A little over two weeks ago, I picked up a copy of A New Literary History of America at my local bookstore on a whim. I like books and I like history, so what could be better than a literary history? I'm also currently studying early American literature, making the essays touching on pre-1865 works particularly useful. Plus, the striking cover caught my attention.
Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America is composed of more than 200 essays written by as many contributors, each about 4 to 5 pages long. As explained in the editors' introduction, the essays address "points in time and imagination where something changed: when a new idea or a new form came into being, when new questions were raised, when what before seemed impossible came to seem necessary or inevitable." The essays, which are arranged chronologically, start with the naming of America in 1507 and continue through Obama's election in 2008.
Since that serendipitous day in the bookstore, I've spent several pleasant hours reading about Diaz's account of the tragic fall of Tenochtitlan, Cabeza de Vaca's chronicle of his trek to Mexico City, John White's influential watercolors of the Carolina Algonquians, and the writings of early colonists like John Smith, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Bradstreet.
I've also seen a surprising amount of great reviews for a book that's a 1128-page reference book published by a university press and selling for somewhere between $32 and $50. Here are just a few examples:
- The Wall Street Journal—"[T]he editors have drawn a new map for us and inscribed it boldly with the strange name America."
- The New York Times—"A New Literary History of America is not your typical Harvard University Press anthology. ... [It] roams far beyond any standard definition of literature. Aside from compositions that contain the written word, its subjects include war memorials, jazz, museums, comic strips, film, radio, musicals, skyscrapers, cybernetics and photography.
- Salon.com—"This magnificent volume is a vast, inquisitive, richly surprising and consistently enlightening wallow in our national history and culture."
- Entertainment Weekly—"You could read this 1,000-plus-page book forever and never use up its revelations and its pleasures."
The book even has its own website.
Not everyone loves this book. The minority view is nicely summed up by 'A Reader' in a 1-star Amazon.com review calling A New Literary History of America nothing more than "cocktail party multiculturalism served up by the Harvard boys."