At the pinnacle of his multi-faceted career, John Erskine (1879-1951) was one of the best recognized personalities on the American cultural, academic and entertainment scenes. His popular novels and short stories appeared with near monthly regularity from 1925 to 1945. Hollywood film credits and New York gossip columns flashed his name. Radio and newspaper interviewers clamored for his opinions. Scholarly journals published his essays. He traveled throughout the United States and beyond as a visiting professor, an academic lecturer, a touring author and a piano soloist with major symphonies. In addition to the racy novels that popularized ancient philosophy and myth, his serious poetry and reflective essays garnered wide critical success. Ten years after initiating the country’s first Great Books program at Columbia University, he became the celebrated first president of the Juilliard School of Music. For John Erskine there was nothing incongruent among his seemingly disparate endeavors. His consistent aim in education, literature and music was to bring the emblems once reserved for the highbrow few to wider and wider audiences. And that is exactly what he did for many thousands of American citizens. Yet, Erskine died with his creativity faded, his name barely remembered and his family in disarray. This first biography of John Erskine views him in the larger contexts of the mass culture and expanded commercialism that helped propel his fame. It also relates a life narrative that demonstrates perils of academic celebrity along a conceptual path from public intellectual to pop icon.
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