About the Authors

Greil Marcus has written for many publications, and currently writes for the Believer. He is the author of Lipstick Traces, The Dustbin of History (both by Harvard), and Invisible Republic.

Werner Sollors is Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Harvard University.

Greil Marcus Werner Sollors

Greil Marcus (left) by Thierry Ardit, Paris. Werner Sollors (right).

Editorial Board

Stephen Burt
Gerald Early
Farah Griffin
Kirsten Silva Gruesz
Michael Leja
David Mindell
David Thomson
David Treuer
Ted Widmer
Sean Wilentz
with
Hua Hsu
Yael Schacher

Contributors

Alan Ackerman
(1912, April 15)
English, University of Toronto
Daniel Albright
(1903)
English, Harvard University
Elizabeth Alexander
(1921)
Author of American Sublime and Praise Song for the Day; African American Studies, Yale University
Marc Amfreville
(1798)
American Literature, Paris 12 Val de Marne University
Frances Aparicio
(1972)
Latin American and Latino Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
Jonathan Arac
(1846, late July)
English, University of Pittsburgh
Nancy Armstrong
(1798)
English, Duke University
William Beard
(1960)
Film Studies, University of Alberta
Richard J. Bernstein
(1917)
Philosophy, The New School
Clark Blaise
(1850, August 5)
Author of Time Lord and I Had a Father
David Blight
(1700)
History, Yale University
Michael Boyden
(1869, March 4)
University College Ghent
Adam Bradley
(1936, July 5)
English, University of Colorado, Boulder
David Bradley
(1965, October)
Author of South Street and The Chaneysville Incident; Creative Writing, University of Oregon
Carrie Tirado Bramen
(1941)
English, State University of New York at Buffalo
Daphne A. Brooks
(1920, August 10)
English and African American Studies, Princeton University
Lisa Brooks
(1821)
History and Literature and Folklore and Mythology, Harvard University
Alfred L. Brophy
(1683)
University of North Carolina School of Law
Lawrence Buell
(1850, July 19)
English, Harvard University
Thi Phuong-Lan Bui
(1969, November 12)
International Studies, Hanoi University
Stephen Burt
(1826, 1927; 2001)
English, Harvard University
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
(1982)
Author of Madeleine Is Sleeping and Ms. Hempel Chronicles; University of California, San Diego
Alide Cagidemetrio
(1881, January 24)
American Studies, University of Venice
Richard Cándida Smith
(1955, October 7)
History, University of California, Berkeley
Norma E. Cantú
(1836, February 23–March 6)
English, University of Texas at San Antonio
Robert Cantwell
(1932, Christmas)
American Studies, University of North Carolina
Glenda Carpio
(1945, April 11)
African and African American Studies and English, Harvard University
Susan Castillo
(1692)
American Studies, Kings College, London
Joyce E. Chaplin
(1722)
History, Harvard University
Seo-Young Chu
(1987)
English, Queens College, City University of New York
Robert Clark
(1841)
Author of In the Deep Midwinter and Mr. White’s Confession
T. J. Clark
(1950, November 28)
Art History, University of California, Berkeley
Joshua Clover
(1962)
Author of The Totality for Kids; English, University of California, Davis
Andrei Codrescu
(1885, October)
Author of The Disappearance of the Outside and The Posthuman Dada Guide; English and Comparative Literature, Louisiana State University
James Conant
(1837, August 31)
Philosophy, University of Chicago
Bonnie Costello
(1913)
English, Boston University
Leo Damrosch
(1765, December 23)
English, Harvard University
James Dawes
(1885, July)
English, Macalester College
Philip Deloria
(1831, March 5)
History, University of Michigan
John Diggins
(1787–1790)
was Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York
Leah Dilworth
(1884, November)
English, Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus
Wai Chee Dimock
(1666, July 10)
English and American Studies, Yale University
Erika Doss
(1940)
American Studies, University of Notre Dame
Laurent Dubois
(1673)
French and History, Duke University
Gerald Early
(1900; 1912; 1946, December 6)
Center for the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis
Emory Elliott
(1670)
was University Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside
Steve Erickson
(1826, July 4)
Author of Zeroville; Critical Studies, California Institute of the Arts
Dan Feller
(1832, July 10)
History, University of Tennessee
Jeffrey Ferguson
(1925, June)
Author of The Sage of Sugar Hill; Black Studies and American Studies, Amherst College
Angus Fletcher
(1855)
Graduate Center at the City University of New York
Winfried Fluck
(1852)
American Studies, Free University of Berlin
Mark Ford
(1951)
English, University College, London
Judith Jackson Fossett
(1896)
American Studies and Ethnicity and English, University of Southern California
Hal Foster
(1968, March)
Art and Archaeology, Princeton University
Herwig Friedl
(1838, July 15)
American Studies, Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf
Philip Furia
(1911)
Creative Writing, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
François Furstenberg
(1796)
American Studies, University of Montreal
Mary Gaitskill
(1968)
Author of Don’t Cry, Veronica, and Two Girls Fat and Thin
Michael Gaudio
(1585)
Art History, University of Minnesota
Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi
(1945, August 6, 10:45 a.m.)
Author of The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War
Michael T. Gilmore
(1858)
English, Brandeis University
Ted Gioia
(1949–1950)
Author of Delta Blues, Work Songs, and Healing Songs
Lisa Gitelman
(1884, July)
Media Studies, Catholic University of America
Terryl L. Givens
(1827)
Literature and Religion and English, University of Richmond
Kaiama Glover
(1804, January)
