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Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009

Marcus, Sollors’ ‘New Literary History of America’

Anthology presents cultural vision, not new history of literature

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There are more than 200 essays in A New LiteraryHistory of America (Belknap Harvard), this part-madcap, part-inventive anthology that tries to redefine American literature. Roaming from the 16th century to the present, from the first appearance of “America” on a map (1507) to a predominantly visual entry regarding Barack Obama (2008), the content in this Greil Marcus/Werner Sollors-edited book is far-fetched and unexpected. Had it been titled and introduced differently, it might have been a greater accomplishment. However, that this book is not more appropriately called A Cultural Vision with Literatureas Meta-text marks it either as vainglorious or the result of not knowing where the literary aspects of anything begin or resolve.

Some topics are handled with unusually inventive analysis. Bob Dylan enters formally on page 904, but not as expected. “Song to Woody” is the chosen moment of stolen literary entry in an essay subtitled “The Common Language of an Almost-Remembered Country” set in 1962, but beginning with a passage from Dylan’s 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One: “Gutenberg could have been some guy who stepped out of a folk song…” The essayist immediately comments that “actual figures of history, and the phantasms of culture…[are both] characters in a mythical tableau that is not a different world at all, but…one in which myth is preserved, as real as the landlord.”

Each essay in this book takes an area of what either has been or is newly defined as literature, or, as in this Dylan entry, offers a surprising capture of redefinition.

The editors are careful to indicate that the essays are introduced only according to historical timeline, but say little else about redefinitions of the literary aspects of content. We understand the form of the book, but the content is not altogether much more than the creative writing of its contributors. Perhaps, in the final analysis, if there can be one, this book presents exceptionally creative authors.

The editors go on: “It is the task of this book to remind the reader of what is most familiar and to raise the specter of what remains out of sight—forgotten, suppressed, or biding its time.” Well, agreed. But let us not call it a history of American literature, or, if we do, there has to be competent theory or meta-theory with less random content due to the absence of any overall definition. Too much is left up to the imagination of even an ideal reader.

As one closes the book, and either tries to find a spot on the shelf for it or deploys it as a tool for flattening out fall leaves, there is no doubt at all that a new definition of American literature is necessary—but not this unnecessarily scattered work of bright, rather lost essayists united by editors who should have known better, and most certainly did. They did not find a new literary history of America. They merely lost the old one, and this is not enough.