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A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press Reference Library)
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99 of 109 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2009
This massive tome is intended to be a new direction in attempts at writing the literary history of America. There's no implication that this volume is complete in any sense, but rather it's a provocation. They're saying that Linda Lovelace is an important part of who we are today as Americans. (And the argument, talking about autobiography and memoir, rather than pornography, is fairly compelling.) And the "today" part is clearly understood by the editors and the authors. We can look up online, on a whim, a biography of Nathan Hale, a critique of Elvis's movies, or a sampling of what was popular fiction in 1850. Wikipedia and Google are our friends. A book like this therefore needs to be very different. I doesn't need to include the fight over the publication of "Howl" and can analyze the importance of Dr. Seuss instead.

The articles are organized chronologically from 1507 ("America" first appearing on a map) through Barack Obama's election (in collage form) with a higher density of 20th century material. The official website for the book, [...], has the table of contents and a list of the contributors.

Some highlights include Avital Ronell discussing telephony (1876), Walter Mosley on the hardboiled detective noir (1926), Rob Wilson looking at Hawaii's Queen Lili'uokalani (1896), and Susan Castillo's interesting take on the Salem Witchtrials (1692). I skipped around more or less at random in the book, with some titles catching my eye and leading me in. Different articles follow different styles, but there seems to be an energy in the text that I found pleasantly surprising. After all, this is a book which could be assigned, as a burden, to a student, but is intended instead to be read for pleasure.

The negatives? Well, the obvious one is that even with ten times the length, there would be gaps both serious and trivial. The Civil War doesn't seem to get as much coverage as one would think it should. The early sparks of Modernism are scattered between several different essays (1912, 1913, 1922, 1925) which speak to both the importance and the lingering uncertainty as to where the importance lays. Still, this volume offers its 200 essays with the clear view that letting these many flowers bloom is more important than listing all of the flowers of the world.

There's a lot of material in this book, I would confidently say there's something for everyone, and much to discuss with friends and neighbors. (Do folks still do, discuss serious books with their neighbors? Well, at the dinner party at least.) Sarah Vowell connects "American Gothic" with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Discuss. Gish Jen looks at where The Catcher in the Rye lands in the literary canon (with the word "canon" only mentioned once). Discuss.

Here's my recommendation: buy the book, enjoy it, learn something, search online for more information, and make some interesting, odd connections between essays. If you're not convinced yet, read the reviews on Salon, the New York Times, and take a look at the website for the book. Me, I'm off to Hiawatha Falls here in Minneapolis with a new appreciation of Longfellow thanks to David Treuer (1822).
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91 of 102 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2009
First off, if you really want to know about American literary history, read one of these other books instead:

"A History of American Literature," by Richard Gray (Blackwell, 2004).

"From Puritanism to Postmodernism," by Bradbury and Rulan. (Penguin, 1992).

If you want an unusually readable reference book, try

"The Chronology of American Literature," edited by Daniel S. Burt (Houghton, 2004).

Gray's literary history is truly informative and a fine read, too. It demonstrates a deep and unitary understanding of American Lit on every one of his 800+ pages - all of which he wrote himself, without the help of 200 committee members, as required by Marcus & Sollors. Bradbury & Rulan's work is more concise, and so maybe even better as an intro to the subject.

And now, sadly, to the work at hand.

"Literature," quite frankly, isn't what it's about. As co-editor Greil Marcus (a rock critic by profession) told the N.Y. Times, "We didn't want to call it a *cultural* history because [that's] too trendy." That description would have come closer to the truth, but "too trendy" implies it wouldn't have been taken seriously. Hmmm.

"History" (a narrative that unifies disparate threads) appears to be just a word the publishers (yes, the folks at Harvard's Belknap Press!)feel like using in the title. Nor is it a "reference book," as they also choose to describe it. (It's made up of opinionated essays, not reference material.)

Running through this project like a campus streaker is the essentially anti-intellectual faith that nothing's more important than what's hot. So, on the positive side, if you're looking for 200 readable bits on American culture, with factoids galore, you'll like the book. But if you're interested in a deeper appreciation of American fiction, poetry, and drama (and even film), you may not be quite so pleased. Many of the contributors seem to be chiefly interested in showing how clever they are.

An entire essay, for example, asserts that the plain-as-dirt biography of porn queen Linda Lovelace is a central document of modern American literature. Literary history? Or a gee-whiz editorial move? You be the judge. (Lovelace, BTW, describes her porn career as "slavery" and "torture," but the essayist sees her as a champion of "early feminism." She concludes that Lovelace would be miffed to know her throaty screen work is not now easily rentable.)

It's unfortunate too that one of the most significant novels of the '60s, Heller's "Catch-22," is discussed not by a literary historian but by someone credentialed merely as a "Writer, Brooklyn."

John Picker's full-length essay on "Yankee Doodle" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" is excellent, however, as are a number of others, though their excellence often has nothing to with "literary history."

And that's a big part of the problem.

Did the Vietnam War affect American literature? Apparently not, since the relevant chapter, by a Vietnamese scholar at Hanoi University, focuses on My Lai instead.

