Harvard University Press's major new tome, A New Literary History of America, is getting significant publicity—both praise and controversy. Edited by the Harvard scholars Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, with its own Web site and a kickoff party in Cambridge featuring symposia on aspects of the book, it's a 1,122-page collection of essays that unpack cultural topics broadly defined—not just literature, high and low, but the Salem witch trials, W.E.B. Du Bois and his relation to Booker T. Washington, J.F.K.'s inaugural, Linda Lovelace's Ordeal, the screenplay as genre, Alcoholics Anonymous. It is history, literature, art criticism, and more, all rolled into one. The Chronicle Review asked Mark Bauerlein and Priscilla Wald to discuss the project via e-mail. Sollors then comments on the dialogue.
Thank you for joining me in this conversation about Harvard's volume. It's an important publication, with 12 other scholars on the editorial board listed opposite the title page and more than 200 contributors, along with a complex genesis in an exploratory seminar and advanced seminar that whittled down the content to what we have here. The format is unusual: 200 or so brief original essays arranged chronologically, but each forming an independent unit.
The topics range across literature, comic books, boxing matches, movies, witch hunts circa 1692 and 1952, lynching, cybernetics, Ronald Reagan, and integrating the military. Entries flow in jumpy sequence—for instance, one on the telephone leading to one on Charles Sanders Peirce's pragmatism to one on John Muir touring Alaska. The approaches vary from straightforward history ("In 1649, the Puritan dissenters in England overthrew the monarchy and executed King Charles I.") to casual description ("Ahab is always out there, with the whale ahead of him and Ishmael always along for the ride.") to vatic pronouncement ("'Made in America'—America made. In many ways, the story that comes together in the pieces of this book is that of people taking up the two elemental American fables—the fable of discovery and the fable of founding."). We may come back to the many efforts of lyricism in the text, which don't often scale the intended heights.
The book has no party line, the editors maintain, and it welcomes "truly contradictory perspectives," although certain standard American-studies motifs and attitudes do arise again and again, particularly a focus on racial, sexual, and other group identities that sometimes reaches the point of fixation. Nobody will read the book cover to cover, but the editors tell us that "the reader might select entries from the table of contents or from the headlines that appear in front of each essay," using the book as a reference work when occasions arise.
I come to the discussion as an outsider, having participated not at all in any collective projects in our field, while you are editor of its flagship journal, American Literature. The volume is so copious and heterogeneous that the discussion could head in a number of directions, and it's tempting to poke into this or that entry, but let me start with some general observations.
Who would ever believe that the latest grand literary history of America would end with George W. Bush on a bogus photo-op trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and a series of silhouettes on the election of Barack Obama sprinkled with phrases like "WTF?! No, not 'World Trade Federation' Nor 'White Tyranny Forever' Nor 'Who's That Fellow?' BUT 'What the ----?'"
It's a strange conclusion that strikes casual readers as a gratuitous assertion of contempt of W and the outrage of whitey, but it raises a broad question of focus. Apart from the ideological tenor, some readers may wonder why such entries belong in a literary history. That is a naïve question within the academic ranks, of course, for literary history is a dead activity. It's all cultural history now, and the old high/low distinctions are gone, too. Here, Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat fame gets approximately as many words as Elizabeth Bishop; Chuck Berry more than Hart Crane. Enough said on that.
The old Master Narratives and Concepts have no place either—American Adam, Symbolism, and American Literature, etc.—except for one. It resounds in the beginning, where the editors explain why entries proliferate after the Civil War: They note that "the story of the United States becomes a story of previously disenfranchised, despised, degraded, excluded, enslaved, brutalized, and even unspeakable Americans claiming their place as full citizens, demanding not only the right to speak but the right to be heard, remaking the country as surely as any before them, and, in novels, poems, paintings, speeches, and acts, judging it as it had never been judged before."
That angle, emotional and partisan as it is, calls for judgment. It seems to me a loaded approach, overemphasizing the victims, conceived in resentment, aggrandizing one kind of American experience and excluding others from the story. With two-thirds of the volume following the disenfranchised-franchised pattern, this isn't a literary history of America. It's a drama of multiculturalist emergence.
