Return to the Index

GP 16 July 2008: America the Beautiful

America the Beautiful.  We learn that “America the Beautiful” sprung into being when an English professor at Wellesley College, one Katherine Lee Bates, took a trip to Colorado in 1893, and wrote a poem commemorating this transforming experience.  Over time “several existing pieces of music were adapted to the poem.”  Samuel Ward’s tune, composed when he was coming back to New York City on a ferry from Coney Island, was the most popular and the one that we use in the present day.

Ironically, 1893 was the very year that the famed historian Frederick Jackson Turner bruited his thoughts about the frontier at the Chicago World’s Fair.  He felt the ‘frontier’ had been the defining force in America’s development, but that it was coming to an end.  In fact, America is or was one of the most beautiful countries in the world with a frontier that did shape its history.  But we have been devouring the beauty and subdividing the landscape at a mad rate since ’93.  The puzzle is how to get some beauty back into our act.

The most prominent symbol of our quandary is New York City.  As near as we can tell, it is the most interesting city in the world.  But it is far from the most beautiful.  Paris, or at least old Paris, puts it to shame.  Italy offers us a whole nest of cities better on the eye and probably more enriching for the heart.  Nowhere in Manhattan is there a cathedral to equal the Mezquita de Cordoba, a beautiful cathedral and mosque, all rolled into one.

Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Brooks Adams is not his most renowned work, but it may be more important to us in the present day than his well wrought history of the United States or the introspective Education of Henry Adams, where he devotes a chapter to both locales, as we remember.  “In 1870, Adams was appointed Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, a position he held until his early retirement in 1877 at 39.”  “In 1904, Adams privately published a copy of his ‘Mont Saint Michel and Chartres,’ a pastiche of history, travel, and poetry, that celebrated the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France.  Originally meant as a diversion for his nieces and ‘nieces-in-wish,’ it was publicly released in 1913 at the request of Ralph Adams Cram, an important American architect, and published with support of the American Institute of Architects.”

The fine historian David McCullough has swelled his reputation by writing lovingly of President John Adams.  But he would do well, we think, to skip a few chapters in the Adams family saga and move to the medievalist Henry Brooks Adams, who worked at illuminating the American experience by moving backwards, particularly into medieval times.  He pointed, as noted, to “the unity of medieval society.”  The example of that age, we think, may have something to do with remedying the splintered fractionalization of our times.

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.  It’s not easy to do something about Chemlawns and strip malls.  The most important business institution of our day, Wal-Mart, is not just a little ugly: it is stridently so.  It revels in squalor.  Those who visit its headquarters wonder at its dedication to cardboard offices.  It is awesomely mediocre.

Chances are that we are not to have a beautiful society without a rather dramatic change in the way we look at things.  Perhaps we need to hearken back to times we now even scorn—the long medieval era.  Even with all the differences among medieval theologians, there seemed to be a unity around the idea that truth, beauty, and goodness were all faces of the same thing—that they were all aspects of God, and one really did not have one without the other. One commentator puts it this way:

Medieval theorists believed that Beauty was in the One, but they also believed that the Beauty of the One was equated with “moral harmony” or Goodness.  Eco states that “the beauty and the goodness of a thing are the same, because they are both grounded in form….”  Lippman goes further, positing that Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are perceived at once and vary in accordance with a fixed mathematical relationship.  He also demonstrates a connection between Beauty and Love (Eros); thus Beauty, Truth, Goodness, and Love are tightly related.

There’s a reasonable chance we cannot have beauty about us unless we can conjoin it to goodness and truth.  There would appear to be a slew of ills we are trying to remedy in our society by moving around the deckchairs, rather than truly righting the boat.  It is rather clear, for instance, that all the band-aids we apply to our healthcare system are irrelevant: we will have to come to terms with the fact that ours in toto is a rather unhealthy society, and that the doctors and insurance carriers will play but the smallest part in making us healthy.  Getting healthy or becoming beautiful require powerful philosophical beliefs that broadly put our populace on a new course.  In fact, the evaporation of beauty is yet one more sign of our diminished health.  The lack of large unifying beliefs would appear to impose terrible costs on us.

