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The American Classics: A Personal Essay

The American Classics: A Personal Essay

by Denis Donoghue

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“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
Joel Porte
"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
Stephen Railton

"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

Publishers Weekly
In his strange new book, one of our leading literary critics anoints five books as American classics. These works, or more appropriately, these writers-Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman and Twain-are forced to be representative of the ante- and post-bellum cultures that produced them and those that followed. Donoghue begins by tracing all of American thought to Emerson, which puts the critic in a bit of a bind, since he can't find anything positive to say about the man or his writing. This leads Donoghue to condemn all of American literature as driven by a need to escape the limitations of the culture in which it is rooted. Although each essay presents an interesting argument and Donoghue makes some acute literary observations, the book as a whole is hampered by the naming of Emerson as the progenitor of American letters. For Donoghue also decries that some recent American political thinkers claim Emerson as the father of American imperialism-which is the villain of Donoghue's account, embodied by George Bush and the military-industrial complex. Whatever contemporary critique is contained in the book is so intermittent, though, that it seems more of an intrusion than an integral part. Donoghue, Irish by birth, has put himself into the enviable but bizarre position of allowing himself to love America and its literature only insofar as he can condescend to it. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Donoghue (English, NYU; The Practice of Reading) attempts to define what constitutes a classic by examining five of his own favorite works from the annals of great American literature: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He selected these particular works for their Emersonian individualism, a quality that he believes is inherent in American culture, and for the "shared cultural experience" they offer readers. 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. For larger academic literary collections.-Ben Bruton, Murray State Univ., KY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Yale University Press
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The American Classics

By Denis Donoghue


Copyright © 2005 Denis Donoghue
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10781-4

Chapter One

Emerson and "The American Scholar"

Perhaps you have begun to realize how the pretension of consciousness to constitute itself is the most formidable obstacle to the idea of revelation.

-Paul Ricoeur


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 Wainright 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 yet spoken in public in favor of Transcendentalism, as he was to speak for it in January 1842. The chapter on "Idealism" in Emerson's first book, Nature (1836), was equivocal: you could take it as asserting that the natural world has whatever meaning the human mind gives it, and no other.Nature is fortunate in having the human mind redeem it from nullity. But for the mind that engages with it, nature would not be worth talking about or living in. On the other hand, you have to accept that the natural world is there, so it must have at least the claim of existing for a putative reason. Emerson veers between these considerations, subject only to his insistence that nature is inferior to mind. He never asks himself Leibniz's question: why is there something rather than nothing? But in that silence Nature can be quoted to any purpose.

Emerson's mind remained religious, though theologically unexacting if not etiolated. On September 9, 1832, he announced his resignation from the Unitarian ministry, and while he continued to speak now and then from a pulpit, he was committed to move from sermon to lecture as the form of his public career. His resignation marks a significant moment in the decision of American culture to do without a religious myth, except for the vaguely religious one of America as "redeemer nation." In the event, Emerson's lecture on "The American Scholar," like the one he gave the following year to the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School, and his more famous lecture in 1839 on "Self-Reliance," established the secular turn of his mind, but without any trace of Materialism. Nevertheless, many of those who listened to "The American Scholar" were dismayed. Fifty years later, Henry James was amused "at the spectacle of a body of people among whom the author of 'The American Scholar' and of the Address of 1838 at the Harvard Divinity College passed for profane, and who failed to see that [Emerson] only gave his plea for the spiritual life the advantage of a brilliant expression.... They were so provincial," James said, "as to think that brilliancy came ill-recommended, and they were shocked at his ceasing to care for the prayer and the sermon." "They should have perceived," James continued, "that he was the prayer and the sermon: not in the least a seculariser, but in his own subtle insinuating way a sanctifier." But the last thing the Phi Beta Kappa Society wanted from Emerson was a display of his subtle insinuating ways. The members knew well enough that he had abandoned them. His tone was edifying, but it was not religious in any sense a Unitarian would accept, even though to be a Unitarian was to be tepid by default if not on principle.