When the poet of union Abraham Lincoln stood before the crowd at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg, he called not for a renewal or even a rebirth, but for "a new birth of freedom." His narrative of the nation returned not to the contested terms of the Constitution, but to the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence. His biblical construction brought a mythic air to the narrative that paradoxically marked legacy and rupture. This is a creation story.
Lincoln made brilliant use of the literariness of history, and that literariness is where Marcus and Sollors begin their work. In her review for Salon, Laura Miller calls their book "not so much a history of our literature" as "a literary version of our history, told through the culture we've created to recount our past and conjure our future." But Marcus and Sollors start from the premise that those projects are mirror images. Their literary history shows how history is produced through narrative and how it comprises events and always changing stories, which both record and interpret.
Literary history is not at all a dead activity. Genres, like disciplines, are dynamic, as is the concept of the literary. My students in the early 1990s wondered why they were reading Jefferson and Lincoln in a literature class, yet both figures saw themselves as men of letters. Forms and media mutate in response to the changing story of the past. The questions of when, why, and how to fashion a new and very literary history motivate Marcus and Sollors. The last two chapters of A New Literary History offer insight into those questions. Where you see "George W. Bush on a bogus photo-op trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina," I see a moment of crisis that signals a profound need for reflection, and which calls precisely for literary history.
The penultimate chapter, "New Orleans Lost in the Flood," written by Marcus and Sollors, begins with a lyrical journey through a series of literary floods. New births. New Orleans in turn "becomes a mirror, the face of the nation itself … the face the nation faces, or the face from which the nation turns away." Katrina was an "event in which every word turned into poetry," which is to say that it became literary history. The chapter ends with Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu's realization that the work she had seen the Army Corps of Engineers begin had been stage-managed for a television audience. It is as much a literary realization as a political one, or rather a moment that illustrates their connection: "She had seen the country, the United States of America in all its power, seen it plain, read its symbols, saw its history, her history, playing out before her eyes, past and present. She had seen the country, and saw it disappear." She had seen the textuality—the literariness—of the nation. The disappearance that she sees is precisely what gives the flood its biblical proportions and signals the time for a new beginning.
It would be difficult to deny the momentousness of Obama's election, but it is much too soon even to begin to grasp the many ways in which it will change the story of America. Hence the bold decision to turn to images in the last chapter of the volume—even more, to Kara Walker's silhouettes commemorating the election. The silhouette is an outline, a hint of a form, a reminder to be suspicious of the possibility of knowing the whole story. The first four silhouettes, documenting the anticipation of and response to the election by African America, include more verbal dialogue than is typical of Walker's work, as though she, too, is (conspicuously) struggling with her own tools of representation. The subsequent four-panel layout depicts black struggle and achievement amid a legacy of violence, and the volume concludes with a silhouette framed by words of hope lifted from a book by the 44th president of the United States: "and hope—became our story, my story: the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this."
We both see a "drama of multiculturalist emergence," but we see it very differently. Where you see a story that centers on victims, resentment, and exclusion, I see a literary history that is very much in the spirit of inclusion that has characterized literary histories of the past several decades. In the phrase you excerpt, the editors characterize a period that begins in the mid-19th century with Irish immigration. Is the demand to speak (evidenced in unprecedented literary production) not a responsible description of that moment? Is it not the ideal expressed in the Civil War amendments, not to say the Gettysburg Address?
This volume includes a range of voices expressed in a variety of media and forms, and the drama it stages to my eyes resembles something more like a Bakhtinian carnival than the morality play you describe.
To be honest, I think you make a deeper and fairer case than I did for the narrative orientation of A New Literary History and the entries I mentioned. I may disagree over the impact of the silhouettes or whether Senator Landrieu really "reads" the symbols of America, but your explanations go further than my admitted recoil.
