Letters to the Editor

  • Aaron Copland


    Marc K. Stengel ("The Diffusionists Have Landed," January Atlantic) makes a dubious characterization that may go to the heart of the diffusionist-inventionist controversy. He refers to the "descendants of unlettered Ice Age mammoth-stalkers -- people who themselves had no written language." Yet some of the disputed finds of "writing" may well represent the indigenous writing systems of geographically isolated groups that did not leave behind large cultural monuments preserving those systems.

    Perhaps these controversial finds bear only an accidental resemblance to the Asian, African, and European writing systems they have been compared with, especially since most writing systems seem to start with an ideographic or pictographic stage. To state categorically that the "mammoth-stalkers" were "unlettered," when all that can be asserted within the limits of the evidence is that thus far no traces of their writing have been uncovered, may betray an unconscious bias on Stengel's part. In fact, the much-debated finds may contradict his underlying assumptions.

    Elliott B. Urdang

    I was excited to read Marc Stengel's article in the January issue and to learn that I have been living the life of a closet diffusionist. But I was disappointed to find no mention of the Mandans, that mysterious tribe that had two permanent villages on the Missouri River in North Dakota. In the 1730s the explorer Pierre de La Vérendrye encountered tales of white Indians, according to his journals covering his explorations from Lake Superior westward. When he finally arrived at the village of the so-called Whites, he was disappointed. To him, they appeared like other Indians. But their villages were unlike those of the neighboring tribes. Their lodges were wood-framed domes covered with clay. La Vérendrye also wrote of finding a stone slab with strange writing. This was shipped back to France, where it was lost during the turmoil of the Revolution. Could this have been another Kensington Stone?

    When the painter George Catlin visited the Mandans in 1832, he noticed features that had escaped La Vérendrye's eye. He was struck by the incidence of fair skin and hair and gray, green, or even blue eyes among some of the Mandans. His Mandan portraits are in storage at the Smithsonian. Catlin's journal gives an account of the big canoe ceremony, which has elements that resemble the biblical stories of Adam and Noah.

    The Kensington Stone tells the story of Viking survivors who evidently made their way down from Hudson Bay. Could the Mandans have been their descendants? What a gripping scenario! Unfortunately, no Mandans are left. Smallpox wiped them out in 1838.

    John Sanford

    While writing a novel about the ancient civilization of the Maya, I spent significant time interviewing archaeologists of world renown. Often these conversations turned to the theory presented in Marc Stengel's article. I have always approached the theories of even these notable Mayanists with an eye to plausibility. I will not include in my novel mention of magical crystal skulls or amber "fire starters," or the assertion that the Maya vanished by turning into a sacred white light -- more than six million Maya are alive today.

    When the conversation swung to diffusionist theories -- the legend of Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in Mayan), for example -- these mostly bearded scholars leaned forward in their chairs and, with twinkling eyes, spoke at length about the pre-Columbian transoceanic "plausibility."

    I hope their offices were not bugged.

    William E. Traster

    Marc Stengel mentions Jon Polansky's question regarding what traces ancient seafaring contacts with the New World might have left in Old World lore or traditions -- a category of evidence that most traditional archaeologists are ill equipped to notice, much less evaluate. While working at the University of Wales last fall on an article on early Celtic sea voyages, I was struck by a passage in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel that might reflect just such contact.

    The river described in Ezekiel 47:5-12 sounds very much like the Amazon, which in several ways is quite unlike the great river systems of Egypt or the Middle East that the writer could have been familiar with from his own tradition. The Amazon's breadth is amazing, uncrossable either on foot or by swimming. Heavy vegetation grows on both its banks; more significant, and this is repeated twice, the river makes the salt water fresh where it empties into the sea. It flows to the east and has a great abundance and variety of fish, including Mediterranean freshwater varieties. It is lined with fruit trees, which bear fruit in every month of the year, and other trees from which medicines are derived.

    These details are precisely the sort that would have struck an early Phoenician seafarer -- and they correspond very little to the Nile or the Tigris-Euphrates system, much less the Jordan. One can well imagine a scenario: a trading vessel of Ezekiel's time (early sixth century B.C.) or earlier runs across the freshwater discharge of the Amazon, follows it up into the river itself, reprovisions from villages along the river with fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish. The crew, suffering from scurvy, dysentery, or fever, is healed by native practitioners using locally available medicinal bark or leaves, and the account of this amazing new land is carried back to Tyre or some other Mediterranean port just up the coast from Israel.

