The Dustbin of History

Overview

"How much history can be communicated by pressure on a guitar string?" Robert Palmer wondered in Deep Blues. Greil Marcus answers here: more than we will ever know. It is the history in the riff, in the movie or novel or photograph, in the actor's pose or critic's posturing—in short, the history in cultural happenstance—that Marcus reveals here, exposing along the way the distortions and denials that keep us oblivious if not immune to its lessons.

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Overview

"How much history can be communicated by pressure on a guitar string?" Robert Palmer wondered in Deep Blues. Greil Marcus answers here: more than we will ever know. It is the history in the riff, in the movie or novel or photograph, in the actor's pose or critic's posturing—in short, the history in cultural happenstance—that Marcus reveals here, exposing along the way the distortions and denials that keep us oblivious if not immune to its lessons.

Whether writing about the Beat Generation or Umberto Eco, Picasso's Guernica or the massacre in Tiananmen Square, The Manchurian Candidate or John Wayne's acting, Eric Ambler's antifascist thrillers or Camille Paglia, Marcus uncovers the histories embedded in our cultural moments and acts, and shows how, through our reading of the truths our culture tells and those it twists and conceals, we situate ourselves in that history and in the world. Rarely has a history lesson been so exhilarating. With the startling insights and electric style that have made him our foremost writer on American music, Marcus brings back to life the cultural events that have defined us and our time, the social milieu in which they took place, and the individuals engaged in them. As he does so, we see that these cultural instances—as lofty as The Book of J, as humble as a TV movie about Jan and Dean, as fleeting as a few words spoken at the height of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, as enduring as a Paleolithic painting—often have more to tell us than the master-narratives so often passed off as faultless representations of the past.

Again and again Marcus skewers the widespread assumption that history exists only in the past, that it is behind us, relegated to the dustbin. Here we see instead that history is very much with us, being made and unmade every day, and unless we recognize it our future will be as cramped and impoverished as our present sense of the past.

