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'A New Literary History of America': As big and good as the country itself

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The huge, welcoming, exciting, just-published volume A New Literary History of America is a book with which to spend entire days and the rest of your life. It’s a collection of over 200 original short essays that range, as the editors, Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors write in their introduction, “from the first appearance of ‘America’ on a map to Jimi Hendrix’s rewrite of the national anthem,” from the founding of the nation up through Hurricane Katrina and the election of Barack Obama.

There are essays here on the Salem witch trials and on Tarzan; on the founding of the Hudson River School of painting and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous; on The Book of Mormon and The Catcher In The Rye. The essays are written by well-known names (Jonathan Letham, Sarah Vowell, Richard Schickel, Gish Jen) and less famous but no less revelatory writers (I direct you immediately to Stephen Burt’s essays on poetry and to Dave Hickey’s acute “The Song in Country Music”). Where else are you going to read Camille Paglia on Tennessee Williams, Mary Gaitskill on Norman Mailer, and Walter Mosley on the hardboiled detective novel? Don’t you want to do that right now?

Much as he did as a writer in his discography for the 1979 anthology Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island — choosing and elaborating upon key recordings in a way that cohered as a history of rock music — so, as an editor here, Marcus has placed in chronological order other writers’ interpretations of key moments in American history, and ended up with a surprisingly complete yet completely surprising view of our nation’s progress. And its mistakes, its sins, its grand follies; its most fervent dreams, and its most livid realities.

Talk about an all-American value: You could read this 1,000-plus-page book forever and never use up its revelations and its pleasures.