Home » Fiction, history, Politics & History

Have You Seene Me?

By (December 1, 2009) No Comment

The New Literary History of America

Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollers
Harvard University Press, 2009

As a theme in literature, family resemblances are ill-adapted to the American story. Consider for a moment two very un-American novels, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. At critical points in each novel, the heroines Tess and Esther, both of mysterious lineage, encounter portraits of aristocratic forebears, artifacts that become incontrovertible evidence – tragically for Tess, bittersweetly for Esther – of the identity they must eventually claim. You are your ancestry; you wear your past just as certainly as you wear your nose and mouth.

In the quintessential American narrative, by contrast, neither nature nor nurture can delineate your future, and the American character does better, or at least far differently, than his parents and ancestors. Huck Finn flees hundreds of miles downriver to avoid resembling either his father or his guardian the Widow Douglas. Lolita blazes, however briefly, with a firecracker intensity far hotter than her mother’s dishwater-temperature mawkishness. As if to underscore the difference between a Lolita and a Tess, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation begins with Humbert Humbert firing a round of bullets into an eighteenth-century-style portrait of a lady—loving Lolita means desecrating tradition.

This disavowal of the ancestral icons can make the American psyche feel orphaned and deprived of history. In American art museums, most holdings, particularly those more than 200 years old, come from other countries, as if suggesting that forebears must be imported to fill a cultural void. This same feeling of ancestral absence can make America’s stance towards the Old World seem hubristically adolescent. As if to keep ourselves from feeling either too lonely or self-congratulatory about our nation’s youthfulness and ex nihil-ism, American culture loves to appropriate the word “classic” for every realm of experience, from rock to Coca-Cola.

Rather than declaring either a new classic or a new iconoclasm, Greil Marcus and Werner Sollers’ New Literary History of America provides a more measured and scholarly response to the American condition: assembling the facts, the portraits, the stories, then allowing the contradictory impulses of self-definition and ancestral obligation to duke it out. Are we really like the Americans of 1776 (or 1476, or 1976) or have enough limbs been lopped off the family tree as to make us unrecognizable? This History gathers 220 points of view, creating such a chorus of competing claims, tones, and styles that the Table of Contents itself provides a working definition of what American-ness means.

At 1,104 pages, A New Literary History of America is a brashly doorstop-esque collection of short original essays by contemporary scholars, creative writers, and occasionally practitioners of other art forms. Most make excellent and provocative use of primary sources, but on the whole each contributor writes in his or her own words, using a particular year or date in history as impetus for rumination and argument about transformative moments in American history. I am not wholly at ease with the book’s title, though not because the word “literary” seems unjustified. Whether or not a given essay features a literary work, figure, or trend, no one has ever read or written in a vacuum, and any information about the context in which reading and writing has taken place must aid in our understanding of how people have interacted with and through literature. My problem with the title is that it is too self-deprecating, implying a limitation about the book’s content (“this is not the history of America, but only a literary history”) and that someone interested in American politics or visual art might pass this excellent book by.

Marcus and Sollers explain their definition of literary in their co-written introduction:

This book is a reexamination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass, where what is at issue is speech, in many forms…. 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. Thus this broadly cultural history – a history of America in which literary means not only what is written but also what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form. The focus is on the whole range of all those things that have been created in America, or for it, or because of it: poems, novels, plays, and essays, but also maps, histories, and travel diaries, sermons and religious tracts, public speeches and private letters, political polemics, addresses, and debates, Supreme Court decisions, literary histories and criticisms, folk songs, magazines, dramatic performances, the blues, philosophy, paintings and monuments, jazz, war memorials, museums, book clubs, photographs, comic strips and comic books, country music, films, radio, rock and roll, cartoons, musicals, and hip-hop: “Made in America.”

Greil Marcus (center) and Werner Sollors (right) in the Humanities Center
in Harvard University; photo by Jon Chase

As inventive and grandly embracing as this mission statement is, it is much more fun, and ultimately more convincing, to deduce for oneself that which is truly literary about this volume. One of my favorite examples appears in John Diggins’ essay on John Adams’ political writings: “Democracy is Lovelace, and the people are Clarissa,” Adams wrote, making a metaphor from Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa. For those who don’t remember Richardson’s runaway hit of 1748, Adams goes on to explain that “the artful villain [Lovelace] will pursue the innocent young girl [Clarissa] to her ruin and death.” The story helps clarify his political ideology, while also assuring readers that the stodgy Adams is alive to popular culture and occasionally has time for more than advancing the Federalist position. We may think of the interest taken in John McCain and Barack Obama’s iPod playlists during the 2008 campaign, or the much-touted claim that George W. Bush reads the Bible cover-to-cover every year. Information about a politician’s mental canon of books, songs, and other miscellanea has always piqued, and sometimes swayed, public opinion – we want to know which stories they know, in order to guess at the tastes and convictions these stories have furnished.

