Most helpful critical review
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You can't tell a book by its cover. Or can you?
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.