Range of America's Written Words; Essays on Cultural History Collected

Article excerpt

Byline: Bruce Allen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Make it new, Ezra Pound demanded, in an influential utterance that argued the case for detailed study of classic texts, respectful assimilation of their achievements and the application of learning thus absorbed to a poetic apprehension of the here and now and yet to be. It was a clarion call taken up by such modern masters as Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and Shostakovich, and many, many others.

The editors of this rich exercise in cultural history have likewise taken up Pound's challenge, producing an eloquent patchwork volume that gathers up more than 200 essays, chronologically arranged by subject, into a beguiling symphony that expresses the bewildering, often intimidating varieties of what we presume to call the American experience.

If invited to list qualities peculiar to both that experience and the range of America's written words, I might isolate four: exploration, discovery, industry and innovation. Indeed, something rather like this imaginary quartet would appear to be playing softly in the background of this curious if not quaint volume of lore that ought not to be forgotten - which I'll call both a distant cousin and certifiable blood kin to such venerable standard works as the multivolume Cambridge History of American Literature and the mammoth one-volume Literary History of the United States.

Beginning with A New Geography that tells the story of the first (1507) map on which the word America appears, and concluding with a visual collage (created by MacArthur Award-winning artist Kara Walker) that wryly commemorates the 2008 election of President Obama, this splendiferous tribute to the best that so many of us have thought and said and made embraces classic and watershed literary works and their authors, political acts and events and issues, statements of purpose and conscience, achievements in both the fine arts (music, painting, sculpture, et al) and the raucous venues of popular culture (yes, Virginia, we do get a crash course in the autobiographical writings of 1970s porn queen Linda Lovelace), and major figures ranging from the makers of the Constitution of the United States to contemporary film and television personalities and the giants and giantesses of pop, jazz and rock music.

There is, to be sure, a pleasing abundance of incisive critical appreciations: scrutinizing Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet's judicious use of the language of scripture and diarist Samuel Sewall's enlightened albeit troubled personal morality; Charles Brockden Brown's heroic, flawed attempt to write the first truly American novel Wieland, 1798); a revealing comparison of Dreiser's Sister Carrie with Wharton's The House of Mirth ; novelist Gish Jen's persuasive defense of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye against criticisms of its pedestrian artistry; even unto editor Marcus' thoughtful appraisal of Richard Powers' award-winning 2005 novel The Time of Our Singing.

There are numerous examples of what I'll call extensions, radiating toward or from a significant work of art or event. Examples (sticking with literature for the moment): David Treuer's discussion of the indigenous Native American sources of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha ; literary responses to the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials, from Hawthorne's stories to the novels of Caribbean author Maryse Conde; and the aforementioned Richard Powers' moving essay on the Boston Civil War Monument honoring Col. Robert Shaw's all-black Union regiment, unforgettably further memorialized in Robert Lowell's masterly poem For the Union Dead.

Literature is, paradoxically enough, not the whole story. Even American history buffs will surely learn much from essays analyzing the early political history of the republic, the phenomenon of immigration and its immediate and enduring effects on America's sense of solidarity, the shame of racism, the many avenues into which the energies of popular music (from the comic song "Yankee Doodle to the complex urban inflections of hip-hop) poured themselves and the adoration of success and celebrity that made icons of professional athletes, film stars and auteurs alike, and musical performers of all sorts and conditions. …