The topic Emerson chose was a standard one. Several of his predecessors had lectured on the responsibilities of the intellectual life or the nature of learning in a country not much noted for it. Emerson referred to "a people too busy to give to letters any more." In the first minute or two of the lecture he expressed the hope that "the sluggard intellect of this continent" might "look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill." The future, as he conjured it, was his favorite tense. Meanwhile, he acknowledged that the scholar must put up with many disabilities. Instead of being able to speak boldly, he must be content to stammer:

Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept,-how often! poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society, and especially to educated society.

Where would the scholar find consolation? Only in knowing that he exercises "the highest functions of human nature."

Who is this scholar, this martyr who takes up the cross? Emerson speaks of him as "Man Thinking," "the designated intellect." But that is to imagine him in his right or ideal state. "In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking." He is the victim of society when he merely thinks in the forms prescribed for him, which are partial or mean forms by definition. Henry James, in the essay from which I have quoted, is still wondering who on earth this scholar could be or could have been:

Charming to many a reader, charming yet ever so slightly droll, will remain Emerson's frequent invocation of the "scholar": there is such a friendly vagueness and convenience in it. It is of the scholar that he expects all the heroic and uncomfortable things, the concentrations and relinquishments, that make up the noble life. We fancy this personage looking up from his book and arm-chair a little ruefully and saying, "Ah, but why me always and only? Why so much of me, and is there no one else to share the responsibility?"

James could only assume that by scholar Emerson meant "the cultivated man, the man who has had a liberal education," one who was distinguished by having some relation to literature, a relation James noted as being a privileged association in Emerson's time. But that is a small interpretation. James did not appreciate that to Emerson the chief attribute of the scholar was that he did not yet exist; he existed only in Emerson's yearning vision of him, and in his demand that such a person would emerge, the need of him being acute. Stanley Cavell correctly refers to the American Scholar as "Emerson's vision of our not yet thinking." Perhaps Emerson himself, as sage and prophet, was the only living exemplar of the scholar, but he could hardly make that claim for himself. He had to speak of the scholar as if there were such a being, or at least as if an adumbration of such could be invoked, even in the degradation of an ideal possibility. Otherwise he might just as well throw up his hands and confess that he was dreaming.

But Emerson's scholar exists only as an idea, like Wallace Stevens's "major man" in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: "It does not follow that major man is man." Man and the idea of man are discontinuous projects. As a poet, Stevens was of Emerson's fellowship, but he had come a long way from him in one respect:

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

Stevens wanted to believe that the place we live in is not only our own but ourselves, cognate to our imaginations, and he wrote his poems as evidences that this felicity was at least possible. Emerson was closer to the Transcendentalism of Kant, who maintained in reply to John Locke that there are ideas, "imperative forms" as Emerson called them, forms that did not come from sensory experience but through which sensory experience was acquired. The world is not merely the tissue of entities it seems to be: it is, from the point of view of Idealism, "this shadow of the soul, or other me." Or so Emerson needed to believe. The idealist makes one's consciousness account for the whole of one's experience.

It is a cardinal axiom of Emerson's sense of experience that he invoked the idea of Man without coming to particular men or women. "It is one of those fables," he said, "which, out of an unknown antiquity, convey an unlooked-for wisdom, that the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end." Emerson interpreted the fable to sustain "a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man,-present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man." Man "is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all." He is "priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier." In the "divided or social state, these functions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his." But Emerson deplores this parceling out. At the very least, each of us should retain a sense of the whole of which he or she is one part. This good intention soon became a lost cause. Later nineteenth century practice decided that one's only hope of being effective consisted in one's being a specialist, forgetting about the whole man, relegating to one's hours of abstraction any concern for Man as distinct from men. Max Weber accepted this decision in his lecture on "Science as a Vocation," and the world has regarded the question as settled.

