “fresh,” they are definitely his own, and he will certainly argue them with anyone willing to listen.

At his core Crouch seems to be an old-fashioned Great Society Democrat—old-fashioned in that he represents a point of view that predates the time when this point of view became the center and members of the party stood either to the right or left. For him the Great Society goals of equal opportunity, fair employment, and equal access to quality education for African Americans and whites alike are worthy goals still to be pursued, and if he is not exactly thrilled with the way that either affirmative action or welfare has been implemented, he knows quite well that there is much racial inequity still to be addressed. He is old-fashioned in that he rejects out of hand anything that smacks of cultural relativism and believes that there are indeed a core set of cultural values that are worth implementing, most of which in fact spring from Western tradition. He is old-fashioned in that, at a time when it is more common to express a belief in democracy than to believe in democracy, his understanding of American culture springs from a deep belief in American democracy.

Stanley Crouch made his reputation as a writer about jazz, and jazz and blues tempos are the key to his writing. For example, because he knows that the newspaper column is not a form that holds up well in book form, to inject some new life into his essays he loosely sews together a number of recycled columns to, as he says, “create something akin to a musical set presented by a jazz band.” This is not a bad idea, as it turns out, and it makes the familiarity of the Tupac Shakur, Susan Smith, and Texaco race- discrimination cases about which he writes seem like the familiarity of old standards. The question the reader as listener is concerned with is, What is he going to do with this?

Stanley Crouch takes his intellectual bearings from Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (perhaps the most influential of jazz writers), and he shares with these mentors a passion for Duke Ellington, whom he recognizes as the most complete of jazz artists. This is territory Murray covered in The Hero and the Blues, but Crouch replaces Murray’s essentially academic tone with a more popular one. Crouch is more a jazz lover than a jazz gourmand, and he can assume his hero’s canonicity in a way that Murray could not twenty years earlier; his task in writing about Ellington is more like that of an English teacher who tries to explain why William Faulkner is still fresh, not so much that of an academic critic who tries to show why Faulkner is great.

What Crouch adds to Murray’s extensive writings on Duke Ellington is an appreciation of Ellington as a businessman, an essential characteristic of Ellington’s unequaled fifty-year success in a field, popular music, in which most acts fizzle and burn out before their third recording. If this appreciation for Ellington’s success is an important contribution to the discourse on Ellington, Crouch’s general respect for success as success at times gets him into trouble. For example, he writes a paean to the late secretary of commerce Ron Brown that amounts to saying that because Brown was successful, he should be respected. Perhaps in some circles, but it should also be pointed out that if Ron Brown became an image of political craftsmanship, he also became an image of the political...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)