America, the beautiful (America, the ugly)

This masterly literary history from co-editor Greil Marcus does justice to our country's best and worst moments

Published September 22, 2009 10:22AM (EDT)

You could do a lot worse with the next 220 days of your life than to begin each one by reading an entry from the freshly published "A New Literary History of America" -- the way generations past used to study a Bible verse daily. You could do a lot worse, but I'm not sure you could do much better; this magnificent volume is a vast, inquisitive, richly surprising and consistently enlightening wallow in our national history and culture.

Editors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors have pitched the biggest tent conceivable, pegging each of the chronologically arranged essays in the book to "points in time and imagination where something changed: when a new idea or a new form came into being, when new questions were raised, when what before seemed impossible came to seem necessary or inevitable." With this in mind, they've produced a compendium that is neither reference nor criticism, neither history nor treatise, but a genre-defying, transcendent fusion of them all. It sounds impossible, but the result seems both inevitable and necessary and profoundly welcome, too.

"Literary," as defined by Marcus and Sollors, is a category so wide-ranging as to be nearly meaningless; the real determiners here are those "points in time and imagination." The subject of any given entry might be a book -- Marcus himself writes on "Moby-Dick," and African-American writer Ishmael Reed proffers a rowdy, score-settling weigh-in on "Huckleberry Finn" (somehow a diatribe about the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani's review of Toni Morrison's "Beloved" finds its way in there). But the subject might just as well be a famous speech or Supreme Court decision or movie or painting or sculpture or manifesto or comic strip. There's even an entry about the Winchester rifle. This book is not so much a history of our literature as it is a literary version of our history, told through the culture we've created to recount our past and conjure our future.

As the editors explain in their introduction, a survey of American literature has to be fundamentally different from a similar book on, say, France or Germany, countries that have "organic literatures or organic societies that long preceded the emergence of the modern French and German nations." America, by contrast, is "made-up," summoned out of a fusion of Enlightenment ideals, economic needs and geographic happenstance. It's a nation literally constituted out of documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both of those literary works get examined in "A New Literary History of America," in fascinating entries (by Frank Kelleter and Mitchell Meltzer, respectively) that probe the contradictions within each. On the Constitution, Meltzer writes that the framers "turned away from the traditional reliance upon religious sanction and engineered a new paradox, what could be called a secular revelation," officially enshrining certain truths as emanations of the human heart and mind, not the word of God.

Pushing back against this humanist, rationalist impulse is a fierce vein of religious fervor. This makes itself felt in John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" speech (made to a boatload of Puritan settlers and misrepresented by conservatives ever since) and the jeremiads of the late 17th-century Congregationalist ministers, the lineaments of which can be detected in today's State of the Nation speeches. These latter clergymen would scold the populace for straying from the piety of the original colonists and then promise a restoration of righteous contentment if they cleaned up their act -- the original return-to-values harangues. In George Whitefield, an itinerant British preacher who toured the colonies in the 1740s, astonishing the devout by acting out "fear and rapture ... stomping and cavorting on stage, crawling on his knees and breaking down in tears," contributor Joanne van der Woude sees the trigger of the first Great Awakening (a wave of revivalism that swept the new nation) and the prototype of modern charismatic evangelists.

Whether it's the first American museum (mastodon bones and paintings of distinguished public figures displayed by the artist Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia) or the introduction of "romantic" acting to America by Junius Brutus Booth (father of John Wilkes) or young Benjamin Franklin publishing satirical letters in his brother's newspaper or Sequoyah presenting the first syllabary (alphabet) to the Cherokee nation, initiating the modern written culture of Native Americans, these fascinating "points" are seeds that will flourish and bloom in the decades that follow. You can see the character of today's nation emerge like the personality of the adult-to-be evolving in a toddler.

The sharpened focus of the topics and the brevity of the entries (about 2,000 words) drives out any bloat. (It's all too easy to spot which subjects trade publishers would turn into overlong books with titles along the lines of "The X That Changed the World.") But the liveliness of "A New Literary History of America" springs from the subjects chosen and the approach taken, too. Decisions were guided by the passions of the writers as well as the judgments of the editors, who explain, "the contributors were asked for their own arguments, their own points of view, their own embraces and dissents: to surprise not only their editors, or their readers, but themselves." Instead of feeling obligatory or rote, the entries sing with the living, breathing engagement of individual voices and points of view. In the age of Wikipedia, a reference book like this needs more than just the facts; it need to tell us what the facts mean, and "A New Literary History" does just that.

Best of all, in addition to hitting the obvious high points (Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Great Gatsby," the Gettysburg Address), the editors included a very liberal sprinkling of pop and folk elements. The great early 20th-century comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland," Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels, and the Book-of-the-Month Club all make a bow. The most patently provocative gesture is the entry for Linda Lovelace, but contributor Ann Marlowe takes as her subject not Lovelace's famous porn film, "Deep Throat," but the four memoirs she published afterward. The first and second memoirs purport to be intimate accounts of Lovelace's outrageously libertine sex life, while the two after that claim that the earlier books and her entire film career were "a pack of lies" she was forced to participate in by an abusive husband/manager. Both porn and the abuse memoir promise to show their audiences the impolite "truth" behind one facade or another, and the sad trajectory of Linda Lovelace's notoriety illustrates our insatiable craving for such "confessions" -- as well as the unreliability of their narrators.

