The American Peacock

Anne Collier, Puzzle (Jackson Pollock, Convergence), 2009. C-print, 46.8" x 58". Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.
  • A New Literary History of America. Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Harvard UP. March 2009.

Look up Greil Marcus’s chapter on Moby-Dick in Harvard’s New Literary History of America, and you’ll find a TV Guide description of John Huston’s 1956 film version: “A mad captain enlists others in his quest to kill a white whale.” It’s Melville’s epic reduced to a sentence of plot summary, which is funny, maybe. But then Marcus glosses the sentence, “Isn’t that America, the thing itself, right there?” and it starts to get confusing. After all, what’s he saying? Is it just the old stuff about Ahab being an emblem of American imperial ambition? Or are we meant to wince at the American adeptness at turning art into advertisement? Or maybe (a bit of a stretch, but who knows?) Marcus and his co-editor Werner Sollors are the “mad captains enlisting others” in commissioning the essays designed to hunt down that inscrutable beast, “America”? In lieu of an answer, Marcus lets loose a swirl of allusions, some of them obvious, most of them not: Edmund Wilson’s likening Ahab to Ulysses S. Grant in Patriotic Gore; Elvis Presley raising a mic stand like a harpoon during his 1968 comeback concert; a brief appearance of a whale in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There; an episode of Law and Order in which one character is a literature professor and Melville specialist. Depending on your tastes, this is either spellbinding secret history or a rote exercise in épater le bourgeois, as if the essay were overeager to replace piety with kitsch.

Whatever the connection to Moby-Dick, the stream of references in Marcus’s essay certainly are like a micro-performance of the volume as a whole. In keeping with Harvard’s previous two “New Histories”—of French literature, edited in 1989 by Denis Hollier; and of German literature, edited in 2004 by David Wellbery—the New Literary History of America is a collection of short commissioned essays, more or less quirky in its selection and treatment of topics, rather than avowedly comprehensive and programmatic, and designed to expand the territory covered by the word “literature.” More deliberately eclectic than the French and German histories, the American installment—which runs from the appearance of the name “America” on a map in 1507 to the presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008—takes things up a notch. As Harvard’s executive editor of the humanities Lindsay Waters puts it, the book is “not meant to be an encyclopedia but a provocation.”

What, then, is the nature of the provocation? On the one hand, you can treat the History as a version of what used to be called New Historicism, with its swerves from obscure social documents to readings of literary works, made always with the implication that they’d unmasked some ideology lying dormant in the text.  On the other hand, you can treat the book as a sprawling collection of oddities drawn from years of flaneur-like strolling.  By this account the History becomes something more along the lines of Walter Benjamin’s Marxist-surrealist account of 19th century Paris (though the analogy begins to break down when you compare Benjamin’s scavenging near-homelessness with the power and resources of the commissioning editors at a major university press). Setting well-known works beside fads and ephemera is not to call their canonicity into question, but to create a situation in which the meaning of say, Absalom, Absalom!, might be inferred from the semiotics of the skyscraper (like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal read through a meditation on Parisian shopping arcades). This makes the book more a collection of virtual histories than one long teleological narrative: look up Lincoln in the index and you get one version of American literary history; look up Du Bois another, Dickinson another. The book’s cover, with its array of icons—an electric guitar, a steam engine, Ella Fitzgerald, the Empire State Building, Joe Namath, a ten dollar bill, the Brooklyn bridge, a pogo stick—is then something like an advertisement for the method.  All of this is in keeping with the editors’ own description of the History as premised on their  taking literally the phrase “made in America,” with a stress on “making” as poiesis.

So far, critics have tended to see the former method at work, defenders the latter. As Mark Bauerlein put it, in a recent debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the History’s “focus on racial, sexual and other group identities…sometimes reaches the point of fixation.” Bauerlein’s interlocutor in the Chronicle piece, Priscella Wald, responds in defense of the volume, not with the editors’ claim that there was “no quota” behind the selection of contributors and topics but with praise for what she calls the History’s attunement to the “textuality of the nation.” Part of what Wald means by “textuality of the nation,” I take it, is that the literary should be thought of not as an autonomous category, but as an epiphenomenal froth bubbling up from social struggle. Both sides of this slightly cartoonish debate are evidence of the entrenchment of certain academic habits—the first quaintly reminiscent of the culture wars in its alarmism, the second content to invoke lifeless tokens (here “textuality,” but it could just as easily have been “hybridity” or the “other”). And if we take seriously the History’s mission to provoke, then we are entitled to expect from it an attempt at rousing those invested in such habits from their dogmatic slumber.  In any case, the Chronicle piece ends up looking like something of a false debate (with the volume itself scoring a de facto victory when co-editor Sollors is wheeled in for a supposedly adjudicative coda).