French and Africana Studies, Barnard College, Columbia University
Jacqueline Goldsby
(1895)
English, University of Chicago
Adam Goodheart
(1607)
C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Washington College
Robert Gottlieb
(1930)
Former Editor in Chief of Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, author of Balanchine, editor of Reading Jazz and Reading Dance
Anthony Grafton
(1932)
History, Princeton University
Farah Jasmine Griffin
(1900, 1905; 1981, March 31)
English, Comparative Literature, and African-American Studies, Columbia University
Kirsten Silva Gruesz
(1521, August 13; 1836, February 28)
Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz
Marybeth Hamilton
(1938, May)
American History, Birkbeck College, University of London
Howard Hampton
(1962)
Author of Born in Flames
Saidiya V. Hartman
(1982, November 8)
English, Comparative Literature, and Women’s and Gender Studies, Columbia University
Dave Hickey
(1953, January 1)
Author of Air Guitar; English, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Christopher Hookway
(1878)
Philosophy, University of Sheffield
Hua Hsu
(1969, January 11; 1982)
English, Vassar College
George Hutchinson
(1963, April)
English, Indiana University
Richard Hutson
(1826)
English, University of California, Berkeley
Christoph Irmscher
(1820, November 27)
English, Indiana University
Josef Jařab
(1939, 1981)
English and American Literature, Palacký University, Olomouc, Czech Republic
Gish Jen
(1951)
Author of Typical American and The Love Wife; English, Brandeis University
Dianne Johnson
(1965, September 11)
As Dinah Johnson, author of Hair Dance! and other books for children; English, University of South Carolina
Jeffrey Johnson
(1835)
English, University of Central Arkansas
Coppélia Kahn
(1821, June 30)
English and Gender Studies, Brown University
Gary Kamiya
(1964, October 27)
Writer at Large, Salon
Amy Kaplan
(1898, June 22)
English, University of Pennsylvania
Carla Kaplan
(1926)
English, Northeastern University
Michael Kazin
(1925, July)
History, Georgetown University
Frank Kelleter
(1776)
North American Studies, University of Göttingen
Robin Kelsey
(1865)
History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University
Liam Kennedy
(1852, July 5)
American Studies, University College, Dublin
Catherine Keyser
(1925, August 16)
English, University of South Carolina
Michael Kimmage
(1968, August 28)
History, Catholic University of America
Phoebe Kosman
(1928, Summer)
Editorial Assistant, Harvard University Press
Jason D. LaFountain
(1670)
Doctoral candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University
T. J. Jackson Lears
(1900)
History, Rutgers University
Michael Leja
(1784, June)
History of Art, University of Pennsylvania
Toby Lester
(1507)
Author of The Fourth Part of the World; contributing editor, The Atlantic
Michael Lesy
(1936, November 23)
Author of Murder City and Angel’s World; Literary Journalism, Hampshire College
Jonathan Lethem
(1888)
Author of Chronic City, You Don’t Love Me Yet, and Motherless Brooklyn
Jan Ellen Lewis
(1801, March 4)
History, Rutgers University
W. T. Lhamon, Jr.
(1830, May 21)
American Studies, Smith College
Heather Love
(1912)
English, University of Pennsylvania
Beverly Lowry
(1851)
Author of Harriet Tubman, Imagining a Life and Her Dream of Dreams; George Mason University
Scott Richard Lyons
(1859)
English, Syracuse University
Michael MacCambridge
(1960, January)
Journalism, Washington University in St. Louis
William J. Mann
(1959)
Author of Kate and Men Who Love Men
Greil Marcus
(1851; 2003; 2005, August 29)
Author of Lipstick Traces, The Dustbin of History, and The Shape of Things to Come
Karal Ann Marling
(1928, November 18)
Author of As Seen on TV and The Colossus of Roads
Ann Marlowe
(1970, 1972)
Author of How To Stop Time and The Book of Trouble
Mario Materassi
(1985, April 24)
Literature of the United States, University of Florence
Joseph McBride
(1941)
Cinema, San Francisco State University
Douglas McGrath
(1940–1944)
Writer and director of Infamous and Nicholas Nickleby
Maureen N. McLane
(1973)
Author of Same Life and Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry
Mitchell Meltzer
(1787)
Liberal Studies, New York University
Angela Miller
(1935)
Art History and Archaeology, American Culture Studies, and Comparative Literature, Washington University in St. Louis
James Miller
(1956, April 16)
Author of The Passion of Michel Foucault and Flowers in the Dustbin; Political Science and Liberal Studies, The New School
Monica L. Miller
(1955, August 11)
English, Barnard College
Caille Millner
(1838, September 3)
Author of The Golden Road and coauthor of The Promise
David A. Mindell
(1948)
Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Ingrid Monson
(1945, February)
Music and African and African American Studies, Harvard University
Kathleen Moran
(1906, April 18, 5:04 a.m.)
American Studies, University of California, Berkeley
Walter Mosley
(1926)
Author of The Long Fall and the Easy Rawlins detective novels
Andrea Most
(1932)
English, University of Toronto
Bharati Mukherjee
(1850)
Author of Holder of the World and Jasmine; English, University of California, Berkeley
Paul Muldoon
(1927)
Author of Horse Latitudes and Moy Sand and Gravel; Creative Writing, Princeton University
Philip Nel
(1957)
English, Kansas State University
Robert O’Meally
(1939; 1975)
English, Columbia University
Camille Paglia
(1947, December 3)
Author of Sexual Personae; Humanities and Media Studies, University of the Arts, Philadelphia
Jeffrey L. Pasley
(1791)
Author of “The Tyranny of Printers”; History, University of Missouri
Anita Patterson
(1922)
English, Boston University
Donald E. Pease
(1952, June 10)
English, Dartmouth College