Other connections between general history and literary history are not explicitly argued by the essayists but are nonetheless tantalizing to the overactive imagination: John Wilkes Booth was born in America because of his father’s ambitions as a Shakespearean actor, so haven’t American history and literary history been indissoluble at least since April 14, 1865? Not that the two had never entwined before – surely Elizabethan paeans to brave new worlds had moved, figuratively and literally, many an emigrant. Yet one could say that the greatest English poet obliquely caused the death of the greatest American president. Another odd link between poetry and assassination happens in reverse some 200 years later: President Kennedy’s assassination, according to a sensitive essay by Peter Sacks, partly caused Robert Lowell’s nervous breakdown in December 1963, which in turn partly contributed to a newer, more urgent style for Lowell, a mood and voice tied either to “a death-rope or a life-line,” he couldn’t say which. The disquieting insistence of his verse, along with the searing cultural critique it contains – “a savage servility / slides by on grease” is an especially upsetting example – changed future generations of poets and non-poets, altering the way one speaks or reads about America. Thus the death of another president obliquely causes the expansion and refreshing of American letters.

Sacks’ entry ends like a good essay, with a thump and a shiver: “One can almost feel the monster nosing forward, back on the prowl.” Other contributors have a similarly skillful way with narrative, pacing, and voice, balancing their work in an intelligent middle space between essay and anecdote. Another category of contributors seems not to have attempted things like arc or verve, and many entries end so abruptly and without the usual stylistic gestures toward conclusion that I began to wonder how clear Marcus’ and Sollers’ directions to their contributors were. It is as if some writers interpreted their task as an essayistic one, while others aimed for something between an encyclopedia entry and an outsized footnote. Whatever the writers thought they were doing, it seems that the editors did little to streamline the various entries’ styles, and that editing on the level of argument structure was minimal.

Since there are far too many contributors on both ends of the spectrum to name, it seems unfair to single out a few contributors for an overly scholastic prose or a lack of narrative ambition; a random (and not exhaustive) sampling of the more lively stylists would include Adam Goodheart (on John Smith, “a runty man, tough as a leather strap”), Douglas McGrath (on Preston Sturges), T.J. Clark (on Jackson Pollock), Michael Tolkin (on Alcoholics Anonymous), and Greil Marcus himself (on Moby-Dick, on Richard Powers, and with Sollers on Hurricane Katrina).

Tolkin’s opening is ingenious, cutting and pasting passages from the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” amidst passages of 1930s hardboiled prose to show their stylistic similarities, and ultimately to argue that such bleak terseness is more than shtick but rather the correlative of a pathologically desperate modernity. Here is his textual collage:

I’d been sitting comfortably in a restaurant with Rita, drinking my sixth martini and hoping the waiter would forget about the lunch order – at least long enough for me to have a couple more.1 My glass was empty. I asked her what she would have to drink, she said Scotch and soda, I ordered two of them.2

“He’s a swell man,” she said dispassionately, “when he’s sober; and when he’s drinking he’s all right except with women and money.”3

I didn’t say anything and McCary sat down and took out a bottle of whisky. He poured a couple of drinks.

I nodded. We drank.4

“How do you like your brandy, sir?”

“Any way at all,” I said.

“What are your charges?”

“I get twenty-five dollars a day, plus expenses.”5

I knew I wasn’t capable of keeping the bulk of the money myself, so I gave it to a white fellow who owned the bar I frequented. He kept the money for me, but I worried him to death for it. Finally, I broke the last one hundred dollar bill the Saturday before I left. I got out of that bill one pair of shoes, and the rest of that money was blown. I took the last of it to buy my railroad ticket.6

For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way. I had arrived.7

[1 “Women Suffer Too,” Alcoholics Anonymous (1939), 2 The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett (1934), 3 “Too Many Have Lived,” Hammett (1932), 4 “Black,” Paul Cain (1932), 5 The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler (1939), 6 “Jim’s Story,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 7 “Bill’s Story,” Alcoholics Anonymous.]

