In this final post in our series of "Notes on the Making of A New Literary History of America," adapted from a talk given by co-editor Greil Marcus at the International Conference on Narrative, Marcus talks about what Ann Marlowe’s essay “Linda Lovelace’s Ordeal” (which you can read here) revealed about the evolution of the American voice—a progression central to the book. Parts one, two, three, and four in this series appeared earlier."
When Ann Marlowe took up Linda Lovelace, she watched “Deep Throat,” and then found and read all four of Linda Lovelace’s autobiographies. The first two—in which Lovelace declared that she lived for violation and libertinism and loved every second—were written by others. The second two, written with a co-author—with Ordeal, in 1980, the book that mattered—she was a sex slave, violated at every turn. But what Marlowe found was, in a negative sense, the whole story our own book had put itself together to tell—the search for a national voice, a form of speech that everyone could understand, and speak in turn. The true speech of democracy. At bottom, the book was nothing more than hundreds of different speakers, calling out to each other, to the past, to the future, to the present they were trying to enact, to make up the language of the made-up country as if it were everyone’s right to found the nation for the first time.
“Lovelace’s voice,” Marlowe writes—Lovelace describing how her mother gave up the child Lovelace had at twenty—never even mentioning, Marlowe notes, if it was a boy or a girl, only that it was in Lovelace’s word illegitimate—“Lovelace’s voice is the studiously bland voice we hear every day from politicians, in the smugness of op-eds, in the passive-aggressive niceness of airline employees. Hypocrisy has always been with us, but the mimicking of the colorless tone of down to earth ‘good folks,’ of what was once called Middle America, seems to have become prevalent after World War II.” As Gerald Early guessed, and Marlowe found, Linda Lovelace spoke the speech of our time. “The deliberate impersonation of a blameless dailiness”—and what a phrase that is, “blameless dailiness” all but hiding its argument, that in the present day all speech is second hand, received, an impersonation—“may have been an artifact of television, television commercials, and the televising of political oratory. All of this created a national speech.”
That was the treasure of ashes the book finally unearthed, without for a moment looking for it. In the narrative the book itself was searching for, the cards lay where they fell, and the people who made the book picked them up where they lay.