Gilberto Perez
(1899)
Film History, Sarah Lawrence College
John Picker
(Late 1740s; 1814, September 13–14)
English, Harvard University
Robert Polito
(1924)
Author of Hollywood and God and Savage Art, editor of Farber on Film; Writing Program, The New School
Carolyn Porter
(1936)
English, University of California, Berkeley
Ross Posnock
(1904, August 30)
English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Richard Powers
(1897, Memorial Day)
Author of Generosity and The Echo Maker; English, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Laura Quinney
(1969)
English, Brandeis University
Paula Rabinowitz
(1933, March)
English, University of Minnesota
Howell Raines
(1934, September)
Author of Whiskey Man and former executive editor of The New York Times
Arnold Rampersad
(1901, 1903)
English, Stanford University
Ishmael Reed
(1884)
Author of Mumbo Jumbo, Blues City, and Conjure
Judith Richardson
(1809)
English, Stanford University
John Rockwell
(1935, October 10)
Author of Outsider and All-American Music
Kerry Roeder
(1905, October 15)
Doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Delaware
Avital Ronell
(1876, March 10)
German, Comparative Literature, and English, New York University
Jeffrey Rosen
(1927, May 16)
George Washington University Law School
Carlo Rotella
(1955, September 21)
English, Boston College
Joan Shelley Rubin
(1926)
English, University of Rochester
Peter Sacks
(1964)
English, Harvard University
Shirley Samuels
(1862, December 13)
English and American Studies, Cornell University
Luc Sante
(1903)
Author of Low Life and Kill All Your Darlings; History of Photography, Bard College
Yael Schacher
(1889, August 28; 1924, May 26)
is a doctoral candidate in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University
Richard Schickel
(1915)
Author of D. W. Griffith and The Disney Version
Stephen Schiff
(1955, December)
Author of screenplays for Lolita and True Crime
Tommie Shelby
(1828)
African and African American Studies and Philosophy, Harvard University
Scott Slovic
(1879)
Literature and the Environment, University of Nevada, Reno
Merritt Roe Smith
(1875)
History of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
RJ Smith
(1906, April 9)
Author of The Great Black Way
Werner Sollors
(1693–94, March 4; 1928, April 8, Easter Sunday; 1941; 2005, August 29)
African and African American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, Harvard University
John M. Staudenmaier, S.J.
(1932, April or May)
History, University of Detroit
Mercy John Stauffer
(1819, February)
English and African and African American Studies, Harvard University
Ilan Stavans
(1536, July 24)
Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College
Susan Stewart
(1861)
English, Princeton University
Shelley Streeby
(1846, June)
Literature, University of California, San Diego
Cass R. Sunstein
(1944)
Harvard Law School, Harvard University
Aviva Taubenfeld
(1903, May 5)
Literature and Writing, State University of New York at Purchase
Keith Taylor
(1943)
Author of If the World Becomes So Bright and Guilty at the Rapture
Charles Taylor
1961, January 20
is a writer who lives in Brooklyn
David Thomson
(1923, October; 1931, March 19; 1961, July 2)
Author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, The Whole Equation, and Try to Tell the Story
Michael Tolkin
(1935, June 10)
Author of screenplay for The Player, writer and director of The New Age and The Rapture
Lan Tran
(1925)
Creator of the solo shows “Elevator/Sex” and “How to Unravel Your Family”
David Treuer
(1822; 1893)
Author of The Translation of Dr. Apelles and Little; English, University of Minnesota
Micah Treuer
(1930, March)
is a student at the University of Minnesota Medical School
Joanne van der Woude
(1740)
English, Harvard University
Helen Vendler
(1954)
English, Harvard University
Michael Ventura
(1952, April 12)
Author of The Death of Frank Sinatra and Shadow Dancing in the USA; columnist, Austin Chronicle
Sarah Vowell
(1930, October)
Author of The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation
Anne M. Wagner
(1982)
History of Art, University of California, Berkeley
Kara Walker
(2008, November 4)
Author of After the Deluge and Bureau of Refugees; artist, Visual Arts Division, Columbia University
Cheryl A. Wall
(1970)
English, Rutgers University
Alan Wallach
(1825, November)
Art and Art History, College of William and Mary
Kenneth M. Warren
(1876, January 6)
English, University of Chicago
Lindsay Waters
(1951)
Executive Editor for the Humanities, Harvard University Press
Cindy Weinstein
(1854, March)
English, California Institute of Technology
M. Lynn Weiss
(1951)
English and American Literature, College of William and Mary
Laura Wexler
(1872, November 5)
American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Yale University
Sarah Whiting
(1935)
Princeton University School of Architecture
John Edgar Wideman
(1901)
Author of God’s Gym and A Glance Away; Africana Studies and Creative Writing, Brown University
Ted Widmer
(1643; 1835, January; 1865, March 4)
John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
Sean Wilentz
(1835)
History, Princeton University
Rob Wilson
(1896, September 6)
Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz
Christian Wiman
(1915)
Editor, Poetry magazine
Elizabeth Winthrop
(1630)
Author of Fireworks and December
Hana Wirth-Nesher
(1995)
English and American Studies, Tel Aviv University
Ruth Wisse
(1948)
Yiddish and Comparative Literature, Harvard University
Douglas Wolk
(1938)
Author of Reading Comics and James Brown Live at the Apollo
Stephanie Zacharek
(1933)
Senior writer, Salon
Rafia Zafar
(1773, September)
African and African American Studies and English, Washington University in St. Louis

