America is at once that rare thing, a complex cliché, and something all too familiar, a set of contradictions: "one nation under God, indivisible", but with a dozen varieties of Christianity, the product of Puritanism and the Enlightenment, a colony-turned-superpower equally defined by acts of violence and belief in freedom, isolationism and interventionism, conformity and self-reliance. And yet most of us have no trouble understanding the idea of an essential, even stable America, and possess what the critic Greil Marcus has called "a sense of what it is to be an American; what it means, what it's worth, what the stake of life in America might be".
The interplay between America's heterogeneity and its aspiration to coherence is captured in the wording of the Declaration of Independence ("one people"), in the system of government (a federal republic), even in its adopted name (United States). But if we prefer not to think of these as contradictions, if America is a paradox rather than a hypocrite, if it possesses unity despite its divisions, then this is due to a distinctive process, something not quite covered by the terms "polity" or "democracy" or "melting pot".
This distinctive process, this something, and its products in public life, have been consistently noted by foreigners, or what we might need to call new foreigners - Crèvecoeur answering the question "What is an American?" in the 1780s, Tocqueville praising civic participation in the 1830s, James Bryce struck by America's "solvent power" in the 1880s, Gunnar Myrdal identifying "general ideals" among "the American Creed" in the 1940s. And the wonder hasn't ceased. The art critic Robert Hughes, who moved to New York in 1970 but retains Australian citizenship, has talked about "the traditional American genius for consensus, for getting along by making up practical compromises to meet real social needs".
An early, burgeoning faith in this unity and essence was registered in the free use of "American" as both noun and adjective, and, later on, in two chimerical constructs: the Great American Novel (1868 - a post-civil war quest) and the American dream (1931 - a Depression oasis). When Crèvecoeur described the American as the recipient of a new mode of life, a new government and a new rank, he was establishing the terms in which America, its traditions and culture would be discussed. D H Lawrence, in his higgledy-piggledy Studies in Classic American Literature, praised works such as The Last of the Mohicans and Moby-Dick for delivering a new voice, a new experience and a new feeling.
The defining task of American literature has been to bottle or embody this American essence. In F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a novel that does both, Nick Carraway describes Jay Gatsby "balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with the resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American", and later generalises that "Americans, while willing, even eager to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry". Fitzgerald wasn't alone in this endeavour. As Martin Amis put it, in his essay "The Moronic Inferno" (a phrase Saul Bellow imported from the half-American Wyndham Lewis), "every ambitious American novelist is genuinely trying to write a novel called USA".
American literature, like America, has long been engaged in pursuing a destiny independent from English rule or tutelage, and its history is likewise the site of key dates, turning points, decisive shifts. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his lecture "The American Scholar" to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard - a declaration of literary independence soon fulfilled by a busy half-decade (1850-55), in which Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau and Emerson himself all produced major books. The Harvard professor F O Matthiessen, in his tide-turning study American Renaissance, published in 1941, presented the work of these rugged, demotic figures - Hawthorne a partial exception to this - as the classic American canon.
Emerson lit the way for a truly American American literature. In the 20th century, there was a stampede, with two sustained periods of heroic activity, first in the 1920s and 1930s (Eliot, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Faulkner), and then in the late 1940s and 1950s, when an improbable range of gifted writers achieved miraculous things in poetry, drama and, particularly, the novel. In 1946, writing to his new charge James Jones, the editor Max Perkins made an accurate forecast of the future of American fiction: "I don't know that the form of the novel will change much, but the spirit and the expression will." This change is often credited to the opening clause of Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, "I am an American", the sentence bouncing on for another 40 words. And whether that avid, fetterless novel constituted a real departure or development - a view that slights Mark Twain and Ring Lardner - the juvenescence of American fiction after the Second World War is certainly attributable to novelists such as Bellow, writing about Jewish life in Chicago and New York, and John Updike, giving Proustian sparkle to poor Pennsylvania, as well as to Ralph Ellison and Gore Vidal, who supplied early portrayals of, respectively, the black and homosexual experience. The changes in form came slightly later, with Gaddis, Pynchon, Barthelme and others.
A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, makes scant reference to Updike and none to Max Perkins - even in a chapter on James Jones - as well as displaying a number of errors and odd emphases. No systematic effort is made to cover those occasions on which literature thrust itself into American life. There is nothing on Dickens's visit of 1842, nothing on the kerfuffle aroused among black writers and academics by William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner or in the Jewish community by Philip Roth's story collection Goodbye, Columbus. But the book is magnificent anyway - a 1,100-page proof of Robert Hughes's description of America as "a collective work of the imagination whose making never ends". The book travels from Columbus and Vespucci to Katrina and Obama; it discusses Eugene O'Neill through the sinking of the Titanic, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake through Jack London, the Great Depression through Edmund Wilson's American Jitters. There are unbeatable matches of contributor and subject (James Conant on Emerson, Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens) as well as unbeatable couplings of subject and subject, some familiarly apposite (Melville and Hawthorne, Hemingway and Mailer), others achieving a kind of daft justice (T S Eliot and D H Lawrence, Diego Rivera and Henry Ford).
