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A New Literary History of America

For over two centuries, writers have tried to capture the essence and rhythm of America as a nation.

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.