    The Paraiba Stone, briefly referred to in Stengel's article, may provide corroborating evidence. This inscription, discovered in Brazil in the nineteenth century and then lost, was apparently written in an early Phoenician script not known at the time of the stone's discovery -- and thus beyond forgery.

    John Lawyer

    Marc Stengel provides an interesting summary of various theories about pre-Columbian visitors to America, especially those who are said to have come from Eurasia, and the controversies about these theories. To a reader with no professional stake in the validity of any of these theories, the controversies over them are as interesting as the theories themselves. One can understand why controversy persists, because much of the evidence mentioned by Stengel and others depends on inscriptions on individual objects. Unfortunately, this provides an opening for opponents to question the authenticity of the artifacts and to imply that they may be forgeries.

    Stengel provides the reader with many examples of archaeological finds said by diffusionists to be evidence of transatlantic migrations, but he fails to mention the sculptures referred to as "Mesoamerican ceramic figurines" by Cyrus Gordon in his book Before Columbus. Photographs of a number of these figurines accompany the text. They resemble not what we would call Indians but, rather, people from the eastern Mediterranean region, and some clearly Negroid types as well. Presumably the dates of these sculptures have been established by standard archaeological tests and are not disputed. Gordon states that most of them date from before A.D. 300, and that prior to this no Indian types appear. I'm not an archaeologist, but as a scientist, I'm well aware of what criteria one uses to establish the validity of evidence. Given this evidence, I am unable to understand how anyone can say that no transatlantic migration occurred.

    Additional evidence of the possibility -- or, indeed, the likelihood -- of transatlantic travel is the Piri Reis map mentioned by Gordon and described in great detail in Hapgood's Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. This map, dated 1513 but probably drawn from much earlier maps, shows land to the west of Eurasia, and in enough detail that one can match points on the Piri Reis map with those on a modern map -- clear evidence that there must have been quite extensive voyages of exploration.

    Though one may reasonably question the genuineness of individual artifacts, the Mesoamerican sculptures seem to be indisputable evidence of non-Indian peoples in Mesoamerica before A.D. 300. The Piri Reis map shows that Eurasian people knew about that land to the west and how to get there.

    Francis T. Worrell

    As co-editors of the book Across Before Columbus? Evidence for Transoceanic Contact With the Americas Prior to 1492 (1998), cited in Marc Stengel's article, we applaud Stengel's effort to present the issues involved in this often contentious academic and scientific debate over who came to the Americas, when, and how. At the same time, we regret that Stengel didn't mention the organization responsible for publication of that book, the New England Antiquities Research Association -- particularly when he mentioned another, younger organization. NEARA has been struggling with the complex ramifications of these same issues since its founding, in 1964.

    Donald Y. Gilmore
    Linda S. McElroy

    I was puzzled that Professor Cyrus Gordon was mentioned only once in Marc Stengel's article, and only in connection with the inscription on the Bat Creek Stone. Gordon, one of the earliest and most prominent diffusionists, gathered together in his book Before Columbus extensive materials that pointed to pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the American continents.

    David Neiman

    Marc Stengel refers to "Stephen Williams, a retired curator of North American archaeology at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University." Stephen Williams was a professor at Harvard for forty years, chairman of the Department of Anthropology, and for ten years the director of the Peabody Museum.

    Gerald G. Hotchkiss

    Marc K. Stengel replies:

    Elliott Urdang raises an essential point about the existence of "indigenous writing systems" in the Western Hemisphere. That they exist is attested by, for one, Mayan glyphs in Central America; undoubtedly, other "systems" await discovery. Unintentionally, however, he lapses into the all-too-common error of equating "writing systems" with "letters." Whereas the former include ideographs and pictographs, the latter most certainly do not. Letters are the alphabetic, phonetic, building-block symbols whose prehistoric origin in the eastern Mediterranean/Asia Minor region is still deemed by prevailing scholarship to be an achievement unique in human experience. We cannot know what we have not found, of course; if mammoth-stalkers were lettered, that discovery awaits us still. But to know that letters, not pictures, resembling Punic, Semitic, Celt-Iberic, and Berber scripts have been putatively discovered in the Western Hemisphere is to oblige conscientious researchers to consult the Old World, if only to satisfy forensic requirements.

