In Search of America: A Reading with Jazz

R WolfWater Street Music Series presents “In Search of America” April 5 at Hotel Winneshiek
. Decorah-based author Robert Wolf and jazz composer and trumpeter Jon Ailabouni collaborate to combine words, music, and a search for the authentic American soul.

DECORAH, Iowa – Water Street Music Series will present “In Search of America” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 5, at Hotel Winneshiek Steyer Opera House, 104 E Water Street in Decorah.

The performance features excerpts of Decorah-based author Robert Wolf’s forthcoming book “In Search of America” set to newly composed and arranged music by Luther College jazz instructor Jon Ailabouni. The Luther College Jazz Sextet will perform the compositions. Tickets are $5 for students, $10 for adults and are available in advance at Hotel Winneshiek or online at

This theatrical performance of “In Search of America” includes four readers: Dave Siefken, Ben Gardner, Brett Steelman and Robert Wolf.

From the time he ran away from home in Connecticut to hitchhike to Ohio, “In Search of America” author Wolf had the dream of working every job in the country, living in every town and city, and having conversations with everyone. The Water Street Music Series concert tells a portion of that story. Cultures and folkways that have now almost entirely vanished find new life through fresh ink and the musical interpretation of the Luther College Jazz Sextet.

Robert Wolf is a Decorah-based writer, publisher and radio producer. A former Chicago Tribunecolumnist, Wolf is publisher of Free River Press, a nonprofit publishing house whose mission is to document contemporary America through writing workshops with people from all walks of life. Wolf is the author and editor of numerous other books, including “The Triumph of Technique,” “Grand Tally,” and “The Writer Within.” Wolf’s plays have been produced by theaters from Illinois to New Mexico, including Chicago’s legendary Organic Theatre.

Trumpeter, jazz musician and educator Jon Ailabouni is an instructor at Luther College where he directs the Jazz Band, Varsity Band, three jazz combos and teaches jazz improvisation and trumpet. A graduate of Luther College and Western Michigan University, Ailabouni has toured internationally in France, Puerto Rico, and Brazil and has performed domestically at the the Midwest Band Clinic in Chicago, the Detroit International Jazz Festival, and Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Ailabouni’s compositions have been premiered at the Jazz Education Network Conference and the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival.

Water Street Music Series is a local music series centered on collaboration between Decorah-connected musicians and other artists in unique local venues. “In Search of America” rounds out its six-concert 2013-2014 season. Artists interested in performing on the 2014-2015 season are welcome to contact the directors Kate Haller and Rachel Woolsey with their ideas at


Concert Info: or call 563-379-6165



 For a slapdash comedy and satire on today’s craziness grab a copy of my novel, Grand Tally at:


grand tally ebook cover

Gods of the Modern World


Gods of the Modern World
“Gods of the Modern World” is one panel in a fresco, The Epic of American Civilization, painted by Jose Clemente Orozco for the Baker Library at Dartmouth. The panel is a critique of the modern university, violent and passionate.

Skeletons robed in academic gowns stand facing us. In the foreground another skeleton lies in birthing position, legs spread and upraised, pregnant with books. Bending over this skeleton is another, a robed academic holding in its hands a baby skeleton with a mortarboard and tassel. Formaldehyde filled jars with baby skeletons fall alongside piles of black tomes.

The dead bring forth the dead: dead academics beget more dead academics and dead books, a self-perpetuating cycle.

The world is on fire, yet the living dead robed in academic gowns are unaware of it. Unaware and impotent, their backs are turned to the conflagration.

Orozco painted The Epic of American Civilization between 1932 and 1934, years in which Lewis Mumford was a “roving professor” at Dartmouth. The mural made a deep impression on Mumford, and in several of his books he reproduced some of its panels, including Gods of the Modern World. Mumford’s interpretation of university teaching and scholarship matched the muralist’s.

Lewis Mumford and the Pubic Intellectual
Mumford remains an exception among American scholars. An intellectual who wrote on regionalism, city planning, architecture, technology, and American culture, Mumford never completed college. Yet he grew into the foremost American intellectual of the twentieth century. As a generalist, Mumford derided specialization and the narrowness it entailed. Mumford, furthermore, was not only a scholar, but in Ezra Pound’s phrase was one who put his “ideas into action.”

