A Levee, a Crane, and a Helicopter
‘Book under water’ (partial) by Thomas Roessler found on DoobyBrain.com
Early in A New Literary History of America, we’re treated to obligatory passages on the Puritan covenant made with God whereby America is created, from scratch, as a promised land. Rife as that moment is with inconsistencies and outright lies, it’s a stunning and sober moment of self-creation, acknowledged by John Winthrop in 1630 when he said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us”. The idea is carried forward by the out-of-thin-air legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence.
Always dwelling in a promise, however, is the threat of its failure, a fact we are reminded of by Emory Elliot’s foreboding portrait of the American jeremiad. The jeremiad warns us of what will happen if the promise of the nation fails, outlines how that failure is occurring today, who is at fault, and what can be done about it, and as Elliot notes, “the jeremiad has persisted because of its effectiveness in creating mythic imagery that inspires ideals and motivates action”. The early 19th-century black activist David Walker, Lincoln in his Second Inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, to say nothing of poets and novelists and dramatists, have all relied on the jeremiad’s form.
Combine this with the Puritans’ view of the weather as a sign from God of their wickedness, and you end up 1,000 pages and 335 years later in the entry, “New Orleans Is Lost in the Flood”. There, then, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, US Senator Mary Landrieu recounts the failure of President Bush to adequately respond to the devastation in New Orleans and his administration’s subsequent, shocking display of disingenuous concern, her dismay exemplified by an anecdote about a levee, a crane, and a helicopter. Marcus and Sollors, writing together, then ask those three questions:
If, for that moment, New Orleans was the nation, did the nation still exist? If it did, did it deserve to? The community would flourish if its members “make others Condicions our owne rejoyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together,” John Winthrop told the nation… it would justly disappear if it did not. Did it?
The editors reply to themselves, writing that “[Landrieu] had seen the country, and saw it disappear.” Their subject, America—as it was meant to be, as the contract was drawn—is dead and gone. What is left? The book’s final entry: Kara Walker’s text-collage pieces about the election of Barack Obama, the final panel a silhouetted image of a woman pouring ink—or leaves, or words—out of a garden sprinkling can. Somehow the images are both haunting and joyous.
The speaking of a now-ancient voice to the thousands ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the millions witness to it from afar; the inclusion of a near-silent coda, the only words scrawled in handwriting or typed faintly, as if retrieved from elder documents; the challenge to the editors’ just-made proclamation about the country’s fate—that these complications should emerge from the mind of Marcus is no surprise. His stamp as editor is all over the volume, though he hardly intrudes; in fact, his essay on Melville is one of the book’s finest literary critiques. Sollors, too, contributes numerous superb entries, including a close reading of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
But the pleasure of the volume, of course, is the massive collection of voices it brings together, subjects and authors both. Mary Gaitskill’s playful exploration of Norman Mailer gets it right at every turn, even as she interjects third-person memoir subtitled “Dream” and “Masturbation”. Ted Widmer’s three entries, covering Roger Williams, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, collectively form the epitome of the book’s general tone: plain-stated, thoroughly researched and occasionally witty. Generally, the academics write creatively and the creative writers stay sober. Gish Jen and Walter Mosely shine; Sarah Vowell’s essay on Grant Wood’s American Gothic feels slight, cheeky; John Edgar Wideman, no surprise here, is brilliant in his investigation of invisibility and the 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition, and along the way crafts one of the most stirring and accurate descriptions of the 9/11 terrorists I’ve ever read, casting them biblically as “those who believe they must gouge out America’s eyes to cure her blindness”.
When the volume’s essays don’t work, it’s largely due to the weakness or misapprehension of the subject as opposed to the writing. Michael Kimmage’s entry, “The Plight of Conservative Literature”, begins with that downright sexy, 1968 televised conflict between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, though the event is less a springboard than a result of the conflicts tearing at the country. Kimmage’s true prototype of the conservative character turns out to be Whittaker Chambers’ 1952 autobiography Witness, a book that “set a crucial precedent for… conceptualizations of the conservative career”, one full of “self-styled martyrdom” as the protagonist attempts to adhere to and preserve a conservative ideology.
Likewise, David Thomson’s “Nevada Legalizes Gambling” begins too far off its own axis before settling into Dreiser and gambling as an element of 20th century American capitalist culture. Entries on Little Nemo in Slumberland and Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing (another entry written by Marcus) don’t do enough to connect their subjects to trends, futures, while the aforementioned essay on pro football and “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”, which concerns Manny Farber, film critic, simply shrink in comparison to their neighboring subjects. In the case of the Farber essay, the neighbor is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
Then there’s the question of what’s been left out, nearly impossible as it is to answer. We will all jockey for our favorites, especially when the scope is wide enough to include Superman and Mickey Mouse. But objectively I can complain that once Camille Paglia is done writing about Tennessee Williams, American theatre goes largely ignored. This omission excludes the development of responses to what was, yes, a largely European movement into the absurd, but responses that became uniquely American nonetheless, whether we’re talking about Edward Albee (mentioned once), the complication of the musical (Stephen Sondheim, also mentioned once), the rise of the American avant-garde (the Living Theatre, Robert Wilson, never mentioned) or the inventive work of a Kushner or Suzan Lori-Parks (who is mentioned once in an essay about Thomas Pynchon). Meanwhile the Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot gets its own essay.
Theatre is not the only genre underrepresented. The anthology doesn’t quite seem to know what to make of television, really, and neither the rise of the Internet. And somehow Johnny Cash, Susan Sontag, Raymond Carver and all of punk slip through the cracks, while Hua Hsu’s essay details hip-hop’s colossal influence without mentioning Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash or Public Enemy.
I could go on forever nitpicking like this, and the futility of that gesture is the last line of defense for A New Literary History of America, as it is for nearly any massive anthology. This is a heavy book; you could really hurt someone, or yourself, with it. Maybe it’s best to accept its faults and back off, for what we discover in reading compendiums like these is not simply a portrait of the past, but a testament to the present moment’s point of view, the witness-perspective looking backward to answer David Byrne’s question, “How did I get here?” sometimes overtly, sometimes not, and more often than not, A New Literary History of America offers compelling reasons.