Your points about the literary quality of Marcus/Sollors and many contributors likewise prompts further reflection, but here I find that the closer we look, the weaker the approach of the volume gets. For one of its features is the frequent slide of prose into poetic amplification. Your citation is a good example: "the face of the nation itself … the face the nation faces."
So is the succession of metaphors on Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech campaigning for Barry Goldwater: "Reagan opens the speech jumping out at the bell, a boxer … throwing roundhouse rights." "Reagan throws down the gauntlet." "Having performed these holy rituals, he delivers the liturgical condemnation of Evil."
And so is this on Frederick Douglass: "Having transcended the Garrisonian framing of his identity, he is yet caught within the symbolic logic of his own identity formation, constantly refashioning his story in relation to present contexts—platform and plantation are held together in a symbolic juxtaposition that signifies the relationship between past and present that underlies the oration."
Here we have language striving for lyricism—and lapsing into sententiousness. Descriptions sound forced and coercive, as if the author is dragging you into an affect. The angle of vision comes through overmuch. It happens in fewer than half the entries, by my count, but when it does, it indicates a certain inflation of purpose, one that sometimes yields a tiresome self-involvement. Indeed, we learn from Patricia Cohen's review, in The New York Times, that one adviser wanted to include this very literary history as an entry in the book!
Most of the time, circumstances don't hold up the rhetoric, and the rhetoric can't sustain itself. When, in her entry on Norman Mailer, Mary Gaitskill speaks of herself in the third person and declares, in a section titled "Private," "The only other person who had aroused such feelings in her before was Lyndon Johnson, whose ugly, profound, helplessly emotional face had made her feel like crying for reasons she could not understand," the old lyric comes to mind: "I should care—but it just doesn't get me."
I found the writing to be a particular strength of the collection, partly because it is so varied. The choice of editors signals from the outset a different kind of literary history. Sollors is known for his pioneering work on ethnic American literature, and Marcus for his music journalism and cultural criticism. Not surprisingly, the editors chose a wide assortment of contributors, including academics from a range of fields and disciplines, creative writers, and even visual artists. The result is the Bakhtinian carnival I referred to in my last post—a carnival of style, voice, and topic.
The guiding principle of the volume seems to be that literary history is prismatic. You and I might find we disagree on what is lyrical and what is sententious. Tastes vary. For example, I think Joshua Clover writes especially lyrically on Bob Dylan. That is the kind of entry that might initially seem surprising—at least unconventional—in a literary history. But Clover's Dylan is a fantastic lens into a turning point of literary history. Dylan's "apotheosis is an index of perhaps the most singular fact concerning 'the literary' in the post-World War II era: the accelerating collapse of high and popular art into a seemingly homogeneous sphere of 'culture.'" Clover gives us Dylan the artist as well as Dylan the culture hero (or villain). He knows the art and the artistic tradition and shows how the bad boy with the electric guitar worked traditional folk forms like the ballad through surrealism and social realism into an "exhausted mania." Dylan appears in these pages because of what he crystallizes: "To name Dylan as an American artist is to find in him the Scottish highlands and Paris's la vie bohème; to capture his contemporaneity is to notice he is made of history, and makes it in turn." Like Dylan, Clover is steeped in tradition in ways that make artistic innovation possible—and that lesson seems to me to be at the heart of this volume.
Once again, I have to agree with you. The Dylan entry is well written, and it ventures on stylized expressions that reverberate (speaking of "the totality as a big nothing," Clover goes on, "In Dylan this is the threat; in Warhol the promise"). We shouldn't single out the solecisms and ignore the elegancies. With "a wide assortment of contributors," an uneven performance is inevitable.
But that isn't the only danger. The quality of the history itself is in trouble. Facts have to be right and descriptions accurate. A quick survey of one area in which I have some research experience inspires little confidence in the rest.
Arnold Rampersad pens one on "The Problem of the Color Line" that draws the standard opposition of Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Du Bois. It turns out to be a faulty story. Rampersad terms Washington's Atlanta Compromise speech an argument for "voluntary black subordination." But what of the aggressive threat to white people also in the speech, which Rampersad doesn't mention? Black people, Washington wrote, "shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic."
