Thursday, 24 September 2009

A New Literary History of the United States in Literature The publication of A New Literary History of the United States will likely strike a few chords familiar to the participants in the debate that followed Rohan’s latest post. Written neither in the Emory Elliot mode—a history of items both literary and American—nor that of Sacvan Bercovitch—a history all items written by Americans that can be yours for the low, low price of $299.29—editors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors instead decided to write a cultural history of the United States in a self-consciously literary voice. As Laura Miller at Salon* writes, the two have pitched the biggest tent conceivable, pegging each of the chronologically arranged essays in the book to “points in time and imagination where something changed: when a new idea or a new form came into being, when new questions were raised, when what before seemed impossible came to seem necessary or inevitable.” With this in mind, they’ve produced a compendium that is neither reference nor criticism, neither history nor treatise, but a genre-defying, transcendent fusion of them all. It sounds impossible, but the result seems both inevitable and necessary and profoundly welcome, too. This is, then, an anthology seemingly written to drive J.C. Hallman to drink, because it doggedly focuses on cultural significance over the literariness of the literary. However soul-deadening he might consider its subject matter, the manner in which most of it is written would likely meet with approval. Though idea-driven, the prose in Jonathan Lethem’s entry on Thomas Edison—in which he exclusively discusses the inventor’s place in film history—still sings: To watch the Edison films now, and those of the other production companies that joined him in the earliest phase of the film industry, is to discover a portal peering both backward and forward in cultural time. Even the most assiduous film buffs tend to begin with Charlie Chaplin, who appeared as a performer and made his first pictures as a fledgling director in 1914, or D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation a year later. But the films that preceded those are as revelatory for their familiarity as their strangeness. Almost none presents a possibility that will fail to be exfoliated in the great boom to come, nor explores an avenue that runs anywhere but straight from the common cultural trove. A 120-second costumed Punch and Judy show like The Clown and the Alchemist (Edison Company, 1900), with its antic clown assisted in his abuses of the sententious alchemist by the use of stop-motion special effects, forms a lucid bridge between vaudeville and a Jim Carrey movie—The Mask, say. And watching the Selig Polyscope Company’s thirteen-minute 1910 version of The Wizard of Oz provides an uncanny sense of dislocation. Presenting a series of highlight moments derived from the popular stage version (adapted by L. Frank Baum, the novel’s author), the Selig Oz, in scenes of the Tin Man’s oiling, of the tale’s companions skipping arm in arm down a yellow brick road, and of the Wizard’s departure by balloon, seems a precognitive appropriation...
How not to get what you want via email. This one will forever remain the locus classicus for e-futility, but the four I received in the last sixteen hours make for a mighty strong undercard. In sum: You are a liar and a fraud. And I don't give a rat's ass what anyone who respects you may think of me, because I haven't any respect for anyone who would respect a disingenuous lying weasel like you to begin with. Can you do me a favor? Because I can't help but be polite, I even responded to these emails by telling my interlocutor how he could secure the information he needed to launch another baseless attack against me. Why did I tell an intellectually dishonest person how to contact an agent who could put him in touch with the author he believes has information that undermines my argument? Because that's what disingenuous lying weasels do: they provide their critics the means to suss out any truth that begs for sunlight. Don't believe me? You should. I have independent corroboration of my good faith gesture. That evidence of my good faith comes from the very person who would cast me as a world-historical tool should elicit a few cheap chuckles . . . as should the fact that said person attempts to prove my iniquitous nature by publishing a private email in which I wrote the following: [Y]ou don’t even realize that I was trying to help you there, because I’d like to know what Andersen thinks as much as you do. But after the way you’ve maligned me without cause for the past few years, my friends—go figure—don’t want to have a fucking thing to do with you. I can’t ask them to do a favor on your behalf because they’re pre-pissed at me for even engaging with you in uncivil blog commentary. But because I’m not a fucking asshole, I remind you that you did some graduate work with someone who currently works at the same agency that represents Andersen. How do I know this? Because the person in question told me once upon a time. I’m not going to give you my friend’s email address because that’d be pointless—apples to oranges she already has all permutations of your address in a kill file—so I point you in a direction of another agent there that might bear fruit[.] Your eyes do not deceive you: I am being called all manner of awful things for the sin of trying to help a person who wants to discredit me because I'm more interested in the truth than I am winning an argument. I'm actually glad my critic tunneled 'neath the low road and published our private correspondence online because it proves that I'm the sort of person whose friends care about him enough to despise strangers on his behalf is so invested in the truth that he will attempt to help someone who hates him find a way around those friends in order to discover it who should fucking cut back...

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