The title takes some unpacking - "literary history of America" as distinct from "a history of American literature", "new" because there are several, now dusty-looking precursors, "America" because it starts with discovery rather than independence. Whereas previous attempts have tended to dither over the word "literature", Marcus and Sollors, whose introduction resembles an ecstatic review, probably go too far in the opposite direction. Their "literary" denotes "not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form". Again and again, the book returns to the idea of America, whether in cinema or song, literature or paperwork - John Adams and Thomas Paine tussling over the specifics of American sovereignty, Robert Frost being praised by an editor for his "American-ness", David O Selznick saying of Some Like It Hot, "It's not American."
A problem endemic to this approach is that in crucial ways, literary history is international. As Borges put it: "Poe begat Baudelaire, who begat the symbolists . . ." An emphasis on the importance to literary production of the here and now sets a limit on how we can account for a work's tone, perspective and calibre. The two most significant American writers of the late 1940s and 1950s, Bellow and Arthur Miller, were exercised not only by McCarthyism and postwar shiftlessness, but also by foreign examples from the past. They were born within half a year of each other, and died within two months, and in spring 1956 they occupied two cottages on Pyramid Lake, Nevada, and went together to Reno in Bellow's Chevrolet to buy food.
But a writer is shaped as much by reading as by experience. As a 20-year-old undergraduate in 1935, Bellow used the long train journeys from west Chicago to Northwestern University to plough through N H Dole's 12-volume translation of Tolstoy; in his stately autobiography Timebends, Miller records that, at a similar time, he was reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, "the two greatest writers I knew of", and "coming to love" the Greek tragedies "in the way a man at the bottom of a pit loves a ladder". From Bellow's diligence and Miller's love sprang Seize the Day and Death of a Salesman, although, of course, history played its part.
Matthiessen described evaluative judgement as "unavoidably both an aesthetic and a social act". He wanted to include "worldwide struggles" within the scope of literary criticism, while insisting on the necessity of judging "the work of art as a work of art". A New Literary History of America errs on the side of struggles and context, but this doesn't prove too damaging. Marcus writes a very stimulating chapter on Moby-Dick without properly establishing that it is a "surpassingly beautiful book" (D H Lawrence) or that "Melville is forcing sentences to do more than sentences equably can" (Denis Donoghue). Still, in a book that contains almost nothing on Updike, it would have been compensatory to receive more strongly theimpression that America has been, as Updike put it, one of the "star pupils" of the English language. Ruth Wisse writes suggestively about Bellow's later work as penance for the lack of references to the Holocaust in The Adventures of Augie March, but she pays insufficient tribute to that book's Melvillean musicality. Towards the end, Augie recounts his travels with a young Frenchwoman who tells him that "the dream of my life" is to visit Mexico ("not Saigon? Not Hollywood? Not Bogotá? Not Aleppo?"), and then this: "I gave a double-take at her water-sparkling eyes and freezing, wavering, mascara-lined, goblin, earnest and disciplinarian, membranous, and yet gorgeous face, with its fairy soot of pink and that red snare of her mouth; yet feminine; yet mischievous; yet still hopefully and obstinately seductive." In much of the best American prose - in Emerson, Melville, Bellow, Updike - we encounter this sense of gratitude for life and for language, expressed in ornery or exotic constructions and greedy, flexible syntax.
The book's identity as a work of history with a literary flavour is confirmed in the final chapter, a series of artworks inspired by the election of Barack Obama, where the stake is American public life rather than American literature. The prophecies for the latter are tentative: "The conservative novel may be a figment of the future"; "Perhaps Asian-American writers have chanced upon a new destiny"; "It remains to be seen whether the events of Salem will again provide a template for new novels and plays by American writers".
There has been some evidence in recent years that the American epic, the work that sets out to define or channel America, is still a big prize, though primarily in film (Gangs of New York, The Departed, There Will Be Blood) and television (The Sopranos, The Wire). The American writers who currently inspire the most excitement as writers - John Ashbery, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan - were born in the age of Hemingway; there is, as yet, no similarly dominant younger figure.
But American literature is resistant to being centreless. It needs artists of consuming, of centripetal force - and so does America, if it is going to continue its journey of perpetual self-revelation, to continue defining and discovering itself.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer