The Shape of Things to Come Prophecy and the American Voice

Greil Marcus




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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In The Shape of Things to Come, Greil Marcus traces America's fable of self-invention from its earliest Puritan beginnings to its successive retellings in the the work of contemporary artists as diverse as Philip Roth and David Lynch. While artists rather than politicians struggle to define what the nation is and what it is for, Marcus opens up the ferment of America as an idea and as a story.

From John Winthrop's sermon on the founding of a community as a city on a hill to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s address to the March on Washington in 1963, Marcus explores America's promise as a New Jerusalem: the nature of its covenant, first with God and then with its own citizens. But the promises America made to itself were so vast they could only be betrayed—and from that betrayal emerged the nation's prophetic voice. It is this voice that calls America's citizens to judgment: not the judgment of God, but a judgment they must render on themselves.

As Marcus follows this drama, he find the prophetic voice less and less in public argument and political speech, and more in the work of novelists, filmmakers, musicians, poets, and actors—including Roth, Lynch, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Allen Ginsberg, the band Heavens to Betsy, Bill Pulllman, and Sheryl Lee. In The Shape of Things to Come, the past and the present merge in the most extraordinary and uncanny ways. As Luc Sante said of Marcus's The Old, Weird America, this is not only "the most imaginative cultural criticism being done . . . it's a light in dark times."


Praise for The Shape of Things to Come

"His writing is cool, vivid, fixated. The book's premise is simple: 'There is no American identity without a sense of portent and doom' . . . This book is brilliant. Frightening, exciting, sickening. It brings you alive as an American."—The American Prospect

"An impossible fever-dream conversation, in which Abraham Lincoln, Sleater-Kinney, obscure bluesmen, old punks, characters from 24, Sinclair Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. speak to each other on some frequency only Marcus can hear and transcribe. The cacophony is us, and in such scary times it's imperative that we listen."—Frances Reade, San Francisco Weekly

"Marcus knows that as you dig deeper into American culture and its histories, it just gets weirder—and a lot more interesting. Beneath the pabulum that the corporations serve us as mass culture is a vibrant, sexy, scary and confusing unholy mess of music and art, movies and poetry . . . Nobody does it better than Greil Marcus."—Michael Roth, San Francisco Chronicle

"Greil Marcus is one of America's great listeners. Over 30 years and nine books, he has reshaped the possibilities of criticism, departing from questions of taste and tailing instead grand, nation-sized mythologies of heroes and villains, promises and betrayals, and our need to believe in the whole thing. Marcus's latest, The Shape of Things to Come, is a provocative and demanding book about 'prophecy and the American voice' . . . This is a powerful, confounding, and disturbing book about taking the nation, literally, at its word."—Hua Hsu, The Village Voice

"A bold, brash book that reckons with the country's genius for failure and seeks salvation in art, film, music and myth . . . Marcus finds hope and humor in the strangest places, as he's done for more than 30 years as a fearless observer of scary America . . . Marcus willingly cedes center stage to his own authorial inventions and lets the prophesizing voices all around him do the talking."—Steven Jenkins, Green

"Among American rock critics, Greil Marcus is the titan whose brilliance is taken for granted . . . With The Shape of Things to Come, Marcus is after some big fish. He uses Puritan settler John Winthrop's 1630 invocation of America as a 'City Upon a Hill' along with speeches by Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to broach the topic of American exceptionalism, and explore the nation's covenant with God and its people. In analysis that is often dazzling . . . he closely reads poems, movies, novels, performances, and punk rock songs by an array of subjects ranging from grrl-rockers Heavens to Betsy to everyman actor Bill Pullman to novelist Philip Roth."—Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"[A] fascinating book on the notion of prophecy in the American character, which [Greil Marcus] explains has played out in our era 'most intensely in art' . . . The chapters on Lynch and Thomas are rich with allusions and connections to many other types of prophetic art (e.g., poetry, photography, film noir) and music (e.g., blues, pop, country) that express the nation's 'promise and its betrayal.' Highly recommended."—Amy Lewontin, Library Journal

"Marcus plumbs the depth and breadth of American exceptionalism through his unique lens of cultural criticism, forging often astounding links between people, places, works of art and miscellaneous phenomena, as he has in most of his previous nine books. The independent scholar posits that the United States of America is a cultural construction, grounded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Without those bedrocks, Marcus believes, the nation would be 'little more than a collection of buildings and people who have no special reason to speak to each other, and nothing to say.' Marcus builds his own erudite vision upon John Winthrop's 1630 speech 'A Modell of Christian Charity,' Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in 1865, Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 exhortation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the later novels of Philip Roth, the films of David Lynch and the music of David Thomas with his band Pere Ubu. More than most books, Marcus's latest . . . is quite likely to divide readers into two camps: those who find it brilliant and those who find it baffling."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Greil Marcus

  • Greil Marcus is the author of nine previous books, including Lipstick Traces, Mystery Train, and The Dustbin of History. He lives in Berkeley, California.

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