    John Sanford, John Lawyer, and Francis Worrell all identify compelling anomalies that deserve attention. Except for the missing Paraiba Stone, however, none of the issues raised accentuates epigraphy, which served as an informal criterion for organizing much diverse material. Nevertheless, the Mandans are elegantly treated by Gwyn A. Williams in his Madoc: The Making of a Myth (1979), and Jewish seafaring is Raphael Patai's fascinating specialty in The Children of Noah (1998). Hapgood's bold claims about the Piri Reis map are examined by A. Afetinan in Life and Works of the Turkish Admiral: Piri Reis (1954) and by David C. Jolly in "Was Antarctica Mapped by the Ancients?" (The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall, 1986).

    As for the perceived slight to NEARA, I hoped that my citation of Across Before Columbus? would draw readers to the work of this influential organization. NEARA's Web site is highlighted alongside the Internet version of my article.


    I was struck by Steven Weinberg's statement in his article "Five and a Half Utopias" (January Atlantic) that "religious wars and persecutions have been at the center of religious life throughout history." Weinberg dismisses the notion that these are "perversions of religion." In his view, war and persecution have been fostered by religion, and the true moral progress of the past centuries is a product of the Enlightenment.

    This is a misreading of history. Wars and persecution have been a part of all human life throughout history. Religious precepts against war and injustice (such as the Ten Commandments) have been with us for thousands of years. Practiced imperfectly and often abused, these precepts have also restrained, tempered, and transformed the human tendency toward violence, hatred, and greed.

    I agree with Weinberg's assertion that "fighting over religion" and "imposed religious uniformity" are terrible things. Take something great and pervert it and you have a great horror. Take away any belief in God and the concomitant requirement to obey a moral code and things become even worse.

    Weinberg apparently believes that society would be much better off without religion. He ignores the great contributions made by religious people who were motivated by their faith. Consider the abolitionists who spearheaded the struggle to eliminate slavery. Consider the countless acts of organized and individual generosity made to alleviate suffering and promote the social good. George Washington had it right when, in his farewell address, he said, "Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

    I can only imagine what Weinberg's religionless utopia would look like, but I know I would not want to live in it. I don't think he would either.

    Thomas Best

    I was captivated by "Five and a Half Utopias," but I think Steven Weinberg should stop teaching physics and start teaching an introductory course on pessimism. Although I agree with much of what he wrote, I have to disagree with his belief that people don't want to die. After reading the article, I'm not so sure.

    R. R. Quinn

    Steven Weinberg replies:

    No, not all the ills of the world can be laid at the door of religion. I never said that they could be. But the worst evil of this century, the Holocaust, would not have happened without the groundwork laid by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. I'm glad that Thomas Best agrees with me that enforced religious uniformity is an evil, but few religious leaders before the Enlightenment or in the Islamic world today would share this view. Even in the United States there is pressure for conformity; every presidential candidate praises the value of religion, and no one who expresses views like mine could possibly be elected to any major public office. Religion has done some good -- as, for instance, in promoting the abolition of slavery. But religion did more to justify slavery than to oppose it. (I have written at greater length on this point in the October 21, 1999, issue of The New York Review of Books.)

    I'm very sorry if my article made R. R. Quinn pessimistic. I'm actually pretty cheerful about the prospect of living in a world without utopian illusions and, yes, in which national morality can prevail without religion.

    The Trials of the Tribulation

    I was taken aback by the conspicuous contempt displayed in Michael Joseph Gross's article "The Trials of the Tribulation" (January Atlantic). Christians cannot possibly do well in the eyes of those predisposed to reject them and their messages in any form. Gross seems to suggest that Jerry Jenkins is envious of secular society because he will never be a part of it. The evidence he uses for this strange theory is the fact that Jenkins's characters drive Range Rovers and use cell phones. The setting of the books is America in the late 1990s. The characters are simply using the technology of the period. They have not disobeyed Scripture or defamed the cross. They do not seek fame and fortune; on the contrary, each of the characters must eventually shun a lofty position because of his or her faith. That the truth of the Gospels becomes famous in the latter days is an inevitable consequence of people's searching for explanations for bizarre happenings.

    Gross attacks the book of Revelation itself because he concludes that it is a display of class struggle. What Gross does not grasp is that Christians believe the Bible is the infallible word of God. What is written in Revelation (and in every other book of the Bible) is what God himself set down through the hands of men. The fact that this account includes the destruction of Babylon and the judgment of nonbelievers is not the fault of believers of today or of any other era. The account is neither an indictment of cultural tolerance nor the fanciful writing of a disgruntled group of Roman subjects. It is what Christians believe to be the truth. If Gross does not agree with this, that is one matter, but he is wrong to suggest that those details grew out of believers' own longings. They simply believe what is written down.