After summarizing Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery, Rampersad announces, "To W.E.B. Du Bois, Washington's gospel was heresy." But when the book appeared, Du Bois reviewed it favorably. As for Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Rampersad says, "the result was to break educated black Americans into two camps."
Wrong. In fact, there were already two camps, Bookerites and anti-Bookerites, the latter centered in Boston (led by William Monroe Trotter). When Souls came out, Du Bois was somewhere in the middle, and Washington shrugged off his criticisms as long as Du Bois remained independent. Indeed, three months after the book appeared, Du Bois was a visiting instructor at the Tuskegee Institute and a guest at Washington's dinner table. The break started several months later, over a misunderstanding in which it appeared that Du Bois was taking Trotter's side (he wasn't) in a fracas over an event headlined by Washington that Trotter attended.
Another entry that mentions Washington is Richard Powers's on the memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, dedicated in 1897, to the white Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the first black regiment in the Civil War, which he commanded. Powers claims that during that time, "Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings took hold."
Wrong. In the 1890s, the Klan did not exist. The first version had been outlawed by the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, and it did not reorganize until 1915, in a midnight ceremony on top of Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, partly inspired by D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation.
Those are not insignificant errors, and they raise the question of whether the literary or "Bakhtinian carnival" aspect of the volume lowers here and there the historiographical bar.
Literary histories are about context, and you have taken phrases out of context. Your quarrel with Rampersad's characterization of both Washington's speech and the relationship between Du Bois and Washington is a question of interpretation rather than historical inaccuracy. As you note, Rampersad's is the standard one. You challenge his description of the speech as a call for "voluntary black subordination" and summon a line that you read as an "aggressive threat to white people." Washington argues in his speech that "there is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all." Where you see a threat, I see astute political analysis: No state can sustain the problems that emerge when it hinders the development of its human resources. If you see a more pointed threat in the speech, you may, if you can support the claim, have material for the next new literary history, but not evidence that throws the whole project in doubt.
Similarly, in his depiction of Washington and Du Bois's relationship, Rampersad follows the standard historical line. In The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois, Rampersad can offer a nuanced account of the relationship, but a short entry for a literary history requires different choices. Here he offers a concise account of the challenge to Washington's social and political strategy that Souls marked and inspired. Even if it was not the very first sign of a break among educated black Americans, and even if the absolute rupture between the men would come later, Souls portended a major turning point in their relationship and in black politics generally. If you disagree with that statement, then again, I think you might have more grist for your own new literary history.
Your juxtaposition of Rampersad's and Powers's pieces nicely illustrates the varied approaches of the volume that I have been celebrating. While Rampersad chooses to crystallize an important moment in literary history, Powers opts to meditate on the project of memorializing. Of the famous battle in which Shaw was killed and his regiment suffered huge casualties, Powers writes, "Militarily, the assault ranks among the war's most futile actions. Politically, it became one of the Union's greatest triumphs." Powers offers the statue as, in effect, an analogue for (literary) history: As we document the past, we revise it and, in the process, register our own continuing struggles. Designed to celebrate "the long-denied goal of democratic brotherhood," the statue barometrically records the legacy of slavery in the tenacious racism that characterized successive but not successful attempts to acknowledge not just Shaw, but also the heroic men whom he commanded.
Washington noticed the problem, and, as Powers notes, warned that the monument would "stand for effort, not victory complete." The line that troubles you concludes a paragraph in which Powers uses the representational failure of the statue to catalog the analogous failures of the nation: "In the interests of hollow national unity, the North looked away as Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings took hold." The years following the dedication of the statue witnessed continuing legal racism and mob violence as well as the ascendancy of white supremacist, paramilitary hate groups. They bore sad witness to Washington's prophecy: The work was only beginning. Powers ends this moving and insightful essay by distinguishing between "the monumental," from which the sculpture "demands" that we emerge, and "common memory," a distinction that I see motivating this literary history.