A Conversation with Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors about NLHA

How does looking at America’s history through its literature alter or enhance our understanding of our country? Why, in other words, is a literary history necessary?

GM: From the start, people have been trying to figure out what America is. The country itself—even before it was a nation—has always been the country’s great subject: in every kind of writing, in public address, in music, on the stage, on the screen. Thus the country has produced a deep and kaleidoscopic literary reflection of itself—but more than that, the literary attempt to say what the country is, taken in the broadest sense, has become an ongoing national argument about what the country can and should be. And that argument is as alive in a film by Preston Sturges as in Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address.

WS: The whole world is curious about American culture, its pervasive passions, its energies, and its idiosyncrasies. A volume that vividly presents, in their historical unfolding, more than two hundred cultural bits, things, works, objects that were “made in America” surprises with fresh insights on the naming of the continent or religious revivals, on children’s literature or hard-boiled prose and invites the reader to make connections among a huge range of topics.

Why is it important to look at non-traditional sources when trying to understand the pivotal moments in history?

GM: To be an American is to face the question of what America is. No one is outside this question—and throughout our history answers have come from every sort of person, in every place, at every time, in every form of American speech: blues songs, theatrical gestures, paintings of birds, religious revivals, the raising of public monuments, films about cowboys and tycoons, tall tales—for a start.

WS: Many essays zoom in on a moment when something emerged, be it the phrases “City on a Hill,” “All Men Are Created Equal,” or “Nobody’s Perfect,” be it an Ojibwe children’s rhyme about a firefly, a slave narrative, or a drip painting, be it the detective story, the art of telephony, or “the birth of the cool.” Capturing change in so many snapshots necessarily means being curious about creativity and inventiveness in all forms, and most especially non-traditional ones, from strange images in Puritan meditative poetry to the rituals of Alcoholics Anonymous, from the Linotype machine to the term “Asian American,” and from the skyscraper to Tarzan.

