A reissue of a 2009 book, “A New Literary History of America,” edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Harvard University Press, $20 paper) includes old warhorses like Samuel Sewall, Melville and Hemingway, but also a whole passel of new subjects which would never have appeared a generation ago.
One that caught my eye was written by an old acquaintance, Philip Furia, who used to teach at the University of Minnesota. His essay was on Irving Berlin and the genesis of his very popular tune, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Editor Greil Marcus, the cultural anthropologist who writes of popular music in books like “Lipstick Traces,” explains in a preface that America’s “literature was not inherited but invented, as if it were a tool or a macine 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; American history, literary, social, political, religious, cultural and technological, has been a matter of what one could make of it, and of how one got across what he or she meant to say to his or her fellow citizens, as they no less than the speaker struggled to define themselves as individuals, and as part of a a whole.”
Thus the new book contains essays about Mickey Mouse by the University of Minnesota’s Karal Ann Marling; Franklin Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat by Paula Rabinowitz; Douglas McGrath on madcap movie director Preston Sturges; and, finally, an essay on Hurricane Katrina by editors Marcus and Werner Sollors. And let’s not forget a nod to the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous and Henry Ford’s River Rouge industrial plant.
It’s a liberating book all the way round and doesn’t ignore the likes of our puritan forefathers. Instead it merely lets in lots of fresh air and redefines the boundaries of what literature is.
Editor’s note Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Phone him at 715-426-9554.