Speaking of confessions, who set novelist/screenwriter Michael Tolkin to expound on the Big Book of AA? That was a stroke of editorial genius. "What is it about the tone of the testimonials to sobriety written in the 1930s that sound so much like the hard-boiled writing of the same time?" Tolkin asks. "I think the development of the hard-boiled voice brought into writing the authentic voice of spoken English at the time, the spoken English of the Depression." The quest for an authentic American voice is one of the ongoing themes of "A New Literary History of America," going all the way back to John Smith, whose accounts of his adventures in the New World were exceptional (according to contributor Adam Goodheart) for being written in a "direct, forthright and vivid" style unusual for his time. Another entry, by John Picker, traces a central divide in American culture by examining "Two National Anthems": one, "The Star-Spangled Banner," is official, formal and derivative of genteel European tastes, while the other, "Yankee Doodle," is a saucy, accessible morsel of pilfered folklore.

The restless search for a true American voice continued into the 20th century, as Gish Jen's smart essay on "The Catcher in the Rye" illustrates. As a novel, she observes, J.D. Salinger's most famous work is not especially impressive, yet that doesn't diminish its allure. The book "demonstrates, among other things, how variously and mysteriously novels finally work, and how even sophisticated audiences tend to genuflect to art but yield to testimony. We are enthralled by voices that tell it like it is."

The counterpart to Holden Caulfield's famous candor is another American archetype, the con man, a liar poised to take exquisite advantage of a highly mobile society that encourages its citizens to reinvent themselves. The duke and king in "Huckleberry Finn" and the Cat in the Hat (who gets his own entry, hooray!) are some prime specimens, but so, in David Thomson's penetrating essay on Ernest Hemingway's persona, was the novelist famous for the "fresh-water lucidity" of his prose. As "a kind of advertisement for American literary selfhood," Thomson writes, Papa H crafted a manly persona that concealed "a poseur, a desperate fake gambling against exposure, a mandarin, a stylist, a man who to all intents and purposes remained an inhabitant of Proust's cork-lined room but who dropped this bomb of a legend on us all -- the man of action, courage and heroic modesty." A paradox, indeed: What man of action prefers to write? As John Smith lamented (after his proposed expeditions met with less enthusiasm than his books), "It were more proper for mee to be doing what I say, then writing what I knowe."

The people best positioned to speak to the lies behind the facade of American plain-dealing were, of course, African-Americans and Native Americans, who had and have excellent cause to cast a cold eye on Thomas Jefferson's line about all men being created equal. The bad faith at the core of America's promise is richly represented in "A New Literary History of America," from slave narratives and David Walker's "Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World" (an 1828 broadside that, according to contributor Tommie Shelby, was "the most militant anti-slavery document that had ever been published" and a founding document of black nationalism) to the final entry, plates by visual artist Kara Walker on the election of Barack Obama.

Alas, the entries for the later years of the 20th century -- everything past about 1970 -- are the weakest in the book. They have a scattershot and half-baked quality, perhaps because the meaning of those decades has yet to make itself clear historically. When the entries are as good as they are in the earlier sections of "A New Literary History of America," only pedants and listoholics will be moved to start up that tired quarrel over who's in and who's out. "The goal of this book," the editors write in an attempt to fend off such inanities, "is not to smash a canon or create a new one, but to set many forms of American speech in motion, so that different forms, and people speaking at different times in sometimes radically different ways, can be heard speaking to each other."

However, by the end of the volume, this speaking begins to devolve into boosterism and mooncalf hero worship. It does nothing for Toni Morrison's stature to gush over a 1981 Newsweek cover story on the novelist and describe her as a "goddess." And wouldn't it better suit the pop-friendly mandate of the book to skip the entry on the relatively obscure African-American novelist Gayl Jones and commission someone to write about Oprah Winfrey instead? Which woman has had a greater effect on American readers? Henry Roth and Richard Powers but not David Foster Wallace or John Updike or Don DeLillo? Yet if the material on the past three decades were stronger, I suspect I wouldn't even notice their absence.

Occasionally, too, the irreverent, contemporary, cross-cultural orientation of some of the entries makes for some unfortunate lapses. Wai Chee Dimock sounds amused by the "economic language" that the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet employed to reproach herself for mourning the loss of her home in a fire:

Thou hast an house on high erect
Framed by that mighty Architect...
It's purchased and paid for too
by Him that hath enough to do.

"The heavenly home is not only palatial," chortles Dimock, "it is apparently paid for in full, ready for occupancy. Only the most benighted would fail to see what a great bargain this is, what a real estate bonanza." Yet, as Dimock seems not to realize, the celestial residence the devout Bradstreet is referring to is the salvation of her soul, whose cost was the suffering and crucifixion of Christ -- hardly a "great bargain" in "real estate bonanza" to any believing Christian. Other disappointments (a colorless and pro forma entry on the Salem Witch Trials, for example) surely arise from the fact that most of the contributors are academics, whose expertise isn't always accompanied by the imagination, daring and eloquence their subjects deserve.

Still, the hits vastly outnumber the misses, and in addition to the scholars, there is Luc Sante on the blues, Walter Mosley on hard-boiled detective fiction, Sarah Vowell on Grant Wood's "American Gothic," Jonathan Lethem on the invention of motion pictures, and even a smattering of Salon regulars -- Stephanie Zacharek on the Hays Code, Charles Taylor on "Catch-22" and JFK's inaugural address, Camille Paglia on Tennessee Williams, and a stunning essay by Gary Kamiya on Ronald Reagan's career-making 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, "one of those uncanny cultural artifacts that contains within it not just words, gestures and ideas, but a future."

You could say that every topic selected in "A New Literary History of America" fits that bill. It's not often that the contemplation of the past can be made to feel as immediate and engaging as living in the present but the two are intimately related, after all. The goal of those old-fashioned daily Bible readings was to help the faithful better know the mind of God. Since we've replaced divine will with what Mitchell Meltzer calls "secular revelation," our new scriptures consist not of God's words, but our own. "A New Literary History of America" shows us how to read them, how to look through words, gestures and ideas to glimpse our future.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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