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Book Review: A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

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Taking a cursory glance at the table of contents of A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, will reap you an immediate assumption that this 1100-page cat-cruncher is a linear chronology of the history of the literature of the United States, from 1507, when the name “America” appears on a map, to 2008, with the presidential election of Barack Obama.

But take a closer look at the over 200 original essays in the contents or delve into the topics in the comprehensive index, the short bibliographies at the end of each reading – better yet, as the book “is a reexamination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass, where what is at issue is speech, in its many forms,” turn over the tome and flip through it to scan the headlines that top each commentary about American history, literature, society, politics, religion, culture, and technology. Since I’m not a real methodical kind of reader when it comes to kaleidoscopic catchall compendiums like this, I succumbed to my impulsive nature, and all systematic disciplines were no-go.

So even if the subject matter was at a variance, even if I was on my way to 1961 and “JFK’s inaugural address and Catch-22,” I had no qualms about being waylaid by, say, Ted Gioia’s take on 1949-1950 and “The Birth of the Cool.” The latter subject may have mattered more to me at the time. Just like any other time I may have been or will be stricken by the myriad topics by the considerable novelists, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters among the contributors, such as Clark Blaise (on Hawthorne and Melville), Angus Fletcher (The science of the Indian), Robert Clark (on Edgar Allan Poe), Alan Wallach (on the Hudson River School), Mark Ford (on Frank O’Hara), Joshua Clover (on Bob Dylan), Andrei Codrescu (on New Orleans), Sarah Whiting (on the Skyscraper), David Bradley (on Malcolm X), or James Miller (on “Roll Over Beethoven”).

As a matter of fact, delving into Literary History need not be such as eclectic process of singular readings, with the “Made in America” topics so necessarily differentiated from essay to essay, whether the focus is on poems, plays, novels, and essays – or, for that matter, on travel diaries, maps, sermons, histories, religious tracts, speeches, debates, Supreme Court decisions, jazz, folk songs, comic books and comic strips, films, radio, rock and roll, musicals, and hip-hop.

For example, the 1722 “The Silence Dogood Letters” by Joyce E. Chaplin amuses and intrigues not only because, as ripped from its particular headline, “Benjamin Franklin submits a pseudonymous satire to his brother’s newspaper.” It also succeeds in its objective: enjoyably detailing how Ben, as a 16-year old printing apprentice, got an early lead in the publishing game with his first literary success, a satirical series of anonymous missives aimed at Boston’s elites and institutions. The subterfuge – kept even from his abusive brother James – was eventually revealed and won freedom from his apprenticeship for Ben, “the tireless improver and social critic,” notes Chaplin, “who seized lightning from the sky and the scepter from the tyrants.” Who then also moved to Philadelphia and got away from his brother.

The intense sibling rivalry is recapitulated to some extent in the family feud that is kicked-off in the 1835 entry “Shape-Note Singing” by Sean Wilentz, when William Walker treks north to publish The Southern Harmony. This action thwarts the intentions of his fortuitously named brother-in-law Benjamin Franklin White, who nine years later completes The Sacred Harp, a tradition of sacred choral music that took root in the Southern region of the United States. (Actually, according to the essay, songs performed by shape-note shifting assemblies over the decades include many with texts dating back to the 17th century or earlier, and with melodies as old as Gregorian chants.)

No blood or in-law relations enter the picture in the 1940-1944 installment “Seven Pictures in Four Years,” by Werner Sollors, about the unmistakable and often satirical director Preston Sturges, who, in keeping “the delicate and explosive so close together,” no doubt took the cue for this chaos from his hectic life. But by extension, it’s worth comparing and contrasting satire and how Benjamin Franklin had developed it as an emerging English genre over 200 years prior along with the birth of America; to how a cynical Preston Sturges, each of whose “seven films stands as a rebuke to the mythic America of John Ford, the inspirational America of Frank Capra, or the safe and cozy America as pushed through MGM’s popular Andy Hardy series,” presented his send-up, satiric idea of a flawed nation at what may have been the pinnacle of its patriotism.

Getting more cultural bang for your buck, some essays, seemingly narrow in scope, serve as springboards into broader – if not necessarily deeper – history,  each within Literary History’s four to seven page treatments. You know that the August 28, 1968 meeting of William F. Buckley, Jr., and Gore Vidal on network television has to open up into more back story if the essay is to do any justice to “The Plight of Conservative Literature” – and so it more than broaches such subjects as John Updike and Richard Wright, Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. 1861: “Children, Women, Queens,” by Susan Stewart, is headlined simply, “Emily Dickenson writes to her cousins: ‘When did the war really begin?’” It’s a cryptic inquiry, answered and expanded upon, as commentary and generous portions of Dickenson’s limited military poetry are also quoted and explicated. Added attractions, unbilled cameos, and extra dialog also comes in the form of such figures as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Sand as relevance befits the general discussion of both Dickenson specifically and women’s war-time poetry in general.

No matter how you approach the veritable cultural treasure trove of Literary History – with bookmark advancing on perfectly sequentially or thumb flipped ever so randomly — my hasty habits show me to be, as paraphrased by the 1926 entry “Poisonville” (from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest), “a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy [with] the vaguest way of doing things….”

But if you were to pin me down for specifics on my estimation for A New Literary History of America I would have to defer from the hardboiled school to 1930 with Robert Gottlieb’s essay on the times that America turns up the volume via radio and the movies with the advent of the “tough, gritty, sassy, populist” Depression years and the spread of a new vocabulary. Though it may lack a certain gravitas, the highest form of praise in line with this lingo can be handily borrowed from this chapter of history and applied to Marcus' and Sollors' admirable anthology to mark its nonetheless accessible and informative quality: “It’s Swell!”

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