Friday, March 22, 2013

A NEW LITERARY HISTORY OF AMERICA, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

Neither a narrative history nor, strictly speaking, a reference book, this cinderblock-tall, dictionary-thick collection of essays (each averaging 4-5 pages) vies with The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry as the ultimate lit-geek occasional book. (An 'occasional book' is exactly what it looks like: a book to be dipped into occasionally, read randomly and desultorily, a few pages at a time.) Readers seeking a traditional narrative history of American literature should try Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury's From Puritanism to Postmodernism, which ably covers most of the bases, outlining the overall shape of our country's literature and how that shape has changed over time. Marcus and Sollors take all of that as read and give us a massive, chronologically arranged compendium of essays by various writers and scholars on topics ranging from the poetry of Walt Whitman to Bell's telephone, from Lolita to Miles Davis, from Cortes' conquest of Mexico to hardboiled prose to hiphop to Hurricane Katrina. This format creates an unavoidable unevenness--some of the essays are merely competent--but the highpoints of this collection are very high indeed: novelist Richard Powers on Saint-Gaudens' Shaw monument; Mary Gaitskill on Norman Mailer; Ilan Stavans on the amazing journey of Cabeza de Vaca; a standout essay on the naming of America; Ishmael Reed's contentious take on Huckleberry Finn; T. J. Clark on Jackson Pollock; Sollors on The Sound and the Fury; an analysis of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address; the art of Bob Dylan; the decline of Ernest Hemingway. Of course there are blind spots, especially in the final 200 pages (no examination of 1990s 'gargantuan postmodernism' (Infinite Jest, The Tunnel, Mason & Dixon, Underworld); not even an index listing for 1980s minimalism (not my favorite ism, by any means, but still fairly important); no discussion of the impact of academicization and MFA programs), but the plenitude of what's here successfully distracts us (most of the time) from what's missing. All in all, Marcus and Sollors have compiled an exceptionally good book, a wunderkammer of America and its literatures. Keep it on your desk, your nightstand, beside your toilet if you're into Joyce. This heavy book is never less than enlightening.

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