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Crouch, Stanley 1945—

Stanley Crouch 1945

Writer, social critic

Made Enemies

Gravitated Toward Theater, Academia

Prone to Fisticuffs

Sources

I usually write something I think is true, Stanley Crouch insisted to New York Times contributor Lynda Richardson, and if in the process its provocative, its too bad. Crouchs capacity to provoke his readers is virtually unparalleled in modern American letters. Yet despite his having pilloried many cherished ideas and figures of black culturein a manner frequently described as vindictiveCrouch is no neo-conservative black writer cosy-ing up to a right-wing audience. Rather, he has followed his own idiosyncratic muse; to say that he operates with disregard for sacred cows of any kind is to understate the case. Contempt for unquestioned orthodoxies, in fact, is one of the few consistent aspects of his work.

In countless essays, a novel, and numerous other forums, Crouch has applied a jazz fanatics exacting standards to popular culture and politics and found them largely wanting. At the core of his work is a desire to break down cultural barriers and make good on the promise of Americas diversity. Nation critic Gene Seymour, reviewing Crouchs 1990 essay collection Notes of a Hanging Judge* found in its pages a search for common ground and a reaffirmation of the social contract, adding that like any good jazz player, Crouch never repeats himself or does the predictable.

Made Enemies

For Crouchand this view has earned him some formidable enemiesthe civil rights movement of the 1960s gathered its moral impetus from a far-seeing humanism that was betrayed by the black nationalism that replaced it. The goal of the earlier movement was to sweep away racist institutions so that American blacks could contribute their multifaceted talents to their country unhindered, he has noted; black nationalism, meanwhile, helped send not only black America but this nation itself into an intellectual tailspin on the subjects of race, of culture, of heritage, reads an essay quoted by Richardson in the New York Times. Where there was not outright foolishness, there was a mongering of the maudlin and a base opportunism.

It is this repudiation of black militant politicswhich he briefly endorsed during the late 1960sand its cultural offspring in music and literature that has made Crouch the target of the most vociferous attacks he has weathered.

At a Glance

Born December 14, 1945, m los Angeles, CA; son of James and Emma Bea (a maid) Crouch. Education: Attended East Los Angeles Junior College and Southwest Junior College,

Worked for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, c. 1964; member of Watts Repertory Theatre Company, 1965-67; Pitzer College, poet-in-residence, beginning 1968, became member of faculty of Black Studies Center; instructor in English, Pomona College, until 1975; staff writer, Village Voice, New York City, 1975-80; published essay collection Notes of a Hanging judge, 1990; co-coordinator, Jazz at Lincoln Center series; published second essay collection, The American Skin Came, 1995.

Awards : Whiting Foundation Writers Award, 1990; MacArthur Foundation genius grant/1991.

Addresses : HomeNew York, NY. AgentCeorges Borchardt Agency, 136 East 57th St, New York, NY 10022.

To esteemed critic bell hooks, who has herself felt the sting of Crouchs poisoned pen, he apes a peculiar hybrid of jungle-bunny masculinity and new-right Fascism. He has seen that it pays off when you kiss the ass of white supremacy. Crouchs pugilistic nature extends to his personal comportment, though whether his physical blows smart more than his scathing prose is perhaps worthy of an essay in itself. I have a wild side to my personality, he averred to Richardson. Im not always the Cub Scout leader Id like most adults to be, sometimes in ways that are surprising to [me].

Crouch was born in 1945 in Los Angeles; his father, James, was in jail on a drug charge when Stanley entered the world, according to several sources. Stanleys mother, Emma Bea, worked an exhausting schedule as a maid to support him and his siblings; when she wasnt working, she was exposing her children to culture as best she could. Crouch described her to Robert C. Boynton of the New Yorker as Little Miss Perfect Lower Class, explaining, She was an aristocrat in that strange American way that has nothing to do with money.

Stanley suffered from asthma and was often forced to stay indoors as a result; he turned his confinement to his advantage by reading constantly. Apart from literaturehe had familiarized himself with some of the greatest American writers before he finished high schoolhis other grand passion was jazz. Soon, like any good critic-to-be, he had amassed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of that subject as well.

Crouch spent his first few years after graduating from high school in an unfocused course of study at two junior colleges. His interest in literature broadened to include drama and poetry, and the riots that devastated the Watts area of South Central Los Angeles in 1965 inspired him to raise funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the civil rights movementsstaunchestorganizations. Bythelate 1960s, however, impatience with the slow pace of progress had contributed to the growth of black militancy.

