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YOU ASKED

What is American Culture?

... plainly, American culture no


longer belongs to America, and in
truth it never did.
COURTESY PHOTO

BY DAVID KIPEN

T
he easy joke would be, Sum working the borders between jazz, pop,
David Kipen is a up American culture in 500 and musical theater has long since given
book critic, author words? Isnt that too many? up and gone home. Wherever that is.
and owner of Libros In detective fiction, the dissolution
Schmibros, a used-
The hard fact is that American of American culture appears even
book store and free
culture may not exist anymore. Thanks more pronounced. One of the most
lending library in Boyle
Heights, California. As to the Internet the very medium that eagerly anticipated recent novels,
director of the National now enables you to read, on another detective or otherwise, was the late
Endowment for the continent, an essay Im writing in North Stieg Larssons The Girl Who Kicked
Arts National Reading America in response to a question the Hornets Nest, the third in a series
Initiatives from 2005- probably asked on another continent of Swedish mysteries. The Girl Who
2009, he spearheaded
entirely all the old sentry boxes Played With Fire, a Swedish film based
the agencys Big Read
project. guarding our national cultures are on Larssons second book about the
seriously understaffed. Look at the three aloof hacker vixen Lisbeth Salander,
art forms that most of my countrymen has graced stateside screens. Larssons
think of as somehow intrinsically first installment in the series, The Girl
American originals: musical comedy, With the Dragon Tattoo, followed the
jazz and the detective novel. trailblazing novels of his fellow Swede
Not too long ago, one of the hottest Henning Mankell onto American
tickets on Broadway, and one that nightstands. Salander looks to be a
garnered 11 Tony Award nominations genuine heroine for our time, born of
GOT A QUESTION and won three of them, was Fela!, the Internet, and ultimately as universal
ABOUT THE U.S.?
a musical about the late Nigerian as she is thoroughly Swedish.
multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti. Felas Before we all join hands and start
influence on jazz only grows and helps singing Its a Small World (to borrow
demonstrate how the breakdown of a tune from one of Americas most
formerly national cultures parallels globalized corporations from which
a similar cross-pollination between an invoice is probably in my inbox
ASK US USING once discrete genres. Like the sentinels already), its fair to point out that an
YOUR PHONE. guarding the ramparts of erstwhile American movie studio bought for the
American culture, the customs officer British director-producer Ridley Scott
YOU ASKED: WHAT IS AMERICAN CULTURE? 2

AP IMAGES
Fans of the late crime
the rights to remake all Larssons books The roots of American culture novelist Stieg Larsson
in English. Apparently subtitles are branch even more convolutedly than tour Sweden in search
still a higher hurdle than any border the four freeways that carve up Boyle of Hedestad, the
quaint town featured
checkpoint, and the money to be made Heights, the Los Angeles neighborhood
in Larssons popular
from a multi-novel series is, as J.K. where my Yiddish-speaking ancestors lie mystery series. Though
Rowling could tell you, magic. buried, where Spanish is as common as it flourished in America,
But, plainly, American culture no English, and where I write these words. the detective novel
continues to defy cultural
longer belongs to America, and in truth
boundaries.
it never did. Musical comedy owes its
provenance to opera, of course, which
harks back to Monteverdis Italy and
Lullys France at least. Jazz came out of
New Orleans by way of the Caribbean
and, before that, Africa. And the trail
of detective fiction winds back quite a
ways through the quintessentially
British Sherlock Holmes, to Poes oddly
French Inspector Dupin, to Dickenss
Inspector Bucket from Bleak House, all
the way to Sophocless Oedipus Rex
before it ever goes cold.

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