If the very idea of what it means to study American literature—or to do “American studies”—is somehow at issue in the book’s commitment to provoke, it makes sense to begin with Robert Polito’s essay on the field’s most overdetermined figure, F.O. Matthiessen. Matthiessen, as Polito puts it, “created something like an authorized version of our national literary culture” in his 1941 book American Renaissance, which made the case for a canon consisting of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and Thoreau that we know today. Reminding us of Matthiessen’s struggle as a closeted gay man and a conflicted socialist (as a devout Christian he worried about state atheism), Polito wonders what his leap from the twelfth floor window of the Hotel Manger in Boston in 1950 might have to do with these bits of biography.  A detail to which Polito gives special attention: before jumping out the window Matthiessen left upon his hotel room dresser his keys, glasses, a note, and “his Yale Skull and Bones pin.” With the table of contents headline for the entry reading “American literary history emerges from Skull and Bones,” we’re given the choice to see the History as either the reified apotheosis of New Historicism (did you know that American studies emerged sui generis from a secret society?), or as innocently freewheeling eclecticism.

Built into Matthiessen’s account of 19th century American literature is one of the more pervasive ideas in American culture—that of the self-reliant individual, or “individualism”—and much literary criticism in the U.S. since Mattheissen has been a slow burn of skepticism about the very existence of such an entity. Here, as elsewhere, American literary critics belatedly adopted ideas from French existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism. Something of course was lost in translation, and one of the unexpected results of this inheritance on the academic study of American literature has been a cookie-cutter hermeneutics of suspicion, a practice of subjecting all objects, claims, and in a sense the project of art itself to doubt; but shorn of the critique of metaphysics that animated the French thinkers.

When we move from the way the History imagines the formation of an academic field to the way it deals with this perhaps suspect idea of the originality of individual authorial voice, we find James Conant on Emerson’s “American Scholar” address.  Maybe because Conant is coming from a Philosophy and not an English department, the essay is free of some of the mannerisms of the typical “American studies” approach.  Conant points out that when Emerson chastises his countrymen for their “mendicant” reading and says they are knee-deep in the petrified commandments of “some saint or sage,” he means not only that there are plenty of materials nearby for reflection but that it is up to each person to come up with a way of thinking and talking about them.  For Conant, Emerson’s own essays, with their alternately simple and extravagant diction, present one version of how this new kind of free-thinker might sound.  And Conant is right to stress how far from unthinking patriotism Emerson was, taking as his epigraph the line: “Your American eagle is very well. Protect it here and abroad. But beware of the American peacock.”

Conant further links Emerson’s recoil from the strut of jingoism, which he associated with Jacksonian hubris, to a journal entry in which Emerson resigns himself to the fact that, far from executing the will of the people, politicians can be expected to be “as wicked as they dare.” Conant had probably been working on the piece during George W. Bush’s second term, and he follows the quote from Emerson, “public opinion…will bear a great deal of nonsense,” with the parenthetical aside, “I know just how he feels.” It is worth mentioning that nowhere in this essay—nor in Herwig Friedl’s essay in the History on Emerson’s 1838 “Divinity School Address,” nor anywhere in this tome designed to provoke—is cited Emerson’s line: “Truly speaking it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul.”

Emerson runs like a red thread through the book, and the History is generally excellent as a tool for tracking the sometimes unlikely consequences that follow from his example (“Both the capitalist credo of Andrew Carnegie and the Christian socialism of Leo Tolstoy,” as Friedl puts it, could each find inspiration in Emerson). One path leads to the formation of American philosophy as a profession, and Conant offers a second essay on how Josiah Royce’s neo-Kantian idealism inspired his Harvard colleague, William James, to work out what he called his “pragmatism” (borrowing a word from his unemployable friend Charles Peirce); philosophical developments which might be said to enact clashing elements in Emerson’s temperament.  A more well-known consequence of Emerson’s example is the way the candor of the early addresses prepared the way for the “barbaric yawp” of Brooklyn journalist and journeyman printer—and intuitive provocateur—Walter Whitman, Jr. Angus Fletcher tells us how Emerson’s call for a native bard found a taker in Whitman, who’d gone to listen to Emerson’s lyceum lectures in New York and wrote at least one review of what he heard in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Whitman was a pragmatist in a different sense: he had a gift for getting his homemade books out into the world and creating around them what we would now call “buzz.” (He had inscribed on the spine of the second edition of Leaves of Grass a line from a letter Emerson sent him).

