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Greil Marcus, Alfred Hitchcock, Johnny Cash and American Classics

February 9, 2010

Classics. It’s a category title we use to set apart certain works of art as great and, therefore, timeless. But the debates that surround any list of classic works– be they novels, plays, films or pop music albums– often prove as timeless as the title itself. Nevertheless, taking as a given that there will be glaring omissions to any such list, what is striking is the degree of consensus among readers, listeners and viewers as to which works truly are great.

Greil Marcus courtesy Corbis

A new list compiled by the pop culture critic Greil Marcus, in partnership with Harvard professor Werner Sollors, mines the American canon. A New Literary History of America includes many of the works one would expect (e.g. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby), as well as  some that should surprise those with an orthodox definition of canonicity. In a recent interview with To The Best of Our Knowledge, Marcus explains his definition of classic:

A book, a movie, a poem, a political speech that you can return to again and again…and not only will it stay alive, not only will it continue to provoke you, but the context in which it seems to be embedded– might be a historical context, might be a cultural or intellectual context– a truly classic work will continually create new contexts for itself, it will illicit from the reader, the listener, the viewer new thoughts, new responses.

You don’t go back to Moby Dick, you don’t go back to Preston Sturges’s films, Ernest Hemingway, Chuck Berry’s early recordings…just to re-experience what you felt when you first encountered them. You go back because you know you haven’t gotten to the bottom of The Sound and the Fury. You know that in Lincoln’s second inaugural address there are rhythms, there are cadences that supersede the turns of phrase, and will communicate to you like music. And the melodies will be different, the rhythms will be different, each time you go  back.

All classics, at least in the way I’m trying to talk about them, are in some essential way unfinished. They’re open. They do not say, ‘this is the way the world is, this is how it works, that’s all there is to it.’ They are alive to their own fragility, and their own unlikeliness. When you look at something that we would call classic, you really can’t imagine that the writer of those works said, ‘OK, I know exactly what I’m doing here, and this is exactly the result it’s going to have and the shape it’s going to take.’ I think that sense of openness and discovery is passed on to the reader or the listener and one reacts in the same spirit in which a work is made.

Also on the January 31st edition of the show, film critic David Thomson explains why Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho is a classic American film and the definite horror flick. In the interview, Thomson, whose book The Moment of Psycho is just out, talks about the movie’s notorious shower scene, which Hitchcock, an infamous perfectionist, spent a week filming. Was Hitchcock apologetic about this decision? Thomson argues in the director’s defense: “He said…it may only play for a minute on screen, but it may be the most intense minute there’s ever been in American film, and we’re going to take our time over it.”

The music critic Michael Streissguth also drops in to talk about his new book Always Been There: Roseanne Cash, The List, and The Spirit of Southern Music. The book discusses Johnny Cash’s one hundred essential songs, a list the American music legend gave his daughter in 1973. The list of course includes classic country songs, but according to Streissguth, it also draws from gospel, blues and folk. “It wasn’t just Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell,” he says, “it was Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan as well.”


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One Comment leave one →
  1. Lowen Howard permalink
    February 13, 2010 3:44 pm

    Nice to see so much activity at More Soul. Good stuff.

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