The Introduction to the book presents the United States as an open-ended dialogue of voices, classes, races and ethnicity. It introduces the cakewalk as a model for a satiric intervention and opens the possibility of style as a vessel of cultural subversion.
Chapter one shows the Native American trickster shaman as a cultural model of survival and creative renewal in a hostile world. It gives a brief history of 1890 Ghost Dance and the massacre of its Indian followers and develops the idea of the Ghost Dance songs survival as a symbol of renewal. The chapter concludes with a portrait of United States in 1890 as an introduction to the historical and cultural context in which the cultural innovators taken up in subsequent chapters.
Chapter Two investigates the life of Emily Dickinson and quiet subversions of her poetry. It emphasizes her manipulation of standard poetic forms and religious expectations and the social platitudes of Victorian American parlor poetry to produce sometimes dangerous but almost always surprising revelations of passion, religious heterodoxy and poetic imagery.
This chapter explains the 19th century slave dance the cakewalk and its alliance with the syncopations of ragtime music to create unique place in and reflection of African American life. It explores the cakewalk and ragtime syncopation as satiric comment on the white world and as creative resources. It explores the minstrel show as racial travesty and its role in African American musical and theatrical idiom.
Chapter three examines world of signs and contingency as developed by Charles Sanders Peirce and exemplified by the work of Stephen Crane. It takes up the characters of Peirce and Crane as reflected in their approach to their separate fields.
Chapter Five takes up William James as philosopher of the mind. It describes his explorations of the limits of consciousness and his quest for the realms spiritual in both his own life and as a philosopher of religion. It examines his role in the development of the philosophy of pragmatism and that philosophy's relation to his search for religious meaning. Finally, Chapter Five takes up James's open-ended philosophy of radical empiricism.
This chapter is built around the novelist Henry James's return to America in 1904 – 05 and his published and private writings about this journey. It develops James's family life and position as an artist between two worlds, Europe and America and how he made use of this position as a writer and social thinker. His thoughts on the American South lead to a comparison to another American social thinker, who found himself between two worlds and two consciousnesses, his brother William's student W. E. B. DuBois. The chapter concludes with James's method of oral composition in the final stage of career and his championing of art as giving meaning to life.
Chapter Seven takes up Thorstein Veblen and focuses on his anthropological approach to economic theory. It examines his most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class and its examination of conspicuous consumption in the social world of America's wealthy movers and shakers and gives a picture of Veblen as the consummate outsider. It sees his development the instincts of workmanship and what he called idle curiosity as a challenge to the prevailing deterministic ideas of cultural development and concludes with Veblen's unsuccessful tenure as an engaged political and economic partisan.
Chapter Eight takes up the life of Jewish immigrant, writer and editor of Abraham Cahan from the Old World to the New and his parallel creation of David Levinsky in his seminal novel The Rise of David Levinsky. It investigates the psychological commonalities beneath the socialist Cahan and the successful capitalist Levinsky, and in so doing gives a portrait of the social and psychological world of first generation of Jewish immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In their very different ways successes, Cahan as the long-time editor of The Jewish Daily Forward and his imaginary creation Levinsky as a millionaire clothing manufacture, these two figures exemplify men caught between two worlds, unsatisfied in each, and questioning the very meaning of success in American life
This chapter looks at Jelly Roll Morton and his latter-day admirer, Charles Mingus, and the role of race in their lives and in their pioneering jazz innovation. It sees Morton as jazz's "first intellectual," who took jazz from ragtime syncopation to open horizons of improvisation and true composition,. The chapter sees Morton's unconscious as self-parody as a precursor to Charles Mingus's psychological examination of his life as an African-American man and its sexual and social constraints in Beneath the Underdog. Mingus's exploitation of the liberating possibilities of a ferocious vein of satire and avant-garde innovation in his music bring this book to its conclusion.