Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America

Marcus, Greil and Werner Sollors, editors. A New Literary History of America. Belnap P of Harvard UP, 2009.

Summaries of Selected Sections

“The Problem of the Color Line”

This section briefly overviews the different viewpoints between Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Washington’s work was a combination of a slave narrative and a rags-to-riches narrative that called for blacks to allow segregation and white supremacy until they had worked hard enough to prove that it should be eradicated; the work glossed over many important points about the struggles in the South during the Reconstruction years. Du Bois’ work made a detailed attack on Washington’s ideology and addressed the color line as the problem of the century. Du Bois created a black intelligentsia that previously never existed in the country, and he also worked to found and build the NAACP, leaving his position at Atlanta University in order to do so.

“The Invention of the Blues”

This section gives a broad overview of the blues as a genre, particularly focusing on the fact that we do not know who specifically created it and that, as the claim, the evidence for it starting in the Delta is largely anecdotal (can you feel my skepticism yet at this entry?). The entry includes W.C. Handy’s description of the first time he heard the blues and Ma Rainey’s description of the first time she heard it. They also discuss Samuel Charters being the first person to write a book on the subject, Country Blues, and how folklorists such as the Lomaxes went South and recorded numerous musicians.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”

This section details Irving Berlin’s start from humble origins to writing Broadway musical scores. He started as a singing waiter, and when Tin Pan Alley became successful, he tried his hand at it and was making a living writing coon songs, stereotypical and racist songs about black people and their wanton ways. All of these songs were ragtime music, and the press eviscerated the music. Then, Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and it was not only popular, it stayed popular. It changed the format of American popular songs, and the form would become the mainstay for a half a century. The song broke him out of having to write coon songs, and he was able to transition into a variety of songwriting and scoring. The most impressive thing about the song is that it persists in its popularity even today, and most people can sing the song if it is played for them.

“A Modernist Moment”

This section overviews the Armory Show in NYC, where artists in the Modernist period were displayed to the public, from Van Gogh to Matisse to Duschamp and Picasso. Art was bringing new perspectives on what art itself was; it was no longer meant for noble topics, but also for everyday and common topics. The Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden is also highlighted, with a discussion of how art brought together with striking workers made a statement about the time period as well as the economic moment, despite the failure of the performance to raise money for the strike. Finally, Poetry magazine, founded by Harriet Monroe and run by she and Ezra Pound, offered a revitalization of poetry in America, but also around the world as Pound inserted his thoughts on what poetry ought to be and Monroe searched for talent through an open door publishing policy: if it’s quality, we’ll publish it.

“Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’”

This section suggests that we should take another close look at Mamie Smith’s blues recording, even though it is not considered an actual blues song among scholars and musicians. This suggestion comes because when looking at the history surrounding Smith and her recording, we can see that the song is important because it was a formal notice of a broken racial barrier: black people could now record their music for sale and entertainment. Sophie Turner, the white blackface performer, was actually the first white woman to record a successful blues song, and this is important because it may have been, if we look past appropriation, the first crack in the barrier to recording black music: since Turner’s recording was successful, they were less worried about recording black music. While Smith was a vaudeville performer who was never considered one of the great blues singers of the era, her song and musical choices are important for the racial barriers they maneuver and the racial issues the song codes into itself and the tone of the lyric.

“Jean Toomer”

This section provides a spotlight on Jean Toomer’s life and writing. He struggled to feel that anything he wrote was good enough to publish, even declining to be published in a landmark book of poetry. Those who knew him would describe him as a strange man. He would frequent salons run by James Weldon Johnson, and he would work odd jobs just long enough to know what it was like to work them before he quit to read and write some more. He was in Washington D.C. taking care of sick grandparents, who practically raised him, and he was going mad. He decided to take a job as a temporary principal at a school in Georgia, and it is there that he learned more about black communities in the South, which inspired his writing of Cane. Toomer himself was mixed race and had very light skin, meaning he was often mistaken for white but did not fit in there once his ancestry was known, but he also did not fit in the black community. Still, his work is considered the inauguration of the Harlem Renaissance, and was hailed again during the Black Arts Movement before and after his death.

