This week marks the official release of A New Literary History of America, a book project I'm honored to have been involved with for the better part of the last four years. It's a fairly massive thing--"doorstep" seems to be the go-to description--that features more than 200 new essays from some of the finest writers, historians, scholars, artists, critics, etc. around. Each essay is loosely fixed to a moment of "making"--the fashioning of a new idea, the publication of a book, a turning point-of-a-speech, a conversation that would outline a movement, the birth of cool, or simply a fleeting spark of a thought that would continue on as someone else's design for life. As such, our sense of the literary was canonical yet, at times, weird and wide-ranging--the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the publication of Linda Lovelace's autobiography seem to be the two non-"literary" entries critics have gravitated toward.
It's strange to me that the book is finally here. I've been explaining it to friends for years, ever since that first meeting in early 2006, when fourteen of us--a dozen distinguished, prize-winning scholars and critics and two grad students wondering how we had ended up at this table--narrowed things down to a seemingly manageable 200 entries. The number would grow over successive meetings, writers would drop in and out, titles would be debated. It was hard to describe the scale of the book, its range of contributions as well as its ambitions. We were writing a history book--only without most of the obvious dates. The project assumed America as exceptional--only in the most expansive, humanist way possible. This was literary history--but our notion of the "literary" was roomy enough to include TV script-writing, hip-hop and scultpture. Now that it's here (and on sale at Amazon and Powell's, I might add) it's gratifying to see that the project actually did make sense.
For anyone in the area: Harvard is hosting a symposium on the NLHA,
featuring panels, readings, film screenings and music. It'll be the
last time many of us meet up for book-related stuff, and it's kind of
like the unofficial "end" of the project. It will be good to
celebrate...but then the great work begins: acheiving the nation
described in these book's pages.