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.
From the assorted inks and fonts to the spacious pages, the gallery of vintage illustrations, the notes, the essays, the testaments by readers and scholars, and the stories, The Annotated African American Folktales (Liveright $39.95) is both beautifully presented and impeccably researched. Edited by eminent Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and American Research, and Maria Tatar, chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology, both of whose detailed introductory essays could constitute a substantial book in themselves, the volume gathers close to two hundred tales. The editors build on the work of predecessors including Arthur Huff Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston, correct the distortions of popularizers like Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, and extend the canon of African American folklore to embrace Caribbean and Latin American tales. The collection begins with its roots: four sections lay out African story-telling traditions, from trickster tales and the Anansi cycles, with their mischievous animal/human creature “who weaves webs of beautiful complexity and tells stories about the tangled webs we weave,” to today’s oral narratives. The editors follow Anansi and other foundational African motifs through the one-hundred-and-forty stories that follow, tracing a vital tradition as it changes and grows. Drawn from both songs and published texts, here are familiar figures like the Tar-Baby, Brer Rabbit, and John Henry; people who can fly, heal, and disappear; casts of heroes, preachers, and shape-shifters; and here also are their descendants in the work of contemporary writers like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison.
Ezra Pound is perhaps St. Elizabeths most famous inmate, held there from 1946 to 1958. Indicted for treason after his pro-fascist radio broadcasts from Italy, Pound was found unfit to stand trial. His insanity saved him from facing the death penalty, but even now, nearly sixty years after his release, he remains one of the 20th century’s great enigmas. To see exactly how “the pieces do not fit,” Daniel Swift’s engaging third book follows Pound through his thirteen years in what the poet called The Bughouse (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), but what sounds less like a hospital than like a writers retreat. If Pound was treated for a mental illness, the records have disappeared. In any case, doctors disagreed about a diagnosis. So was he really ill? Was he faking? Pound arrived with a collection of Confucius’ odes and a Chinese dictionary, and settled in to work, all the while entertaining a continual stream of writers, students, and “tourists.” Swift organizes his book around six of these pilgrims, giving us the great modernist as he was seen by Charles Olson, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Frederick Seidel. Each discussion is a nuanced blend of biography, literary criticism, history, and politics as Swift traces Pound’s appearances in his visitors’ poems, outlines evolving views of mental illness, and most of all deepens his examination of whether Pound should—or can—be judged on either solely literary or political grounds. Ultimately, Pound has it both ways: “you can call him the hero or the villain; both parts are his.”