Literary historians normally subscribe to the notion that literary history must be occasionally rewritten to reflect not only changes in the literary scene but also changes in the perceptions of its audience. Editions of the first large-scale work on American literature after World War II, Literary History of the United Statesoften identified as “Spiller,” after the first in its list of six editors, Robert E. Spillerappeared in 1947, 1953, 1963, and 1973. The work’s last two revisions, appearing at intervals of ten years, suggested to its editors that the passage of a decade should signal the time for a fresh look at American literature. When a new edition of Spiller did not appear in the 1980’s, the Columbia Literary History of the United States sought to supplant it in 1988. Like Spiller, it had well over a thousand pages. An interval of twenty-one more years has brought A New Literary History of America from a coalition at Harvard University led by editors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors.
With respect to mere size, the three works do not differ substantially. A New Literary History of America is somewhat shorter in page count, but given its slightly larger format, its length in words is similar to those of its predecessors. The number of editors for each volume keeps increasing. Counting editors variously referred to as associates, advisers, and board members, the fourth edition of Spiller has nine, the Columbia Literary History of the United States has ten, and A New Literary History of America has fourteen. With respect to the number of contributors, the change is more notable: Spiller has sixty, the Columbia history has seventy-four, and A New Literary History of America has an even two hundred.
The sixty contributors to Spiller were almost all American male English professors: only one contributor was female. About one-fifth of the contributors to Columbia Literary History of the United States were women, but, except for one serving at a British university, they all taught in American institutions. In the A New Literary History of America many of the two hundred contributors are professors of subjects other than English or are not professors at all. About one-third are women. Some of the professors teach at such places as Tel Aviv University, Palacky Universit (in the Czech Republic), the University of Florence, and the University of Göttingen, to name a few. Some of those who teach at American institutions also have foreign backgrounds, particularly Asian ones. Except for the identifications provided, readers would in most cases be unlikely to guess their origins, for all essays display intimate contact with their subject matter.
With so many people involved in the project, there is considerable diversity in the approaches and styles of the contributors, but the editors of A New Literary History of America have imposed a limit on the length of the individual essays. The essays on individual writers and literary movements in Spiller and the Columbia Literary History of the United States reflect judgments about the relative importance of the writers; Spiller gives figures as eminent as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain from twenty-five to thirty pages, while the Columbia Literary History of the United States allots more space to previously ignored or underrated authors, usually providing from fifteen to twenty pages for the most significant figures. A New Literary History of America consistently allows its writers about five pages per essay, regardless of subject.
This allotment directs readers’ attention to the distinctly different path of A New Literary History of America. First of all, the book is not merely a literary history. There are essays on paintings, magazines, jazz, comic strips, and manufacturing technology. Such things are not literary history, but it can be argued that literary history is best understood in relation to other aspects of American culture. The editors refer in their introduction to “the American story” and invite the audience to think of “other moments” that might enhance this story. There are no convenient limits for such an endeavor.
The 218 topics (a few people have contributed more than one essay) occupy 1,050 pages and are arranged chronologically, but not necessarily according to the time of composition or publication of the works considered. As in Spiller and the Columbia Literary History of the United States “major” works occupy more space than “minor” ones. Emerson’s “The American Scholar” address and “The Divinity School” address are each treated in five-page essays by James Conant and Herwig Friedl, respectively. A caption for “The Book of a Lifetime” points to a discussion of Walt Whitman’s use of Emerson’s salutary letter as an advertisement for Leaves of Grass (1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, 1876,...
(The entire section is 2046 words.)