From Two Seminars, One Glorious Book

Institute Exploration
Werner Sollors. Photo by Joshi RadinWerner Sollors. Photo by Joshi Radin
By Corydon Ireland

Go to any good bookstore and you will find A New Literary History of America (Belknap/Harvard, 2009). All 1,095 pages and 219 essays of it. All four pounds and two-inches-thick of it. A volume that begins in 1507 (with Amerigo Vespucci) and ends in 2008 (with a just-elected Barack Obama). A book with such an ecstatic sprawl that it covers, conjures, and (sometimes) conflates the likes of Chuck Berry and Barry Goldwater, Anne Bradstreet and Gertrude Stein, Steamboat Willie and Emily Dickinson. ("Linkages," one reviewer wrote, are "the single most impressive achievement in the book.")

This ambitious anthology is an artful gathering of resonant personalities and dates—a celebration of American invention, from the Winchester rifle to the telephone. But in the end, A New Literary History of America is dependent on what the anthropologist Loren Eiseley called "the wonder of words": the assemblies of alphabet and rhythm that are the only guarantee that not all will vanish. The book is "a reexamination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass," its coeditors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors write, "where what is at issue is speech, in many forms."

Those "many forms" gathered in the book owe much to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and its Exploratory Seminars program. Late in 2006, Sollors and 11 others gathered at Radcliffe to discuss the possibility of a new anthology of writing by and about Americans. Sitting in one place made "a very, very big difference," said Sollors, who is Harvard's Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature. "Having 12 people in the room and brainstorming . . . was just invaluable. There's no way one could replicate that."

Commonly, an anthology is made by one or two prime movers who write a lot of letters and round up entries that way. "But you don't have the collective overview," Sollors said. "Bit by bit, through that first meeting, we got over the shell shock—Should something exist?— to actually having a proposal."

In May of 2007—with both a concept and a contract in hand—Marcus and Sollors led a follow-up four-day seminar. By then, the members of the editorial board had more than half the book's essays in front of them. By November 2008, a completed manuscript was ready for the printer. The Radcliffe seminars helped shape the book's 219 essays, along with a few of its eccentric and contrarian editorial principles. Among them: "Avoid the kitsch of multiculturalism," in Sollors's words—that is, for instance, avoid having African Americans write just about African American figures. Instead, invite the writers of color to take adventurous side trips: to write about Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, Tarzan, and the Wizard of Oz.

Another editorial principle: avoid narrow channels of acknowledged expertise. The anthology's essayists were encouraged to explore events, artifacts, and figures that fascinated them but may have fallen outside the bounds of their previous scholarship. "We have quite a few entries that have this kind of freshness," said Sollors—writers exploring a "long-standing passion" instead of an established field.

The seminars also firmed up another editorial principle: Hang each essay on a date and on a figure or artifact—but don't stop there. "Roam back and forth, as seems appropriate," said Sollors of the plastic, inclusive, and eye-opening essays the board encouraged. For instance, Kirsten Silva Gruesz's essay "1836, February 28," on Richard Henry Dana Jr. does not just dwell on the author of Two Years Before the Mast. It swings back and forth in time, touching along the way Robinson Crusoe, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and Joan Didion, the Californian who reversed Dana's east-to-west pilgrimage.

But consider what was left out of the anthology. Within a year of the first Radcliffe seminar, the editorial board had to reduce about 400 candidate essays to just over 200, jettisoning along the way entries on Christopher Columbus, the potato chip, blue jeans, and other explorations. In some cases, favored subjects were saved by conflation: Absalom, Absalom and Gone with the Wind—"two southern novels dealing with the myth of the South," said Sollors, that "couldn't be more different"—were provocatively, invitingly, amazingly joined in Carolyn Porter's essay "1936." A first, surely. Yet Porter uncovers what makes them both glow, one like gold and one like radium: racism. She writes of the Faulkner novel, "At the source of the American Dream itself lies slavery."

Sollors said he has "two sea chests" of correspondence left over from the labor of making such a big book. He may get back to them someday, but meanwhile, he remembers the Radcliffe seminars and what they helped deliver when the project was new.

Corydon Ireland is a staff writer for the Harvard Gazette.

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2013