Literature, in this case, is a huge range of writings and voices from poems and novels to speeches, manifestos, letters, music and comedy. Tell us about those editorial meetings, how you brainstormed ideas and how you decided what to include (and not include).

GM: Each member of the editorial board was asked to come up with 20 to 50 subjects to be included in the book. Then fifteen of us sat around a table as one of us ran through the list of more than 500 topics—ranging from specific works or individuals to broad genres—like an executioner, pronouncing “Yes” or “No” as each topic was read out. The roll call could be and was interrupted at any point, as people argued over the bigotry or ignorance of the major-domo, and the final list thus took shape as a result of those arguments, revealing holes in the overall concept produced by the varied suggestions, with new subjects contrived on the spot. Near the end of the day, we were down to about 200 entries; then we started climbing back up again, until we were well over that. We left the room stunned by our arrogance, hubris, and self-importance in thinking we could even begin to define America through a single paltry meeting, and thrilled and humbled at the idea that we like anyone else had the right to do just that.

WS: This process was not an attempt to create a new canon or to demolish an old one, but simply to choose topics that fascinated us, that reflected, in often unexpected ways, our various interests in music, art, literature, history of science, of politics, of the built environment, and that were most likely to inspire – and fascinate – readers.

There are some interesting pairings between writer and subject, such as Camille Paglia on Tennessee Williams and Gish Jen on The Catcher in the Rye, and some eyebrow-raising inclusions such as essays about Dr. Seuss, Linda Lovelace, and country music. How did you balance old with new, classical with modern, serious and playful, and how do the selections reflect the editors’ “take” on America’s history?

GM: The editors, like the members of the editorial board, brought different knowledge, enthusiasms, and prejudices to the table. It would never have occurred to me to include Linda Lovelace’s autobiography Ordeal. I think when the suggestion was thrown out most people didn’t even register it. But the person whose idea it was—and it may have been only a casual thought from him, or an attempt to break up a progression of entries drowning in their own traditionalism—began to talk about how it might work in the book, what it might say, and within minutes it made inescapable sense. That was a memorable moment—but no more than the time, a bit later, when the Lovelace acceptance had made a chink in the dam of tradition and every sort of notion seemed on the verge of inclusion—that one board member said quietly, “This book is going to have to get a lot more conventional before it can begin to become unconventional,” and the discussion shifted all over again.

WS: Raising eyebrows may be the first gesture provoked by this array of topics and contributors, but reading the book will mean seeing American culture in many new and unpredictable ways.

With all that’s been written about the founding of America and our early history, how did you manage a fresh take on Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Jefferson, and other such monumental figures?

GM: Our charge to writers was not to produce a review of the literature on any given topic, or even necessarily to consider it, but rather to write as if they were the first to seriously consider what a given figure, book, film, song, or speech meant in the life of the country. The charge was not to produce the definitive essay on a given subject, but to open it up, to return even the most apparently finished matter to the national conversation. People took that and ran with it.

WS: Many of the familiar figures do appear but are approached in new ways and in new contexts: Benjamin Franklin writing in a woman’s voice, the conservative Henry James yearning for a French-style revolution with guillotine, and Tocqueville bothered by American mosquitoes. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shares an entry with Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, while Longfellow, Hemingway, Ellison, and Morrison appear in multiple contexts.

How should a reader go about reading this book?

GM: Pick a card, any card.

WS: Read by year, by topic, by author, or by index. Get inspired by one of the more unusual headlines. Start with the most familiar or the least familiar topics. Read all essays on poetry, on music, on political documents, and so forth. Flip back and forth.

What are some of the more surprising and contrarian things the editors learned about the American experience in the course of putting this book together?

GM: We learned how much we didn’t know; how almost any entry selected for inclusion could have been replaced by something else without necessarily changing the shape of the whole book or its portrait of the country—and I think we were surprised by how little second-guessing there was.

WS: Almost every essay holds its surprises, be it the origin of the keyboard’s “upper case” and “lower case” or the affinities of Sister Carrie and Lily Bart, the beginnings of Pentecostalism or the pervasive power of D.H. Lawrence’s and Leslie Fiedler’s provocative approaches to American culture; the sudden connections appearing among apparently heterogeneous topics – that may be the biggest surprise of all.

(see also The Prehistory of the History, a talk by Harvard University Press Editor Lindsay Waters at the NLHA Symposium)