"A New Literary History of America" is the scholarly-sounding name of the 1,000-or-so-page volume that author/journalist/teacher/cultural critic Greil Marcus is preparing, with literature Professor Werner Sollors, for Harvard University Press. But the one-volume work, to be published in 2009 and containing 220 2,500-word essays that cover the years from 1507 to Hurricane Katrina, is much juicier than that, "literature as usually understood but also political address, memoirs, legal documents, manifestos, inventions, events, music, movies, comics, theatre," says its formal statement of purpose.
Every entry, Marcus said by phone the other day, is "catching a moment when something changed, something happened, something new occurred about how to speak democratic speech, how to define what it was." Editorial board member David Thomson, a film historian, for example, proposed the last line from "Some Like It Hot": "Nobody's perfect." That entry, said Marcus, "is meant to open up into the whole realm of American movie comedy, where a line like that can capture the sense of we're making it up as we go along. It's not only essence of American comedy, but the essence of American character. Two words become a springboard for entering the book."
Marcus, Sollors and 10 editorial members winnowed down their 600 suggestions for topics to 220, "with lots of horse trading," he said, citing some sample winnowing conversation: "What do you mean you're including Linda Lovelace and not Robert Frost?" Among Bay Area writers, Clark Blaise will describe an 1851 meeting, a picnic, between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne; Anne Wagner is writing about Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial; Carolyn Porter is writing about 1936, the year both William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" and Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" were published.
Editing will be done by the end of the summer. "And I'm just stunned by the way it is all coming together, right now," said Marcus. The writers will be paid "virtually nothing," $200 according to the statement of purpose. "There are no provisions for royalties for the contributors, and I can't even remember whether there are for Werner and myself," he said. But "If this becomes a best-seller, we will find a way to make sure that those who made it possible profit from it. People did it for love, honor, duty and pride in their country."