Perhaps I'm quibbling. And yet. …
In his entry, Rampersad points out that Du Bois questioned Washington's policy of the tactical subordination of black people, but Du Bois praised it, too, stating in 1901 in The Dial, "It is no ordinary tribute to this man's tact and power, that, steering as he must amid so many diverse interests and opinions, he today commands not simply the applause of those who believe in his theories, but also the respect of those who do not." No "heresy" there, and a few months later he invited Washington to the annual conferences he arranged at Atlanta University.
And in Powers's discussion of the Shaw memorial, apart from references to the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, his statement that "the North looked away" as race violence escalated overlooks the many outcries and debates in newspapers, magazines, organizations, the courts, and Congress over, precisely, Jim Crow and lynch law—ineffective as those outcries and debates were.
But I won't belabor the point, and maybe you're right that it asks for too much nuance from a short essay in an encyclopedic venture. Instead, let me close with a final word on literary history.
You said previously, "Literary history is not at all a dead activity." I wish I could agree, but just a few days ago there appeared a monumental piece of evidence to the contrary. It's the Core Standards Project, sponsored by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The project amounts to setting national standards for English and math for grades K-12, and 51 states and territories, along with the Obama administration, have joined in. (I was part of the project's "feedback committee.")
The English result strongly correlates with reading comprehension, but look through the document and you'll find not a whisper of literary history. Nothing on periods, movements, history of the language, or social, political, or any other context, and certainly no canon or recommended-reading list. That means that ever more students will enter our classrooms with little background knowledge and no sense of the "story" or "stories" of British and American literature. Their literary historical knowledge will be increasingly scattered and random.
Unfortunately, the Harvard tome does nothing to counter that trend. Literary history in secondary classrooms is a fragmented and idiosyncratic endeavor, and A New Literary History of America is too. For those who come to it with a firm grounding in American literature, the volume illuminates and entertains, but for the not-so-well-read, it looks like a sparkling but flighty gathering of scholarly thoughts, some edifying and some self-involved. You single out a "common memory" as a motivation for this literary history, but it seems to me that this "carnival" of perspectives, voices, experiences, approaches, styles, opinions, and materials prevents precisely that outcome.
Does K-12 public education in this country need overhauling? You bet. I share your concern that documents like the Core Standards Project show that we're emphasizing skills that we think we can measure over knowledge, literacy, and interpretive skills, which are more difficult to quantify. I think we agree that we need to engage with the rich artistic and cultural productions of the past to appreciate the traditions and innovations of the present. We also agree on the importance of a historical overview, which our discipline offers in survey classes and anthologies, including the Norton and the Heath. But we seem to disagree on the nature of the project and achievement of the Marcus/Sollors volume.
I think our most pointed disagreements have emerged from differences in how we're thinking about history. Throughout our exchanges, I have been commending the volume for its vision of history and its historical vision, and in this last post I'll expand on that.
Richard Powers's distinction between monumental and common memory put me in mind of Walter Benjamin's formulation that "to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was'" but "to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger." For him, "a historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one." The flood in the penultimate chapter of A New Literary History of America marks a moment of danger. Summoning other (literary) floods, Marcus and Sollors offer a paradigm for their literary history.
The chronological organization of the volume allows readers to see the unfolding of events and ideas and the progression of literary forms, figures, and innovations. It offers an overview of the unfolding stories that compose the past. But the entries also function as individual vignettes, moments in time that readily form connections to other vignettes and help the reader see constellations among eras. Marcus and Sollors write, "Throughout, the search has been for 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.
The goal of the book is not to smash a canon or create a new one, 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." An overview, but not a monolithic narrative of the past.
The volume encourages an active engagement with the project of history—that is, of seeing connections and making sense of the past. It is a project that seems to me very much in the spirit of Benjamin.
Werner Sollors comments:
I was asked to add a few hundred words to your chat about A New Literary History of America, a book I had the pleasure to coedit with Greil Marcus and that the two of you obviously read very carefully, for which I am grateful indeed.
