The title of A New Literary History of America is misleading, as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors virtually admit in their introduction. ‘A literary history of America?’ they ask, and then go on to acknowledge that the more than two hundred essays making up this volume cover literature, certainly, but also music and the movies, the visual arts and politics, public events and legal landmarks. The book begins in 1507 with the naming of America; it ends with the election of Barack Obama. In between, writers jostle for attention with the Salem witchcraft trials, the farewell address of George Washington, the invention of the Winchester rifle, Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday and Jackson Pollock, Some Like It Hot and Psycho.
What supposedly binds these disparate subjects together is the idea that America is different because its identity has been invented rather than inherited. Or as the editors put it, ‘“Made in America” – America, made.’ This is arguable. It is now commonly accepted, after all, that every nation