Another more distant and perhaps more unlikely historical consequence of Emerson’s example, and one that brings some of his ideas into sharp relief against questions more germane to the 20th century, is Philip Roth’s 1995 American Pastoral. Hana Wirsh-Nesher makes the connection explicit in her essay on the novel, focusing on how the ironies of the Jewish-American immigrant experience are set against a presentist “pastoral” construed as self-reliant and without the baggage of history.  So when Merry Levov, the stuttering, Nixon-hating, Vietnam-obsessed daughter of the social climbing Swede chucks a bomb in the local post-office of respectable Rimrock New Jersey, this is, for Wirth-Nesher, a “violent rejection” of the Emersonian injunction to slough off the past. In ending his novel with the melodic line, “What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” Roth is ultimately equivocal about the meaning of “pastoral,” casting as he does the hardworking, patriotic immigrants against the flailing radicalism of the deluded teen.  But Wirth-Nesher finally wants to raise the stakes of “tradition,” wondering if “the pastoral ideal (and the ahistoricism associated with Emerson) is by definition opposed to the emphasis on history in Jewish civilization.”

Elizabeth Alexander, now famous for reading a poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration, also takes up the question of how literary form may or may not lend itself to facilitating group identification.  In her essay on Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel Cane, Alexander describes Toomer’s choice not to appear in James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry as his “being placed at times squarely within an African American community…but also resisting being classified as a Negro writer.” Cane’s refusal to stay for too long within any one formal or generic mode, with its abrupt shifts from lyric to drama to prose to song to commentary, might be read as refusing the straight-jacket of essentialism, racial or otherwise.  But when Alexander tells us that the novel’s “gorgeous, strange, besotted, purple, overwrought,” prose will be “resurrected in the 1960s when it will suit a movement open to the political and aesthetic utility of black essentialisms,” we see Toomer’s efforts at shaking off constraints getting re-slotted into what are deemed necessary essentialisms.  Alexander understands this historical development as Toomer’s “crossing the color-line forever, or, rather, becom[ing] black in…a way not delimited by race.” Does she mean that Toomer’s work has crossed a line beyond which it must forever be treated a document of a “blackness,” rather than as a record of a human experience? Or is it that a “blackness…not delimited by race” is just a metaphor for a certain psychical condition; one that would presumably characterize everyone from Hamlet, to what Melville called, in a review essay on Hawthorne, the “power of blackness”? Alexander’s ambiguity seems to require us either to applaud the co-option of Toomer’s high modernism, or to question the mannerisms of a discipline that too often equates an insipid identity politics with critical thought. One is left to wonder if this is an example of the History’s “provocation,” or just the rubber stamping of the Harvard UP logo on established protocols.


The limitations of the History’s method become most obvious in its treatment of American music. This seems appropriate: for cranks as dissimilar as Theodor Adorno and Pierre Bourdieu, music (production for one, consumption for the other) could be the most revealing of status markers. In the case of the History, the criterion for selection is as partisan as a playlist on somebody else’s iPod.  Popular forms attaining the respectability of Art (like Dylan, or The Birth of the Cool, or Hank Williams) are mostly accounted for, but virtually no composers of Western art (“classical”) music were seen fit for inclusion. This means no Henry Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow, nor Elliot Carter; Charles Ives, John Cage and La Monte Young are mentioned only in passing; no Terry Riley, Anthony Braxton, Steve Reich nor John Adams. And no Frank Zappa, a truly fearless high/low magpie, neither above nor below grafting a serial tone row into a doo-wop song.

