As the general editor of several Norton Anthologies and a pioneering Harvard MOOC professor, Martin Puchner practices both traditional and evolving ways of teaching literature. His interests in the past and future of writing are vividly presented in his wide-ranging and breezy The Written World (Random House, $32). While Puchner discusses canonical texts such as Gilgamesh and Don Quixote, this isn’t the usual “greatest hits” survey of world literature. Broadly defining foundational texts as those that “change the way we see the world and the way we act upon it,” Puchner shows how writing as varied as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Soviet samizdat have been tantamount to creation stories (while Walcott’s post-colonial epic Omeros really is a creation story), allowing us to read the world in new ways. Often, these new narratives have coincided with new technologies, and Puchner is fascinating on the development of the physical means of transmitting literature, from the first scrolls and tablets to papyrus and parchment and on to paper, the codex, the printing press, and digital platforms—which in turn have reinvented scrolling and tablets. Puchner has a keen eye for historical patterns and ironies, and he has packed his larger themes with many gems. Alexander the Great conquered the world with a copy of Homer’s Iliad at his side—annotated by Aristotle. The Mayans, in a final desperate effort to save their language, recorded their culture’s sacred texts in the Popol Vuh—using the Roman alphabet. In the highly formal Japanese court immortalized in The Tale of Genji, people exchanged poems as routinely as we now send emails. And what will emerge as the defining literary genre of the digital age? Puchner has enthusiastically given us the beginning and middle of literature’s ongoing story.
In his remarkable tracing of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (W.W. Norton, $27.95), Stephen Greenblatt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Swerve, presents a history of the central creation story of Western culture and pays tribute to the power of story itself in shaping what it means to be human. Intended to explain the origins of life, the nature of good and evil, punishment, shame, gender roles, moral responsibility, and much else, Adam and Eve from the first have raised as many question as they’ve answered. St. Augustine struggled for decades to make a coherent orthodoxy out of a Biblical text riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions, but refused to relinquish his faith in the material’s literal truth. Milton also had an “obsession” with the first couple, but understood them in a new way. Focusing on their relationship as domestic partners he wrote Paradise Lost as an investigation of marriage and companionship. Like Dürer, he made Adam and Eve real people, not symbols. For Greenblatt, whose chapters on these two artists are as beautiful and heartfelt as they are scholarly, the Renaissance marked the pinnacle of Adam and Eve’s cultural life. With the Age of Exploration new geological and ethnographic information began to surface that was “incompatible with belief in Adam and Eve,” until Darwin’s theories finally replaced Genesis as the pre-eminent creation story. Yet Greenblatt and many others continue to find a “peculiar satisfaction” in the 6th century BCE myth. As Greenblatt notes, “it was a breath that brought Adam to life, the breath of a storyteller,” and it’s storytellers—and critics—that keep him going.
Scored for six voices, Revolution Song (W.W. Norton, $28.95) traces the evolution of the idea of freedom in America from the early 1700s to roughly 1830. Many of the nation’s historical landmarks are here: the Stamp Act, the Continental Congress, Valley Forge and the war’s major battles, but Russell Shorto isn’t retelling the story of the American Revolution. Rather, he uses events to show what his six protagonists made of them. George Washington is the most familiar of these figures, but Shorto portrays the complicated man behind the imposing Founding Father, showing us the aspiring officer’s over-developed sense of honor and his reputation among Native Americans as the “Town Destroyer.” Washington found “something charming in the sound” of bullets and was so fashion conscious that he designed the uniforms for the Virginia militia. His British counterpart, who began life as a Sackville then inherited a fortune from a family friend and became Lord George Germain, provides the base-line for “freedom”: it depended on lineage and loyalty to the king. For Abraham Yates, an Albany shoemaker turned lawyer, patriot, and anti-federalist, freedom meant casting off the shackles of class. By the time Yates was involved in writing the New York constitution, he had assimilated Enlightenment thinking and advocated equal rights for all. But “all” meant European men. Shorto’s interwoven narratives highlight how one person’s idea of liberty ignored that of others. The “cause of humanity” American patriots such as Yates proclaimed did not include free black men who’d bought themselves out of slavery, like Venture Smith, or Native Americans such as the Seneca leader Cornplanter, or “wayward” women like Margaret Coughlin, the daughter of a British officer who fell in love with Aaron Burr, was forced to marry an abusive English soldier, ran away, and supported herself with a series of affairs with wealthy men. These three complete Shorto’s dramatis personae, and their long-overdue stories are riveting and heartbreaking.