I’m in Washington DC this weekend for the annual meeting of the American Studies Association. The theme of the meeting is “Practices Of Citizenship, Sustainability And Belonging.” This afternoon I’ll be participating in a roundtable discussion called “Belonging and Culture: Making a New Literary History of America.” The discussion is prompted by Harvard University Press’s recent publication of A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. My co-panelists are Sollors (who is Professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard), Kirsten Silva Gruesz from UC Santa Cruz (who was both a contributor and editorial board member), and the novelist Bharati Mukherjee, who contributed a piece on Hawthorne. My role on the roundtable is to offer a perspective from the outside as someone who has been involved in other literary history projects.
The book has already received an unusual amount of notice for an academic book of this kind, in part because it’s an outstanding example of writing on scholarly subjects for a general reader and in part because HUP’s marketing department has done a superb job of making it seem hip. Check out some of the reviews: boston.com, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, salon.com, and the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps most impressive for a university press book, the volume even made Entertainment Weekly‘s Must List!
The best example of the volume’s hipness is its website, newliteraryhistory,com, which is inviting, fun, and informative. Both its design and its content make you want to buy the book. The site takes its cue from Greil Marcus’s suggestion about one way to read through the book: “Pick a card, any card!” You can, in other words, have a rich experience simply by starting wherever you like and continuing with whatever entries seem most inviting. The website allows you to sample a dozen different entries by, well, picking a card, any card. (Click on the link and you’ll see what I mean).
What makes the book inviting? One thing is the brevity of the entries: the standard length for an essay was 2,500 words, meaning that starting to read one doesn’t seem like a major commitment. Each essay has a date and an intriguing tag line, such as the ones that precede a discussion of The Azusa Street Revival: “1906, April 9 — William J. Seymour, an African American preacher, and seven others fall to the floor in a humble mission in Los Angeles and begin speaking in tongues.” Moreover, the essays are almost all written in accordance with the volume’s aim, which Sollors has described this way: “the aim was to make non-specialists curious to read, or look at, or listen to, works as if for the first time, intrigued by one of the essays.”
The example that I just cited — The Azusa Street Revival — gives you a sense of one other innovative aspect of the project. Something like an episode of speaking in tongues, which moved from a local to a national (and even global) phenomenon gets an essay along with, say, Moby-Dick or “multiculturalism” or Psycho or Linda Lovelace. The organizing rubric is “made in America,” and while the volume is grounded in the literary, it’s ultimately about literature’s engagement with a wide range of cultural forms and intellectual and artistic disciplines. It’s ultimately about the fluidity of cultural forms. And it ain’t stodgy.
As many of you know, Bryan and I have been collaborating for some time now on a cultural history of New York City. That project is still in its infant stages, and I think there are some things that we can learn from Marcus’s and Sollors’s History. We share the History‘s orientation, its grounding in the literary but its commitment to understanding the idea of the “literary” in the broadest possible terms. We’ve talked about the need to think about exemplary moments in creating a readable history of the city’s cultural forms, one that isn’t ponderous and doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. We’ve talked writing a history in fourteen “scenes” (fourteen simply because that’s the number of weeks in an NYU semester). We’ve talked about grounding each of these scenes in a specific time and place, providing perhaps a date and a street corner where we could. But we’ve both found it challenging, as we’ve drafted chapters, to weave together the different stories that we want to tell about, say, the period “1820 to 1850.”
What would happen, I wonder, if we impose the discipline of the 2,500-word essay? What if we were to conceive the book as a collection of 40 of these essays, each grounded in a specific time and place? Sollors has suggested that one of the caveats he offered authors was against “taking the hook too seriously. The author needs to understand that the hook is just a starting point.” I think that in our case we might want to place more emphasis on the hook, reconceiving it perhaps as the starting point and ending point for a walking tour of some aspect of the city’s cultural history.”
Marcus, Sollors, and their HUP editor Lindsay Waters (who first conceived the project) worried at the outset about the problem of the “grand narrative” in literary history, an idea that has come under fire in recent years. They solve the problem by having nearly 200 contributors, each bringing a particular point of view, creating rather than a finished jigsaw puzzle something more like a collage. With only two of us, our cultural history of New York would tend no doubt to have fewer and more unified perspectives, and I think we would want to include chapters that provided overviews of sections of the book. From teaching Writing New York, we’re already armed with a set of conceptual maps that will guide our choices of which walks through the city’s history we want to take. But what if we don’t write those overviews until the very end, once we’ve assembled the bulk of our 2,500-word essays and then stepped back to see what kinds of views of the city they ended up offering, what unexpected paths and byways they uncovered? What if we decided only then how to break the book up into sections, each of which might get an overview?
What do you think, Bryan?