“T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence”

This section discusses the writing and lives of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, particularly their crossing paths as Eliot moved to get away from America and its culture and Lawrence moved to it in hopes of a nationalist dream and pending publications. While Eliot had issues with his publication of Wasteland and the culture’s misunderstanding of his work and its seriousness, Lawrence was happy for the audience that would allow for his more sexual or deviant works to not just be published, but be popular. Eliot worked in finance during the financial dismantling of Europe after WWI, and Lawrence enjoyed freedom from discrimination with his German wife Freida in the USA. However, Lawrence became disenchanted with America the more and more he saw the treatment of Native Americans and the injustices; he came to the conclusion that the white American could never come to a cultural understanding with the Native American, and that similarly, he would always be Other from Americans as a European. Eliot would always call out and deplore dryness and sterility in writing as well as a nationalist spirit, while Lawrence would allow that nationalist spirit to create illusion.

The Great Gatsby

This section discusses the fear, dislike, and discrimination against new money in Fitzgerald’s work The Great Gatsby. Much as immigrants are discriminated against in America today, Gatsby and the other residents of West Egg are disliked by the East Egg residents, who are old, established money. The murder of Gatsby and the subsequent newspaper articles about how he deserved what he got are reminiscent of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, where the Italians were convicted of robbery and murder even though they most likely did not commit the crime. The fear of immigrants still looms, just like it does in Gatsby when Buchanan talks about the rising of the colored races to supplant white people. But much like the dream of Gatsby making it in America, what is inspiring about the book is the author himself. Fitzgerald embodies the opportunity available in America with his riches and success as a writer, a career that is not thought of as one that will lead to a prosperous life.

“John Dos Passos”

This section discusses how Dos Passos was both disenchanted by capitalism and communism in America, and how he, in his dissatisfaction with many things and growing his writing in his early twenties, went to Europe and then the Soviet Union and found a fellow writer who shared his ideas about how to structure his work. The rest of the section is dedicated to discussing the structure of the USA Trilogy, particularly The 42nd Parallel, and how the narratives cut off and come back and intertwine while the newsreels and camera eye biographies add a layer of complexity: on their own, they would have been gimmicky, but together, they create a uniquely layered complexity of American literature and life.

“Arthur Miller”

This section details the realist theater that is Arthur Miller’s legacy. Focusing particularly on Death of a Salesman, readers learn of his desire for people to feel that performance was immoral and to see how it conflicts with the American Dream even as it seems to uphold it. In fact, the illusion of the American Dream is also explored. Willy in the play is the ultimate performer, one who has cared more about what other people see and think than what he is actually building. As he breaks down, the rules of realism in theater break down: the scenes are regularly interrupted by music, which signal Willy’s entry into his memories, and all the other characters become supporting roles; when he runs out of memories and illusions, Willy breaks the fourth wall before killing himself. This and the other works of Arthur Miller, in their discussions of the problems of performance, set the stage for works like Sondheim’s Gypsy and Kushner’s Angels in America.

Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!

Coming out in the same year, these two novels would have very different successes, mainly that Margaret Mitchell’s work would become radically popular and well read, whereas William Faulkner’s work wouldn’t sell well and wouldn’t become a film. Yet they both look at the South and its problems. Mitchell’s work unveils the economic failures and class superiority issues in the South, but then by the end of the work has put the romantic lens back on the South; her book would be further romanticized in the film, and its success proves the obsession and enchantment of the American populace about the pastoral American South. On the other hand, Faulkner’s work sets out to dismantle the problems of racism and slavery that built the American South and continue to pervade its society. He discusses issues of miscegenation and racial hatred that blanket the South and points out the fact that America’s success was built on slavery. His work was prophetic in its dealings with what would later, in the 1970s, be hailed as a national dilemma.

“Jelly Roll Morton Speaks”

This section deals with Alan Lomax being encouraged to invite Jelly Roll Morton to talk about his songs and older music and to sing and play for him to record. Lomax was initially reluctant given his interest was not in a popular jazz singer of the past but of folk music, but when Jelly Roll sat down and sang a song Lomax requested and then started to give a history of it and his life and how Jazz was created in Storyville, Lomax recognized the importance of recording Morton’s story. He spent weeks recording Morton talking and singing, and it was the birth of oral history, using sound recording to allow people to tell their own stories free from transcription and the pauses that inevitably come with that.

“Billie Holliday, ‘Strange Fruit’”

This section describes how Billy Holliday, more of a Jazz singer than a blues singer, was able to instill the blues throughout her work in the way she sang her songs and what messages she communicated through them. Her work, much like her life, embodies the suffering and the lives of African Americans that exist in the lyrics and notes of blues music, and even more so in the fact that there is no reasoning or scapegoat for the suffering described. The blues were a way for Holliday and many others to both rid themselves of the blues and describe and embody their experiences as they sent messages to the next generation.

