CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- On a chilly April night in 1996, two years before she high-tailed it to the West Coast and the synergistic frontier, Tina Brown invited several hundred of her closest friends to a party at Harvard University. The occasion was publication of a special New Yorker issue, "Black in America," edited by New Yorker staff writer and African-American studies impresario Henry Louis Gates Jr. The issue's lineup of guest writers, artists and critics represented a Who's Who of black glitterati: actress and director Anna Deavere Smith on black women inmates; award-winning novelist John Edgar Wideman on Chicago Bulls bad boy Dennis Rodman; Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams on female Harvard Law School graduates, and Gates on Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Buried in the back of the thick issue was a writer who seemed somewhat incongruous among these swells. But critic Stanley Crouch's exploration of Duke Ellington's lasting contribution to American culture was easily the most trenchant and well-written piece in the issue. Ellington "understood the blues as both music and mood," Crouch wrote. "He knew that those who thought of the blues as merely a vehicle for primitive complaint had their drawers or their brassieres on backward. The blues knows its way around. It can stretch from the backwoods to the space shuttle, from the bloody floor of a dive to the neurotic confusion of a beautifully clothed woman in a Manhattan penthouse. The blues -- happy, sad, or neither -- plays no favorites."
As the "Black in America" edition hit the stands, the burly writer departed his Greenwich Village digs for Harvard and the gala surrounding the launch of the special issue. Before C-Span cameras in a packed auditorium at the Kennedy School of Government, Crouch joined black theologian and philosopher Cornel West, writer Jill Nelson, New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples and NBC News correspondent Gwen Ifill in a discussion of the roles of blacks in mainstream media. More than your typical round of academic navel-gazing, the panel managed to achieve new heights of public theater -- and added to Crouch's bomb-throwing legend.
"You see," Crouch offered, winding up for a trademark riff on race, demagoguery and the sorry state of the American press, "when you look at a nutcase like Louis Farrakhan ..." At this, the usually serene West blew his Afro: "Why do you have to call the minister out of his name? Don't you know you diminish his humanity when you use words like that!" The sniping exchange that followed was a brief flash of red-hot tension in an otherwise polished discussion. Everyone in the room, from publishing executives, heavy-duty eggheads and bigfoot journalists to self-consciously grungy students, seemed surprised at the flare-up. Everyone except Stanley Crouch, of course.
Some two years later, that episode is a classic entry in the pantheon of Crouchian lore, another small but full-color glimpse at the style and thinking of a successful middle-aged black man who follows few comfortable paths. Armed with an elephant's memory and a passionate knowledge of and engagement with art (blues and jazz especially, though not exclusively) and history (American, though not exclusively), Crouch delights in slaying the dragons of convention -- particularly those that guard the sometimes-insular world of black intellectuals. Crouch's troublemaking reputation was made with his first essay collection, 1990's "Notes of a Hanging Judge," which smacked the slumbering genre of race and cultural criticism out of its 30-year torpor. In that book he dared to eviscerate several African-American icons, notably Nobel Laureate novelist Toni Morrison, whom he fingered as a literary snake-oil saleswoman who "perpetually interrupts her narrative with maudlin ideological commercials." "Beloved," Crouch wrote, "reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the miniseries. Were 'Beloved' adapted for television (which would suit the crass obviousness that wins out over Morrison's literary gift at every significant turn) the trailer might go like this: 'Meet Sethe, an ex-slave woman who harbors a deep and terrible secret that has brought terror into her home.'" And so on. This was, we now know, particularly prescient criticism, considering the bombastic outcome of Oprah Winfrey's recent big-screen version of Morrison's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Crouch also took down filmmaker Spike Lee ("a nappy-headed Napoleon"), while championing young white artists like Quentin Tarantino, whose use of the term "nigger" Crouch defended in his next essay collection, "The All-American Skin Game." In a piece lauding another nontraditional black writer, Albert Murray, Crouch praised him for not being "taken in by ... the simplistic versions of heritage [or] protest that led to the political Zip Coon shows of LeRoi Jones, Eldridge Cleaver, and the like."
Crouch's in-your-face attack on the shibboleths of black pride, Afrocentrism (whose proponents he has called "lost") and gangsta rap music, has led his black critics to call him a conservative sellout, a race traitor and a loudmouthed cultural opportunist. Protofeminist mojo woman bell hooks daintily told New Yorker writer Robert Boynton in 1995: "He has seen that it pays off when you kiss the ass of white supremacy." Playwright Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, whose black nationalist poetry once engaged a younger, dashiki-wearing Crouch, snapped, "He's a backward, asinine person," before hanging up on Boynton. "I admire the brother's candor," West told Boynton. "But his abrasive style is so alienating that it tends to reinforce the polarization." (And that was a year before their conversation at the Kennedy School.)
It's true that Crouch's blustery style and pugilistic spirit can sometimes get a little out of control. In another bit of Crouchian legend, he got fired after throwing down some street fighter justice on a Village Voice colleague who disagreed with his dislike of gangsta rap music -- a brief but intense dust-up that led to the police being called and Crouch getting the ax. Crouch later described this as the best thing that could have happened to him, careerwise: "I want them to know that just because I write, doesn't mean I can't also fight," he said.
