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The Times They Have Always Been A-Changing

To paraphrase the maxim “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” one could say making history is easy; writing history is hard. The zigzags of sudden events, the long unwinding of nations, the decision-makers and the then-unknowns: history comes at us piecemeal, without warning, and often as bizarrely as anything that anyone who is not an historian could imagine. A black president? Cries of “Nazi!” in a town-hall meeting over health? A billionaire big-city mayor deciding to run for a third term in contradiction of the rules? Whether it is serious or silly (i.e., the North Carolina Governor’s search for his soul mate while he is supposedly hiking the Appalachian Trail), history never stops.

And it is not only historians who continue to try and demystify what happened when. As Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors explain in their Introduction to the 1095-page “A New Literary History of America” (Belknap Harvard), “this is the story of a made-up nation that in many ways preceded its society.” The anthology, covering the years 1507 to 2008 through the writings (and in the case of the young artist Kara Walker, through her drawings and collages of Obama’s election) of more than two hundred writers, novelists, poets, critics and, yes, historians is less the usual staid university anthology than a kind of street party—it does not always celebrate America’s deeds, but even at the worst times (Salem’s 1692 witchcraft trials, the Missouri Compromise, Jim Crow’s emergence in 1830, the Civil War, Coolidge’s signing the John-Reed Act in 1924 to resist immigration, on through the blacklist and King’s assassination, as some of these selections highlight) Americans have found their country larger-than-life, ready to embrace the thousand and one American tales told and retold.

In choosing art—be it the novels of Jack London, Pynchon, and Roth; the poems of Hart Crane and Elizabeth Bishop; the art of the 18th-century portraitist Charles WillsonPeale and Jackson Pollock; the movies “The Birth of a Nation” and “Psycho”; the skyscrapers and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial; the children’s authors L. Frank Baum and Dr. Seuss; the musicians Charlie Parker and Bob Dylan; even the political writings of Frederick Douglass and FDR’s first Fireside Chat and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—the editors refocus our attention on how vital and real were the daily outpourings by artists, known and unknown.

The opening entry, “The name ‘America’ appears for the first time on a map,” for the year 1507, traces the way that Columbus’s voyage led to the young Alsatian scholar Matthias Ringmann’s redrafting a map that showed “an entirely new continent” (in the writer Toby Lester’s words). Ringmann’s explanation is simple but stirring: “Now truly these parts [Europe, Africa, Asia] have been more widely explored, and another, fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vesputius[ or Vespucci to us]…and I do not see why anyone should rightly forbid naming it Amerige, land of Americus, as it were, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of genius, or America, inasmuch as both Europe and Asia have received their names from women.”

America’s writers have not always been the novelists and poets we read in school; one of this book’s many felicities is the recording of so many writers known for other things. Who knew that the Virginia Company settler John Smith was such a committed writer, the author of several guidebooks such as “GenerallHistorie of Virginia” (1624) and the “Don Quixote”-like picaresque “The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith” (1630).

It is interesting, too, that many of the earliest writings now deemed literary were political, such as John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” speech of 1630; while others such as Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (1846) which were politically motivated are now treasured (in part) for their literary merits. Similarly, contributor François Furstenberg’s article on Washington’s Farewell Address shows with great enthusiasm why no other retiring presidents’ addresses “have held such public interest [or] proved as influential.” He notes the curious fact that “in January 1862, during the Civil War…Congress provided that ‘the Farewell Address of Washington be read aloud on the morning of that day [Washington’s Birthday] in one or the other of the houses of Congress.’” We see the country being shaped by its culture, either by writers reviewing the past or adumbrating the future. Ted Widmer’s eloquent look at Tocqueville ends: “Thanks to a diminutive Frenchman who could barely speak English, Americans have a user’s manual for the ages.”

A special chapter is reserved for F.O. Mathiessen, the venerable mid-twentieth century Harvard professor who, in Robert Polito’s entry, was the source of our now common view of American literary history—and thus our sense of America as a blank page to be described. His “American Renasissance” (1941) signaled something new: an acknowledgement of American literature and the demand for it to be taken seriously. He wrote of Poe, Melville, and Whitman, “The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them today.”

America’s reception toward its artists has often been funked. It is what makes them so new, so original, and controversial. To the creative artist America is, in Melvillean terms, the great white whale: they attack it with pen and paintbrush, with camera and steel, with fantasy and fable. That it eternally slips past is inevitable; neither Dostoevsky nor Tolstoy nor Tarkovsky ever caught Russia whole. As a rule, history trumps culture every time. Yet the appearance of so many artists creating a tapestried history of the country, whether in the iconic photographs and text of Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” or Winsor McCay’s epic comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” that ran from 1905 to 1911 and prophesied so much from skyscrapers to movie frames to science fiction, proves history is really set in stone when it is set in type or in celluloid or on canvas, first.

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