From Amerigo Vespucci to Darryl Zanuck

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Magnum Photos
William Faulkner, St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1954; photograph by Robert Capa

So farewell then to Spiller, Thorp, Johnson, and Canby, whose durable Literary History of the United States has led at least two generations of graduate students through the complexities of The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam and other sometimes less than mesmerizing tales. Why goodbye? Because there’s a new posse in town, of scholars and critics more than two hundred strong, led by those savvy sheriffs Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. This gifted group is here to guide us through our American story, using, when possible, the words of those who lived it, one of the earliest and most influential of whom was the merchant-sailor Amerigo Vespucci, who had been to the West Indies at the beginning of the sixteenth century and was eager to go back and find the vast treasure that Christopher Columbus had so far been unable to locate.

Vespucci dashed off his Mundus Novus, a fund-raising letter that was soon pirated and much debated. Columbus himself had written a fund-raising letter, and for a while, patrons responded; the literary history of America had begun, written at first by Europeans for Europeans, until, eventually, local voices did began to ring out, often with power and eloquence, talking in what William Carlos Williams called “the American grain.”

Though many of the essays here are fairly brief, it is important to note that they are essays, not entries in a pure work of reference, such as Yale University Press’s invaluable New Encylopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar, which is never far from my hand, and without which, along with Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, I would scarcely know how to proceed. The feel of the whole is epic, and this epic ends, fittingly, with the election to the presidency of the frequently eloquent Barack Obama.

Why the authors of the true American epic, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who led a great expedition and wrote about it greatly, earn only two mentions, while the admittedly immortal Chuck Berry, who also started out from St. Louis, receives ten is a question for the editors and their readers. (Maybe Harvard just decided to hand off the West to Yale.)

Before I go an inch farther I want to compliment the editors on the bibliographies that accompany each essay. I’m to some extent in the bibliography business and I’ve never seen them done as well as they are here. On the other hand there’s the problem of the physical book. I know it is beneath the dignity of Harvard’s Belknap Press ever to spiral-bind one of its offerings, but this book, cut in two and spiral-bound, would have been a delight to read; in its present format it’s Edmund Wilson’s nightmare. It won’t stay open, and if you open it incautiously it’s apt to flop off the table like an ill-secured fish. Once my job …

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