As a founding member of Regional Planning Association of America, Mumford collaborated with city planner Clarence Stein and architect Henry Wright (both fellow RPPA members) on the design of the planned development of Radburn, New Jersey. Earlier he had been researcher for Stein on several state sponsored housing projects. He argued publicly and passionately in print and in public forums on the need for the development of Garden Cities and for the regionalization of American economics and culture. No wonder Mumford scorned specialists.

Yale began the march toward academic specialization when it bestowed its first doctorate in 1861. Doctoral programs eventually grew into what Thorstein Veblen called “the PhD. octopus” and professional guilds followed. To earn a doctorate one had not only to specialize but produce an original piece of research. In the humanities, once the major writers and thinkers were raked over, the candidate had to discover a minor figure upon whom to devote years of study, research and writing. He became a specialist in a sub-sub-specialty of his field. The doctoral requirement for university teaching became one more bit of evidence that ours was a fragmenting society.

Within the seclusion of the university, and as a specialist, the academic often lacks the knowledge and imagination for effective social criticism and action. Thinkers of the caliber of Emerson, Ruskin, and William Morris helped guide and develop the culture of their times. Ruskin, besides making contributions to several fields, including worker’s’ education, was the spiritual father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, initiated by his disciple William Morris. Mumford was their successor, perhaps the last of what are called “public intellectuals.” Now as in the past century, anyone who boldly and competently advances into areas outside his specialty is open to attack by Orozco’s walking dead.

And so minds that might have served a useful function, perhaps teaching the liberal arts, made themselves illiberal and irrelevant. Worse, they shaped and continue to shape those young minds that aspire to academic positions into images of themselves. The pedantry, the obfuscation, the prolixity, and in many cases the arrogance continue.

Unity in the Seven Liberal Arts and the Doctrine of Ideas
With specialization Europe and America lost the intellectual unity that Western culture had in the Middle Ages. That unity was supplied not only by Christian doctrine, but by the liberal arts. These arts, inherited from classical Greece and Rome and codified in late Roman times, created an intellectual discipline out of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic or dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).

For the purposes of this argument, I skip over the trivium to the quadrivium as the texts chosen for the four mathematical arts created a unified vision of the cosmos. The texts derived from the teachings of the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras and were adopted by Plato and subsequently passed on through his Academy. Pythagoras taught that number was the essence of all things and that the world—because it was ordered through number—was a cosmos.

The Pythagorean texts of the quadrivium developed in the student a qualitative vision of the universe. Such a vision is radically opposed to the mechanistic and quantitative interpretation that developed in the Renaissance and which governs the world-view of Mass Man. While it does connect the whole and its parts through number and mathematical analysis, the quantitative world- view emphases difference, the essential atomic nature of all things. By contrast, the qualitative world of Plato and the Pythagoreans is relational, with its parts united by ratio and proportion and by analogy.

For the medievals the arts of the quadrivium became an aid to understanding the works of God and the harmony of all within creation. For the masters of the quadrivium the mathematical arts were a ladder leading the seeker to an apprehension of God the Maker.
Arithmetic, the basic study of the quadrivium, taught ratio and proportion, and the theory of numbers. Geometry, the next study, was taught through Euclid’s Elements. Euclid had been a student at Plato’s Academy and his definitions of point, line, and plane make clear the ideal basis of his work. Euclid, like Boethius and Nicomachus—two significant transmitters of Pythagorean thought—was a Pythagorean and Platonist.

Music as understood by Plato and the Pythagoreans was not a study of sound per se, but a study of the harmonic relationships between musical intervals (the octave, fifth, third, etc.). Johannes Kepler brought together the current astronomical data of his time in his treatise Harmonices Mundi, which attempted to demonstrate the ancient Pythagorean dream of the music of the spheres. Thus understood, music was inextricably at one with astronomy, the study of invariant motions. The study of invariance became, for the philosopher, the last step to the apprehension of the Ideas. Music, Plato declared, was the highest form of philosophy and led to an apprehension of The Good.

