That was the task faced by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, editors of the gargantuan "A New Literary History of America" ( Harvard University Press: 1,096 pp., $49.95). By their reckoning, "new" means as recent as Barack Obama; "literary" means anything from Emily Dickinson's poetry to hip-hop's wild style; and "America" means the United States, not the two continents that stretch across a hemisphere.
"This was to gather together a large and varied group of people," Marcus says by phone from Manhattan, where he is teaching this fall at the New School, "and ask: What is our culture and what is it made of? What is our great national conversation?"
Such questions are more complicated than they sound. As bountiful as this nation's written literature is, after all, it would be impossible to leave out songs, film or other expressions of the American spirit. In addition, for all the political gauntlet-throwing of the Revolutionary period, this was a country that took a while to figure out how it differed from Europe.
"To a great degree, the political formation precedes the creation of society," Marcus says. "You've got a made-up nation. When we came to that, we were off the ground. This book would be about people making things up."
"A New Literary History," then, offers nearly 1,100 pages on various people and developments in U.S. history and culture, with 219 essays. It begins in 1507 -- the year the word "America" appeared on a map, courtesy of Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci -- and concludes with the election of Obama. (That final entry, a six-page illustration by Kara Walker, is a departure from the rest of the book.)
"We didn't want a single essay that was just a review of the subject," Marcus says. "We wanted an individual perspective. In many cases, this was a challenge to step outside the orthodoxy of the field, to leave behind received ideas. In some cases, they surprised themselves as much as they surprised us."
There are, of course, familiar topics: the Salem witch trials, the Declaration of Independence, Walt Whitman, the blues, "Citizen Kane," Martin Luther King's prison letters. But there are also less obvious themes. Linda Lovelace shows up in the early 1970s. There is an essay on the official designation of the term "Asian Americans" in 1969.
It's tempting to cook up a host of hypotheses through a close reading of the table of contents.
So here goes.
The anthology is shaped like a strange accordion, expanding in the middle sections. The first 70 pages cover 193 years; later, it takes the same number of pages to get from 1925 through 1932. Some years seem to attract disproportionate attention: 1951 -- the year of "The Catcher in the Rye" -- gets a full four entries, as does 1955, which saw the publication of "Lolita."
The period from 1968 to 1973 -- by all measures, a tumultuous era -- gets a full 10 entries, while the stretch between 1987 and 2001 has only three. Didn't anything of note, literary or otherwise, happen then? It can be hard to assess history while it's taking place. But this recalls the way Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary left the last few decades of jazz history to half a segment.
Besides the selection of guiding principles and boundaries -- what to put in, what to leave out -- the choice of editors and contributors is a key part of any anthology. On this score, "A New Literary History of America" is eclectic, except where it isn't.
First, the editors. Sollors is a German-born Harvard professor and respected authority on race. His book "Neither Black Nor White Yet Both," with its expansive vision of American identity, showed Harvard University Press executive editor Lindsay Waters, who spearheaded this project, why Sollors should be involved.
Sollors grew up in a Germany "colonized" by American pop culture. " Wim Wenders has said," Marcus puts it, " 'America colonized our subconscious.' So Werner was already part American before he came here."
Marcus is much better known to the general public, as one of the early rock music intellectuals. His first book, "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music," remains unsurpassed.
That book, which Marcus wrote after he dropped out of a PhD program at UC Berkeley, followed in the tradition of Leslie Fiedler and Pauline Kael, looking at the way various musical performers -- the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley, who had yet to be taken seriously as a cultural figure -- channeled other archetypes in American culture.
Waters acquired Marcus' other landmark work, "Lipstick Traces," for Harvard. Its once-startling premise -- that punk rock had roots in the European avant-garde of the Situationists and Dadaists -- has become a cultural commonplace. (The book marks its 20th anniversary this year.) He's also written extensively about Bob Dylan and has a celebrated book on the cultural context of "The Basement Tapes" titled "The Old, Weird America."
One of Marcus' critical strengths is his love of the obscure, and his enthusiasm in finding overlooked figures and ideas, in building a sort of counter-canon. Some of that is geographical: "A New Literary History of America" has a wealth of West Coast contributors and topics, indicating his resentment of the cultural chauvinism of the Northeastern mainstream.
"From my perspective, California is not this weird, anomalous place," says Marcus, whose family has lived on the West Coast since the 1880s. "It's as American as anywhere else."
Some think Marcus has been repeating himself since "Lipstick Traces" or turning his critical method into a mannerism: finding things that remind him of other things that remind him of other things, then piling them on until the voices and images all float together, unstuck in time. Certainly, his worst writing lacks accessibility on the one hand or actual academic rigor on the other.
His own contributions to "A New Literary History of America" won't settle the argument either way. His essay on Hurricane Katrina, for instance, which he writes with Sollors, begins with an obscure Faulkner novel, drifts back and forward and by the end has encompassed mystery writer James Lee Burke, who was around to see the devastation of New Orleans, and Zora Neale Hurston, who wasn't.
As for the other contributors, they range quite widely as is only to be expected in a book involving more than 200 individual voices.
One high point is Los Angeles novelist Steve Erickson's essay on July 4, 1826, the day Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, and Stephen Foster was born. It's insightful, imagistic and unpredictable. The same is true of other efforts: Paglia's on Tennessee Williams, Joan Shelley Rubin on the Book of the Month Club, L.A. journalist RJ Smith on Pentecostalism and Farah Jasmine Griffin on the ascent of Toni Morrison.
Some choices, though, are predictable or academically stodgy.
Helen Vendler is perhaps the leading scholar on Wallace Stevens, but her essay on the so-called Emperor of Hartford does nothing to rethink his career or bring new readers to his daunting, majestic work.
Clearly, trying to figure out how to represent America between the covers is no less vexing a question than trying to figure out America itself.
"Dealing with America," Waters says, "it just seemed like it was one vast, open wound. There was a lot of anxiety bound up in it" -- and more excitement when the collection manages to be genuinely fresh. As an example, Marcus singles out an essay by performance artist Lan Tran on the book often named as the Great American Novel.
"Did Fitzgerald contemplate that his novel 'The Great Gatsby' would be sitting on a table and arguing with a woman who is the offspring of Vietnamese immigrants, living in Southern California?" Marcus asks. "It says the book is not the prisoner of its time and place, and neither is the woman writing about it."
Timberg blogs at scott-timberg.blogspot.com.