What are the cultural politics at work here?  Does the commitment to celebrating the end of the high/low divide make it easy to cheerlead pop stars but impossible to consider (or at least mention), say, Braxton’s Orchestra Pieces? All of this reminds one of the cultural studies department that worships Benjamin because he was into media but disses Adorno because he didn’t get jazz. As Alex Ross (for one) has recently shown, you can’t really explain the history of American music without considering the—sometimes direct, more often elliptical—lines of influence informing vastly different sorts of composing and listening, especially in the 20th century. The truncated version we get in the History is both soothing to present listening habits, and misleading in its omissions. This is why “provocation” as an organizing principle doesn’t suit the historian’s obligation to explain a given phenomenon adequately, and seems rather better suited for registering current market trends.

Not that the History is only out to provoke. A further criterion for inclusion, the editors write, was to find “points in time and imagination when something changed.” One could argue that the most dramatic shift in American music after the tumult of the ’60s was punk rock, beginning in Detroit with bands like the MC5 and The Stooges, in LA with the Germs and X, and in New York with the New York Dolls and the Ramones.  Going by the History’s lights you’d think punk never happened, and this, given the stated aims, is weird.  The omission is partly remedied by Hua Hsu’s essay on Charlie Ahearn’s classic 1982 film Wild Style, which captures what was going on uptown during the heyday of CBGBs (the two scenes fused in Blondie’s 1981 single “Rapture”). That the international entertainment template of hip-hop emerged from warehouse parties in the Bronx where the first vinyl turntables were hooked up so two copies of the same record could be synched for break beats, is dizzying to contemplate. But, again, Hsu’s essay  misses  an opportunity to tackle the contradictions that mass marketing makes for art.  What happens when a grass roots graffiti-dance-music scene gets turned into mush? The essay doesn’t say, except inadvertently, when it lyricizes Sean “Puffy” Combs as a schmoozing arriviste in the Hamptons, with “upper crust party goers…seduced by [his] style…comparing him to Jay Gatsby.” Combs is Roth’s Swede with bling, but here the tone is celebratory rather than conflicted, as if the rapper-entrepreneur had found his way back to Emerson’s pastoral (even if Gatsby was less like Emerson, and more Melville’s Confidence Man). That the outsider art of Wild Style finds its telos in glitzocratic trendiness and a tidal wave of cash is a puzzle over which Hsu chooses not to brood.

Joshua Clover at least considers some of these paradoxes in his essay on Bob Dylan, finding in Highway 61 Revisited’s ten-minute closer “Desolation Row” a last gasp of modernist depth before a decades-long deluge of lifeless repackaging whose scale not even Adorno could have imagined. Clover explores the art-cum-commodity problem by way of Wallace Stevens (the modernist poet Dylan doesn’t name-drop in “Desolation Row”), inverting a line from “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” so that in the culture industry “seem is the finale of be.” Wondering if Dylan is a shard of authenticity in the bubble-gum factory, or the guy who makes authenticity itself alluringly simulacral, Clover finally finds in Dylan an “ambiguous cause and effect” for the whole situation. It’s one of the few moments where the anthology’s criterion of selections appears to come into question, and the uncritical celebration of cultural pluralism begins to seem less like a party and more like a problem.


The idea of a “thoughtful anthology”  is quixotic by definition, damned from the outset to reflect reigning orthodoxies or slip without fanfare onto survey syllabi. But these unattractive options aren’t the only ones, and Sollors himself has proved it before, with The Multilingual Anthology of the United States (co-edited with Marc Shell), his compendium of American writing not-in-English. Farther afield, there’s Franco Moretti’s five volume Italian anthology on the world novel, Il romanzo, with its goal of making the study of the novel “longer, larger, and deeper.” In these cases and others like them, provocative ideas from the academy’s margins have resulted in truly odd, still unassimilable projects that have little to do with market concerns or academic consensus.

The History ends with a collage by artist and author Kara Walker depicting, in an oblique way, the election of Barack Obama. While it is the most literal expression of the volume’s organizing principles—the editors’ decision to go straight to the visual, as if the written word had itself become an encumbrance—it also leads one to ask at what point a longing to provoke turns into simple ostentation. If, like Benjamin’s Passagenwerk, the History is as much about its assembly as it is about its content, it also risks becoming a version of Emerson’s peacock. Not the boorish patriot, but a book so proud of itself it required a panel and a press conference at Harvard’s Barker Center to signal its release. Isn’t that America, the thing itself, right there?

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