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The Awkward Embrace

Why are some personalities especially suited to rise within corporate and other tightly organized structures? Neil Harris in The New Republic noted that "As a portrait of American cultural leaders, and as a series of personal comments about the life of our cultural institutions Burns's book is an able expense of energy....": "Are they [the culture managers], asks Burns, artists manques, who but for a stroke of luck (or a different set of values), might have been painters or novelists themselves? Or are they fundamentally different from artists? Is their urge to control, direct and organize exclusive to their profession or do they share it with others?...Burns concludes that managerial success 'came by virtue of personality more than from the force of ideas,' and that the keys to organization victory lay in commitment and participation."

The author consulted widely and, given the requirement that those chosen must be self-made men or women in major institutions involved with the arts, arrived at the names of nine men who rose up through institutional hierarchies because they were very effective at operating within them. Their stories are told in The Awkward Embrace, their personalities contrasted to those of creative artists. The nine, and their institutions, are: Turner Catledge at The New York Times; Hedley Donovan at Time, Inc.; Lloyd Goodrich at the Whitney Museum of American Art; William Jovanovich at Harcourt Brace; Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records; W. McNeil Lowry at the Ford Foundation; Harry Huntt Ransom at the University of Texas System; Frank Stanton at CBS; Frank Thompson Jr., U.S. House of Representatives.

These men were more than simple retailers. Alden Whitman notes "Burns' pioneering book...contains enough explosive material to lay waste many of our preconceptions about the 'free' American creative artists.... an account of how various institutions actually operate and respond to the personalities of their leaders.... I suspect that the reverberations of her book will be resounding for some time...."

The Boston Globe reviewer called The Awkward Embrace both thoughtful and deserving of respect. Burns "understands power can be used creatively" or destructively. "This is an important book because its exploration of the relationship between power and culture reveals the subtle checks and balances of every American life."

The Library Journal also called this an important book.

Harper's Bookletter accused the author of being pro-establishment; other reviewers accused her of being anti-establishment! A Tampa Tribune-Times reviewer wanted more about artists but fairly noted that "Burns seems committed to maintaining the separation between artists and society (or its cultural managers) while hoping for some reciprocity between the two for our mutual salvation." Milton Bass in The Berkshire Eagle notes the "horrendous pressures" the author endured getting the book into print and mentions Burns's conclusion that "there are two key elements in being successful: stamina and luck."