“Up from Invisibility”

This section discusses Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and its themes, particularly on communism and African American cultural elements. While Ellison insisted the book was not autobiographical, this section posits that perhaps it was at least somewhat autobiographical given Ellison’s time at Tuskegee, move to New York, his support of Communism and Stalinism for years, and his later renouncement of those viewpoints. In 1939, Ellison worked with old documents that contained information about African American history and folklore, and this greatly influenced his work; while the work has many blues and jazz tropes, it also contains a lot of folklore which embodies the ideas and tropes expressed in stories and characters such as Brer Rabbit and other trickster figures. He refused to allow his writing to be defined by victimhood and suffering, and instead focused on the rich traditions that would bring African Americans up from invisibility.

“Tennessee Williams”

This section focuses on how Tennessee Williams inserted grand emotional performances and personal experience into his plays. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire was a combination of two of his lovers, and he admitted to all his female characters being some embodiment of his sister, mother, and even himself at the time of writing. People have said that Blanche is essentially Williams on stage with the theatricality and the sexual theatricality. Williams was always openly gay, something that was a big risk in the time period, and his work deals with homosexuality in ways that could have had his plays banned from screen adaption or seriously revised for screen adaption. His work was very open about sex during a time when such discussions were rarely, if ever, public. Yet Williams would be criticized by LGBT people and activists for his work being constructed around heteronormative tropes; he would always defend his work as being for a broader audience than just LGBT communities. All of his work is set in the South, and much of his work deconstructs the myth of Southern Aristocracy, as can be seen with the loss of Belle Reve and the falling apart of the Southern Belle Aristocrat.

“The Birth of the Cool”

This section discusses the Aesthetic of the Cool, the idea that an artist should be able to do very difficult acts while making it look as if it takes no effort at all. While some form of this idea exists across time and cultures, the phrase “Cool” was slowly brought into use in regard to jazz music. Miles Davis was the catalyst for this idea, with his focus on blending instruments together and using instruments like the tuba and French horn over the tenor sax in his band. His trumpet melodies float over the accompaniment and blend with the other instruments in ways that jazz as “hot music” did not. He also did not perform like other jazz musicians, even turning his back upon the audience while he played. Even though Miles Davis’ first records did not sell well, they are considered landmark records for the era. And even after Davis was done with his ideas and had moved onto new ones, his work had influenced jazz permanently.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

This section discusses the life of Malcolm X as he wrote his autobiography. He had been regularly denounced as a hate monger and demagogue, and he had even been exiled from Elijah Muhammad’s sect of black-centered Islam. Alex Haley had written a short bio piece on him for Playboy, and then he was invited by Doubleday to work with Malcolm X to write his autobiography. Haley’s work was rejected after Malcolm X’s assassination, but Grove Press picked it up. It is now firmly established in the literature canon, but that poses problems, as it is not simply a work of social science or literature, as it combines postmodern narrative elements into a work of nonfiction, something that had never been done before. There are also questions about narrator reliability given that Malcolm X upheld lies and then recanted them later in the narrative when he revealed Elijah Muhammad’s sins. Foucault calls this type of narrative parrhesiastes, where a speaker uses the most direct way to tell what he believes regardless of the full truthfulness of the tale being told.

“Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker”

This section discusses these three authors in relation to each other and the women’s movement of the 1970s. They told stories of black womanhood, a part of life that was a gaping hole in literature. They provided stories about what it was like to be a black woman in America, and showed the trauma that chased them in the South and in the North; but they also showed unique and strong women who had interesting stories to tell for their own sake, stories worth telling. They received criticism from all sides for the way they portrayed the black community and particularly black men, but they persisted in telling their stories. They also paved the way to the rediscovery of black female artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen, from previous generations.

“Toni Morrison”

This section discusses Morrison’s work in the framework of her being put on the cover of Newsweek. She was the first black woman to be featured on the cover since Zora Neale Hurston, and she was the first black author to be chosen for a Book of the Month club book since Richard Wright. Her work, with so many central black female characters, speaks to a new literary tradition that told untold stories, stories about pariah women who live a life outside of religious and community rule structures. Yet while her work, fictional and nonfictional, deals with many important racial issues, she has not become a public figure like James Baldwin did, who she claims as her main influence. She has done more than write amazing prose. She, as an editor for Random House, has helped a great number of African American authors bring their work to the public eye. She has won many awards, culminating with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

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