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[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

This collection documents Americans grappling with the question of their country's cultural contribution to the world in the early twentieth century. Van Vechten's portraits of expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright, and Henry Miller evidence one group's faith in Europe as the cultural center of the world and its dissatisfaction with American culture. However, these portraits also document the rise of New York City as an international cultural center and the growth of artistic movements rooted in America, such as jazz, the blues, and the Harlem Renaissance. Students can use this collection to learn more about the different sides to the issue of America's cultural contribution, study the history of this issue in other sources, and form some conclusions of their own about the value of American culture. Helpful books for older students include Malcolm Cowley's Exhile's Return and Michael Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory. Students can use the following questions in their study.

  • How do you define something as "American"? Is this a legitimate or helpful distinction?
  • Why were Modernist expatriates dissatisfied with American culture in the inter-war years? Who else in American history believed in the cultural superiority of Europe and why?
  • How did American artists and intellectuals of the nineteenth century feel about America's ability to produce unique and powerful works of art? Students may want to research leaders of the American Renaissance such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson.
  • African Americans originated the traditions of the blues, jazz, and American popular music. What other cultural traditions are native to America and who created them?
  • What would you guess Van Vechten himself thought about American culture given his collection of portraits of creative Americans? What do his photographs of landscapes, antiques, and architecture suggest about his attitude?
  • What role has immigration played in defining American culture?
  • What is the difference between high art and popular culture? Do you think this is a legitimate or helpful distinction? How has American culture affected the meaning of these terms?
  • What do you think America's cultural contribution to the world has been?