A Brief Tour of the Classics, Led by a Nimble Expert

The American Classics: A Personal Essay, by Denis Donoghue. Yale University Press, 295 pages, $27.

Rapping the knuckles of the American classics is good fun-especially if it’s done with a light, sharp touch. And nobody gets hurt, certainly not the great dead white males themselves, who ascended to their exalted position precisely because, as Denis Donoghue points out in The American Classics, their books “have survived … neglect, contempt, indifference, willful readings, excess of praise, hyperbole.” You can’t bruise Walden with lit-crit-not even dismemberment can damage it (it’s now read in bite-sized excerpts, glazed with righteous Green sentiment); Moby-Dick is as astonishing as ever, unscathed by the harpoons of generations of grad students; The Scarlet Letter remains proudly enigmatic, despite Demi Moore’s best efforts; Whitman woos new worshippers with mere cuttings, a handful of poems culled from the multitudes contained in Leaves of Grass; and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still beloved, its grossly unlovable episodes patriotically ignored. Insulted or even unread, the classics perdure.

Mr. Donoghue’s book is a much milder, less brilliant and more reliable version of the passionate scolding administered 82 years ago by D.H. Lawrence in his unforgettable Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence assailed the reader with the unwavering conviction of his outrageous, hilarious, world-dominating opinions, all emphatically his own (witness his habit of calling Hawthorne “that blue-eyed darling Nathaniel”). Mr. Donoghue takes a meandering, open-ended approach and accommodates many voices, including a contingent of unfairly forgotten 20th-century critics (William Empson, Yvor Winters, R.P. Blackmur, Kenneth Burke and others). Lawrence hectors, Mr. Donoghue converses.

More importantly, Mr. Donoghue begins with Emerson, whom Lawrence mentions only in passing and lumps with other “tiresome” New Englanders “of the ethical mystical-transcendentalist sort.” Though Mr. Donoghue admits that no single book of Emerson’s is a classic, he announces that “The canon of American Literature is Emersonian,” and calls the sage of Concord “a great enabler … remarkable mainly as incentive and provocation … the cause of writers greater than he is.” Specifically, Mr. Donoghue believes that a version of Emersonian individualism and self-reliance “drives” each of the five books he’s singled out as classics. “Emerson did not invent the ideology of individualism,” Mr. Donoghue writes, “though he bears the responsibility of making it charming to Americans.”

A too rigid and literal reading of Emerson’s radical ideas about the self can be a dangerous thing: “[I] t became a short step for Americans to regard themselves as categorically destined to be exceptional, the chosen vehicle of redemption, justified in imposing their will upon others.” (Would you be surprised to hear that George W. Bush’s name pops up in the pages that follow?) Mr. Donoghue argues that Emerson needs to be read in an equivocal spirit, to match “the spirit in which he revised himself and disowned his certitude.” In this chapter-and in the book as a whole-Mr. Donoghue proves that he himself can be quite limber, almost double-jointed, willing at once to admire Emerson’s strenuous self-creation and to deplore his pretension.

So who is this flexible, conversationally adept critic? The Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at N.Y.U., Denis Donoghue was born in Northern Ireland in 1928 and “grew up into the reading of literature under the sway of the New Criticism.” He’s published more than two dozen books, skipping back and forth across the Atlantic to pursue various interests: Jonathan Swift, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Walter Pater and so on. He’s also written several books about literary theory-without picking up the slightest trace of theory’s ugly and obfuscating jargon.

He’s given his new book a somewhat misleading subtitle: “A Personal Essay.” Except for a very brief passage about his religious education in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland, almost no autobiographical data clogs these pages. I’d guess he tacked on the subtitle for two reasons: because of the company he keeps, and because he’s not attempting a comprehensive reading. When he first encountered the American classics in the middle of the last century, the critics he “read most warmly” (F.R. Leavis, for example) were all the rage; now they’re antiques. But he’s still interested in their ideas, and he’s carrying on old arguments, reconsidering old positions. His book is “personal” because it addresses only issues that have engaged his mind for decades-a refreshingly untrendy, untendentious approach.

So he ponders Moby-Dick, the quality of Melville’s imagination, and the Cold War rhetoric that turned Ahab into a totalitarian dictator; The Scarlet Letter and Hawthorne’s sense of sin; Thoreau’s misanthropy and the advantages of reading Walden as autobiography; Whitman and his detractors and the possibility of “deflecting” their criticism by reading Leaves of Grass “notionally and provisionally”; and Twain, the Cold War rhetoric that turned Huckleberry Finn into an American idyll, and William Empson’s understanding of the pastoral. The chapters jostle comfortably without ever linking up in the service of a tidy logical sequence. (As Melville put it, “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”)

In an afterword, Mr. Donoghue does make an uncharacteristically sweeping observation: He complains that the authors he’s writing about were mostly indifferent to “the average man in his average circumstances” and “excited only by the vision of an individual’s charisma”-a defect he traces back to Emerson. Because of this disdain for the common man, Mr. Donoghue claims, “the classic books do not offer any resistance to the determination of American culture to go for power, conquest, the empire of globalization …. ” Would the course of American culture have been altered had Hawthorne or Thoreau examined in minute detail the daily doings of some 19th-century Rabbit Angstrom? Maybe, maybe not. But Mr. Donoghue’s book is not a polemic and shouldn’t be read in the expectation of discovering a grand, one-size-fits-all argument of the sort proposed by Lawrence, say, or by F.O. Matthiessen in American Renaissance (1941).

Mr. Donoghue’s book offers the pleasure of following the brainwork of an intelligent man thinking hard and lucidly about books that are central to our literary culture. He’s thinking, and he’s also quoting, which offers another kind of pleasure. Here, for example, is John Jay Chapman: “[I]f a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson.” Here’s William Empson: “Hawthorne is an aesthetic writer, I don’t deny, a premature decadent, in fact; but I think the result is shockingly nasty.” Here’s Thoreau, admiring “naked Nature” on Cape Cod, “inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.” Here’s Ezra Pound lamenting “that horrible air of rectitude with which Whitman rejoices in being Whitman.” Here’s Twain describing Huckleberry Finn as “a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat.” Every few pages comes a jolt, a bracing idea or a refreshingly lovely turn of phrase-that’s one advantage of trading in high art.

This is not an easy book, but it’s certainly accessible to anyone who’s read (and perhaps reread) the five books under discussion. Think of it as a litmus test: If you have to struggle to follow Denis Donoghue’s elegant, entertaining ramble, perhaps it’s time to brush up on your classics-start rereading them now.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.