Another startling and brilliant use of quotation appears in Daniel Albright’s essay on Gertrude Stein, as he observes and explains the meter latent in Hemingway’s prose. Hemingway writes:

I’d come back and sit down beside him and he’d pull a rope out of his pocket and start skipping rope out in the sun with the sweat pouring off his face and him skipping rope out in the white dust with the rope going cloppetty, cloppetty, clop, clop, clop, and the sun hotter, and him working harder up and down a patch of the road.

And then Albright writes:

This sentence is so alliterative and so paratactic, its sentence construction so full of subordinate clauses, that it could be rearranged into Old Germanic verse:

I’d come back and sit down beside him
And he’d pull a rope out of his pocket
And start skipping rope out in the sun
With the sweat pouring off his face and him skipping rope
Out in the white dust with the rope going
cloppetty, cloppetty clop, clop, clop
and the sun hotter and him working harder
up and down a patch of the road.

This is less a description of a man skipping rope than a verbal incarnation of a man skipping rope. The sentence shapes itself intimately to the jumpy, first accelerating, then tiring rhythm of the exercise. Where did Hemingway learn this trick of experimenting with the plasticity of parataxis to create peculiar sentence rhythms? Not from reading Old Germanic, but from close attention to Stein’s prose.

A New Literary History is scrupulous about including the histories of American communities traditionally underrepresented in grand narratives about the American story. One of the most intriguing and poignant examples is Ted Widmer’s essay on a Narragansett-English dictionary and phrasebook written by Roger Williams in 1643. Though written by a white settler, A Key Into the Language of America (which could have plausibly subtitled Marcus’ and Sollers’ volume), attempts not only to understand what the local population surrounding the small New England settlements was saying, but also to suggest that this understanding is incremental, nuanced, and as yet incomplete. “A little key may open a Box, where lies a bunch of keys,” wrote Williams. The act of understanding has only just begun. Widmer’s essay is interesting for its attempt to revise revisionism: “classic” American history tells of the white man’s triumphal westward march, the revisionist version calls attention to the condition of their non-white or non-male fellow Americans. Widmer points out that an intelligent white male settler could very well discern, and then publicize, quite a bit of sensitive and responsible knowledge about Native American culture. This puts both poles of the Westward Expansion narrative in a bind: tellers of the “classic” story cannot excuse whites on grounds of ignorance or misunderstanding, while revisionists must concede that sometimes a genuine effort was made to bridge the gap between two abutting worlds. Take this passage, for example:

To a striking degree, Williams also found in the Indians the businesslike qualities that the Englishmen prided themselves on. The Narragansetts like to hear the news, they kept their promises, they kept their appointments with him, and they understood very well the concept of property. As Williams wrote, “The Natives are very exact and punctuall, in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People.” This completely refuted the argument, advanced by John Winthrop and others, that America was a vacuum domicilium, a gigantic empty space that all Europeans were free to expand into as they saw fit.

Again, this was 1643. Widmer goes on to expand his claim for Williams:

In subtle ways, the Key is a feminist book. In numerous places Williams expresses his admiration for the courage and physical strength of native women, who work as hard or harder than the men and never complain under any circumstances, including childbirth. It also pulses with egalitarianism, as when, in a seemingly innocent meditation on the fur trade, Williams takes a perverse delight in inverting the idea of luxury: “What treasures are hid in some parts of America, and in our New English parts, how have foule hands (in smoakie houses) the first handling of those Furres which are after worne upon the hands of Queens and heads of Princes?”

Foule hands, indeed. Williams takes a delight in plumbing the many levels of implication beneath a word or a fur hat, not simply that which is immediately signified. There is, for example, his hyper-literal translation of a typical greeting in Narragansett, which could probably have been translated as something like “Hello again” but instead retains all its original strangeness and profundity:

Kunnunni: Have you seene me?
Kunnunnous: I have seene you.
Taubot mequaun namean: I thank you for your kind remembrance.

Sightings. Portraits. Much of American self-mythology trades in the allegedly never-before-seen, however spurious the claim. The girl who has no ancestral portraits to resemble, and whose face is therefore all her own. The privilege of naming mountains and canyons which goes to the “first” to lay eyes on them, however many cultures have already dwelt alongside them. And then there is a competing strain in the myth: to craft an ancestry where the actual past is nonexistent, indecipherable, or undesirable. Marcus and Sollers do commendable work in avoiding either extreme, showing a messy, plural, and complex America, full of possible pantheons but never allowing any to become too stable or too supreme. The portrait’s on the wall, but it’s still being painted, too. Better lay some newspaper on the floor.

Laura Kolbe has written for the Harvard Book Review and the Oxonian Review. She lives in New York City.

Follow us on Twitter

Join the Open Letters facebook page!

Return to the Main Page