Lincoln Kirstein

Lincoln Kirstein was one of America's most important cultural figures. Co-founder, with George Balanchine, of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, he was also a great patriot and champion of the arts in America.

Kirstein wrote extensively, with force and erudition on all that interested him. This website presents a thorough listing, with excerpts and illustrations, of the writings published throughout his protean life. On these pages the reader will find an unmatched record of American cultural history--which will inform future generations in perpetuity--set forth through the prism of one of the great minds of the 20th century.

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Kirstein’s first book, the novel Flesh Is Heir (1932), was published two years after his graduation from Harvard University, and a year before he started his European sojourn that would culminate in his bringing George Balanchine to the United States. It includes scenes depicting Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and the funeral of Sergei Diaghilev, which Kirstein happened upon in Venice in 1929.

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Kirstein wrote poetry from his very early years and throughout his life. He published his first book of collected poems, Low Ceiling in 1935. Kirstein’s great epic poem about World War II, Rhymes of a PFC, was published by New Directions in 1964.

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Drama and
Ballet Libretti

Kirstein’s first publication, when he was just fifteen years old, was The Silver Fan (1922), a play set in Tibet. He would go on to write two full-length plays—White House Happening: A Didactic Collage (1967) and Magic Carpet: A Farce or Fable in Two Acts (1968)—and a dozen libretti for choreographers including George Balanchine, Lew Christensen, Eugene Loring, Anthony Tudor, and others.

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On Dance

In 1933, while in Europe hot on the trail of George Balanchine, Kirstein ghost-wrote (with Romola Nijinsky) the biography of Vaslav Nijinsky. He wrote continuously on dance throughout his life, educating generations on the subject of classical dance, and, in the process, effectively creating a perpetually well-informed audience for his and Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. From 1943 until 1949, Kirstein was the editor and publisher of 56 issues of Dance Index, a journal that celebrated the medium “which in an almost preposterous sense, ignores all the frightening facts of human survival.”

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On Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture

Kirstein’s Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, founded in 1928, is widely acknowledged as the precursor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was also the beginning, along with his literary journal, Hound & Horn, of a life-long championing of visual artists, sculptors, and architects. The list of individuals whose careers and posterity would be diminished were it not for Kirstein includes: Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Paul Cadmus, Yasuhide Kobashi, and Pavel Tchelitchew, among many others.

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On Photography

Though brief in comparison to his output on other subjects, Kirstein’s essays on photography have established him as one of the medium’s greatest champions and intellects. His seminal text in the book Walker Evans American Photographs (1938) is among the most influential photography texts ever written, and his essay “Henri Cartier-Bresson: Documentary Humanist” (1947) remains one of the definitive essays on that great photographer.

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On Film

In addition to writing numerous film reviews for Arts Weekly in the 1930s, Kirstein was a staunch supporter of the artistic integrity of the great expatriated Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

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On Music
and Drama

Kirstein wrote numerous reviews of musical and theatrical productions throughout the 1940s and 50s for Evening America, Nation, Center, and Herald Tribune. He was a great champion of Igor Stravinksy, for whom he organized New York City Ballet Festivals in 1972 and 1982.

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On Literature, History, Politics and Other Subjects

Kirstein was a twenty-year old undergraduate at Harvard University when he founded the literary journal Hound & Horn, which was among the first publications in the United States to celebrate the work of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. For the rest of his life, Kirstein used reviews for numerous journals to champion the writers of his time whom he deemed worthy of posterity.

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Though Kirstein was a committed diarist throughout his life, it wasn’t until his late 70s that he began to publish histories of his own life experience. This culminated in the book Mosaic: Memoirs, which connects decades of vital experience drawn largely from his diaries and published writings.

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