The American Classics

The American Classics: A Personal Essay

Denis Donoghue
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The American Classics
    Book Description:

    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'sMoby-Dick, Hawthorne'sThe Scarlet Letter, Thoreau'sWalden, Whitman'sLeaves of Grass, and Twain'sAdventures 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-Dickmay 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13378-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. INTRODUCTION After Emerson
    (pp. 1-22)

    I started thinking of writing this book in the autumn of 2003, when I taught a graduate course at New York University called Five in American Literature. The books I chose to teach, if they didn’t choose themselves, wereThe Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, Walden, and Huckleberry Finn.I assumed that these were the American classics and that I didn’t need to make a case for reading them; they could be taken for granted, subject to the risk entailed by that status of their not being taken at all. I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss them...

  4. 1 Emerson and “The American Scholar”
    (pp. 23-54)

    On August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered the annual Phi Beta Kappa lecture at Harvard under the title “The American Scholar.” He was not the first choice of the society for its lecturer that year: the invitation came to him only when Jonathan Wain-right withdrew his acceptance. Nor was he an especially suitable choice. The Phi Beta Kappa lecture was the occasion each year on which Harvard Unitarianism showed the desperate remnant of its force and confronted its Transcendentalist, Idealist, and otherwise Romantic opponents. Emerson could not have been expected to fight for the Unitarian cause, even though he had not...

  5. 2 Moby-Dick
    (pp. 55-100)

    When we refer to literature and its contexts, we mean to advert to the various ways in which a particular work is sensitive to forces at large. Some of these are immitigably personal, an affiliation of genetic, familial, and social circumstances. Some are more distant: the forces, political, economic, religious, or cultural, by which a writer is surrounded and, it may be, beset. A writer may yield to any or all of these forces, or may press back against them. Some of them may be ignorable. Jane Austen paid little attention to current affairs. George Eliot seems to have ignored...

  6. 3 The Scarlet Letter
    (pp. 101-136)

    When I first readThe Scarlet Letter,I found it bewildering. That impression has not entirely receded, but I think I understand how it came about and why it has to some extent persisted. The title of the book implied a story about sin—a scarlet woman—and indeed the book often refers to sin and sinfulness; but none of the characters has a convinced sense of sin. Hawthorne seems to equivocate among the values he brings forward. I acknowledge, without regarding the acknowledgment as a major concession, that my understanding of sin is the one I was taught in...

  7. 4 Walden
    (pp. 137-176)

    It speaks well for American education that children are encouraged to read, from an early age, a book as abrasive asWalden‚or at least the few charming parts of it—“The Pond in Spring,” “Former Inhabitants,” and “Spring.” Thoreau was not an especially likable man. Emerson spoke of him, at the funeral service, as if he were a phenomenon, a fact of nature rather than of human life. He remarked that his admirers called him “that terrible Thoreau,” “as if he spoke when silent, and was still present when he had departed.” One of his friends said, according to...

  8. 5 Leaves of Grass
    (pp. 177-216)

    Wallace Stevens’s poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” begins:

    In the far South the sun of autumn is passing

    Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.

    He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him,

    The worlds that were and will be, death and day.

    Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end.

    His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.¹

    Usually, a poet’s recourse to a mythic perspective starts with a human agent and then lifts his eyes to the stars or to a divine figure from...

  9. 6 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    (pp. 217-250)

    I’ve mentioned that withAmerican Renaissance (1941)Matthiessen established that America had a literature: specifically, that in the middle of the nineteenth century America for the first time produced a literature—and therefore a culture—to be acknowledged as such. Not that the country had lacked good writers till 1855; but they had not come together in their differences to make a declaration of literary and cultural independence. Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman made a literature, such that earlier and later American writers might be construed in relation to one or another of those four, as Henry James might be...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 251-262)

    “The true business of literature, as of all intellect, critical or creative, is to remind the powers that be, simple and corrupt as they are, of the turbulence they have to control.” I assume that Blackmur meant by that formulation the true social or public business of literature, without prejudice to its private and personal bearing for one reader or another. He added, as a footnote to the turbulence: “There is a disorder vital to the individual which is fatal to society.”¹ Presumably he meant that disorder is vital to the individual, else the order he or she maintains is...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 263-280)
  12. Acknowledgment
    (pp. 281-282)
  13. Index
    (pp. 283-295)