    Gross implies that nonbelievers are portrayed as "stupid" in the series and thus also by believers who read the series. He thinks believers belittle and deride those who do not agree with their beliefs. Again, nothing but contempt is shown by someone who supposedly cries out for tolerance. No one in the books or in any Christian literature I have perused lately has suggested that nonbelievers are in any way less intelligent because they have not received Christ as their savior. If anything, many intellectuals who do not believe in the Bible are seen as relying on their knowledge and not on blind (sometimes termed by Christians themselves as "dumb") faith.

    Bridget Aureli

    In "The Trials of the Tribulation," Michael Gross briefly mentions the extensive writings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), an important evangelical writer of the nineteenth century. Gross erroneously attributes to Darby the memoir titled Personal Recollections of many Prominent People whom I have Known, and of Events -- especially those Relating to the History of St. Louis -- during the First Half of the Present Century. Many of us wish that John Nelson Darby had written such a memoir, but he did not. According to the Library of Congress, that volume was written by one John Fletcher Darby (1803-1882), and was published in St. Louis by G. I. Jones in 1880.

    David J. MacLeod

    Aaron Copland

    Regarding David Schiff's article on Aaron Copland, "Who Was That Masked Composer?" (January Atlantic):

    The interrogation of Aaron Copland by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn was a disgrace. Transcripts of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearings reveal that Copland maintained an impressive dignity, patience, and wry humor throughout the humiliating ordeal. (Schiff implies that the hearing could be viewed, but it was closed.) Years later, when asked how the experience affected him, Copland replied, "Agonizing is not my thing." Fortunately, he was able to put the incident behind him and go on to compose such masterpieces as the Piano Fantasy, Connotations, and the Duo for Flute and Piano.

    David Schiff cites one friend who said that Copland "mask[ed] his feelings" about his political beliefs and his homosexuality. That is not true. Copland's close friend Harold Clurman said, "His life was not complex. What you see is just what is there." If Copland kept his personal life private, he shared his deepest emotions in his music. Yet David Schiff states, "In his music ... Copland concealed his beliefs more than he revealed them." Surely Schiff knows the Piano Sonata, Quiet City, and the many other pieces in which the lyricism and the sense of loneliness are tantamount to Copland's baring his soul in a way that ordinary mortals rarely do.

    It is a mistake to think of Copland as having hidden political ideas. He was not a political person with the passion for socialism or communism that was characteristic of his friends Harold Clurman and Clifford Odets. Copland reserved his passion for music -- his own and that of his "pals" in the world of American contemporary music. Politics interested him only minimally, to the extent that he wanted to be part of the artistic and intellectual scene in New York. Schiff accuses Copland of concealing his political beliefs -- as did McCarthy at the infamous hearing. The fact is, there was not much to hide.

    Linking Copland's opera The Tender Land to the McCarthy hearings and to Copland and Erik Johns's reticence to reveal their homosexuality is far-fetched at best. True, as Schiff writes, the music is closer to "a Sunday-school pageant ... than to a seamy slice of life in the sticks." However, Copland knew what he wanted -- a simple rural-America story, old-fashioned but timeless, that could be produced in college workshops in language familiar to young performers. Copland was not out to create a deep psychological drama with Freudian subtexts. If David Schiff prefers to think of this unpretentious tale as "a convoluted parable of sexual liberation and an allegory of the rise and fall of Popular Front politics," that's his privilege. But if the opera "only hints at its deeper political and sexual themes," that is because those themes were never intended by the authors. Copland thought about and studied the great operas of the past, and he knew that his best shot was a simple plot for which he could compose some glorious musical moments.

    Schiff writes, "Copland and Johns felt compelled ... to resort to hidden devices to express their emotional and intellectual preoccupations." What exactly are those hidden devices? I know of only one reference to the Cold War and the Senate hearings in the opera: when Grandpa Moss continues to accuse the two drifters of molesting a girl on a nearby farm even after they have been proved innocent. It is a not-so-hidden statement about "guilt by association." And what were the "emotional and intellectual preoccupations" that David Schiff mentions? The authors were more than fully occupied by the demands of putting together an opera without worrying about embedding hidden emotional and intellectual ideas. Schiff offers criticism but makes no specific suggestions. Would he prefer that the high school girl, Laurie, be a transvestite? Mother Moss a prostitute? A score closer to Wozzeck? Schiff claims that the critics sensed a discrepancy between the authors' true feelings and the bucolic nature of The Tender Land. I have read the criticisms and see nothing to support this. The critics knew (as did Copland and Johns, finally) that the opera didn't work. Copland, who wryly referred to opera as la forme fatale, said after the premiere, "There's no use analyzing an opera -- it simply works or it doesn't."

