Turning Over an Old Page

Looking to the past, a recent publication by HU Press tells new story of America's literary history to no one in particular

Though later his life would be caricatured in one of Walt Disney’s most celebrated films, Captain John Smith holds a more practical position in American legend than simply that of the man Pocahontas saved; according Wikipedia’s encompassing entry on “American literature,” he was also the first American author. During the early 1600s, Smith, a prominent member of newly colonized Jamestown, penned several works on the then-nascent history of the land he had christened New England.

Some four centuries after Smith’s arrival to America, three other New Englanders embarked on a literary journey of their own. With the intent of exploring historical facts in a greater socio-politico-cultural context, Werner Sollors (Harvard Professor of African and African American Studies), Greil Marcus (well-known music critic and the first reviews editor of “Rolling Stone”), and Lindsay Waters (Executive Editor for the Humanities of the Harvard University Press (HU Press)) began composing a reference book that attempts to redefine the standard approach to writing about America’s literary history, from foundation to modern-day. Aided by an editorial board and an impressive list of contributors, their creation is a 200-essay compendium they named “A Literary History of America.” Touching upon subjects from “The Scarlet Letter” to the Star Spangled Banner, the Winchester rifle to cybernetics, the essays begin with a focused analysis of one incident or figure and then extend outwards to address other relevant issues.

In an age when Wikipedia can inform the uninformed of most trivial details of John Smith’s life—but not what those details meant to the future of American literature—“Literary History” may be the innovative counterpart to the archetypal encyclopedic work. The HU Press publication has lofty aspirations. It wants—and deserves—to be read; but at 3.4 pounds, 1,100 pages, and $49.99, the tome may have misjudged its ability to appeal to the masses.


“I started the project because I had the primitive desire to have a big book that could explain my world; not a picture, but something that could convey the whole thing to readers,” Waters says regarding the concept behind “Literary History,” which he conceived in 1982. It was only on September 29, 2005 that the project would officially be set in motion. Also the catalyst behind HU Press’ similarly titled French and German literary histories, Waters, with Sollors and Marcus, created an editorial board that formed, as Waters puts it, a “search party”—one imparted with the task of ‘finding America.’ The 15-member board traversed centuries of American history, settling on a long list of topics that eschewed abstractions such as the definition of realism. Instead, in the board’s point of view, the final subjects are fundamentally relevant to American readers; the underlying them is an emphasis on things that have been “made,” a concept that Waters finds integral to the American mindset and tradition.


“America is about making…it’s the popular mechanics side of America,” he says. “When they were making the George Washington Bridge between Manhattan and New Jersey, the New Jersey and New York governments who designed it had a plan to cover the iron ore with marble. Somehow the general population heard about this and they said, ‘Just leave the steel exposed.’ It’s a basic American feeling to want to see how something was made.”

The requirement that topics be somehow linked to the process of creation left much room for interpretation of what serves as “literary” history. Consequently, the book has received criticism from some reviewers, such as The Globe’s columnist Alex Beam, for its inclusion of pop culture entries on, for instance, Barack Obama’s election or Linda Lovelace, lead actress of the film “Deep Throat.”

“Some people could say the subjects of the different entries aren’t all literary subjects, but the exploration of them is literary,” says reviewer Laura Miller, book editor for “It’s really an exploration of American culture, and American literary culture isn’t separable from pop culture, or visual, material, political, racial culture.”

Miller uses one entry as a metaphor for the book’s endeavor to engage with readers by honestly portraying what has been important to American literary history over the past five centuries. The essay compares “Yankee Doodle” to “The Star Spangled Banner,” the former which she describes as representative of an American impulse and the latter as an attempt to aspire to the seriousness of European heritage. “Only focusing on Longfellow, Whitman, Fitzgerald, and the litany of familiar figures is to me ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ approach,” Miller says. “I feel that this book is more of a ‘Yankee Doodle’ approach, a book that people really care about and engage with, than it is an attempt to set up a kind of aspirational highbrow idea of culture. They write about culture people actually had rather than culture we think they should have had.”


Yet while the topics of the essays in “Literary History” may seem pedestrian at times, the Table of Contents reads like a Hall of Fame inductee list for distinction in both scholarship and pop culture.

Nonetheless, Waters, Sollors, and the remainder of the editorial board who sought out the rest of the contributors, stress that accessibility is one of “Literary History’s” primary objectives. As part of their mission to revise the means of representing literary history, they wanted to captivate the attention of readers commonly alienated by the formal, esoteric jargon of other scholarly works of this kind.

“I wrote for the same reader I always write for—the educated general reader,” says Ruth R. Wisse, Professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature, who contributed an entry on Saul Bellow. “So if you’re using a literary term which is not immediately comprehensible, then it is your duty to explain it. Clarity is the one thing you aim for most.”

Contributors and reviewers referenced the general reader most frequently as the expected consumer of “Literary History,” but even they expressed concern that such an audience simply does not exist anymore.

“We were using the phrase ‘educated general reader’ [to describe our audience], but no one is quite sure who that reader is anymore,” says Kirsten Gruesz, Professor of Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, an editorial board member and contributor of entries on Richard Dana, Jr. and “Mexico in America.” “It’s people who aren’t academics, who don’t necessarily see themselves as big-time readers, but who still maintain intellectual interests and want to know how to think about the world in the 21st century,” she speculates.