Crouch, too, was briefly swept up in the fervor. I was very impressed by the nationalist business for a while, he reflected to the Wall Street Journals Helen Dudar. It had a certain appeal that stuff always hasit simplified the world. And all the ambiguities of human conduct dont have to be addressed. If you have two people in a store and one is selling superiority while the other is selling equality, the person selling superiority is going to have a line around the block. That is the appeal of Black Nationalism: it is saying that black people are superior and white people are inferior.

Gravitated Toward Theater, Academia

Around that time Crouch met and became involved with Jayne Cortez, a prominent poet who ran Studio Watts, a theater group that had captured his imagination. Joining the group was pivotal for Crouch, but Cortezs example was even more so: Id never met anyone with that kind of aesthetic commitment, he noted to New Yorker writer Boynton, whod drawn a line in the dirt and said, I am an artist.

Crouchs poetry began to gain some notice, fusing urgent political messages, jazz rhapsodies, and literary allusions. Yet during a poetry workshop hed helped organize in 1967, he told Boynton, he had an experience that could be called critical in more ways than one. Watching a white workshop leader soft-pedal his critique of a black participants poemone that Crouch thought simply aBorninablewas one of the pivotal moments of my life, because I saw how even a guy with the best intentions could be incredibly paternalistic and encourage third-rate work. The incident inspired the tactless honesty that has been the hallmark of Crouchs critical writing ever since.

1968 saw Crouch join the faculty of Pitzer College, part of Californias Claremont College group, as poet-in-residence. He later moved to the faculty of the Black Studies Center, then gained a position in Pomona Colleges English department. Though he had not earned a degree himself, Crouchs prodigious background in all varieties of literature allowed him to campaign among the faculty and impress each one. I always knew something about the subject at hand that they hadnt ever heard before, he related to Boynton. During the 1970s, after making a substantial mark as an instructor and dramatist at Claremont, Crouch decided to move to New York. Thanks to a jazz critic friend, he began working for the Village Voice, one of nations premiere counter-cultural publications and a bible of the East Coast arts scene.

Crouchs tenure at the Voice hardly transformed him into a doctrinaire leftist, however. Indeed, he became, if anything, more unpredictable in his work and often seemed dedicated to puncturing the most revered black figures on the cultural landscape. Though originally focused on jazzand during the 1980s his stylistic allegiances shifted from avant-garde to traditional practitioners of this musicCrouch was soon firing broadsides at literature, film, and virtually everything else. He seemed to reserve a special venom for black nationalism and its ideological cousins; complaining, in a piece cited by Wall Street Journal contributor Dudar, about a weak-kneed, crybaby bitching vision of the world in which, if everything is not working perfectly for you all the time, you have been betrayed by society.

Crouch created a unique body of resentment by trashing or severely criticizing work by novelist Toni Morrison, filmmaker Spike Lee, and others who had received virtually unanimous praise elsewhere. New Yorker contributor Boyntons article cites a hair-raising litany of Crouchian opinionthe writer took a swipe at martyred activist Malcolm X, called bell hooks a terrier with attitude, dubbed Afrocentrism a hustle, and called gangsta rappers Uncle Toms.

Prone to Fisticuffs

But Crouchs bellicosity wasnt restricted to the page; many of his colleagues complained that he baited them and clearly desired confrontation. Most notably, an argument with Voice music critic Harry Allena partisan of rap, which Crouch has long publicly disdained turned into an all-out f istfight. Crouch was subsequently fired from the publication, though he was later re-hired in a free-lance capacity. A former colleague told Boynton that the magazine underwent a lot of ridiculous hand-wringing, but the fact is that Stanley is just a bullya mean guy with a violent streak and a dumb schoolyard attitude.

Others at the Voice felt that the firing was an overreac-tion and that Crouchs temper was largely manifested in posturing. Whats more, editor Doug Simmons recalled to Boynton, Crouch often wanted people to stand up to him. His most endearing moment, Simmons related, was when he gave me an awful piecewhich was unusualand I told him it sucked. He started to get angry and said What do you mean, it sucks? And I said, Look, its just no good and we wont print it. He thought for a minute and said, You know, youre right, it does suck. And he rewrote it. He was just happy to have someone engage him.

Crouch was allegedly devastated and remorseful after his firing, but he later claimed to have been liberated by it. He certainly didnt fall into inactivity. 1990 saw the publication of a collection of his pieces, Notes of a Hanging Judge; the following year he was given a $30,000 Whiting Foundation Writers Award. Among several ongoing projects that have engaged him since are a lengthy and agonizingly well-researched biography of jazz giant Charlie Parker and a novel called First Snow in Kokomo that he has been threatening to publish for several years. At the National Book Awards in 1990 he was able to rub elbows with two of his literary idols, novelists Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow. In 1993 Crouch won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant of $296,000.