Facelifts.  That said, we’ve asked a few bright people from very different worlds what might be done to set beauty in motion.  We’re looking for little hints as to what might make beauty paramount.  Our commentators are both humorous and talented enough to set us thinking.

Letitia Baldrige.  America’s lady of manners, Letitia Baldrige is indefatigable.  Incidentally her brother Malcolm was America’s ambassador for quality: the Baldrige awards are named after him.  It is certain that we cannot have beauty if we should be missing either civility (Letitia) or quality (Malcolm).  She writes:

What I've discovered is that there is beauty everywhere—I just didn't have the time to notice it before.  When you're sitting on a piece of stone wall, or a bus-stop bench, or even in a car, waiting for someone, always waiting, you will either look about you, doze off or cope with your BlackBerry messages.  I prefer to look.  And the eye is miraculously selective about what it chooses to linger on—not on the ugly, the trite, the tired perspective—but perhaps on a particular view of the bushes that has always been nearby, but one hasn't bothered to take note of how lovely its leaves are as well as the shape the image takes at various times of day, in various lights.  Then there's the art show of graphic silhouettes of city landscapes as nighttime draws near, but only if one chooses to take the time to look for it.  It's so comforting.  Beauty is there.  We just have to take a couple of seconds and steps to find it.  Best of all, in this economy, it's free.

A woman of beauty has a smile, at least half a smile on her face, whenever she is momentarily alone.  She is pulled together in her attire, her hair and makeup—she knows she will be looked at, mostly accidentally, by several generations who will have her in their field of vision, at least for a second.  She may feel it's her duty to please those eyes.  Others will challenge that premise, asking, "Why do you care what you look like when you're just out of the house, doing chores, going through the day-to-day motions of working at your job, food-shopping, carting the kids around and standing in line at the post office?  What does it matter what you look like all of those times?"

To a woman of beauty, it matters.  It's almost as though she knows that somehow she has a legion of fans whom she must not disappoint.  At any age, she cares about those who care about what they see of her when they glance in her direction.  When I was a child, my mother used to wince when we encountered women with their hair up in big rollers at the grocery store.  It was SO ugly, whether or not the rollers were partially covered by a head scarf.  You don't see that much any more.  My mother, who was a natural beauty, never left the house unless she was appropriately, neatly dressed.  She always looked as though she could host the Mayor, or the Archbishop, or the CEO of a major corporation, within a half-hour's notice."

The powerful ad agencies, with their multi-millions of budget clout, should take note of the real basis of beauty: that it is based on an attractive, modulated voice, gracious manners, and above all, a woman's character.  You can't buy it with any "look younger" magic potions or miracle-working makeovers.  As a man was overheard saying, "With a change of 'tude, she'll be a better-lookin' broad." 

Does not Ms. Baldrige chasten us to realize that in order to have beauty we must be on the look out for it, and celebrate it when we find it?  And to understand in ourselves what might make us a bit more beautiful?

Chip Callaway.  The South is littered with landscape designers, but very few get it right.  You only have to pour through the endless high end new developments in the New South to see the immense dollars that have been spent on low-maintenance, extraordinarily- sterile, vapid gardens.  But he has the touch.  We first took in his work at the Richmond Hill Inn in Asheville and have peeked at his work throughout the Southeast.  We are taken by the idea that he regards his mission as an effort to reverse damage already done:

My travels of late have been so disheartening to find that Greensboro, Huntsville, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, Savannah and on an on, all have the same dismal Auto Mile after Auto Mile, big box store after big box store ad nauseum..  Disposable architecture and brutal landscapes are marring every city in the country.  Everything looks virtually the same, and that same is devastatingly bland and numbing.   

I guess it must take a good bit of effrontery to try to improve on what we have been given on this beautiful planet.  And most of the time I am not trying to improve on nature, just trying to reverse what man has done in the name of growth and development.  I just pray that I don't do too much damage to the planet on my brief stay here.  My hope is that through my work I can "celebrate" the wonderful plants and natural elements we have been given and hope that through my gardens others will emulate what I have done in a respectful manner to glorify the planet, not destroy it.

