Prophecy's Heroic Prose, The Glue That Unites Us

Our culture of publicity makes it difficult to talk in negative terms about a new book without sounding dismissive or mean-spirited—all the more so when the author of the disappointment has to his credit Mystery Train (1975), which many consider one of the best books ever written about popular music.

Perhaps high expectation is the source of the difficulty. Greil Marcus writes well all the way through The Shape of Things to Come. He writes well about the contributions of John Winthrop and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to the prophetic tradition, a relevant subject in our time of political anxiety. Later in the book, Mr. Marcus writes well about certain “solitaries” of the tradition, men such as Philip Roth, David Lynch, John Dos Passos and Allen Ginsberg. The eloquence in the prophetic voice dies on the tongues of most professors. Politicians blunt its charisma by surrounding it with calculated publicity. The Shape of Things to Come displays an informed, expressive intelligence from beginning to end. And yet the book does not seem to me worth paying serious attention to. Perhaps this is because Mr. Marcus writes well at the level of the paragraph—then he races past himself, or interrupts himself. One way or another, his attention flags at the moment I expected him to attain to an insight.

The big idea is that the United States, alone among the world of nations, subsists in its symbols: Upon the virtue of its symbols it depends for its survival. “Take away the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and perhaps various public speeches that lie behind those documents or pass them on, and as a nation you have little more than a collection of buildings and people who have no special reason to speak to each other, and nothing to say,” Mr. Marcus observes. Thus the intrinsic value of prophecy, which continually calls the nation to account for its promises, holding out the hope and burden of redemption.

This is the familiar stuff of the American Dream. Here is a land of infinite self-invention. Here is a whole people in extremis, forever young, forever fallen. From the first dead Indian onwards, these mythological images have populated the United States with mystics, fanatics, weirdoes and utopians; they have enthroned bourgeois self-deceit as a leading national trait; and in their appeal to liberals and conservatives alike, they have drained our politics of revolutionary struggle. They have also given American letters a beautifully heroic prose, heroic equally in celebration and damnation.

The Shape of Things to Come tarts up these myths in the characteristic dress of postmodernism. Mr. Marcus exaggerates the power of images, abruptly and often arbitrarily shifts perspective, and holds his subjects in an eternal present. Mr. Marcus draws his prophetic stories from history, but he doesn’t believe they’re in history. “My bet is that they are not time-bound; again and again, shadowed by the prophetic speeches of a few ancestors, of recent memory or barely known at all, they call up the whole expanse of the country’s history, its struggle to tell its story.” Such breathless passages imply the country is ready to tear itself to pieces at any moment. (Ready to tear other countries to pieces, too.)

Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom (1999) and Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989) chronicle the drama of the American prophets in a different key. Mr. Foner shows how ideas about freedom have changed in sympathy with the actual experience of life in the United States. Mr. West makes his genealogy of “prophetic pragmatism” answer to a radically democratic social and political thought. Mr. Marcus, disengaged from experience and evidently indifferent to the conventional tasks of argument, tells his stories in a vacuum.

After his remarks on Winthrop, Lincoln and King, Mr. Marcus goes underground, searching for the shadows and traces and accents of prophecy, even finding them in the face of the actor Bill Pullman. The method turns up a great many occasions for ironic comment and advances a brassy cultural style. About matters of public significance, however, it has nothing special to say. Mr. Marcus gives over the first few pages of the book to a scatter of quotations relating to Sept. 11, 2001. On the last page, he dances coolly off the stage.

John H. Summers is a lecturer on social studies at Harvard.