Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A New Literary History of the United States in Literature

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/23/09 at 01:24 PM

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.

(x-posted.)


Comments

Jesus. Bercovitch reaches Washington Irving and James Fenimore Coope on page 700+. That’s some slogging.

By on 09/23/09 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: