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Raucous new 'literary' history ventures into surprising territory

You have to read the title very closely -- every major word -- as if it were a phrase in a poem by John Donne. This book is NEW. It's literary. And it's a history of America.

It is NOT the history of literature in America which you might take it to be if you read the title too quickly. There's a megaton of American literary history within, but you won't find, for instance, Harper Lee, Henry Miller, William Gaddis or Donald Barthelme at all, just to mention four of the most wildly disparate and significant 20th century American writers I can think of off the top of my head.

Bernard Malamud is kissed off in one reference on the fly in Clark Blaise's essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Among feminist poets, Adrienne Rich is given the nod over Sylvia Plath (four very lonely, very brief and very miscellaneous references in the index). Robert Creeley, though, is entirely absent, as is his onetime friend and subsequent nemesis Kenneth Rexroth. Don't even think about Robert Duncan.

Ambrose Bierce, that bitter and black-hearted master of American gallows comedy, is mentioned wanly only three times -- once among those who "sought refuge in Mexico," once in a generic reference to Ben Franklin's brother James inaugurating a tradition "of American journalistic satire that would run through Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce," and once, in a piece on Sinclair Lewis, naming Lewis as part of a group of '20s writers who "constituted a Golden Age of serious literary mockery in the tradition of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce."

The editors themselves brag in their opening paragraph that those "leafing through these pages" will find entries on Anne Bradstreet, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison and others "but also on Stephen Foster, the invention of the telephone, the Winchester rifle, 'Steamboat Willie,' Alcoholics Anonymous, 'Porgy and Bess,' the first issue of Life [magazine], the atomic bomb, Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, Chuck Berry's 'Roll Over Beethoven,' Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' and Ronald Reagan's 1964 campaign speech for Barry Goldwater."

It all started, admittedly, in 1989 when Harvard University Press published Denis Hollier's "A New History of French Literature," and in 2004 with David Wellberry's "A New History of German Literature." But when you're dealing with America, "a place made up out of nothing" as editors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors call it, you're dealing with a place whose "literature was not inherited but invented, as if it were a tool or a machine, and discovered, as if it were a gold strike or the next wonder of the Louisiana Purchase."

"No tradition has ever ruled; no form has ever been fixed," they claim, so "this book is a re-examination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass, where what is at issue is speech in many forms." It's a "broadly cultural history" then, "a history of America in which literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form."

Talk about "lighting out for the territory."

Marcus is one of the greatest of all rock critics ("Mystery Train," "Dead Elvis"), who long ago expanded all the way out to the very edge of culture's continental shelf. Sollors is a professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard. Theirs, as Madison Avenue would have put it, is not your father's idea of what's "literary."

It was a vast undertaking. It's a wildly informative, hugely entertaining and sometimes even revelatory book.

Hitchcock's "Psycho" is here with an entry of its own (wait until you read David Thomson's treatment of that in a book to come in a couple months). And Maya Lin's wall commemorating the 58,000 U.S. soldiers "who died or went missing in the Vietnam War." And Billie Holiday, bebop and the blues. And Walt Disney's seminal cartoon "Steamboat Willie" as well as Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic" and the moments that Nevada legalized gambling and, on Harry Truman's orders, the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. ("Nobody in Congress really liked Senator Truman," writes Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi. "He was a boor, mirthless and thin-skinned. He had been a failure as a farmer, a bankrupted clothing salesman, he never finished law school and he owed his career to the ballot-stuffing pols of the Kansas City Pendergast machine. In the 1944 election, he was the worst kind of compromise candidate, a mousy fourth choice for vice president.")

With such a radical new understanding of the word "literary," then, it just wouldn't do to dispense entirely with wise guys in the back of the lecture hall spritzing Marcus, Sollors and their writers with embarrassing questions.

My hand, accordingly, is raised. Here are a few:

*How can you deal with Disney and "Steamboat Willie" and not their brazen and brash countervoices over at the Warner Brothers' cartoon factory, especially Chuck Jones and Tex Avery? There's an American polarity if ever there was one. Where is television in all this, most specifically that incredible Sid Caesar writers' room that disgorged the next half century of American comedy -- Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, who wandered in and out in as bursting and influential an assemblage of comic profligacy as we're seen since the Algonquin Round Table?

*Why so much on Chuck Berry and so little on Elvis Presley, one of the archetypal American stories, especially when you consider that co-editor Marcus wrote two of the greatest books on Elvis? And as long as we're talking about rock, why nothing about Charles White's "authorized biography" of Little Richard, one of the rock 'n' roll books truly apt for its subject? And, on another musical plane altogether, why nothing about the writings of John Cage, some of the most graceful and radical philosophical prose ever written in this country?

*And a whole entry on movie critic Manny Farber, rather than Pauline Kael? Huh? (Not only that, Farber is about to get a whole deifying Library of America volume all to himself.) And why, within that piece, is Susan Sontag only listed that one time as being among those upholding "the upper end of that socio-aesthetic spectrum" in movie criticism?

*How about the tabloid photographic art of Weegee as inimitable American "expression?"

*And, as long as we're telling the epic tale of American culture in the broadest way -- as befitting post-'60s academe -- why not have some bruising intramural Ivy League fun in this Harvard University Press product and give us an entry on the Yale Deconstructionists, especially the Belgian-born Paul DeMan, who was revealed to have collaborated, as a writer, with the Nazis up to and including anti-Semitic prose?

It is, of course, among the glories of this encyclopedically radical post-'60s way of telling the American cultural tale that it's as readable as it is. That will happen when you've got contributions by Walter Mosely, Ishmael Reed, Robert Gottlieb, Steve Erickson, Michael Lesy, Sean Wilentz, Andrei Codrescu, Jonathan Lethem, Gerald Early, John Edgar Wideman, Luc Sante, Richard Schickel, Michael Tolkin and John Rockwell, among many others. (Former Courier-Express music critic R.J. Smith, by the way, writes about speaking in tongues, and University at Buffalo professor Carrie Tirado Bramen writes about Leslie Fiedler's migration from New Jersey to Montana.)

What we wiseacres need to heed, though, is probably this rule: Ask not what you can do for this book, only what it can do for you.

There are so many great things here -- screenwriter Michael Tolkin, for instance, on Alcoholics Anonymous; Robert Gottlieb on the ascension of American "talk" on radio, in movies etc., Luc Sante on "the invention of the blues"; Paul Muldoon on "Carl Sandburg and the American Songbag" (bless any literary history that refuses anonymity for Sandburg while valorizing Robert Frost), Douglas McGrath on Preston Sturges making seven movies in four years.

It's a cavalcade of native wonders. "Informative" is where it starts. "Revelatory" isn't even where it stops.

I do wish, though, that each contributor had received a full thumbnail bio. How nice, for instance, it would have been to tell readers that Tolkin was the writer of Robert Altman's "The Player," the writer-director of "Rapture," and was the son of a studio executive and Mel Tolkin, head writer for Sid Caesar.

Ooops. Did it again. I promise I won't raise my hand again.

Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books Editor.

***

A NEW LITERARY HISTORY OF AMERICA

edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

Harvard University Press

1,095 pages, $49.95

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