In "The American Scholar" Emerson speaks of the several conditions and influences which bear upon the scholar as if each were to be understood in terms of philosophic Idealism. The first influence is Nature, the continuity and circuit of natural life. But nature also includes the little society of men and women, conversing. Emerson believes that the natural world is a system of analogies, and that the law of Nature coincides with the prior law of the human mind: nature answers to the soul, part by part. It is crucial that each of us discovers that the law of nature is the law of one's own mind. This is the justification of a scholar's search for further knowledge. "So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess." The purpose of scholarship, according to Emerson, is not the elucidation of nature as an objective entity or structure independent of you and me but as the correlative constitution of one's own mind. "The ancient precept, 'Know thyself,' and the modern precept, 'Study nature,' become at last one maxim."

The second influence on the mind of the scholar is "the mind of the Past," but Emerson gives a light if not a light-hearted account of this; he does not weigh its burden. Indeed, he shows himself "a little provincial" at this point, in the sense of provincialism that Eliot described in "What Is a Classic?" "In our age," Eliot said, "when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name." Keeping the old name, Eliot continued: "It is a provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares."

"We are not children of time," Emerson said in one of his early lectures on history. "All the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws." It would be difficult to convince the parents of a soldier killed at the Somme or of a child bombed to death in Dresden that the facts of history are to be respected only as psychological laws. Emerson relegates the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn by finding them in books, where they can easily be allowed not to impinge. He ascribes value not to books as such, as products or vehicles where claims are made, but to the minds that wrote them. He deplores the congealment of those minds that occurs when institutions turn them into books, books into libraries, libraries into conformities. "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books." Books "are for nothing but to inspire." We should read them-especially books of history and natural science-to learn what is already known and to see the forms, or some of them, that genius and creative spirit have taken. But "I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite rather than a system." Even the genius of another should be resisted. "Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence." The literatures of every nation, Emerson says, "bear me witness. The English dramatic poets have Shakespearized now for two hundred years." So there is a creative way of reading, according to which readers do not allow themselves to be subdued by what they read. They remain their own seers. "Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings."

The clue to Emerson's extravagances, in this part of his lecture, is his belief that we can read God directly. But what does that mean? It can only mean that we can read ourselves, that each of us can read his or her individual genius, and thereby intuit the comprehensive genius of which our little genius is a fragment. Stevens writes, in "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour": "We say God and the imagination are one." This allows for the possibility that we may be wrong: we may be found wrong. But meanwhile there is evidently some consolation to be felt in the saying. Emerson also says consoling things, and admonitory things; says them in notebook, lecture, and printed book. But he presents a claim to the truth of what he says, not merely the consolation of saying it. His claim is predicated on the force-or at least the hypothetical force-of what he calls "the one thing in the world of value, ... the active soul." Books are a nuisance when we let them get in the way of that soul.

The third influence on the scholar of which Emerson speaks is the common notion that because scholars are speculative people they must be recluses, valetudinarians. On the contrary, Emerson declares for action in the world. "The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power." In saying as much, Emerson had to resist his own disposition. He was not, by nature, given to the gregariousness of taking up causes or acting directly in the world. It was typical of his Idealism to reduce Action to Attitude, taking up a stance in advance of its occasion and sometimes letting the occasion go by. We normally find him in a state of incipience, his animation held in suspense. It took him several years to work up the conviction required to speak out against slavery in the American South; till August 1, 1844, to be specific, when he spoke in Concord to mark the tenth anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies. In later years he sometimes-but rarely-overcame his reluctance to join other people in helping a just cause. In May 1851 he denounced the Fugitive Slave Law and attacked his one-time hero Daniel Webster for supporting it. On March 7, 1854, he spoke again against the Fugitive Slave Law, and in 1855 he spoke with even greater force against slavery. But in these speeches he worked despite his inclinations and against his native grain.


Excerpted from The American Classics by Denis Donoghue Copyright © 2005 by Denis Donoghue. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Stephen Railton
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

Joel Porte
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

Meet the Author

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.

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