Required reading Why our American classics matter now

Andrew Delbanco, 1952-

Book - 1997

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New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1997.
Physical Description
xi, 225 p.
Includes index.
Main Author
Andrew Delbanco, 1952- (-)
Review by Choice Reviews

Delbanco (Columbia Univ.) deals with the power of language and the difficulty of defining--let alone dealing with--reality, in connection with certain American writers for whom he is deeply grateful: Melville, Thoreau, Stowe, President Lincoln, Henry Adams, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Dreiser, Wharton, Wright, and Hurston. His controlling idea is that individuals "can break free of the structures of thought into which they are born," and can change the world by reimagining it. The writers Delbanco admires believed, or wanted to believe, "in the possibility of transcendence," exemplifying it in their prose. To advance his argument Delbanco uses biographical detail and interesting quotations; he also makes excursions into epistemology and the philosophy of language. His "way of reading" involves the pleasure principle; he complains that "almost all varieties of criticism have become estranged" from the "fundamental literary pleasure" of unexpected symbolic associations. He apparently looks for these in his oddly chosen and (this reviewer thinks) inadequately justified writers. However, much can be said for the author's blending "two ways of reading": the instrumentalist (seeking "the political dimension of human experience") and the appreciationist (seeking "aesthetic delight"). Recommended for librarians serving upper-division undergraduates through faculty. Copyright 1999 American Library Association

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Delbanco, Julian Clarence Levi Professor of the Humanities at Columbia, takes ten American writers (from Thoreau to Hurston) and shows why they are still so important to read: they embody a strongly held American conviction that individuals can transcend their situation. Copyright 1997 Cahners Business Information.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

In this superb collection of essays, most of which first appeared as book reviews in the New Republic, Delbanco (The Death of Satan, LJ 9/1/95) touts the idea that classic American literature depicts the struggles of individuals to transcend "the structures of thought into which they are born." Delbanco then develops this thesis through a series of elegant and feisty readings of American authors from Melville and Thoreau to Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Taking a page from the criticism of Lionel Trilling, Delbanco shows convincingly how the aesthetic pleasures of reading cannot be separated from the political themes and commitments that the novels under consideration evince. Although the essays never coalesce into a unified argument, and one wonders where Whitman, Twain, and Hart Crane are in his reading, the pieces' individual strengths will compel readers to seek out and read the writers whom Delbanco considers our American classics. Highly recommended. Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Westerville P.L., Ohio Copyright 1998 Library Journal Reviews

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Do American classics matter today? Columbia University professor Delbanco (Death of Satan) thinks they do, because they show how "individual human beings can break free of the structures of thought into which they are born." To make his case, Delbanco offers clever and creative readings of the works of Melville, Thoreau, Lincoln, Stowe, Wharton, Crane and others. Yet while each chapter is interesting, sometimes even scintillating, they would have been served better had they been presented not as a cohesive book but as a collection of reviews which is what they are. Delbanco's readers will recognize these from the New Republic, where the first appeared, although the fact is only mentioned in the acknowledgments of Leon Wieseltier and Ann Hulbert at the end. As a result, what appears as a book-length attempt to defend the American literary canon too often devolves into a series of individual readings with little connection to one another. In one chapter, Delbanco excoriates one writer's feeble attempt to complete an unfinished Wharton novel. In another he praises a scholar's new edition of Richard Wright's Native Son. But whether all these individual readings add up to an argument that the language of American classic literature explodes the structures of thought into which we are born is not clear. (Sept.) Copyright 1998 Publishers Weekly Reviews

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Essays discuss nineteenth and twentieth century American literature, from Henry Adams to Zora Neale Hurston