No free pass for the icons we know and love

But what enlivening conversation a really good book inspires

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 him."

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 culture.

On defining "classics," the book is much stronger. Donoghue is deeply interested in the so-called American classics, and readers will find his interest infectious, all the more because it is not blandly accommodating or shallowly appreciative. He's by no means ready to give these American icons a free pass. So, following T.S. Eliot's classic essay, "What Is a Classic?" - whose criteria are so stringent that no work of literature in all of Western history qualifies except for Virgil's "Aeneid" and Dante's "Divine Comedy" - Donoghue unfolds a vision of the "relative" classic, the near classic. It's a somewhat wispy yet interesting and suggestive concept. It requires sizing up national writing and national culture in tandem with each other, since for both Eliot and Donoghue "maturity" of culture and language are two of the three necessary preconditions. (The third is the writer's own mental maturity.)

I won't give away Donoghue's "plot" any further except to say that I myself found this line of analysis the book's single most thought-provoking aspect.

The introductory chapter promises a more coordinated study of the six writers to follow than the book actually delivers. Emerson, who, Donoghue contends, wrote no single work of classic status himself, is nonetheless the indispensable gateway to the five featured classics, which witness to "a shared cultural experience," one key mark of which is that they all "put in question the otherwise facile ideology of individualism on which American culture complacently prides itself."

In fact, "The American Classics" turns out to be more the sum of its parts than a cumulative progression or unitary whole. Yet that is really more advantageous than not. It leaves you at perfect liberty to forage about and read the series in the order that pleases you best.

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. After it charges you up, don't feel sheepish if you're moved to lay it aside. This book isn't itself a critical classic; it's only an energizer. But that's reason enough to welcome its appearance.

Lawrence Buell is Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. Among his many books and articles is the award-winning 'Emerson' (2003).

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