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Greil Marcus Overview

born: 1945
born in: San Francisco
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Rock critic and cultural commentator Greil Marcus earned a degree in American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Marcus was a columnist and the first reviews editor for Rolling Stone magazine. He also has also written for Creem, the Village... [more]

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The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

The Barking Dog America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes; its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings, Biblical allusions that lose all their certainties in American air. "A dog, a dog," as David Lynch wrote in a song called "Pink Western Range," "barking like Robert Johnson." The story of America as told from the beginning is one of self-invention and nationhood, and before and after the formal founding of the nation, the template, in its simplest, starkest terms, came in the voice of God from the Book of Amos, calling out to the Children of Israel: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." From John Winthrop in 1630, with "A Modell of Christian Charity," describing the mission of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company, to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, delivering his Second Inaugural Address, to Martin Luther King, Jr., ninety-eight years later, speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, America has told itself that story. Whether America has heard itself in these prophetic voices—voices that were raised to keep faith with the past, or with the future to which the past committed their present—is another question. The Children of Israel made a covenant with God, to keep his commandments, obey his rules, and follow the path of righteousness; the covenant and nothing else made them a nation. The promises they made were not made to be broken; because one people and no other had made a covenant with God, the stakes were much higher. The promises were made to be betrayed, which meant that when one betrayed the promise, one betrayed God. In the Israel of Isaiah and Jeremiah, as the land fell into misery and sin, prophets stepped forward to speak in God's name, to warn the people that as in their covenant they had been promised God's greatest blessings, should they betray their covenant they would suffer the greatest torments; as they had offered themselves to his judgment, so they would be judged. America began as a reenactment of this drama, Amos's words echoing over Fitzgerald's phylogenetic American memory of "a fresh, green breast of the new world." The Puritans carried the sense of themselves as God's people to America as they found it; that sense, armed, is what is called American exceptionalism. It recreates the nation as a voice of power and self-righteousness, speaking to itself in a message broadcast to the whole world. This is an original and fundamental part of American identity; there is no American identity without it, which is also to say there is no American identity without a sense of portent and doom. This is the other side of the story: the urge of the nation, in the shape of a certain kind of American hero, to pass judgment on itself. Israel had the comfort of knowing that should it betray its covenant, God would be the judge; in America, a covenant a few people once made with themselves, a covenant the past made with the future and that every present maintains with both the future and the past, passing that judgment on America is everyone's burden and liberation. It's what it means to be a citizen; all of citizenship, all taxes and freedoms, flows from that obligation. To be obliged to judge one's country is also to have the right to do it. This story, once public and part of common discourse, something to fight over in flights of gorgeous rhetoric and blunt plain speech, has long since become spectral; it is now cryptic. To the degree that it is worth the telling, it is a story told more in art than in politics, even if it is at the heart of our politics—our ongoing struggle to define what the nation is and what it is for. In the nineteenth century, along with Melville and Hawthorne, Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Edgar Allan Poe, politicians and preachers asked if the country understood the nature of its covenant. They asked if the country understood the price that would be paid if the covenant were to be broken, or the price to be paid if the fact that the covenant had already been broken, a fact buried under generations of patriotic speeches and prayers, proved to be impossible to hide. (From


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