How about George W. Bush? Was his response to Hurricane Katrina a moment of profound literary import? What does the "essay" made up of graffiti-like silhouettes inspired by the election of Barack Obama tell us about, say, the actual writings of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, or Malcom X? Yes, they're discussed elsewhere, but the perspective and depth of focus of this "history" are both off, sometimes in very curious ways.

The dust jacket design gives a good idea of what the book is like. Colorful little nuggets, like a tasty breakfast cereal! With lots of sugar, marketing flash, and some actual nutritional value here and there.

The editors have sagely approved trivialization and self-promotion as righteous competition for knowledge and understanding. I give their book two stars (twice what it deserves) because individual parts are sometimes as good (cogent and informative) as the whole pretends to be.
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103 of 118 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2009
A disappointing collection--quirky, self-indulgent, uneven. It is hard to imagine what kind of reader would benefit from reading this volume. Most of the essays are little more than primers on their writers or events (Farah Griffin on Morrison, Greil Marcus on Powers). Many are written by scholars rehashing in capsule form what they or others have presented more richly elsewhere--a quickie on imperialism, anyone? Some are by writers using the author or event as a springboard for meditations ranging from the trite to the clever--Hawthorne is a flimsy pretext for Mukherjee to rehearse, for the umpteenth time, her Bengali Brahmin pedigree and her revolutionary defiance in marrying a white man. Some are from unknown and mediocre scholars writing about areas from which the major scholars have been mysteriously omitted--were the editors really so clueless about these fields, or did they just subcontract these fields to friends and former graduate students?
There are a couple of fine pieces--Walter Mosley on detective fiction , Ishmael Reed on Huck Finn, the essay on Linda Lovelace--but these are too few to make this a worthwhile purchase. If an anthology with over 200 pieces turns up only a handful of standouts, its claims as a "reference" book are overblown. For scholars looking at this volume as a reference, individual pieces would need to be evaluated carefully, since several are written by people who are not experts in the field.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2010
Books like this, like top 100 lists, will never be all things to all people. That said this is a fantastic trip through America's rich and varied cultural history. I love the chronological arrangement, I enjoy picking a decade that interests me and working my way through it. Edited by Greil Marcus of Lipstick Traces fame (if you haven't read it you should), the contributors range from authors, academics, journalists and cultural critics. The entries are well written and full of surprises. Any literary history that includes both Charles Willson Peale and Superman is tops in my book.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2009
Finally we have a literary history paying due respect to African American, Native American, Asian American (including an essay on that very designation),Gay and Lesbian, and other previously neglected elements in that history. Superfluously, however, we have essays (and this is a book of chronologically arranged but otherwise disconnected essays with no connective tissue) that don't fit or make very little sense in the general context (and title) of the book. Even the final essay, on Hurricane Katrina, by the editors themselves, which by itself is a fine one, is a one-off and makes sense only as a political counterpoint to Kara Walker's artwork immediately following (thus maybe a two-off). It's a messy hodgepodge containing some memorable pieces, not all of which bear on our literature.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The "new" in "A New Literary History of America" is that it looks at the idea of America rather than its facts. Yes, facts about the American experience are unavoidable in this book but they are stones placed in the garden not the garden itself.

Why focus on the "idea" of America? Because for a long time it was as an idea, the new world, that it resonated with people in the old. No other place has the history of living in the imagination before becoming a reality. It meant that "America" was weighted down by expectations that no nation could live up to but that wasn' t for a lack of trying.

The book is organized chronologically which is a brilliant device. It allows for the conversation about America to spring forward from dates and events, facts, if you will, that add to the idea in rich and varied ways. Yes, the book covers the usual suspects of literature: Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson and so on but also Linda Lovelace, Bebop and Harriet Wilson.

I imagine this literary history as a pinball machine with the reader as the player launching the ball, the idea of America, into the flippers, bumpers, kickers and slingshots. The idea bounces around among various experiences of America as it journeys through this playfield until finally the shiny ball emerges no worse for wear. That is the idea of America. Such cannot be said of the real place, for which its idea serves sometimes as hope, other times as despair but always with the promise of the new and the clean slate.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2015
Wonderful text! On a scholarly level, I use it with my research and teachings (especially to introduce a new text). Personally, it is just fascinating for some light reading. Highly recommended.
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on April 8, 2013
so unique. got this for a class, ended up dropping class but am hanging on to this gem. all articles were commissioned for this edition, really nice digestible (small) articles about important people and events in our nation's cultural history.
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10 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2009
Deep, broad, and wide.
A fascinating sampling of the intersection of America's literature and history.
It may be open to academic criticism -- what isn't? -- but for those of us pursuing livelihoods off-campus, it is an intelligent, stimulating overview of many, many aspects of our culture and our past.
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19 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2009
If Greil Marcus was a newspaper writer, he would have won a Pulitzer for criticism by now. If you want to learn about the real America (which bubbles just a little tiny bit below the surface) you could start with the footnotes for any book he has written. This book assembles equally influential writers, each with their own particular take on slightly arcane Americans and Americana. I bought it on the strength of the table of contents alone, and you should too. Would you attend dinner with Hank Williams, Linda Lovelace, Jackson Pollock, Phillis Weatley, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and Jelly Roll Morton? I would. Marcus continues to make the slightly arcane approachable and this collection is a wonderful addition to his accomplishments as well as to your library.

Jim Linderman
Dull Tool Dim Bulb
"Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950"
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