More than a decade has passed since the Voice episode. But at an October 1998 event in Massachusetts, in a panel called "What Makes Black Music Black" at the Cambridge Multi-Cultural Arts Center, Crouch feinted and jabbed verbally with hip-hop proponent and Chris Rock mentor Nelson George. Before a slack-jawed audience of liberal do-gooders and New England Conservatory of Music students, Crouch called gangsta rappers "scum of the earth," a phrase that sent George into a roof-raising tirade. "Maybe they should call him Stanley Grouch," a white woman audience member whispered huffily at the evening's end. All in a night's work for Crouch, who has a curious way of intimidating women with his public persona and winning them over with gentlemanly attentiveness offstage.
But there is much more to Crouch than his contrarian image. Underneath the mask of Crouch the Grouch is a down-to-earth individual who would rather engage you in debate than cut you dead with pretensions of writerly superiority. He is one of the rare top-echelon literary figures who not only welcomes conversation with unknown young writers (he gives out his home office phone number and usually picks up when it rings), but is also wont to commandeer them for marathon swirls through his downtown universe of smoldering jazz clubs, big-portion restaurants and Runyonesque watering holes. He is cursed with the robust appetites and incorrigible waistline of one who has worked hard to attain life's secular rewards -- good food, good grog, good tobacco. Fortunately, he is also blessed with a healthy dose of the showman's singular charm and the unshaken spirit of a true optimist.
(Full disclosure: Crouch has been a casual friend and unofficial mentor since 1987; he also contributed to a 1998 essay collection by black writers on Louis Farrakhan that I edited.) As a teacher, Crouch believes in the accessibility of knowledge and has honed the oral tradition (American and African) to a fine point.
Certainly, his bona fides are stunning. A MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in the early 1990s; his founding, along with Wynton Marsalis, of the hugely successful Jazz at Lincoln Center series; the nomination of "The All-American Skin-Game" for the National Book Award. His stumbles are also noteworthy, if only for their spectacularly public nature. Hired by CBS in January 1996, along with lefty cowgirl philosopher Molly Ivins, to provide point-counterpoint zing to the stodgy "60 Minutes" program, Crouch's segments came off as stiff and forcibly contrarian. Anyone who knows Crouch beyond his troublemaker reputation could see how phony it was to set him up as the conservative bogeyman against Ivins' liberal Pollyanna. Not surprisingly, executive producer Don Hewitt killed the bit in June 1996 after only eight airings.
His latest collection of critical essays, "Always in Pursuit," is mainly an assortment of his recent newspaper and magazine columns (in contrast to "The All-American Skin Game," which included a dozen remarkable speeches, eulogies and addresses), and left some readers wondering if Crouch was simply repeating the same notes.
Yet the book did nothing to detract from his peculiarly intriguing doctrine or his hard-won reputation as a Maileresque writer and a raconteur of notorious stamina. In the past few years, reporters from both the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post who set out to profile Crouch remarked with a vague mixture of awe and dread that their interviews with the writer carried on hours longer than they'd bargained for. Although routinely and incorrectly described as a black conservative, Crouch calls himself a "radical pragmatist." To the uninitiated, his philosophy might best be described as rigidly humanist. It centers on an unsentimental vision wherein we must fight the siren temptation to obsess about our (mostly superficial) differences, lest we miss the chance to embrace our (very real and very numerous) commonalities.
On that point, Crouch's insistence on using the word "Negro" instead of "African-American" or "black" is his own little personal talisman, a way of stubbornly reinforcing his point that the nation's historic "others" are indeed wholly indispensable creators, and perpetuators, of America's cultural and political fabric. His take on America and democracy, a staple of hoity-toity ruminators from de Tocqueville to Baldwin, is fastened like a starfish to a blues and jazz motif. "I see Americans as people who play out variations on the same fundamental music," Crouch offered in the introduction to "The All-American Skin Game," a book he hoped would flush out the "things that we have in common, the things that sustain our improvement of discourse and policy [and] the obstacles that make it difficult for us to recognize the many improvisations that enrich our community."
Crouch, who turned 53 in December, has become almost hokey about mentioning his humble beginnings, especially his adoration for his departed mother. Born in post-World War II Los Angeles to Emma Bea Crouch, a hard-working domestic with the heart and mind of "an aristocrat," Crouch was an adolescent before he met his ne'er-do-well father, James Crouch. Thanks to Emma Bea, Crouch was a precocious if not particularly consistent student. He read the classics unprompted through junior and senior high schools, graduated, then frittered around at a couple of junior colleges before finding his way to California's Claremont Colleges. In another legendary tale of Crouch cojones, he talked his way onto the faculty of Pomona College as a tenured English professor without so much as an undergraduate degree to call his own. It was the height of the student activist movement, and Crouch played the role of radical black militant like a pro. Only after moving to New York during the 1970s, where he began indulging his love of jazz, did his current intellectual outlook begin to take shape. He broke into literary criticism at publications like the Village Voice and the New Republic, and took up with artists like Marsalis, Murray and the legendary novelist Ralph Ellison. He married sculptor Gloria Nixon in the mid-1990s, a move that seems to have facilitated (or at least coincided with) the mellowing of his bullying instincts.
All the same, the pugilistic incidents are what make the best copy, and Crouch is not likely to engage in any obvious make-overs anytime soon. What he is likely to do at the dawn of the 21st century is to finally come across with a biography of Charlie Parker, a project currently in its 16th year and counting. (Crouch's critics, among their other jibes, have long doubted that he can pull off the epic work.)
Beyond the literary backbiting and black intellectual ego scrapes, there's a craggy integrity to Crouch's career. You might wish he made nice more often, but it's hard to argue with his achievements. He's helped take the national dialogue on race and culture to a new level, paying tribute to his intellectual forebears and waving in the new with a combination of grit, talent and fearlessness. Not bad for a loudmouthed cultural opportunist.