Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Latest Thing

I've a new favorite and as unlikely as this will sound, it's a book edited by Greil Marcus! A New Literary History of America, co-edited by Professor Werner Sollars, and recently published by Belknap/Harvard, is an impressive-looking, great brick of a book, weighing in at more than a thousand pages. There's a seriousness to that, an unmistakable gravity, reinforced by the fifty dollar price-tag. I like that the makers of it had such confidence in the value of their efforts -- makes a body think twice about tossing the thing aside casually for the damage it might do. And there can be no question, lifting the thing, but that here is a book with which to stun the average reader, or anyone within range of its trajectory. One feels then almost obliged to treat the book with some respect, if for no other reason than to drop it would in all likelihood break a toe.

And respect the book deserves, from first encounter, if only for its mass. Reading it is then no easy thing, requiring a sound desk, good light, and a certain patience. Such promise though! for them that have the necessary!

By way of making things a bit easier, the editors have kindly pointed out that there will be more than one way to read this book and have gone so far as to suggest that one way need be no better than the next; that to read it straight through from introduction to index -- the least likely reading, considering, -- would do the reader no better than to drop into it wherever fancy might lead, as I now have done. But before I should comment on any of the essays I've so far read, I ought first to describe how I read, with real pleasure, the little part of the whole that I have. This kind of reading being unfashionable, if for no other reason than the time and strength required, I would suggest a method I learned in school for getting quickly the scheme of the thing, and so, knowing as it were the direction intended, being the better able to come into company with any of the party at any point that suits me. From what may now be considered a perverse loyalty to old teaching, I always begin such books at their end, searching the index for familiar names, and here finding nearly every name I might expect, and any number I did not, I was in this way encouraged to read more. Knowing, for example, that Henry James has no less, by my count than a couple dozen mentions in the text, and at least two full essays devoted largely just to himself, the first on his Portrait of a Lady, and the other promisingly titled "Henry James in America," I could with some confidence mark my easiest points of entry into the text. Either would have done, and in the end I read both. Knowing neither of the essayists on James by name though, as preliminary to reading either, I turned back but a few pages from the index to the list of contributors, that I might better understand something of their respective qualifications and or interest in the subject. I was struck not only by the length of the list of contributors -running as it does to no less than nine, closely printed pages -- but by the curious brevity of biography for each: consisting of just the contributor's name, date of birth, and academic affiliation, so about the person writing on James' great novel, I only learned that he or she (?) was one "Alide Cagidemetrio * 1881, January 24 * American Studies, University of Venice." But wait. The date could not possibly be the essayist's date of birth, could it? Surely "American Studies" did not yet exist, let alone in Venice, of all places, at so early a date? I feel a fool confessing that it took me some time to work out that the good professor -- for so they all seem to be -- was not in fact one hundred and twenty eight years old. The date of course refers to the timeline into which the professor's essay has been made to slot, just as the second essayist on James, in his "James in America," one professor "Ross Posnock * 1904, August 30 * English and Comparative Literature, Columbia," is not so venerable as all that. I understand that so many contributors to so large a book, doubtless necessitated some such concision, but I was tickled to find that what the editors thought most useful for the reader was the essayist's name, assigned time, and degree? Some, presumably more accomplished in terms of publication, are allowed a title or two, but many, like my anticipated Jamesians, got only either their skins or employers mentioned, I could not say which.

To really prepare though for my plunge into the book proper, I had then to turn, at last to the beginning, and read the introduction. I could write away the night on just that remarkable contribution to the whole! What fun I had in it! But to limit myself just here to what has become my topic, how best to read this book, I would say the best clue I had was from from the following:

"In 1989 Harvard published A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier, and in 2004 A New History of German Literature, edited by David Wellbery; this book represents an entirely different sort of challenge."

And indeed it did, for me. What the editors go on from that statement to do, sly buggers, is to suggest that while what those "earlier projects," -- and please note the noun, -- did was to trace the history of "the organic literature of organic societies," the present volume intends to do no such thing. And indeed, it doesn't. By avoiding the most obvious way to do just such a thing, by producing a new history of English literature, of which American literature would naturally be but a pendant on the string, and instead denying by omission any such direct lineage, and thus presumably acknowledging the common language that produces what the editors would call an "organic literature," they may then deny the very idea of literature as a function of language alone and set their contributors loose to roam where the editors would, forward and back, down narrow and neglected byways, into juke-joints and the funny papers, the White House and Bikini Island, round about and up and down the countryside and the cities, gathering rosebuds where they may. By denying the legitimacy of English to claim the loyalty of our literary historians, they can then, brilliantly, change this "project" from a history of a literature, in the apparently rather stodgy model of the Germans and the French, into something much more American: a history of America as told through its native literature. This is genius! This new declaration of independence allows for a fairly straightforward reorganization of our history, and our literature, on very democratic lines indeed. Untethered to that ancestry, our "language" then becomes inclusive not only of other tongues, other traditions, other histories, but of any damned thing we, as a people, might ever have said and by whatever means in whatever medium of expression. Free from any chronology but that which their own eccentricities of taste and preference, or philosophic agenda might decide, the editors have cleverly allowed for a perfect babel of democratic voices, with loyalty only to America as a wholly original and polyglot creation, unique in it's freedom from any standard but originality, inclusion and good clean fun.

What then Greil Marcus and his coeditor have wrought is an absolute riot, and I couldn't like them more for it. Both the essays on James, for example, are full of good and surprising information. I had a grand time reading both. Anyone not already aware of the importance of Henry James would recognize at least that from reading these, though I'm not sure either professor quite goes so far as to claim much more for the man than a place in this book. If no context quite suggests just why Henry James might be more important to literature, or at least an artist different in kind to say Bessie Smith or Todd Haynes, to pluck but two names at random from the randomness, then one would seem to be missing the whole point of this "project," and missing the fun. Greil Marcus made his start as a music journalist, and his name with celebrations of and cerebrations on such icons of popular culture as Sid Vicious and Elvis Presley. Greil Marcus is an awfully clever fellow. Moreover, he would seem to have made his way into better company. Good for him, I say. His is a voice no longer in the wilderness. His kind of cultural criticism would seem to have arrived, been made welcome, and frankly to have triumphed. (Of Professor Sollars, I could not, regrettably, know less.) All culture then being equally interesting nowadays, and anyone with a degree it seems qualified and encouraged to comment on any of it, to use just one short list from the editors' introduction by way of example, "...Washington Irving as well as Charlie Chaplin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as well as Walt Whitman, Uncle Tom as well as Ursa Corregidora, Nate Shaw as well as Malcolm X, Henry Adams as well as Queen Lili'uokalani, Mark Twain as well as Chief Simon Pokagon..." etc., etc., it seems best to abandon any thought of a recognizable narrative, and just have a go.

I've read now a dozen or so of the essays collected here, and enjoyed them all, to one degree and another. I will read more, though I can't think I'll be able to borrow the book indefinitely, as the bookstore could not really afford to invest in more than a copy or two and I can't invest in this book at all just now but must wait until its inevitable appearance, perhaps as little as a year hence, on the remainders table, to buy my own copy. I will though, once it has been marked down. There is obviously still so much I might have from the professors that I would otherwise never know. I've already started a list of books I now want to find, including the first Filipino-American novel, and I'm not likely to remember that without reference again to this book.

I can't think of the last time any book of more than a thousand pages of critical writing by esteemed professors from such diverse disciplines has made me smile more. In fact, I suspect this book to be unique in our literature, if not in history. And wasn't that just the point?

Try it. You won't be disappointed.

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