A New Literary History of America

Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, editors

“Bullshit by the pound.” That phrase might come to mind if you dip into this five-pound, 1,000-page collection of essays on American culture covering subject matter stretching from the naming of the continent to the election of Barack Obama. Most of the contributors are English profs, and when it comes to high-grade BS, they’re the gold standard, especially when it comes to finding deep-think significance in fairly small-bore cultural phenomena. Greil Marcus, one of the book’s two editors, made his bones as a Rolling Stone writer, finding deeper meanings in cultural ephemera back when nearly every two-bit garage band was being touted as an oracle of drug-inspired profundity. Marcus has brought that sensibility to his choice of selections here. The prose is often ponderous, and the insights often specious, with preening profs pointing out things that wouldn’t have occurred to you. Whenever an academic prose-mangler interjects a phrase like “one wonders …” you know that writer is probably the only one who would wonder about whatever thing he’s wondering about. There are things worth reading here, but you’ve got to plough through lots of manure before you get any beef.