Wednesday, September 23, 2009
A New Literary History of the United States in Literature
The publication of A New Literary History of the United States will likely strike a few chords familiar to the participants in the debate that followed Rohan’s latest post. Written neither in the Emory Elliot mode—a history of items both literary and American—nor that of Sacvan Bercovitch—a history all items written by Americans that can be yours for the low, low price of $299.29—editors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors instead decided to write a cultural history of the United States in a self-consciously literary voice. As Laura Miller at Salon* writes, the two
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.
This is, then, an anthology seemingly written to drive J.C. Hallman to drink, because it doggedly focuses on cultural significance over the literariness of the literary. However soul-deadening he might consider its subject matter, the manner in which most of it is written would likely meet with approval. Though idea-driven, the prose in Jonathan Lethem’s entry on Thomas Edison—in which he exclusively discusses the inventor’s place in film history—still sings:
To watch the Edison films now, and those of the other production companies that joined him in the earliest phase of the film industry, is to discover a portal peering both backward and forward in cultural time. Even the most assiduous film buffs tend to begin with Charlie Chaplin, who appeared as a performer and made his first pictures as a fledgling director in 1914, or D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation a year later. But the films that preceded those are as revelatory for their familiarity as their strangeness. Almost none presents a possibility that will fail to be exfoliated in the great boom to come, nor explores an avenue that runs anywhere but straight from the common cultural trove. A 120-second costumed Punch and Judy show like The Clown and the Alchemist (Edison Company, 1900), with its antic clown assisted in his abuses of the sententious alchemist by the use of stop-motion special effects, forms a lucid bridge between vaudeville and a Jim Carrey movie—The Mask, say. And watching the Selig Polyscope Company’s thirteen-minute 1910 version of The Wizard of Oz provides an uncanny sense of dislocation. Presenting a series of highlight moments derived from the popular stage version (adapted by L. Frank Baum, the novel’s author), the Selig Oz, in scenes of the Tin Man’s oiling, of the tale’s companions skipping arm in arm down a yellow brick road, and of the Wizard’s departure by balloon, seems a precognitive appropriation of gestures that would otherwise appear to wholly belong to Judy Garland and her 1939 compatriots. The viewer may be convinced that the medium’s real genius was for stopping American time, and for opening an interior eye on a cultural unconscious always rehearsing the same few dreams.
Mostly sings—sings more than academic prose normally does. Marcus’s entry on Moby Dick and Gish Jen’s on The Catcher in the Rye both do justice to their subjects in under 2,000 words, and by God, man, when someone edits Camille Paglia, she almost resembles the scholar she once was. That said, sustaining my enthusiasm for this sort of literary reevaluation of American history becomes difficult when I remember how quickly such endeavors seem dated. For example, one hundred years ago next year, Edwin Markham published a similarly self-conscious literary history of the United States, only then the regnant literary mode—in the literarily literary sense—was the historical romance, so the result sounded something like this:
Is it true that there is nothing new under the sun? Is not aerial navigation a new method of transportation? wireless telegraphy a new means of communication? Is not the plan of teaching authentic history through the medium of romance not only a new educational method, but a long step in advance of any hitherto employed?
History is laden with romance: why withhold it? No land is richer in material for song and story than our New World; its discovery is a tale of faerie, its discoverer a hero of enchantment. And—what is even more to the purpose—where is there a romantic character so satisfactorily interesting, where a creation of the imagination so humanly serviceable, as here? What finer inspiration can a boy have to lead him into manhood and uplift him through the long years of after life than that which glows in the career of this dreamer of a Dream?
It is not the purpose here to tell a new story: it has been told again and again, and the truth winnowed out from the chaff of unscrupulous biographers. But stress has been laid upon facts too commonly neglected, and characters lightly estimated have been given proper emphasis . . .
Here we may learn anew that while conservatism is necessary to hold what has been attained in our civilization, it is not from this that advancement comes; rather is it from the idealist, the man too little esteemed by those enthroned, that the impetus is gained which opens the way, not to one, but to many a new world . . .
That every care has been taken to maintain the highest standard of accuracy in historical dates, places, characters, and happenings, and to prevent confusion of romantic episode and historic event, need not be said: the tale which follows bears upon its face its own proof.
To the reader is left the pleasant duty of entering upon acquaintance, even to the point of intimacy, with a fellow-man, a fellow-American whose greatness was not for his own time or nation, but for all time and all mankind. Even as he is to bespeak your admiration for his marvelous, his unparalleled, achievement, so is he to make demands upon your tenderest sympathies for the troubles that beset him and the woes which encompassed him roundabout.
I’m not saying this new anthology will sound equally dated a century from now, but I’m not saying it won’t, either.
*I don’t know why all the entries Laura Miller mentioned in her review are available online, but given that Marcus and Paglia also write for Salon, it’s more likely a matter of behind-the-scenes cooperation than those-are-the-only-ones-Miller-read.
Jesus. Bercovitch reaches Washington Irving and James Fenimore Coope on page 700+. That’s some slogging.