A Chorus of American Voices, By Choice and Decree
…I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. …Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean.—Belize, Angels in America: Perestroika
Room 1013 in New York Hospital in January of 1986 is occupied by Roy Cohn, the conservative “polestar of human evil” (as he’s described by another character in Tony Kushner’s play), a man of influence and wealth and history, a man unable to reconcile his private gay life with his public life as lawyer and stalwart of the Republican party, a man who is dying of AIDS but is officially being treated for “liver cancer”. These words above, Belize’s adhesion of all that is America to this man—we sense by play’s end that Belize might take them back. Like the rest of us, his beliefs have their provisional elements. But that stuff about the national anthem, big ideas and the sound of freedom? That stays.
For nearly all of the play, Kushner allows his characters to argue with each other and against themselves, allowing them to be gloriously wrong and right—even Cohn, on occasion—in the truest sense of the word “dialogue”; it’s a hallmark of his writing and of his approach to his subject, America, which he loves, like Marcus, for the imperfect lover it can be: self-deluding (like Cohn) yet capable of seeing through itself, plural yet exclusionary, gracious, vicious, inventive, placid and sometimes full of shit. Like George Carlin used to say, “It’s a great country, but it’s a strange culture,” the word “strange” vibrating out of his mouth like a warning.
A New Literary History of America
Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors
(Harvard University Press(original); US: Sep 2009)
Whatever its faults, A New Literary History of America tries to keep the dialogue going and avoids the temptation to rein in its subject too neatly or ease the strangeness out of American history. Not only does it stretch, appropriately, to America’s earliest pre-history—the first essay, by Toby Lester, examines the first appearance of “America” on a map—this enormous anthology stretches the definition of literary.
Among the more surprising entries are essays on Alcoholic Anonymous, the Winchester rifle and pro football. Such choices are defended in the volume’s Introduction as evidence of “how one got across what he or she meant to say to his or her fellow citizens”, a cut-throat whatever-it-takes methodology that shouldn’t seem surprising in today’s America. Basing their selections around voices which spoke in public of something new, or spoke in a new way about something old (and borrowed and yes, blue), and then charting the trajectories of those voices—how far they carried, and to whom—Marcus and Sollors emphasize the imperative outbursts of a country seeking to define itself, to know itself, after the fact of its invention. The political speeches, war memorials, comics, country songs and abolitionist pamphlets that stand side-by-side with Emerson, Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison only demonstrate the multi-layered, uncontrollable and competitive reality of American public speech. Theirs is a bracing, deeply rewarding approach, even if it’s not entirely unique.
For that familiarity Marcus can only blame (or credit) himself: the anthology innervates on a macro scale the disparate voices his other books energize in comparative miniature. Sometimes this happens within a single essay, as in Bharati Mukherjee’s reflective entry on The Scarlet Letter; elsewhere, an idea lingers between essays on Herman Melville and Henry Roth, courses from the Declaration of Independence to Seneca Falls to Toni Morrison and back to Jean Toomer. Occasionally these travels are too disjointed: though the book is arranged chronologically, entries may be placed far earlier than one might expect as a result of the anthology’s interest in moments that changed what was to come. Springboards, if you will.
For instance, Andrea Most’s excellent assessment of the impact of Arthur Miller begins not in 1947 with the production of All My Sons, but in 1932, when Miller auditioned to sing on the radio. This means that you’ll likely read about the playwright 50 pages before reading the entry on Porgy and Bess, which appeared nearly a decade before any of Miller’s productions. By the end of Most’s essay, she’s zipped ahead to David Mamet and Kushner. (This is the volume’s only mention of Kushner. Inexcusable!) A New Literary History of America challenges not only its own structure, but aso our traditional view of history’s structure in order to emphasize the transmission, conscious or collectively unconscious, of ideas.
This is a Marcus tactic, and what draws ire from his critics. As postmodern strategy, allowing both temporality and simultaneity, it is the anthology’s secret weapon because, in fact, as you near the conclusion, you feel that a story has actually been told. The echoing impulses and philosophies come to a confluence, diverge, and then, in the book’s final pages, dash against the rocks with three simply-stated questions revolving around what feel like ancient promises.