The ideal readers we and our contributors from the United States and abroad had in mind were not only academic specialists looking at the topics they know most about, but also teachers, students, and that elusive "general reader": curious people anywhere in the world who might be interested in finding out new things in short and provocative essays that captivate their attention, fresh comments on American writers from Roger Williams and Edward Taylor to Dorothy Parker and Saul Bellow, and surprising observations about literature's broader cultural contexts—the early journalism of Benjamin Franklin and Philip Freneau and the political texts of Jefferson, Washington, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan; the origins of Pentecostalism and Alcoholics Anonymous and the art of Audubon or Pollock, to the music of Dylan (you both rightly praise Joshua Clover's essay) and Hank Williams (presented by Dave Hickey).
A common mode of teaching is to let students think of any work as a given to be taken apart in class, but we wanted to focus on the process of making, to encourage readers to wonder how works were created, at times as a result of unpredictable historical and biographical circumstances. It seemed best to accomplish that with good writing; hence we asked numerous well-known contemporary American writers to participate. You both mentioned the novelist Richard Powers's wonderful essay on the Shaw monument, and it connects nicely with those of more than 30 other writers thinking about American poetry (Paul Muldoon on Carl Sandburg), fiction (Gish Jen about Catcher in the Rye) or styles (Walter Mosley and "hard-boiled"). The book can thus be said to be both primary and secondary literature.
We wanted to keep literature at the center but include works in all genres: not just prose fiction (which has become the preferred genre of contemporary American studies), but also drama, poetry, essay, autobiography, nonfiction, with some examples of writing in languages other than English. More than that, the notion of "made in America" opened up the possibility to examine selected examples of a much broader array of subjects than some other American literary histories, and not merely as backdrop for literature in the high-cultural sense but as central topics in the shaping of American expression. Hence there are essays on religious tracts and sermons, children's books, public speeches and private letters, political polemics, addresses and debates, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, maps, histories, travel diaries, philosophical writing, literary criticism, folk songs, magazines, dramatic performances, the blues, philosophy, paintings and monuments, prints, jazz, war memorials, museums, the built environment, book clubs, photographs, country music, films, radio, rock and roll, cartoons, technological inventions and innovations, pornography, cultural rituals, sports, and hip-hop. Larry McMurtry perceptively commented in The New York Review of Books on the power of American speech that comes across in the book and on the linkages among different forms of expression that the book pinpoints.
Two earlier one-volume literary histories from Harvard provided organizational models for us. Denis Hollier's A New History of French Literature (1989) had introduced a kind of chronological arrangement of single essays using an often arbitrarily chosen date and a tag line as hooks (for example, "1922, November 18 Death of Marcel Proust, Death and Literary Authority"), and David E. Wellbery and Judith Ryan's A New History of German Literature (2004) had expanded the notion of texts and works that could be included as literature (with essays on Hitler's Mein Kampf, Edgar Reitz's film Heimat, and the fall of the Berlin Wall); both volumes settled on fresh, provocatively short essays. Hollier and Wellbery kept intact a chronological order in print arrangement but circumvented the problems of exhaustive narrative coverage by breaking up the story line into essays that invite the reader to feel free to ignore that sequence and make fresh connections.
Each of the 219 essays in A New Literary History of America is only 2,500 words long but tells a story—be it of T.S. Eliot's becoming an Englishman while D.H. Lawrence turns into "an American writer" or of identifying "the plight of conservative literature." Arranging well-told and highly readable essays chronologically creates, as you say, "not a monolithic narrative of the past," but many possible story lines, surprising temporal connections (yes, in "jumpy sequence"), "unfolding stories that comprise the past" as well as new "constellations among eras." If upon finishing an essay a reader has become more curious about its subject and turns to the work, looks at the film, or listens to the tune at hand, then our literary history will have done its job. "The volume encourages an active engagement with the project of history—that is, of seeing connections and making sense of the past." I could not have said it better than you, Priscilla.
Werner Sollors is a professor of literature and African and African-American studies at Harvard University.