Originally published March 2007.
The other day, while reading a novel called “Kipps” (awfully good), I came to the following sentences:
His aunt and uncle were, as it were, the immediate gods of this world, and, like the gods of the world of old, occasionally descended right into it, with arbitrary injunctions and disproportionate punishments. And, unhappily, one rose to their Olympian level at meals.
The word “Olympian” was footnoted (actually, endnoted), but I ignored it at the time, only to come across the explanation in the back a short time later.
Olympian: Olympus, in Greek mythology, was the home of the gods: hence high, mighty, of divine standard.
I cringed. Have we really declined to the level that “Olympian” needs explaining? Is there any hope for, say, Beethoven? You know, the deaf composer. Perhaps there never was. In 1925, H.L. Mencken, reporting on the Scopes trial (sorry, no footnote), put it this way:
The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.
But Mencken, ever the optimist (har), sees hope in the circumstance:
That is why Beethoven survives [he continues]. Of the 110,000,000 so-called human beings who now live in the United States, flogged and crazed by Coolidge, the Ku Klux and the newspapers, it is probable that at least 108,000,000 have never heard of him at all. To these immortals, made in God’s image, one of the greatest artists the human race has ever produced is not even a name. So far as they are concerned he might as well have died at birth. The gorgeous and incomparable beauties that he created are nothing to them. They get no value out of the fact that he existed. They are completely unaware of what he did in the world, and would not be interested if they were told.
The fact saves good Ludwig’s bacon. His music survives because it lies outside the plane of popular apprehension, like the colors beyond violet or the concept of honor. If it could be brought within range, it would at once arouse hostility. Its complexity would challenge; its lace of moral purpose would affright. Soon there would be a movement to put it down, and Baptist clergymen would range the land denouncing it, and in the end some poor musician, taken in the un-American act of playing it, would be put on trial before jury of Ku Kluxers, and railroaded to the calaboose.
(quoted from “The Impossible H.L. Mencken,” edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers.)
OK, harsh words, but nevertheless, they put me in mind of a newspaper editor I once had. I was a freelancer at the time and was writing an article on a young Italian pianist who would soon be making his local debut. He wasn’t famous, his career was just getting started, his English was bad (I interviewed him by phone) — all and all there wasn’t all that much to report. But I did finally hit upon a fascinating tidbit of information. Seems that this young Italian pianist was simply mad for the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and he went around Italy giving recitals devoted to it. Of course this delicious factoid made it into my report. But said editor had never heard of Gottschalk and, what’s more, she said that readers wouldn’t know who Gottschalk was either. I offered to add a clause explaining who he was, something like, “Gottschalk, the barnstorming 19th-century American pianist/composer.” But she would have none of it. The name of Gottschalk was unceremoniously removed from the article, along with any reference to the young Italian’s special musical interest.
A few months later, the U.S. Post Office issued a Gottschalk stamp, sans footnote.