The New Literary History of America first caught our eye when book critic Alex Beam gave it a waspish review in the Boston Globe. Beam called it “wacky” because the volume doesn’t stop at discussing the Declaration of Independence and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but also explores an unexpected array of cultural items, including Alcoholic Anonymous’s Big Book, movies, museum exhibits and music with words in it.
Now, other reviewers have weighed in – and most are enthusiastic about the idiosyncratic 1,100 page doorstop with more than 200 essays by contemporary writers and academics, including novelist Walter Mosley writing on what it means to be “hardboiled,” novelist Mary Gaitskill on why Norman Mailer moves her, and humorist Sarah Vowell on “American Gothic” and kitsch. Reserves are even creeping up into the high teens at libraries we checked, which have around three copies each.
According to New York Times, the book’s editor at Harvard University Press told Sollers and Marcus, “This is not an encyclopedia, but a provocation,” and to fashion the book accordingly.
Wes Daniels’ lively and erudite review in the Wall Street Journal does the best job of explaining why Marcus was the right person to create this book: as the author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, he helped explode the boundaries that traditionally separated literature, history and popular culture and “helped change American attitudes toward popular culture even as he transformed himself from rock critic to cultural critic.”
Writing in Salon, book critic Laura Miller calls the book, “not so much a history of our literature as it is a literary version of our history.” She adds,
“Instead of feeling obligatory or rote, the entries sing with the living, breathing engagement of individual voices and points of view. In the age of Wikipedia, a reference book like this needs more than just the facts; it need to tell us what the facts mean, and “A New Literary History” does just that.
And Entertainment Weekly adds, “You could read this 1,000-plus-page book forever and never use up its revelations and its pleasures.”