Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/29/2010

Dignity. Marian Anderson and Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad was yet alive when Marian Anderson was born.

What, you might—or should—ask is, do those two facts have to do with each other. Perhaps not much. But I’ll explain. That’s what I usually do here—try to explain how unrelated ideas floating in my mind are connected.

With the hubbub swirling about Glenn Beck and his insensitive and egomaniacal rally at the Lincoln Memorial, the thought occurred to me that Marian Anderson’s April 9, 1939, concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was the perfect counterbalance to the crudeness of Beck’s gathering. More than that, memorializing her concert would provide insight into the sea-change in public American life that, in my opinion, has taken place in my lifetime.

Yesterday I wrote nothing about Marian Anderson or her concert. I simply put her picture in front of the Lincoln statue at the top of my posting. I thought that would be enough to make my point. I hoped it would be enough because (as you will see) I don’t know how to write about one of my heroes without seeming almost maudlin. I realize now the picture was not enough, at least for me.

Here’s the how the connection between Joseph Conrad and Marian Anderson came about in my mind.

One of the many books that have fallen into my ownership without my having done anything to make it happen is MODERN ESSAYS, selected by Christopher Morley, published in 1922. The eighth essay in the amazing little collection is “A Familiar Preface,” by Joseph Conrad (1). I’m not sure which library this copy came from, my father’s or my late partner’s. Probably Jerry’s because it doesn’t have the Dewey Decimal System catalogue number on the spine (yes, my father was [is] that organized).

A couple of days ago, I took this quaint small book off the shelf (how Victorian does that sound?) and began reading the essays. Joseph Conrad’s is so far the most arresting to me. When I write here, whatever I am reading at the time becomes grist for the mill. I was thinking about Marian Anderson and reading Joseph Conrad, and they connected in my mind whether or not anyone else can see the connection. The connection is not made of logic.

Finding the right word to connect disparate ideas is often the problem. In “A Familiar Preface,” Conrad asserts that

You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. . . . it is better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective” (2).

It is better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective.

As a musician, I can run with the idea that sound is more powerful than sense. I’m not alone. Ralph Vaughan Williams, the quintessential English composer wrote, “Now the great glory of music to my mind is that it is absolutely useless” (3). I’ve heard Vaughn Williams’ startling statement argued at more than one gathering of musicians. But the fact is that his premise is incontrovertible. Music does not “mean” anything, it does not “accomplish” anything, it is not any kind of “commodity.” Music is useless. And so is a word standing alone. Vaughan Williams and Conrad agree. It is better to be impressionable than reflective. The power of sound is greater than the power of sense.

The first word in this posting is “dignity” standing alone.

When Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial, the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall simply because she was an African American. The narrative is well-known: Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR; she and Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior (the Cabinet Secretary responsible for the National Park Service which oversees the Lincoln Memorial) planned a concert for Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. Ickes introduced Miss Anderson SPEAKING ELOQUENTLY OF EQUALITY AND FREEDOM –and of genius in a free society.

Marian Anderson stood alone beside her piano accompanist Kosti Vehanen on the steps of the Memorial and sang a concert of opera arias and spirituals. Seventy-five thousand people stood on the Mall to hear her, and the concert was broadcast nationwide on NBC. (The link above is to a video of Ickes’ speech and, more important, Marian Anderson’s singing “America” to open the concert. The video also presents a list of the other music on the program.)


“Demonstrations” and “rallies” and “marches” of many kinds and for many purposes are part of the history of the Lincoln Memorial. I will show myself to be old-fashioned (and perhaps sentimental) by saying that, of all of those public events, Marian Anderson’s concert is unique for its dignity. Yes, I know, a program of mostly classical music would naturally be different in tone from any gathering in Washington for protest or to demand rights.

But that is not the point. The dignity emanated from Marian Anderson herself. Marches and rallies and parades of protest have an honored place in American life. But Marian Anderson, through the strength and dignity of her person—and, it almost seems unnecessary to say it, because of her magnificent voice—helped create the circumstances in which the civil rights movement could flourish. A young Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the audience at the Lincoln Memorial in April of 1939. And two decades later Marian Anderson sang at the March on Washington.

The connection with Joseph Conrad. I will resist the temptation to draw comparisons and contrasts between the social milieu of Heart of Darkness and turmoil of the struggle for racial equality and civil rights in the United States. Others may argue about those ideas.

I was thinking about Marian Anderson when I picked up the Conrad essay. He knew about dignity.

No artist can be reproached for shrinking from a risk which only fools run to meet and only genius dare confront with impunity. In a task which mainly consists in laying one’s soul more or less bare to the world, a regard for decency, even at the cost of success, is but the regard for one’s own dignity which is inseparably united with the dignity of one’s work. (3)

As Harold Ickes said in his introduction of Marian Anderson, “Genius, like justice, is blind.” Marian Anderson’s genius dared to confront risks with impunity. She laid bare her soul. Her regard for the decency of equality and freedom was the foundation of her dignity, and the dignity of her work. In her 1956 autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, she wrote

I suppose I might insist on making issues of things. But that is not my nature, and I always bear in mind that my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow.

Music is gloriously useless, but making music is not.

(As for the sea-change in American life? Who among us lives with dignity?)
(1) Conrad, Joseph. “A Familiar Preface.” Modern Essays, selected by Christopher Morley. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922 (81-93).
(2) idem. 82.
(3) Vaughan Williams, Ralph. National Music and Other Essays. London: Oxford University Press, 1963 (12).
(4) Conrad. 88.


%d bloggers like this: