The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Anyone who has ever attended one of the spectacular performances of the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center in New York, viewed an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), or performed research on dance at the New York Public Library owes a tremendous debt to Lincoln Kirstein. In the same way, anyone who has read Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, R. P. Blackmur, or W. H. Auden owes a debt to Kirstein. Kirstein gained his greatest fame from his commitment to balletthe art he most cherished and the art to whose beauty and splendor he capitulated at the age of tenand he is most often remembered as the man who brought the choreographer George Balanchine (Georgi Balanchivadze) to America. Thanks in large part to his family fortunehis father owned the Boston-based department store Filene’sand to his own generosity and commitment to fostering and preserving the arts in society, Kirstein helped create Lincoln Center and City Center in New York City, as well as founding the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Kirstein started the famous literary magazine Hound and Horn, publishing writers like Pound and Eliot, Stephen Spender, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Edmund Wilson, and carrying the early photographs of Walker Evans (who later gained fame for his photographs of southern sharecroppers in his and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941). He also founded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, largely viewed as the precursor of MoMA in New York City. Because of his devotion to dance, he founded Dance Index, the major scholarly journal of dance in America. Consumed by his passion for the arts and his desire to make them an integral part of modern society, Kirstein worked frenetically and tirelessly in his efforts to accomplish this.

Duberman, whose previous biographies of James Russell Lowell and Paul Robeson and whose study of the Black Mountain poets have intimately captured their subjects, here splendidly captures Kirstein’s energy, his majestic writings, and his often tortured personal life. Drawing primarily on Kirstein’s own diaries, journals, letters, and books, as well as interviews with Kirstein’s friends and colleagues, Duberman provides not only a magisterial biography of Kirstein but also a first-rate cultural history of mid-twentieth century New York. Duberman’s biography probes Kirstein’s ambivalence toward his Judaism, his homosexuality, and his family, thereby creating a portrait of a man whose private life and public lives often overlapped but whose energies were directed to the greater good of the community. As Duberman points out, Kirstein’s frenetic pace caught up with him later in life when his bipolar disorder resulted in mental breakdowns, for which he underwent electric shock.

Lincoln Kirstein was the second of two children born to Louis and Rose Stern of Rochester, New York. His parents named him after Louis’s idol, Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln’s older sister, Mina, (who was ten when Lincoln was born) first saw her baby brother, she proclaimed that he looked like a lobster; when Lincoln’s younger brother, George, was born two and a half years after Lincoln, Lincoln tried to bash his newborn brother’s head in with a tin of talcum powder. Lincoln almost died as a result of a botched circumcision, leaving him with both physical and psychological scars. When he was twelve, he tried to hack off the scar tissue on his groin with his mother’s scissors.

As a preteen, Kirstein discovered music and began writing verse. Every day after school, he went to the YMCA, where there would be a short religious service. He disliked the impassionate and reedy music of his temple, but at the YWCA he discovered how passionately music could be sung when the ringing voices of the children were accompanied by the majestic chords of the grand piano. He developed a love for the symphony and the theater and at age twelve went to his first ballet, The Dance of the Hours, from Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Although that performance left him unmoved, he was swept off his feet the following year by Anna Pavlova’s wonderful performances, attending them five...

(The entire section is 1735 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 16 (April 15, 2007): 14.

Chicago Tribune, April 15, 2007, p. 4.

Dance Magazine 81, no. 10 (October, 2007): 76-77.

The Nation 285, no. 2 (July 9, 2007): 28-34.

The New Republic 236, no. 15 (May 7, 2007): 39-45.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 10 (June 14, 2007): 8-12.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 29, 2007): 9.

The New Yorker 83, no. 8 (April 16, 2007): 142-152.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 9 (February 26, 2007): 71-72.