The Pre-History of The History

Saturday, 26 September 2009
Lindsay Waters Talk for a
Symposium on the Publication of
A New Literary History of America

“True Americanism is practical idealism. Its aims, instead of being materialistic and mechanical, are idealistic to the point of being utopian.”
—Maurice Saatchi, “Awake, Sleeping Beauty, America,” Financial Times, 4 July 2007

This book began for me with a dream, a fantasy that I had in the summer of 1970, I was working in the University of Chicago Bookstore warehouse. There’d been a fire in the bookstore in fall of ’69, and all the textbooks and general books that could be rescued from the store had been dumped in the warehouse, a huge old barn on campus, and my job and the job of my coworkers was to sort them out and return as many of them as were not smoke- and water- damaged back to the publishers.

This was my greatest education in publishing—doing returns higglety pigglety back in the days before computers, trying to dig up invoice numbers. As we worked, we listened on WVON, to Jesse Jackson—we needed a push and Operation Push was there to provide us with one—and while the bosses were not looking, the coolest of my coworkers read Zap Comix. Then it was 1972, and I was still working in the warehouse, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow came out, and my friend reading Zap Comix and R. Crumb switched to reading what I was reading—Pynchon.

And then I had the dream—idea is the better word—caused when I wondered how people would read the Pynchon book two or three or five hundred years into the future when there was no more United States, when the world I was so deeply immersed in at that moment, with the muck of the books, with Chicago falling apart around me. It was the year the Black P. Stone Nation ruled Hyde Park, the year that Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered in their beds by the Chicago Police. And I began to imagine making a book that would give someone trying to read Pynchon everything they needed to know to understand the book.

This was my first clear publishing impulse, and I was years away from becoming a publisher. Would the book be a reference book so the reader could look up puzzling words and references in the book, or would it be something more discursive? I did not know, but I wanted a book with which it would be possible to resurrect the world of postwar America. Byron, one of the poets I’d write my dissertation on, had had a similar thought about England, that it would be no more. What message do we send to the future? What can the imagination make of that idea? Walter Benjamin, to whom I have devoted a lot of my career, had this thought, too, and it inspired his Arcades Project. At the point of the height of the making of Europe in the mid-nineteenth century with its glorious railway lines and stations, boulevards, and Eiffel Tower, he imagined it all in ruins, a waste.

Another way of putting it was that I wanted a book that would be the perfect book to choose as the one book I’d take with me from the burning house, the one book to take to a desert island so I could reconstruct in my mind that world I’d lived in. I have found some books that I might take—the Bible, of course, but what else? The Time-Life History of World War II, a high school favorite of mine. Once I thought it might be the Jim Miller edited Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’n’ Roll. Later it was Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock ’n’ Soul or possibly David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, but I am not as addicted to movies as I am to rock music and books.

But once I became a publisher the dream became more realistic as a prospect. And I came into the power of trying to realize some such dream, and I discovered that publishers have had this dream through the ages. At the very beginning of the history of the book, after Gutenberg, Anthony Grafton tells us in his New Worlds, Ancient Texts, a publisher in Nurenberg, Anton Koberger, got so energized by the prospect of getting the entire world as he knew it between two covers that he developed and published The Nurenburg Chronicles, a big out-sized book with maps galore to capture the fact that the boundaries of the known world had exploded. It is a crazy dream—the book to end all books, the book I might publish after which I need publish no more books. Wait! I’d be out of a job then. No, not necessarily. Gutenberg came to understand that as a publisher if he published the right book, he only needed to publish one book. All you have to do is reprint. He chose the Bible and got a godly man, Luther, to translate it. A man with a mission just like him.

When I forsook teaching at the University of Minnesota, I embraced publishing at the University of Minnesota Press where I discovered that a professor in the English department there—it’s the mid-’50s I am talking about, the time of Mad Magazine and Mad Men—had the similarly mad dream of publishing a series of pamphlets about all the great American writers written by the best critics and professors and writers alive.

Minnesota at that time had the best English department in the USA. It’s where Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Berryman, and Saul Bellow were, and it was also the place where F.O. Matthiessen’s best students had gotten jobs, people who’d become the giants of American Studies like Alan Trachtenberg. After Matthiessen committed suicide, this is where his dream, his project moved off to, right there on the banks of the Mississippi.

Professor William Van O’Connor was the mad man who devised the American Writers Pamphlet series, the greatest large scale historical project ever undertaken by the New Critics—103 pamphlets, each with limits as rigid as we had for the making of this book. I looked at the tear-stained letters in the files of the series as authors begged the editors to publish their beauteous piece of writing in its entirety, and the editors wrote back and said: what you wrought is indeed beauteous, but each pamphlet must be 48 pages long and no more than 48 pages. You can cut your essay, or we will. There are a number of editors of our big book here this morning. Does what I’m saying about the struggle to keep to the word limit sound familiar? That series sold about one and a half million units.

