×

Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now
     

Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now

by Andrew Delbanco
 

See All Formats & Editions

In his deeply felt new book, Andrew Delbanco shows why our classic American writers remain indispensable, even in an age of uncertainty over what our common heritage is. Required Reading is a work of gratitude and urgency, for, as Mr. Delbanco says, "the world is better for these books having been written, and it is the responsibility of the critic to incite others to

Overview

In his deeply felt new book, Andrew Delbanco shows why our classic American writers remain indispensable, even in an age of uncertainty over what our common heritage is. Required Reading is a work of gratitude and urgency, for, as Mr. Delbanco says, "the world is better for these books having been written, and it is the responsibility of the critic to incite others to read them."

In superb chapters on Melville, Thoreau, Wharton, Richard Wright, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln, and others, he shows how each writer enlarged the expressive range of the American language and our imagined sense of American possibilities. Whether Dreiser or Kate Chopin, Henry Adams or Zora Neale Hurston, American artists celebrated the ideal of the free individual while conveying with searing honesty the struggle to defend this ideal against hostile conditions and ideas.

Although of the writers discussed here only Lincoln was primarily a political thinker, a politics of liberal democracy is implicit in what they all wrote, Mr. Delbanco argues--a belief that individuals, whether born as servants or as masters, can break out of the confines of history and achieve lives of freedom and fulfillment. Each writer, in his or her own way, tried to create what might be called a democratic prose style expressing the belief in transcendence that remains at the core of the American imagination.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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 reviewswhich 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.
Library Journal - Library Journal
In this superb collection of essays, most of which first appeared as book reviews in the New Republic, Delbanco (The Death of Satan) 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. -- Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Westerville P.L., Ohio
Joseph Ellis
Here we are in the hands of a critic with the feel for language and sense of history not seen since Edmund Wilson wrote Patriotic Gore.--Chicago Tribune
Farrar Straus & Giroux Incorporated
A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Kirkus Reviews
Vigorous, engaging essays (many originally published in the New Republic) on the revolutionary impulses of 19th- and 20th- century writers, "inspired practitioners of the American language," offering an explicit repudiation of the more arid contemporary forms of literary criticism. Delbanco (Humanities/Columbia University; The Death of Satan) suggests in a brief preface that all the writers under consideration, from Herman Melville to Zora Neale Hurston, have in common the distinctly American idea that "individual human beings can break free of the structures of thought into which they are born and that, by reimagining the world, they can change it." This democratic impulse to make things new seems clear with Thoreau ("to read him," Delbanco notes, "is to feel wrenched away from the customary world and delivered into a place we fear as much as we need"), or Abraham Lincoln (the best example, Delbanco says, of a restorative "universalizing impulse that cuts across the flimsy barriers by which people try to wall themselves off from those they deem unworthy of inclusion in their circle"), but less obvious in the work of Henry Adams or Stephen Crane. It is to Delbanco's credit that his highly original readings of these authors, as well as of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Dreiser, Kate Chopin, and Richard Wright, are all fresh and persuasive. Delbanco is also frankly dismayed at the kind of literary criticism that turns texts "into excretions through which, while holding our noses, we search for traces of the maladies of our culture." He argues for a criticism that asserts that great prose, far from being an artifact of capitalist culture, is revolutionary, having the powerboth to change us and to give us pleasure. The first job of a literary critic, he asserts, is to incite readers to pick up a book. In that, Delbanco is entirely successful. A deeply felt, persuasive, and eminently useful work.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780788195846
Publisher:
DIANE Publishing Company
Publication date:
02/01/2001
Pages:
226

What People are Saying About This

Arnold Rampersad
An eloquent, compelling intervention in the ongoing debate about classic American literature, magisterial and eminently readable.
Richard Poirier
Andrew Delbanco . . . is one of the most brilliant living interpreters of American writing. He can show how words in the great works of our literature not only represent reality but are capable of creating it.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews