In Defense of `American Classics'

By West, Woody | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 28, 1997 | Go to article overview

In Defense of `American Classics'


West, Woody, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Andrew Delbanco is like a medic in a raging battle, scrambling to get the wounded to shelter. The strewn ground here is the Kulturkampf of academe, with literary criticism the epicenter.

The title of Mr. Delbanco's latest book, "Required Reading," can be taken both as ironic reference to fading requirements for undergraduate exposure to classic literature, and as a sober assertion that such requirements are intellectually useful and pleasurable.

Mr. Delbanco - whose last book, "The Death of Satan," on the nature of evil, was widely admired - is engaging and graceful. Included here are essays on Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston.

His essay on Edith Wharton alone is worth the price of the book. She both detested and appreciated "the manners" of the costive world of old New York out of which she created her most memorable novels. Mr. Delbanco observes that the novel is a literary form "that can exist only as long as something like balance persists between the inhibiting influence of social authority and the insolence of the individual" - a roiled turf that Wharton understood so painfully well.

The author of "The Age of Innocence," knew that, tightly as they may pinch, manners are the plasma of fiction. Mr. Delbanco is disheartened because Wharton's great novel "has been deranged lately by the loss of the concept of legitimate inhibition."

There is also a compelling chapter on "The Two Lincolns," in which the humanities professor at Columbia University ponders the "truth" of history as interwoven with the "myth" of that president. Even the apocrphyal stories about Lincoln are "perfectly continuous with the Lincoln who exists independently" of them, the author asserts. "This theme is his lifelong contempt for the idea that accidents of worldly rank imply a hierachy of intrinsic worth. Variously expressed through humor, anger, piety, and self-doubt, this principle is what both the actual and legendary [Lincolns] were essentially about."

The author worries that in our time "the symbols through which he thought Americans could receive and transmit a sense of common destiny have been terribly vitiated." Mr. Delbanco takes a swipe at both the right and the left for this degradation. He derisively refers to "the age of Newt Gingrich," and whacks the academic left for offering "little more than a mantra about group identity."

But the real mission of the book is stated in the preface, that "implicit in classic American writing" is the spirit of liberal democracy in which the possibility of transcendence infuses the prose.

In a final chapter the author elaborates, lamenting that criticism has been "estranged" from the intellectual and emotional pleasure of literature. …

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