"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."
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.