    If the formula for reaching the right balance between libretto and music could be found, there would be fewer flops and semi-flops in the long list of contemporary opera productions. Blame the choice of dramatic plot, the characters, the production's relevance to the aesthetics of the time, the music. In the case of The Tender Land, perhaps blame the change from the modest intentions of a television opera to a grander city-center production; blame the critics; blame the opera's odd pairing on opening night with Menotti's Amahl (in April!). But do not blame the political and sexual lives of the authors. To do so is to cater to the preference of readers for hidden meanings rather than honest and straightforward facts. An example is Schiff's interpretation of the ballet version of Billy the Kid when he writes, "[Billy] seems preoccupied by homosexual feelings for the sheriff." The innuendo is that Copland removed a segment when preparing the suite because of some hidden meaning related to his homosexuality. But Copland would never have made changes for other than musical reasons. Schiff is on the mark when he writes that in Rodeo the story "takes on a very different feeling" when one thinks of "the cowgirl as a closeted homosexual male, as Copland may have." Very different indeed! This is pure (and pretty far-fetched) speculation. I would bet it never occurred to Copland to think of Agnes De Mille's cowgirl as "a closeted homosexual male."

    Schiff writes about the collaboration between Copland and Martha Graham. The ballet's scenarios and the correspondence between Graham and Copland reveal the composer's input (always offered at Graham's request). For example, it was Copland who suggested removing the narration from the original story. The paring down of a convoluted scenario to its bare bones was typical of Graham's working methods, according to her colleagues. Also, regarding Appalachian Spring: I fail to see why it matters what sect the revivalist and his followers belong to. Can't anything be left to the imagination? How would such precise information be conveyed to the audience? Isn't this ballet good enough as is?

    At the close of the article Schiff returns to compare The Tender Land to "the kind of dark intensity that could be found at that time in film noir, jazz, rhythm and blues, and even comic books." This is interesting to a wider audience, but since Copland was a composer of concert music, why not also look at his opera in the context of the music world in the early 1950s? If Copland made a mistake (and he did), it was in not realizing the implications of the Cold War and its effect on the arts. Normally aware of and in tune with the world around him, Copland, surprisingly, did not see how much the atmosphere had changed following World War II. Nationalism was out; abstraction was in. The pendulum had swung toward serialism, where it would remain stuck for a long time. Ten years earlier, when the public and critics wanted more Appalachian Springs from Copland, The Tender Land might have been received differently. Its libretto is probably still problematic today, but the fin de siècle appetite for nostalgia and the swing back to tonality in recent years may give Aaron Copland's only opera, The Tender Land, a well-deserved second chance.

    Vivian Perlis

    David Schiff replies:

    Vivian Perlis's attempts to sanitize the life and works of Aaron Copland have a long history. She assembled the two-volume Copland "autobiography," which appeared in 1984 and 1989. If Oscar Levant had not previously used the title, Perlis's book might have been called Memoirs of an Amnesiac, for Copland suffered from Alzheimer's disease from the mid-1970s, when Perlis interviewed him, until the time of his death. Out of the same proprietary concerns evidenced in her letter, Perlis did not mention the disease in her book, and thereby not only misrepresented the nature of the project (which was primarily a collection of old materials) but also missed the opportunity to tell a human story that would have connected Copland's late life to the experiences of many readers.

    Fortunately, Howard Pollack's new biography, which occasioned my article, judiciously and respectfully corrects the airbrushed image of Uncle Aaron that Vivian Perlis wishes to perpetuate. Pollack gives ample evidence of Copland's political commitment and presents a view of Copland's homosexuality that is far removed from the psychoanalytic stereotype of "loneliness" that Perlis trots out. Perlis assumes that Copland's homosexuality surfaces musically only in the form of dissonance and torment. Indeed, Copland seemed lonely in Perlis's books because she omitted any discussion of his personal relationships, particularly of his long friendship with Victor Kraft.

    The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Letters to the Editor - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 10-16.