The Magazine

Canon Fodder

When politics and literature meet, literature loses.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By WILFRED M. MCCLAY
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The American Classics

A Personal Essay

by Denis Donoghue

Yale, 304 pp., $27

IT IS THE FIRST TASK of a reviewer to tell us whether a book is worth buying and reading. In the case of Denis Donoghue's new book on the American classics, the job is, alas, very easy. For readers in a hurry, here's the capsule judgment: Save your money and your time. A reading of this meandering, self-indulgent, intermittently strident, and consistently half-baked "personal essay" will do nothing to advance your knowledge of, appreciation of, or critical insight into the classic works of 19th-century American literature. It is not sufficiently provocative or stimulating to rise to the level of being annoying. It is of interest only as an example, and a very saddening one, of just how low the state of literary studies has sunk in our time, when one of our best literary scholars could be induced to publish such a strangely intemperate and rudderless book.

Indeed, Donoghue has long been one of the best we have, a prominent member of that tiny remnant in literary studies that still approaches texts with thoughtful and inquisitive respect, and still treats the act of close reading as an avenue to truth and beauty. The author of such wonderfully unfashionable works as Speaking of Beauty and The Practice of Reading, Donoghue has been a spokesman for the dignity and legitimacy of aesthetic experience. He has steered clear of the near-universal tendency to allow political or social considerations to crowd out the imperatives of the literary imagination, and has refused the tendency to treat the Western religious heritage as nothing more than crippling baggage.

Although it would be fair to associate his kind of formalism with the general approach advocated by T.S. Eliot and the so-called New Criticism of a half-century ago, it would also be fair to say that he proceeds in an idiosyncratic and unsystematic way, without visible school ties, and his work generally will reward the attention of anyone who genuinely loves literature. Although he has written earlier in his career on American literary topics, his reputation was made elsewhere, and so the interest in this book was great, at least for those of us who have admired his work in the past. I'm sure that I am not the only reader to come to this book with a real sense of anticipation--and come away from it both surprised and appalled.

What went wrong? In a word, politics, which bespatters this book like a deluge of bird droppings unloaded on an unwashed car. Donoghue has taken up the cause of post-9/11 anti-Americanism with a vengeance, and his ever-so-fashionable political desiderata, which he offers en passant as if they were self-evident truths with which all intelligent readers will of course agree, prove to be the undergirding structure in an otherwise disorganized jumble. He clues us in to what is coming in the book's opening pages, where, after making a stock observation about the ignorance of his American students, he laments that it is almost too much of a burden to himself to have to read these books, at a time when "the violence without" makes it so hard to concentrate. "Afghanistan, Iraq--and what next?--Israel's Sharon triumphant in Bush's Washington, the Palestinians brushed aside, the American empire enforcing itself commercially and militarily. . . . What is the point of reading books at such a time, when reality is defined as military power, vengeance, 'the war on terror,' and oil? But what else can one do but read books?"

Oh, but that's easy. One can read and interpret, and reinterpret, a body of literature in a way that is designed to further one's political passions and agenda. This is, after all, what the profession of literary studies has been increasingly preoccupied in doing these past 30 years or so, and this is the very tendency that Donoghue has stood so valiantly against. Until now, that is. With The American Classics, Donoghue appears to have put aside his principles and gone over to the other side.