- Americanists at Work and at Play
A New Literary History of America inherited its title from a series at Harvard University Press that already included A New History of German Literature and A New History of French Literature. This may be a small misfortune: among Americanists the title might conjure expectations and associations that have nothing to do with the genius of this volume—earlier histories by Robert Spiller (1948) or Barrett Wendell (1901) or, conversely, the canon wars of the past several decades that seem to have ploughed these works under. Others might be misled by the unabashed use of "America" to mean the United States—a vestige of precisely the past thinking that the volume in so many other ways cracks open and flees from. The enterprise here is "not to smash a canon or create a new one," as the editors write in their introduction, "but to set many forms of American speech in motion, so that different forms, and people speaking at different times in sometimes radically different ways, can be heard speaking to each other." The book is "a reexamination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass, where what is at issue is speech, in many forms" (xxiv). The hardest working word in the volume's title, then, is not "New" as a modifier of "Literary"—a "new" history of American letters—but "Literary" as a modifier of "History"—historiography that is literary. Culture wars of all sorts have receded into the past, the volume quietly assumes—we won. Melville and Hemingway share space with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Mamie Smith, and Dr. Seuss; get over it and move on. Rather, its calendrical approach (entries are keyed, not simply to authors and texts, but to specific events and moments in time), setting Moby-Dick and The Sun Also Rises on the same time line as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, The Wizard of Oz, "Strange Fruit," and Bob Dylan's homage to Woody Guthrie, aspires to nothing less than to take readers through "the matrix of American culture" (xxv), one dated entry at a time, from 1507 to 2008. [End Page 335]
Untying the knot of authorship, identifying a provenance of intellectual moods and inspirations, is of course perplexing in a collective enterprise such as this—its 201 contributors represent twenty-nine different disciplines or academic units, ranging from history and literature to gender studies, architecture, medicine, and law; and the roster also includes poets, novelists, critics, directors, artists, journalists, and screen writers. And then there is the work of Lindsay Waters at Harvard Press, and an academic editorial board of twelve. But there is a cohesiveness of spirit and vision in this collection that must be credited to Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors themselves, a scholarly temperament of experimentation, innovation, and, I want to say, joy that has marked their own work over several decades now and that, by my reading, has left a profound imprint across all thousand-plus pages of A New Literary History of America.
Their sensibilities are very much in evidence in Marcus and Sollors's own contributions to the collection. Marcus's piece on Moby-Dick (283-87) showcases his idiosyncratic, associational, thick citational, and always generative critical style, long familiar from works such as Mystery Train (1974) and Lipstick Traces (1989). His is a brand of historicism that is strangely unhinged from history itself; its depth lies in its fluidity and its crackling creativity, not in its fidelity to the chronoscopic mechanics of cause, effect, impetus, and force. Here, in making a case for the centrality of the white whale to American culture across time—indeed, the saturation of American culture by the mythos of the white whale—Marcus roves from Edmund Wilson to E. L. Doctorow, to the current war in Afghanistan, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth (and their Melvillian tendency to "implicate the reader as American" ), to the 1956 John Huston film of Moby-Dick, to The Democratic Review and Millard...