Many of the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries, including Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius, were Platonists and embraced the doctrine of Ideas. St. Augustine (354-430), deeply influenced by Plato, acknowledged the existence of Plato’s Ideas, but held that they existed not outside but within the divine intelligence.

Subsequent to Augustine, the teachers of the monasteries and cathedral schools were Platonists. Through these schools the seven liberal arts were preserved into the High Middle Ages. The cathedral schools, reflecting Plato’s teaching, emphasized the quadrivium over the trivium.

Without a study of the quadrivium, there would have been no Chartres, or Notre Dame, or Amiens. The architects of the cathedrals were masters of the quadrivium, using the golden section and musical consonances for their architectural grammar. As they saw it, these ratios and proportions were those subsisting with the divine intelligence, and thus the cathedrals became an instantiation of divine harmony.

From Unite to Multiplicity
The thirteenth century was the point of greatest cultural unity within Western culture. After that, unity descended into multiplicity, to echo Henry Adams. The splintering of thought and society accelerated until now we seem to have reached the maximum of dissolution before absolute anarchy. Academic specialization was a necessary outcome of our loss of intellectual unity.

Briefly, my version of the descent is this: Until the early fourteenth century, Plato’s doctrine of Ideas was the dominant theory of the nature of reality, a doctrine the medievals called Realism. Realism was not challenged until William of Ockam (c. 1287 – 1347) first propounded the theory of universals. Ockham’s doctrine of the nature of ideas, called Nominalism, denied the existence of Ideas and contended that only individuals exist. Thus there is no Idea of Man but only individual men; nor any Idea of Whiteness, only instances of whiteness.

It was but a small step from nominalism to empiricism, the philosophy that holds that sense perception is our sole source for knowledge. George Berkley contended that empiricism led to atheism, and time has shown Berkley to be correct: the cry of the college-educated atheist is, “I believe in science.”

Empiricism was one of the roots of philosophical materialism, which surely is the underlying, driving force of Western culture, despite the numbers of contemporary Fundamentalists in all three monotheistic religions. For practical purposes, God is dead. Western Man centuries ago lost his common notions, including a belief in God or divinity, and without common notions, no civilization can long endure.

Without common notions there can be no effective resistance to the ever-increasing mechanization of man and society. Certainly the academic specialist, Orozco’s walking dead—a product of Western fragmentation—can offer no resistance. But then, who can?


For a slapdash comedy and satire on today’s craziness grab a copy of my novel, Grand Tally at:

grand tally ebook cover

America as Circus, America as Zoo

H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken

The acerbic H.L. Mencken, America’s premiere social critic of the 1920s, once famously compared America to a zoo.

“Mr. Mencken (questioning) ‘If you find there is so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here?’

“Mr. Mencken (answering): ‘Why do people go to zoos?’”

Mencken’s career began at America’s entry into World War I, but his satiric barrage on American life and culture came during the 1920s, a decade of barn storming, flagpole sitting, twenty-four-hour dance marathons, Prohibition, speakeasies, boosterism, Coolidge, gangster wars, and revivals—capped by Wall Street cupidity that led to the 1929 crash and subsequent Depression.

In one of his better-known essays, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” Mencken pilloried the South and its culture. “It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a sterility. . . . And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and the ‘progress’ it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara desert.”

As for the mass of Americans, Mencken had plenty to say, and none of it flattering. For a true picture of an American one need only visit Ellis Island, “and look at the next shipload of immigrants. You will . . . find the shuffling of exhausted men. From such exhausted men the race of Americans has sprung.”

The American, according to Mencken, “. . . is dull; his cultural level is no higher than that of domestic animals; his morality and self-interest are identical.” This is the individual that en masse constitutes the “boobosie.”

In Mencken’s view, the whole country had been going downhill since 1900. The award for the worst state of the union would be shared by Tennessee and California. American politics is based upon the assumption that politicians are divided into two groups, and that one of them is good.

Mencken not only deserves to be read, he needs to be read. Reading him makes us face the fact that we have only timid truth tellers now, few at best and none with his scope. In fiction, Americans had Ring Lardner in the 1920s and Sinclair Lewis in the 1930s. There has been no one like them since.