Learning about the success of that series excited me, out of envy of its critical success and wonder at how the creation of severe constraints for the writers seemed to have liberated a small army of writers to perform so well. I was a student of Renaissance Italian and English literature, I had read many sonnet sequences—some good, some dull, many great. Inside the sonnet form it was clear you could write on anything, use any sort of language you liked, mix styles, but you had to obey the size and rhyme constraints, that’s all. Inside the sonnet form, it’s a authoritarian government. In China you can say anything you want anytime anywhere as long as you obey one constraint: You cannot ever suggest there be more than one party.

Which brings me to the party that the making of this book has been (sorry for the abrupt segue!) Laura Miller in her review of the book in Salon says it does not read like a straight-laced New England academic history, but like a street party. The book is not New England or even East Coast because it is a book in which marries Cambridge, Mass. with Hollywood. Ever since movies began some of our best writers have set out for Hollywood to make their mark, and this book quietly recognizes that fact and includes film writers in the constitution of its crew. And it has been the constitution of the group that made the book and the group dynamics that have intrigued me the most about the making of this book. It enacts what it’s talking about. This book is about making, and the process of its making has been a most exciting experience for me and for all of us.

“We made it up as we went along,” said Greil at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the 24th, and that’s the truth, and that is—I have learned, as I have learned more and more about America in the making of this book—one central truth about Americans. I wanted a book that dealt with poesis, whether the making be that of the Leaves of Grass or the Grand Coulee Dam. At the Bath Boat Works in Bath, Maine, the process of building destroyers in World War II was to improvise their building, including real live sailors in the process of the making of the boats. That is why the US boats were so successful. Building the boat is like a party, a barn-raising party that is hard work and also fun.

I spoke yesterday about what it is like to constitute a group for a group effort if you keep a certain liberty as a necessary element of the coming together. Despite all I said about the long history of this project for me, it really only began when the editorial board was constituted after we all decided we wanted to make the book. The key element at that party was the possibility of aborting the mission. What happens in the coming together to make something under those conditions is that you allow something special to emerge in the group, something that allows it to become a network that strengthen every element of the work, and liberty is built into the object itself.

Edwin Hutchins analyzes the process in a book I love called Cognition in the Wild, and Walter Benjamin analyzes it, too, in his famous “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibilty.” What if—asks Hutchins—we considered the work of the factory workers at a Ford Motor plant not the making of cars but the making of social relations? The car, then, is a side effect. What if—asks Benjamin—we treated the stars in movies as stage props? The best of them, like John Wayne, know that acting wrecks the movie. Ronald Reagan did not understand what Wayne understood implicitly, in his body. What if everyone and everything is subordinate to the process.

In Greil’s great essay on The Manchurian Candidate in his 1995 HUP book The Dustbin of History, he makes the (to me, when I first read it) daring hypothesis, totally congruent with what Hutchins and Benjamin say, that the reason this movie is so incendiary, why it needed to be locked up for years after it was made, is because of how it was made. Hutchins says it is amazing that sailors of varying IQ’s can perform like geniuses sailing a boat from San Diego to Honolulu, but it is because when people and things come together –with people fully respecting things—that the intelligence level of everyone becomes that of a genius. Greil writes that in The Manchurian Candidate all the actors are acting over their heads, “diving into material they’ve chosen, or been given, in every case outstripping the material and themselves.” What were the components? The novel was not so hot. Sinatra’s career was on the rocks, and yet the film rocks, as no film did between Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now. What Greil said about that movie applies to our project too, exactly.

What if this is the way we made our book, what difference does that make for the reader? What happens is that the reader is invited to become a part of the network and let its electricity flow through him or her and become a genius we discovered in our subjects in the making of the book. I have always noticed the way the best writing, like that of HUP author John O’Malley in his Four Cultures of the West gives me the experience of being as smart and as knowledgeable as the author. It’s not true, and yet there is a residual gain in intelligence for me when I throw myself into a book like John’s. In this case, our New Literary History, it is happening on a mass level.

This is a literary history that could be written only after the Tennessee Valley got electricity. At a time when big people write big books promising to give you the final word on matters of the utmost importance, like who invented the human soul and how? Our book gives you, the reader, the final word. You have the liberty of constellating the entries into patterns you recognize. We hope to have put enough elemental gestures into this book to snag the attention of the most recalcitrant reader and invite them to join the party.