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A (great big) New Literary History of America

Posted by Christopher Shea  August 26, 2009 03:30 PM

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To mark the imminent publication of the massive "A New Literary History of America," Harvard University Press has unveiled a comparably ambitious (not to mention deftly designed) Web site, complete with sample entries, interviews with the book's editors (the writer Greil Marcus and the Harvard literature professor Werner Sollors), and videotaped remarks by the Harvard press editor behind the project.

"Modestly, what I'm trying to do is to transform the humanities," says Harvard Press's Lindsay Waters.

Certainly, the new book, which weighs in at 1,128 pages, represents a rethinking of the awkward genre of literary history, which can fall disappointingly between the cracks of straight criticism and narrative history, devolving into a dull recitation of author bios and conventional literary wisdom. With the help of an editorial board, Marcus and Sollors settled on 216 artworks (film and painting as well as texts), authors, movements, and cultural artifacts that help answer the question, "What is America?" Emerson, Melville, Dickinson, and Faulkner are in there, to be sure, but so are the Winchester rifle, "Steamboat Willie," Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," Alcoholics Anonymous, and Linda Lovelace (the star of the pornographic film "Deep Throat," who later said she'd been raped during its filming).

"Many essays zoom in on a moment when something emerged," Sollors writes on the Web site, "be it the phrases 'City on a Hill,' "All Men Are Created Equal," or "Nobody's Perfect," be it an Ojibwe children's rhyme about a firefly, a slave narrative, or a drip painting, be it the detective story, the art of telephony, or 'the birth of the cool.'"

The dozens of contributors include academic mainstays like Sollors and his Harvard colleagues Stephen Burt and Lawrence Buell, but also the novelists Jonathan Lethem and Gish Jen, and the radio essayist and nonfiction writer Sarah Vowell.

The essays are organized chronologically -- the table of contents is a sort of timeline--but there's no broader effort to link them. Nor was comprehensiveness in the coverage of authors a goal.

Marcus's essay on "Moby Dick," available on the site, gives a sampling of the new book's freewheeling, omnivorous approach:

There is the way the whole first section of the book, until the Pequod sets sail, is a nonstop comedy, Ishmael first as Bob Hope in Road to Utopia, then as Abbott running an outrageous who's-on-first routine with his New Bedford--innkeeper Costello, then Ishmael's one-night stand with the tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg turning into at least a two-night marriage--but not before proving, in a set of syllogisms so precise you don't even care where they're leading, that it is a Christian's duty to worship a pagan idol.

Such prose (the breeziness, the departure from textual analysis into pop-culture analogies) will inevitably find detractors as well as praise. But it will be a welcome change if a "literary history," for once, stirs up a little dust.

(The book's rollout includes a two-day symposium at Harvard's Barker Center for the Humanities, September 25 and 26.)

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