We admit, however, to experiencing a brief flash of empathy with Headmaster Tracy when a 1,095-page tome entitled A New Literary History of America plopped heavily on our desk. Edited by Greil Marcus (“notable for producing scholarly and literary essays that place rock music in a much broader framework of culture and politics than is customary”) and Werner Sollors (a Professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard), this curious waste of wood pulp is published by Harvard University Press.
It is difficult to communicate the global awfulness of the book, the pretension mixed with smarmy demotic knowingness, the preposterous glorification of pop culture, the constant deflation of serious cultural achievement by means of sociological analysis. Perhaps the first thing that should be understood is that, despite its title, A New Literary History of America is only incidentally concerned with literature. A fair percentage of its approximately 200 chronologically arranged entries purports to deal with literary texts or figures. But the whole focus, the whole tone and gestalt, of the book is on extra-literary phenomena. An entry for 1982 is devoted to explaining how “Hip-hop travels the world”: “Perhaps hip-hop’s greatest contribution is the ease with which it inhabits contradiction.” It is hard to argue with that. The entry for “1956, April 16” dilates on the significance—Oh, what great significance it is said to possess!—of Chuck Berry’s pop song “Roll Over Beethoven.” An entry for 1970 is devoted to the porn star Linda Lovelace (she of Deep Throat). And so on. Nineteen-thirty-eight saw the introduction by Action Comics of Superman. In 1945, “Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie record together for the first time.” Another entry for 1945 is devoted to the atom bomb. The tagline: “Nobody apologized, nobody atoned.”
For the editors, the year 1969 was memorable partly because the Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop appeared, but mostly because “Seymour Hersh breaks the story of the My Lai massacre.” (“American crimes” is the operative phrase in that essay.) The penultimate essay, by which time we’ve reached 2005, is devoted to—Can you guess?—Hurricane Katrina. “If, for that moment,” the editors ask, “New Orleans was the nation, did the nation still exist?” Care to answer that? But the real point of that portentous non-question comes in the next sentence: “If it did, did it deserve to?” The unexpressed answer to that question, of course, is “not really.”
Not then, anyway. Not when George W. Bush, the villain of the essay, was president. But when we come to 2008, the book’s last entry, the clouds part and redemption is at hand. “Barack Obama is elected 44th President of the United States” reads the ecstatic headline. This is the apogee, the denouement, the culmination of all that A New Literary History of America has been building toward. If a book could sing, it would now burst into song. Instead, the book’s final entry consists of that headline and a series of propaganda posters by Kara Walker, an “African American artist who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity.” And that’s what this bloated travesty is really about: the left-wing politically correct worldview in which literature, in which cultural endeavor generally, exists only as a prop in a “progressive” political agenda. Harvard University Press should be ashamed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 2, on page 2
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