The American Classics

A Personal Essay

Denis Donoghue

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May 10, 2005
304 pages, 5 1/2 x 8-1/4
ISBN: 9780300107814
Cloth

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An eminent liteary critic enumerates and explores five American classics

How is a classic book to be defined? How much time must elapse before a work may be judged a “classic”? And among all the works of American literature, which deserve the designation? In this provocative new book Denis Donoghue essays to answer these questions. He presents his own short list of “relative” classics--works whose appeal may not be universal but which nonetheless have occupied an important place in our culture for more than a century. These books have survived the abuses of time—neglect, contempt, indifference, willful readings, excesses of praise, and hyperbole.

Donoghue bestows the term classic on just five American works: Melville’s Moby-Dick,Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Thoreau’s Walden,Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Examining each in a separate chapter, he discusses how the writings have been received and interpreted, and he offers his own contemporary readings, suggesting, for example, that in the post–9/11 era, Moby-Dick may be rewardingly read as a revenge tragedy. Donoghue extends an irresistible invitation to open the pages of these American classics again, demonstrating with wit and acuity how very much they have to say to us now.

Denis Donoghue is University Professor and Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. He is the author of The Practice of Reading and Words Alone: The Poet T. S. Eliot, published by Yale University Press.

A selection of Readers' Subscription 

"Donoghue’s confrontations with five classic American authors are fresh and provocative—not least in their willingness to link his writers’ concerns with current political issues. A must read for all Americanists."—Joel Porte, author of Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed

"Donoghue’s great gifts of intelligence and scholarship, judgment and wit are all on display here in first-rate form. Like the American classics he analyzes, this book makes powerful claims on our attention."—Stephen Railton, University of Virginia

“A series of lively interlinked essays centering on masterworks by six major 19th-century American authors. . . . 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. . . . An urbanely engaging guide to critical commentary and disputes, old and new. . . . All told, this book delivers the kind of criticism whose verve and gusto are likely to send the reader back to the texts themselves with renewed enthusiasm.”—Lawrence Buell, Christian Science Monitor

“This is not simply an appreciation of these works but a study—largely autobiographical—of how these books have been critically interpreted since the Cold War. . . . Donoghue recounts his introduction to these works, cites the influence of notable critics like T.S. Eliot and Henry James on his own views, and suggests new ways in which these works can be regarded post 9/11. His insights should prove useful in promoting discussion in upper-level graduate courses on American literature.”—Library Journal

 

"The American Classics is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It is not merely a masterful . . . re-evaluation of five great American books. It is also a sometimes galling critique of persistent American values. . . . [Donoghue's] cogent, powerful book challenges American literature at a deep level."—Benjamin Lytal, New York Sun

"Donoghue is at critical junctures very much alive to contemporary matters."—John Seelye, The American Scholar

"A challenging book, often brilliant. . . . A worthy book."—Jeffrey Hart, Claremont Review of Books

 

"The American Classics is a provocative, thoughtful study not only of five important American literary texts but also of the American culture these works represent."—Laurence W. Mazzeno, Magill's Literary Annual 
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