Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Essence of America in 1,095 Pages
From Longfellow to Lovelace
By PATRICIA COHEN in The New Yorker

Published: September 22, 2009

With entries on the porn star Linda Lovelace, the indie film “Wild Style” and Hurricane Katrina, it is clear that “A New Literary History of America” is not your typical Harvard University Press anthology. Although it has many features of an academic compendium — page numbers that reach into four digits and scores of scholarly contributors — this new collection of essays, being released on Wednesday, 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.

“We didn’t want to call it a cultural history because it’s too trendy,” Greil Marcus, an author and one of the volume’s editors, said; that might suggest it was “intellectually soft.”
Soft? Probably not. The academy these days is nothing if not trendy. Idiosyncratic? Most definitely.
At the project’s start four years ago, Lindsay Waters, an editor at Harvard University Press, told the book’s editors, “This is not an encyclopedia, but a provocation,” recalled Werner Sollors, a Harvard professor and the other half of the book’s editing team. “We wanted people to surprise themselves with their essays,” Mr. Sollors said.
So how does one select which moments and artifacts from North America’s last 500 years deserve inclusion? With a meeting. Mr. Sollors and Mr. Marcus gathered a dozen scholars to be the editorial board and the group began brainstorming, ultimately suggesting over 400 topics. Some were obvious: the Declaration of Independence, “Leaves of Grass,” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby.”
The full report at NYT.

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