Lardner’s dark stories of the booboisie, written in the first-person, depicted the ignorance and cultural vapidity of Mencken’s mass American, one of the mob. Publishing his major novels a decade later, Sinclair Lewis was the perfect novelist to match Mencken’s observations. While Mencken supplied the abstract analysis of America-as-zoo or circus, Lewis fleshed the body out with details. In Babbit, he drew a portrait of a complacent businessman, George Babbitt, from a mid-size Midwestern city, who epitomized the vapid boosterism and materialism of the time. In Elmer Gantry, he examined the underbelly of revivalists like Amy Semple McPherson, who married her third husband while her second was still alive, and Billy Sunday, who defended the fact that he made as much money in one day as the average American workman made in a year. (“Homo boobiens,” Mencken wrote, “is a fundamentalist for the precise reason he is uneducable.”) In Main Street, Lewis pilloried small town cliques, provincialism, and pettiness. Many of Lewis’ critiques are still strikingly relevant. He is one of our major observers of the American scene.

Since Lardner and Lewis’ time no essayist or fiction writer has attempted a satirical anatomy. Kurt Vonnegut was a satirist—perhaps our only recent satirist—and Helter Skelter had thinly disguised caricatures of William F. Buckley and Malcolm Forbes. But Vonnegut’s satire was in a different vein from Lardner and Lewis’. They were social realists, while Vonnegut blended science fiction into most of his novels.

Yet considering the multitude of critical problems civilization faces, the imagination strains to understand why American writers have not delve into the psyches of mass murderers, Fundamentalists, Wall Streeters, lapdog journalists, politicians, and corporate criminals, to name a few of the unsavory types that dominate our national life. We have no one of Tolstoy’s genius to craft the complexity of present-day corruption and its consequences into a vast, social realist novel. Such a work would, at any rate, be too dark for most.

Now, after a lapse of ninety years, Mencken’s comparison of the United States to a zoo seems understated. Peter Weiss’s 1960s drama, Marat/Sade, updated the characterization by implicitly likening contemporary western civilization to a madhouse.

My own way of coping with the insanity of contemporary civilization—and what else is it but insane?—has been to write a satiric novel that is filled with slapstick violence. The first draft of Grand Tally: A True Account of the Recent Happenings in Moosehead, Montana and New York City was improvised with a glass of brandy after dinner for four or five months.

A writer for People magazine handed me the premise. According to her, a major U.S. mapmaker issued a road atlas minus one of the western states. As I pondered how such a gaff could have occurred, I realized that since the bottom line is everything in today’s business, a firm run by accountants would care less about quality. If the accountants specified that the atlas was to have 120 pages, and the proofs returned with 122, something would have to be cut. Thus was Grand Tally born.

Grand Tally, the mapmaker, decides to eliminate Montana, which covers two pages. This move unleashes a national drama that alternates between Moosehead, Montana and New York City and ends—literally—in an explosion. The slapstick action brings together the Montana militia, Homeland Security, the Montana National Guard, journalists, New York celebrities and a charismatic Christian cult headed west to meet the Rapture.

Grand Tally was completed almost a decade ago, but in 2003 American life did not seem as hopelessly out of control as it does today. When our collective insanity became evident to everyone except the ringmasters, the time was ripe to publish.

For the time being, Grand Tally is available as an e-book only, for iPad and Kindle.

Welcome to my blog and website

This site will serve as a digital home for all of my various writing projects.

Free River Press – a nonprofit publishing house whose primary mission is to develop a literary mosaic of America written by people from all walks of life.

American Mosaic – a half-hour nationally syndicated radio program featuring stories developed in Free River Press writing workshops by everyday folk.

In Search of America – a monthly column and forthcoming e-book that tells the story of my search for the American soul while searching for my place within the American landscape.

grand tally ebook coverGrand Tally – a new e-book novel about drama that alternates between Moosehead, Montana and New York City after Grand Tally, the worldʼs foremost mapmaker, deliberately issues a U.S. road atlas minus the state of Montana.

Please check back often or get in touch by emailing me at: