The American Classics

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Denis Donoghue, an Irishman who has spent a good part of his academic career in American universities, has been writing about literature for more than four decades, dividing his attention between British and American authors and critics. He has produced more than thirty books and editions on figures such as Jonathan Swift, T. S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats, and on topics such as the relationship of literature and religion. He has been the subject of a book-length study, Uncommon Readers by Christopher J. Knight (2003), in which his critical principles are compared with those of other distinguished scholars, Frank Kermode and George Steiner. Trained during the years when New Criticism was in vogue, Donoghue has made his reputation by providing close readings of poetry, fiction, and drama and excellent assessments of the state of literary studies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In The American Classics: A Personal Essay Donoghue offers some observations on works by nineteenth century American writers that he dubs classics.

The American Classics is in many respects a retrospective look at works about which Donoghue has previously written. The essays in this volume attempt to explain why five particular books, all but one written within a decade of one another in the mid-nineteenth century, deserve the title “classic.” The selections are predictable: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). What Donoghue has to say about the “classic” status of these works, however, and about the status of American literature and culture, is not so predictable at all.

Donoghue explains that he was inspired to write The American Classics as a result of a course he taught to graduate students at New York University. He had thought his students would appreciate rereading five works that had, for a century, been staples in American high school and college English classes. He discovered, much to his amazement, only one student had read them alland many had read only selections from any of them. Nevertheless, all the students could identify the five books as “the classics” of their literary heritage. This conundrum, Donoghue says, led him to ask several questions: What is a classic? Why are these books given that title? How have these texts been interpreted by generations of critics? How have they been used to shape American values?

To initiate his inquiry, Donoghue turns to the most influential critic of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot, whose 1944 address to the Virgil Society titled “What is a Classic?” offers a definition of the term. Eliot sets a high standard: In his view, only Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) and Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802) deserve the title, displaying concurrently the maturity of the writer, of his civilization, and of the language in which the work is composed. Donoghue immediately repudiates the possibility that any American work could rise to the status of “classic” under this definition, because in his view neither American culture nor American language has matured sufficiently to provide the framework for any writer who might be individually mature enough to produce such a work. That does not discourage Donoghue, however, from being more liberal than Eliot and allowing, provisionally at least, the possibility that some American writings could be given that sobriquet in a qualified sense. He argues that the five works he has selected, while not being “self-evidently” the best American literature has to offer the world, deserve to be read as classics for two important reasons. First, they provide readers “a shared cultural experience, something in which American society is otherwise impoverished.” More important for him, perhaps, is the second reason: All of these works “put in question the otherwise facile ideology of individualism on which American culture complacently prides itself.”

This introductory material is important not simply for the sake of Donoghue’s formal argument but also to illustrate the tone he takes toward American literature in general and these five works in particular....

(The entire section is 1829 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

American Scholar 74, no. 3 (Summer, 2005): 131-133.

Library Journal 130, no. 10 (June 1, 2005): 128.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 14 (September 22, 2005): 65-67.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 17 (April 25, 2005): 51.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 9, 2005, p. 24.

Weekly Standard 10, no. 43 (August 1, 2005): 36-38.