Vaudeville Philosophers: "The Killers."

By Berman, Ron | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Vaudeville Philosophers: "The Killers."


Berman, Ron, Twentieth Century Literature


Kenneth S. Lynn's biography of Hemingway states that

behind "The Killers" lay some obvious influences: Hemingway's firsthand acquaintance with petty criminals in Kansas City, his close observation of the men entering the back room in the Venice Cafe, and the steady attention he paid in the 20s to journalistic accounts, in European as well as in American newspapers, of the blood-drenched careers of Chicago hoodlums. (112).

Behind the story also is Hemingway's acquaintance by 1926 with vaudeville and with the idea of vaudeville. The connection has long been noted: in 1959, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren mentioned the "vaudeville team" of Max and Al, and the "gag" and "dialogue" that remind the reader of their "unreal and theatrical quality."(1) The essay is, however, only the briefest of sketches on the subject.

By the mid-1920s, entertainment had become part of visual and literary art. Music hall scores echoed in the work of T. S. Eliot; the lyrics of Broadway hits were reprinted in the pages of E Scott Fitzgerald; and revues and Follies were described in fascinating detail in the essays of Edmund Wilson. The expression "the seven lively arts," coined by Gilbert Seldes, was meant to include comics, dancers, and Krazy Kat - and to displace such bourgeois delights as grand opera. It was the fate of one of those lively arts, vaudeville, to wax and wane with modernism.

To be useful to Hemingway as a subject in 1926, two things had had to happen to vaudeville: the first was its permeation of the social world, the second its recognition by the intellectual world. We know that the first of these happened because from W. C. Fields to Eddie Cantor and even to Ed Sullivan, vaudevillians not only dominated the Palace and the Ziegfeld Follies - hence the imagination of much of New York - but also went on to radio and the movies. The second happening was a consequence of the first. A brief chronology: in 1922, vaudeville became "The Great American Art" for the New Republic, in which Mary Cass Canfield wrote that it need not apologize for comparisons with Robinson and Frost, Masters and Sandburg. In fact, she thought it held its own with the work of Mark Twain as a kind of artistic reaction to our native social repressiveness:

Grotesque or not, vaudeville represents a throwing away of self-consciousness, of Plymouth Rock caution, devoutly to be wished for. Here we countenance the extreme, we encourage idiosyncrasy. The dancer or comedian is, sometimes literally, egged on to develop originality; he is adored, never crucified for difference. Miss Fannie Brice and Sir Harry Lauder are examples of vaudeville performers who have been hailed, joyfully and rightfully, as vessels containing the sacred fire, and who have been encouraged into self-emphasis by their audiences. . . . (225)

Equally important was the fact of universal intellectual acceptance:

Darius Milhaud, George Auric and the others write ballets and symphonies in which may be heard the irresponsible "cancan" of ragtime. John Alden Carpenter, perhaps the most vivid talent among our own composers, will occasionally shift from cooly subtle disharmonies, illustrating poetic or lyric subjects, to write a Krazy Kat Ballet. (226)

Vaudeville was for the intellectual world equal to other forms of artistic composition. And it seemed to gain meaning when it was compared to the modes of modernism.

Throughout 1923, Edmund Wilson produced a barrage of pieces on vaudeville ideas and personalities, and on the meaning of dance, jazz, comic scripts, and revues. He identified some of the leading comics and mimes, among them Bert Savoy, Johnny Hudgins, and Bert Williams. He speculated on the satire of vaudeville and especially on its urban modernist meanings. Wilson thought that the Ziegfeld Follies were inherently part of his and Fitzgerald's literary world:

Among those green peacocks and gilded panels, in the luxurious haze of the New Amsterdam, there is realized a glittering vision which rises straight out of the soul of New York. …

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