The American Classics: A Personal Essay

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What we are left with, then, is an "interpretation" of the American classics that is based on hostile premises: that American "classics" are very poor classics indeed; that their shoddy workmanship and intellectual inadequacy reflect the inability of American culture to sustain and support first-rate work; and that, furthermore, they are poor classics because they did nothing to stop the onrush of demonic tendencies at the heart of American life. Or, to give you a bit more of a taste of Donoghue's own words, "the classic books do not offer any resistance to the determination of American culture to go for power, conquest, the empire of globalization--the new version of slavery--and if that doesn't make every knee bend, there are always the bombs, nuclear if necessary.

If you have dropped them on Hiroshima, why not again somewhere else? Why not, indeed? Nor is that the only occasion in this book when Donoghue performs an uncannily realistic imitation of a college sophomore.

My Great American Classics To Read List.

Consider this little gem of analysis, which comes in the middle of his essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I would advise anyone who proposed to speak out against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to take the precaution of being already famous and therefore beyond the reach of John Ashcroft's arm. One cannot be too careful. Well, Professor Donoghue is entitled to his politics, however ill-informed and hysterical they may be. But our present concern is not with his politics, but with their effect on his literary judgment. And the result in this case is a failed book, which incongruously combines the formalist critical conventions of 50 years ago with the fashionable political slogans of today, and insists upon seeing all of American literature through a present-day radical lens--albeit one augmented by copious and constant citations from R.

Leavis, F. Matthiessen, and a whole host of once-authoritative but long-forgotten critics. There is almost no engagement whatsoever with contemporary or recent scholarship, even to dismiss it. Not to mention the fact that the book reads as if it were dictated, with pretentious asides and long, long paragraphs, often spilling over four and five pages, with little rhyme or reason in their structure.

The American Classics: A Personal Essay

The end effect is exceedingly strange. In one sense, the book is too obsessed with present-day politics to be of any enduring use.


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Bush as president and commander in chief? It will be even more of an embarrassment to its author in 5 or 10 years than it already is today. And yet, in another sense, it is a book that is enveloped in the mists of old literary theories and theorists, whose time has long ago passed, for better or worse. There is something quite incongruous about a book which complains, with great specificity, about the detention of Jose Padilla under the Patriot Act, while relying so heavily and nearly exclusively on the authoritative literary judgments of scholars who are long dead and little remembered, even in the academy.

Indeed, what is more disturbing, there is very little direct engagement by Donoghue with the books under study themselves. You would think that a formalist, textualist critic would. But you would be wrong. One begins to feel that the entire subject of American literature is uncomfortably alien to this author, so much so that he has to rely on translators and field workers for second-hand information about what the native populace is up to.

Such a suspicion is only heightened when he blunders and calls Mark Twain an exemplar of "Midwest" rather than "Southwestern" humor. The only thing that can justify the publication of a book like this is the sense that one is getting a reading of enduringly valuable works through the eyes of a master, or at least of someone who offers a fresh and consistent and informed perspective on them.

We get surprisingly little of either in The American Classics. Donoghue's immense assurance on political subjects--that is to say, on subjects of which he seems to know little--is not matched by mastery or clarity in his analysis of subjects about which he has, in the past, demonstrated that he knows a great deal. This is exactly the opposite of how it should be. Several of the chapters do little more than set up straw men, knock them down, and then call it a day, leaving us no better off than we were before.

The American Classics

The chapters on Melville and Twain argue that these authors' respective "classic" works were turned by such right-wing proto-Bushies as Matthiessen and Lionel Trilling into simplistic "Cold War" parables of, respectively, good versus evil, and racial harmony he said it, I didn't. But suppose we never thought such ludicrous things to begin with? Donoghue is very good at asking how "should" we read this or that book, and very wanting in his answers. In the case of Huckleberry Finn , for example, the answer is that we should disinter William Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral , which would allow us to imagine "'a proper or beautiful relation between rich and poor.

Yes, that's the ticket.

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The essay on Steinbeck's East of Eden , not the expected choice for that writer, may bring a different Steinbeck work into the canon of American modernist fiction. When the editors refer to the approach used in the studies as "genetic-biographical," one tends to feel that too defensive a posture has been assumed. There is nothing wrong with knowing as much as a reader can about the development of a literary work; such criticism has been useful for at least most of the twentieth century.

One does not have to pretend that such an approach is new, however, and the editors' comments in both the preface and the afterword seem unnecessary.


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Readers who are interested in knowing more about texts will find this book. Scott Donaldson's study of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night is both informative and somewhat revisionist, whereas James Woodress's essay on The Professor's House holds few surprises, except to reaffirm how personal a tie Cather herself felt with the professor as a character.

William Balassi's detailed consideration of The Sun Also Rises summarizes a quantity of material that had been available in scattered sources earlier, Kenneth Kinnamon writes the most comprehensive essay, on Wright's Native Son , including cultural and publishing history as well as good comments about the place of the novel in Wright's oeuvre. Louis Owens' intentionally wry treatment of "Bad, Bad Cathy Trask" in the Steinbeck novel may have misfired, in that the reader's disagreement with his reading may nullify the useful information elsewhere in the essay.

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Sally Wolff and David Minter seem to be rehashing some common knowledge in their study of The Sound and the Fury , keeping the reader at the edge of the real mystical power of that novel. Most successful in presenting readings that are both informative and insightful are Leo Lemay's essay on Franklin, Robert Sattelmeyer's study of Walden , and Barbour's reading of Moby-Dick. Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide.

Forged from a partnership between a university press and a library, Project MUSE is a trusted part of the academic and scholarly community it serves. Built on the Johns Hopkins University Campus.