The 19th century poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold once observed, “Culture, then, is a study of perfection, and perfection which insists on becoming something rather than in having something, in an inward condition of the mind and spirit, not in an outward set of circumstances.”
The recently deceased actor Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t seem to fully understand this sentiment. In his recently publicized will, Hoffman left instructions as to the proper cultural rearing of his son, Cooper: “It is my strong desire, and not direction to my guardian, that my son, Cooper Hoffman, be raised and reside in or near the borough of Manhattan in the state of New York, or Chicago, Ill., or San Francisco, Calif.”
If having his son live in his preferred three cities was not possible, Hoffman requested that his son at least visit there twice a year: “The purpose of this request is so that my son will be exposed to the culture, arts and architecture that such cities offer.”
While the basic desire that his son be raised in an environment rich with the products of high culture and urbane sensibilities is laudable, there is an implicit bias that suggests a superiority of northern (and specifically New York City) culture.
This reminded me of a 1976 cover of the New Yorker magazine. Titled “What the World looks like from 9th Avenue,” the foreground was cluttered with typical New York city blocks, then there was the Hudson River, New Jersey and then a vast empty wasteland sparsely punctuated with mounds representing cities of the hinterlands.
I have spent a lot of time in New York City. I freely assent to its magic. Paley Park, built on the site of the legendary Stork Club, is one of my most favorite places on earth. In the middle of an enormous city, it is a walled oasis of crashing water, shade trees and mid-century modern aesthetics.
Countless volumes are filled with all the amenities and majesty that is Gotham. Were I Midas, I might consider living there.
That said, I believe the underlying assumption of Hoffman’s request is fundamentally flawed. It is flawed, not because there’s anything wrong with wanting one’s progeny to have a seat at the metaphorical Algonquin Roundtable, but rather in the presumption that one need be in Manhattan to do so.
I often think about my mother’s hometown of Altheimer, Ark. In the 1950s when she was a girl, Altheimer was a tiny farming community, typical of the lopsided sharecropping social order. In other ways this wide spot in the highway was a marvelously cosmopolitan little town.
With a population never greater than a few hundred people, Altheimer of the 1950s was an unlikely but successful melting pot. There were both black and white farmers, There were Protestants and Catholics. The merchant class was comprised of many groups, including Jewish and Chinese families.
My mother’s best friends were the daughter of an Italian family, Rosemary Euseppi, and the daughter of a Chinese family, Jah Gee Lee. I recall mother telling stories about being in the homes of both these girls. In particular, I remember her recounting a scene in Jah Gee’s family when relatives in China had sent a package of exotic-looking goods from their homeland.
While many may not assent to the culture of the cotton patch, I am given to think that the refined and studied world is where you find it. Is having a Grapette soda at the Woolworth’s lunch counter a parallel experience to a cocktail at the 21 Club? Probably not, but at the deepest underlying gestalt level I am given to think they have more in common than many might wish to believe.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at email@example.com