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