Whether writing about the Beat Generation or Umberto Eco, Picasso's Guernica or the massacre at Tiananmen Square, Marcus uncovers the histories embedded in our cultural moments and acts, and shows how, through our reading of the truths our culture tells and those it twists and conceals, we situate ourselves in that history and in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This is a collection of disparate essays, most of them previously published in "small" journals, by the esteemed author of the oft-reprinted and expanded Mystery Train (LJ 4/1/75). Here Marcus ponders the blues, John Wayne, genocide, French intellectual anomie, Cro-Magnons, and a few dozen other phenomena he declines to connect editorially. The closer he stays to rock, the better he does: the best, freshest pieces are on Jan and Dean and R&B songwriter Deborah Chussler (also the subject of a large section of his book Lipstick Traces, LJ 4/15/89). His Robert Johnson meditation will bore the initiated and scare off the blues-challenged, and the moral derivative for his complaints about some recent writers on Nazism seems to be outrage for its own sake. Marcus is so bright and covers so much ground that the book does offer intermittent pleasures, but he expresses nothing of particular import. Not recommended.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., Pa.
Booknews
A collection of 26 essays on history, popular culture, music, and the media which have appeared in magazines such as Artfocus, The Village Voice, and Threepenny Review. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Jay Freeman
How much can we discern about a nation's history and culture from a second-rate TV movie about a pair of second-rate rock 'n' rollers? Quite a bit, according to this series of fascinating and provocative essays. For Marcus, the essence of a culture is revealed by examining the social milieu in which major evxt `Adult Nonfictionents occur; that milieu is revealed in literature, music, and film and even by those wxt `Adult Nonfictionho critique these forms on a regular basis. Thus, the film "Dead Man's Curve" (about surf rockers Jan and Dean) serves as a metaphor for the cultural shifts that occur from the 1950s to the 1970s. In his song "Blind Willie McTell," a no-longer-vibrant Bob Dylan reveals much about his own as well as our collective metamorphosis. In his dissection of German director Wim Wenders' writings on American westerns, Marcus eloquently illustrates how societies must come to terms with their own mythology. Although his connections and drive to find cultural symbols occasionally seem forced, Marcus is consistently interesting and compels us to think and probe," often in virgin soil.
Boston Phoenix
Marcus is a little like the guys who, in my father's childhood, hawked decoder rings on the radio. Only what he's selling is no gyp. In his review of American Hot Wax, he says the movie makes ordinary life seem no longer ordinary: 'It seems like a gift.' After reading Marcus, you're ready to seek out the meanings lurking in newspaper reports, pop songs, the language of politicians, movies so familiar their content seems exhausted. An ordinary life no longer seems ordinary. It seems like an adventure.
— Charles Taylor
City Pages
The true sequel to Greil Marcus's historic Mystery Train...[This book] carries through not the theme but the promise of his earlier book...Being able to see the history of the human species scraped onto the wall of a cave ultimately does connect with being able to hear the history of a society engraved in the black vinyl grooves of a 45, and Marcus knows this.
— Dave Marsh
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Not many critics quote Leon Trotsky in one breath and the Sex Pistols in the next, which is why Greil Marcus occupies such a special niche in American culture...Marcus writes with clarity and warmth...The Dustbin of History reminds us that criticism at its best is a generous act of faith, not a judgmental dressing-down.
— Wendy Smith
Esquire [UK]
Whether writings about Dylan's Christianity, Tiananmen Square or John Wayne, Marcus's eye remains cool, prescient and unblinking.
Jewish Herald-Voice
For Marcus, real history equals pop culture; that is, real history is the moment when everything is at stake and nothing is resolved...There's plenty to argue about in his understanding of history. As to his insights into pop culture, he's one of the best in the field. His essays are a delight to read--which is, unfortunately, more than one can say about most historians.
— Aaron Howard
Mojo
Marcus knows no academic bounds to what he feels entitled to comment upon. Books, films, art ancient and modern, all fall into his sights...He writes with the trenchancy, even urgency, of a man on a mission.
— Mat Snow
New Art Examiner
Marcus finds in Hannah Arendt's words a chilling warning: 'Once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its emergence could ever have been.' Possibility, then, is a two-way street. If jack boots goosestepped down the Champs Elysees once, they could do it again. Thus the dustbin swells into a mass grave.
— Sarah Vowell
New Statesman and Society
A liberal, humane, critical intelligence fully engaged, alert, unafraid to acknowledge the debt our aesthetic sensibilities owe to our emotions.
— Phil Edwards
New York Times Book Review
Greil Marcus's critical writings about history, films, books, musicians, and television movies...are always filled with tremendous passion for American popular culture...Marcus's highly enlightening and heartfelt pieces express this passion fully.
— Christine Schwartz Hartley
Puncture
At his best, his writing leaves you slightly out of breath, moving along from point to point so it's hard to put the book down even when you finish an essay.
— Amy Holberg
Times Literary Supplement
Marcus never ceases to be fully human or an American; he can sometimes write with a bizarrely North American earnestness, but he also shows a strong and perhaps more surprising vein of almost Orwellian decency.
— Phil Baker
Toronto Globe and Mail
Another significant step in an important critic's reading of American culture, an assertion that history can be found embedded in fleeting moments of music, movies and all the fragments of mass culture.
— John Doyle
Village Voice
As a seemingly inexhaustible stream of right-wing apologists, self-help writers, pundits, and trendwatchers serve as poor excuses for intellectuals, Marcus is the real thing: a man engaged with culture as a deeply woven fabric.
— Ann Powers
Virginia Quarterly Review
Greil Marcus is one of the most accomplished commentators on popular culture writing today...This collection of pieces written over the past two decades for such journals as Rolling Stone and The Village Voice can serve as an excellent introduction to Marcus' distinctive role as a critic, uncovering the byways of culture that often escape the eyes of academics.
World Art
I have never read The Wind Chill Factor, and probably never will, but what is most valuable about Marcus is that he can redeem it, pull it back from the dustbin, or from that purgatory of the printed word--the secondhand bookstore. Redemption in Marcus's view of history means the rejoining of the conversation.
— McKenzie Wark
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674218574
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.31 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces, The Dustbin of History (both from Harvard), and The Shape of Things to Come, The Old, Weird America, Mystery Train, and other books.

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Table of Contents

Sketch 1
The Dustbin of History in a World Made Fresh 13
History Lesson 21
The Mask of Dimitrios 29
Myth and Misquotation 36
A Single Revelation: On Peter Handke's Short Letter, Long Farewell 49
Gotterdammerung after Twenty-One Years: On Nazi-Hunting Thrillers 52
You Could Catch It: On Guy Debord's Panegyric 70
Dylan as Historian: On "Blind Willie McTell" 80
Happy Endings: On E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Robert Altman's Nashville 88
Cowboys and Germans: On Wim Wenders's Emotion Pictures 97
Cowboy Boots and Germans: On A Susan Sontag Reader 103
The Bob McFadden Experience: On The Beat Generation CD Box Set 111
The Expanding Vacant Spot: On Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson's And Their Children after Them 119
Jan and Dean as Purloined Letter: On Dead Man's Curve: The Story of Jan and Dean 126
Dead Man's Curve: On American Hot Wax 133
When You Walk in the Room: On Robert Johnson 141
Cretins, Fools, Morons, and Lunatics: On Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum 155
Old-Time Religion: On Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae 162
A Change in the Weather: On The Book of J 169
Lost and Found: On the Exhibition Ice Age Art 175
Escape from New York: On Herschel Chipp's Picasso's "Guernica" 185
A Dream of the Cold War: On The Manchurian Candidate 192
John Wayne Listening 209
Germany in a Second Language: On Peter Schneider's The Wall Jumper 216
The Deborah Chessler Story 225
Think We Might Get Some Rain? 241
Sources 253
Acknowledgments 261
Credits 264
Index 265
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