More than twenty years ago, Greil Marcus published Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. It's a complicated and rewarding exploration of what Elvis Presley means and why his legacy matters in America.
As a book, Dead Elvis is not everyone's cup of tea, but it works for me. Today, as the United States decides who will lead it for the next four years, four paragraphs from the book resonate:
"America is a young country, as countries go. Because of that, and because it's a polyglot country, filled with people of all sorts, made out of a clash of languages and regions and religions, and because it's based in crime, in slavery and the extermination of the Indians, and because it's based in a war, the Civil War, a war that has yet to be fully settled, we're uncertain about what is is to be American – uncertain, and eager for a nice, neat definition. There have been a lot of them, some enforced by law and some set forth in poetry. This is our great subject, but of late it's been narrowed down, as if we've given up on the question, on our story. Now we ask, what does it mean to be a black American? A white Southern American? An Italian American? A Jewish American? We're relatively comfortable with these questions. But if we chance to encounter a figure like Herman Melville, or Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Howlin' Wolfe or Elvis Presley, they blow these neat questions apart.
"For some years now, I've thought about Elvis in terms of blues singers like Robert Johnson and punk bands like the Sex Pistols or X – the Los Angeles group that put out a tune called "Back 2 the Base", the best song about Elvis since Bill Parsons' "The All American Boy" – and I've thought of Elvis in terms of Melville and Lincoln and Faulkner. Some people have been interested in the notion of looking at Elvis this way, and some people have been irritated, but what has actually upset people is the argument that Elvis belongs in this company because he was, in a way that we don't quite understand, conscious. He knew what he was doing. If he redefined what it was to be American, it was because he meant to. He wanted change. He wanted to confuse, to disrupt, to tear it up. He was not, in any important manner, a folk artist, as RCA once called him and as timid folk have called him ever since – he was not an exemplar of "the people". Watch him as he first appeared on television in 1956, watch the way he moves, what he says, how he says it: the willfullness, the purpose, is unmistakable. And yet so many of us missed it: as we watched, we drew a veil over the man bent on saying what he meant."
"It wasn't only the idea of the conscious actor that led me to place Elvis and Lincoln and Melville together, though – it was as much the sense of mystery in the speeches, the novels, the music. No one knows how to explain the grace in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. No one knows how to explain the unholy power of the chapter in Moby Dick called "The Whiteness of the Whale", the chapter that makes you wish that you too were on the ship, on the hunt. And no one knows how to explain the music I showed on the video. "I don't get it", a musician friend said of Elvis's guitar playing, as we watched that video a few weeks ago. "Those are such easy chords."
"With each of these examples there is a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy, a performance, not of what it means to be American – to be a creature of history, the inheritor of certain crimes, wars, ideas, landscapes – but rather a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy of what the deepest and most extreme possibilities and dangers of our national identity are. We read, or we listen, or with Lincoln we read and we imagine ourselves listening, then and there, on the spot, and we gasp. We get it. We feel ennobled and a little scared, or very scared, because we are being shown what we could be, because we realize what we are, and what we are not. We pull back."
Today in America, we have our quadrennial moment to choose the "possibilities and dangers of our national identity." May we not pull back.