No Free Pass for the Icons We Know and Love ; but What Enlivening Conversation a Really Good Book Inspires

Article excerpt

Denis Donoghue is a prolific literary critic with some 30 books to his credit, including several on American literature. "The American Classics" is a series of lively interlinked essays centering on masterworks by six major 19th-century American authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson ("The American Scholar" and other essays), Herman Melville ("Moby-Dick"), Nathaniel Hawthorne ("The Scarlet Letter"), Henry David Thoreau ("Walden"), Walt Whitman ("Leaves of Grass"), and Mark Twain ("Huckleberry Finn").

Beginning students of American literature are likely to be put off by the amount of time Donoghue spends citing and debating other critics, and specialists won't find much here that hasn't occurred to them already.

But "The American Classics" should appeal quite strongly to what is presumably its main target audience: readers of any age from college on up who are previously somewhat familiar with these authors but who now want to brush up on these books or be stirred to think about them in new ways.

Here are provocative one-liners like "making Emersonian individualism sustain democracy ... is a hopeless undertaking" and "[Thoreau] is not dismayed to think that Nature has no interest in him."

Here are strong if debatable arguments that are likely to surprise the reader; for example, Hawthorne really didn't believe in "sin," and "Huckleberry Finn" is finally more about the mythical river than about the characters or plot.

And here is an urbanely engaging guide to critical commentary and disputes, old and new.

Though card-carrying literature scholars may be put off by Donoghue's heavy reliance on critics who ceased writing a half- century ago, any thinking person who listens for the first time to the voices of T.S. Eliot, William Empson, Allen Tate, and R.P. Blackmur resounding through these pages will be struck by their brilliance and the sense of the inexhaustibly enlivening conversation that a really good work of literature inspires.

Donoghue also poses two broader questions: To what extent are the so-called American "classics" worthy of that name? and How do they help us better understand American culture in the post-9/11 era.

On the second question the book is sporadic and predictable, although Donoghue's candid self-positioning as a foreign (Irish) observer of American institutions produces a bracing sense of ethnographic detachment throughout toward America's literature and culture.

On defining "classics," the book is much stronger. …

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