A New Literary History of America

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2046

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.

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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, 1881-1882, 1888-1889). As in other literary histories, Emerson is referred to briefly in various essays, but it may surprise some readers that his seminal essay Nature (1836) is mentioned only twice and then very briefly.

The plan of this new history allows scant or no reference to works that received more attention in Spiller or the Columbia Literary History of the United States. Spiller refers to fifteen titles by Washington Irving, while A New Literary History of America refers to just one, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasties (1809). The famous “Rip Van Winkle” is curiously not found in the index, despite being noted as an important work in the general introduction. Irving is one of the authors downplayed in A New Literary History of America, while Edgar Rice Burroughsthe creator of Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, and other mass cultural novel seriesis treated in five respectful pages. Burroughs is unmentioned by Spiller and alluded to only briefly by Columbia Literary History of the United States. The writer of the Burroughs essay, Gerald Early, as part of his defense of Tarzan, argues that everyone is familiar with him. A critic might assert that everyone is just as familiar with Rip Van Winkle.

Irving is not the only writer to fall by the wayside. Colonists John Winthrop and Roger Williams each receive essays, but William Bradford does not. Nor are nineteenth century literary historians accorded much attention: William Hickling Prescott and Francis Parkman are mentioned only briefly, while George Bancroft and John Lothrop Motley are not mentioned at all. Sarah Orne Jewett is included, but Mary Wilkins Freeman is not. More surprising are some of the twentieth century omissions. Neither Eudora Welty nor Archibald MacLeish is included in the volume; Kurt Vonnegut and Joyce Carol Oates are barely mentioned. Probably the most striking instance of a declining figure is poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, whose relative eminence as a singer of New England once troubled Robert Frost’s ambition to reign supreme in that field of endeavor. Spiller granted Robinson a full chapter of fourteen pages, and the Columbia Literary History of the United States cited him briefly but respectfully three times. For A New Literary History of America, he does not merit inclusion.

A comparison of the first essays in each of the three histories reveals some interesting developments. Spiller offers an essay on the European background of American literature, in the light of such traditional abstractions as the Reformation and the Renaissance. The Columbia Literary History of the United States reminds its readers that the body of literature includes more than is contained in the written record by celebrating oral forms such as the songs and tales of Native Americans, and comparing them to the Homeric epics. A New Literary History of America leads off with the year 1507, when the first European map appeared that included a large and ill-defined island called “Amerige, land of Americus,” or “America.” The second essay is dated “1521, August 13,” at which time the Aztec empire surrendered Tenochtitlán to the Spanish. Its author, Kirsten Silva Gruesz, relates this event to American literature by noting such things as the interest displayed by writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and Katherine Anne Porter in Mexican villages, as well as William Carlos Williams’s suggestion that American history might well begin with the destruction of that Aztec community. A New Literary History of America provides several other examples of literarily provocative events. One is the entry for the year 1804, on Haiti’s declaration of independence, which evoked literary responses from Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, as Kaiama Glover demonstrates.

An artistic work may also inspire numerous literary works. Consider, for instance, an essay by Richard Powers on the monument designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens to commemorate Civil War commander Robert Gould Shaw and his Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers. Standing on Boston Common, the monument has provoked poems by William Vaughn Moody, Laurence Dunbar (whose father was a slave), John Berryman, and Robert Lowell; a musical composition by Charles Ives; and a 1989 motion picture, Glory. There is much to be said for organizing an essay in a literary history around a work that is both artistic itself and provocative to a succession of poets.

Sometimes, a literary work makes its way into A New Literary History of America because it, so to speak, anticipates an event. The year 2005 was the year of Hurricane Katrina and thus recalls William Faulkner’s story “The Old Man,” written in 1937 and based on a flood that occurred in 1927. Other events are offered as inspirational not for writers but for other artists in other fields. In 1875, Buffalo Bill Cody proclaimed the excellence of a recently developed model of Winchester rifle as an outstanding firearm for fighting Native Americans or hunting. In an essay titled “Manufacturing Technology,” Merritt Roe Smith, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert on the history of technology, makes no reference to the rifle or any other technological artifact as an ingredient of a writer’s imagination. He does, however, cite the Winchester in paintings by artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, and in a Hollywood film called Winchester ’73 (1950). The contribution of this rifle and other firearms such as the Colt six-shooter to the American public’s romantic entanglement with the American West sufficed to justify its inclusion in a book that seeks to embrace a wider representation of American culture as the realm of the arts and humanities.

The book comes much closer to covering literature than to covering culture, however. The great authors continue to be recognized, but some of the greatest American artists are not. Saint-Gaudens is discussed but not Daniel Chester French; Charles Ives is included but not Aaron Copland; Grant Wood is covered but not Edward Hopper. There is an essay on the skyscraper but no mention of Louis Sullivan. Even in a book of over one thousand pages, of course, there is not enough room for all cultural heroes, nor for all events that animate writers, but the attention to nonliterary makers of American culture in this book is very uneven.

There are many excellent essays in A New Literary History of America. Anyone rummaging through itincluding people with little interest in literary historywill find pleasure in essays by extremely talented writers whose backgrounds vary much more than those who wrote for Spiller and the Columbia Literary History of the United States. The book adopts a scheme of chronological organization much more interesting than one that sticks to a string of publication dates. This scheme and the unevenness of its coverage, however, sacrifice some important writers to events with no obvious literary connections.

Few critics or literary historians have much faith in classifying literature by genre any longer, for genres now get stretched far out of shape. Readers today probably would not balk at an expression such as Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel.” The genre of literary history has been energetically and enthusiastically distended by the editors of A New Literary History of America in their efforts to enliven literary study. The work is new not just in the sense of freshly made but also in the sense of a type of study not previously experienced. It begins with “1507” and ends with “Barack Obama.” The next literary history must move beyond Obama, but perhaps it will also move further back. Indeed, perhaps Cahokia, that American settlement in the Mississippi valley several centuries before Christopher Columbus, will find its way into the next such work.

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