As a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Crouch has helped authorize the new jazz orthodoxy. To the dismay of avant-garde fans, he lent his approval to the neo-traditionalism of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and other young classicists; to Boynton he remarked, The real problem with the avant-garde is that many of them simply cant play. Nonetheless, it was Crouch who had taken the young Marsalis under his wing and taught him an appreciation not only for jazz pioneers like Duke Ellington but also for maverick figures like saxophonist Omette Coleman.

As a social critic, Crouch has reserved much of his ammunition for those elements of popular culture that engage in what he called the panting exploitation of our worst inclinations in a brief essay included in a Time roundtable. Among these he numbered the slut chic of singer/actress Madonna, the anti-Semitism and misogyny of much rap music and black nationalist rhetoric, the shock of gore of modern action films, and the calculated rebellion of rock stars. I do not believe censorship is the answer, he concluded. But I have no doubt good taste and responsibility will not limit the entertainment industrys ability to provide mature work that attacks our corruption, challenges our paranoia and pulls the covers off the shortcomings that Balkanize [segregate] us. And it is Crouchs unceasing assault on this Balkanization that redeems much of his work for even leftist critics. Though many of Crouchs keenest observations are offset by bilious sneering, Seymour noted in his Nation review of Hanging Judge that Crouch is nobodys kneejerker, nor is he a Dedicated Follower of Fashion.

Still, it is Crouchs most inflammatory writing that has gained him the most attention, and this seems unlikely to change. When I see black people going through this shit today about the importance of being African-Americans, I know theyre still lost, he asserted to Boynton. Theyre constantly talking about what some mysterious they are trying to do to some unified us. Heedless of the rancor he inspires among many intellectualsthe famed poet Amiri Baraka deemed him a backward, asinine person in a very brief phone conversation with BoyntonCrouch claims that ordinary people support him. Ive been applauded by black bus drivers, subway drivers, mechanics, various people who have come up to me and said Im sure glad somebody issayingit, he told Richardson. Thats enough for me. I dont care what some trickle-down Negro Marxist says. That means nothing to me. And I dont care what some confused group of what a friend calls lumpen bourgeoisie middle-class black folks who want to be street say. Though hes unlikely to endear himself to the black or leftist establishments anytime soon, Crouch remains one of the most stubbornly independent critics of our culture working in any medium.

Sources

Nation, May 21, 1990, pp. 710-11.

New Yorker, November 6, 1995, pp. 95-115.

New York Times, August 29, 1993, section 4, p. 7.

Time, June 12, 1995, p. 35.

Wall Street Journal, November 29, 1991, p. A5.

Simon Glickman

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Crouch, Stanley

Crouch, Stanley

December 14, 1945


Critic and essayist Stanley Crouch was born in Los Angeles, where he was raised by his mother, Emma Bea Crouch, a domestic. During his boyhood he became fascinated by jazz music. In 1965, after attending school and junior college in Los Angeles, he was inspired by the Watts riot to become involved in the Black Power and black arts movements, and he joined the Watts Repertory Theatre Company as an actor and writer. In 1968 Crouch was hired by California's Claremont College as an instructor, and he later became the first full-time faculty member of the Black Studies Center.

By 1975 Crouch left Claremont and moved to New York. Disenchanted with black nationalism, he became a disciple of writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, who celebrated the centrality of blacks in a pluralistic American culture. He joined the staff of the weekly Village Voice as a jazz and cultural critic, where he remained until 1989. At the Voice Crouch became controversial for his forthright critiques of modern jazz, African-American literature, and other subjects. Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990), a collection of his Voice columns, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

During the 1990s Crouch worked as a freelance scholar and essayist and functioned as an advisor to the Lincoln Center Jazz Program. In 1993, Crouch won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant of $296,000. He joined the New York Daily News as a columnist in 1995. Always In Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, a collection comprised mostly of his Daily News columns, was published in 1998.

Crouch was further honored as the 20022003 Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia University. His collection The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity was published in 2004.

See also Intellectual Life; Jazz; Journalism; Literary Criticism, U.S.

Bibliography

Crouch, Stanley. Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives. New York: Pantheon, 1998.

Crouch, Stanley. The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004.

Crouch, Stanley, and Playthell Benjamin. Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002.

greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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