In part our lack of beauty stems from a terrible sameness, from city to city, town to town.  Beware of cookie cutter architecture and formulaic planting, but celebrate regional quirks that produce experiences that cannot be replicated.  We have been amazingly profligate with the bounty afforded by our continent:  now we must treat our land as a scarce resource that must be cherished and devoutly used.

Peter KindlmannPeter Kindlmann is a Yale engineering professor, and we don’t ordinarily think engineers have that much to do with beauty.  Ah, but they do.  He is concerned with electronic design: in this discipline, as elsewhere, elegance demands simplicity of design which also lies at the heart of architecture, and product innovation, and perhaps everything that makes our environment tolerable.  If it is complex, it not only will break: it will be ugly, too. 

He is avid about his photography, much of which is about nature and which is always calming.  We notice that he uses technology to enhance his pictures, not to make it slick or overdone.  His wife is a potter.  When it all gets to be too much for him, he goes off to the Maine woods, which, even today, are beautiful.  He finds much in the fabric of modern existence which makes it hard to either find or create beauty:

And in a time of rampant attention deficit, does beauty really exist if there is no one there to notice it?

But for general topics, like the earliest use of the symbolism of the rose in British poetry, or your quest for beauty, it seems better for the non-professional searcher to take that topic along on a journey, like a guest tagging along, and benefit from the enlarged awareness.

I ran across the notion in an Atul Gawande article that Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.

Quite independently, I had the thought that beauty is often an attribute of stress, for being noticed under circumstances of competition (peacock plumage, etc.) or under threat of demise (many plants, e.g. some orchids, bloom as a last hurrah of the growing season) or extinction (there are some beautifully designed book covers these days, when the book is said to be going extinct).

Surely we must understand that one must have a trained eye, saturated with beautiful memories, to perceive beauty in objects or scenes.  There are all sorts of obstacles to us seeing beauty when it presents itself, particularly if we lack memory, especially emotional memory.  Ms. Baldrige advises us to be looking, but looking, it turns out, is no easy matter. Our capacity for looking may even be atrophying.

Kindlmann, as an afterward, sent us a little history of the relationship of products and beauty, part of the tool kit every designer of new objects should bring to his or her task.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Sergio Leone made this spaghetti western in 1966, starring Cliff Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach. Strange that it comes out of Italy (and Spain), a country, which with all its woes, generates so much true beauty.  Simple to say, that good, bad, and ugly is the wrong formulation.  Many fine artists now center their work on dissolution and warped matters, but all their talents cannot make it any more satisfying.  Every cook, every craftsman, every leader knows that fine materials are the sine qua non of excellence.  We have some good now—and a lot of bad and ugly.  But how do we get to the good, the true, and the beautiful?  How do we raise our sights?

P.S.  One night in Venice an Italian mobster regaled us with tales about Napoli music and then hauled a piano player into the Danieli bar so that we could hear it.  Naples has dreadful garbage problems, its own special crisis.  But just for that night Naples was the most beautiful city in the world. He richly rewarded the musician.

P.P.S. The late Louis Rukeyser lived in Connecticut, though, as we remember, he may have maintained some horses in Virginia.  When we talked about the West, he reminded us of its cruel irony.  In the South and West, builders have been given leave by feckless governors to build on very small lots.  Ironically, despite the talk of wide open spaces, one pushes tightly up against neighbors in the American West.  This is yet one more sign that the Frontier is no more.  And it informs us of why the field of esthetics has been overwhelmed by environmental matters, almost to the exclusion of other thinking.  As a high-cost, developed society, we will require a highly articulated culture and advanced esthetic if we are to produce high-value-added goods and services, our only means of survival in a global business economy.  States that want to prosper in this century will think a lot more about becoming beautiful again.

P.P.P.S.  PPS provides a list of 60 Great Public Spaces, some beautiful and some not.   But then, the same can be said for 50 Romantic Spots.

P.P.P.P.S.  We have always wondered why adventurers climb Mount Everest or dive to the bottom of the Pacific.  These seem to be tests for troubled souls that cannot deal with mortality, so that they make a strange bid for immortality.  It hardly seems worth the torture.  But then, when you do get there, the beauty is unalloyed.

Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2008 GlobalProvince.com