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American Jeremiad


The generation of American writers that came of age around 1840—the men and women who initiated what we now think of as a national literature—aspired more to youthful vigor than to the “classic” status of ancient Greece and Rome, so dear to the generation of the Founding Fathers. A sense of expanding frontiers, buttressed by expansive ideas borrowed from European Romanticism, impelled them. They wrote enthusiastically of “Young America,” spelled nature with a capital “N” (and sometimes without an “e,” like some pagan divinity unleashed from the Black Forest), and refused to be, in Emerson’s pejorative word, “retrospective.”1

The American Scholar,” Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address to Thoreau’s graduating class at Harvard College during the summer of 1837, is full of appeals to youth:

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.

The classics of Greece and Rome, the great books of Great Britain, were merely “the sere remains of foreign harvests.” Thoreau took the lesson to heart. “I have lived some thirty years on this planet,” he wrote in Walden, “and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” The hemlocks surrounding Walden Pond better represent these writers’ aspirations than the faux-Roman columns and obelisks on the Mall in Washington.

With regard to which of their own books might survive, becoming classics in their turn, nineteenth-century American critics were youthfully confident and, in our view, often wrong. Who now reads those bosky American epics “Evangeline” or “The Song of Hiawatha” except for laughs? Aside from The Scarlet Letter, recognized then and now as a masterpiece though for shifting reasons, it is remarkable that some of the books we treasure most survived oblivion. Walden and Moby-Dick were commercial failures, all but ending their authors’ careers. Emerson backed off from his initial enthusiasm for Leaves of Grass (“I should have enlarged the but,” he remarked, when he learned that Whitman had published his private letter of congratulation in the New York Tribune); Emily Dickinson, with pride or prudence, said she had not read Whitman but was “told that he was disgraceful.” Dickinson herself stowed her nearly two thousand poems, of which a mere eleven were published in her lifetime, in a drawer and instructed her sister to burn her papers at her death. Such messages entrusted to bottles eventually floated to shore, to join our confident (and probably wrong) judgments about our own contemporaries.

It is striking that so many of the nineteenth-century American works we now consider unquestionably important—including four of the five books (Walden, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, and Moby-Dick) identified by Denis Donoghue as “the American classics”—were published during a scant five years, from 1850 to 1855. Other remarkable books, such as The House of the Seven Gables, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Emerson’s Representative Men, appeared during the same period. Two major issues dominated American society during this transitional moment, one political and one religious. The political issue was of course slavery—and many of these works have something to say about slavery. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist and Mark Twain’s two major novels Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson look back on this period from a postwar perspective.2

The religious crisis is more difficult to characterize but no less significant: the breakup of the old Puritan certainties, and the consequent embrace of a new revivalism on the one hand—sometimes called the Second Great Awakening—and a new religious liberalism on the other, associated with Emerson, William Ellery Channing, and Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother. Much of the scorn heaped on their “seniors” by these mid-century American writers derived from their sense that the previous generation had botched the spiritual and political challenges of its time.

Each age,” Emerson had warned, “must write its own books,” and by the 1920s, a new group of youthful writers—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Faulkner, and Pound—found American literature from before the Civil War still not American enough. “Hawthorne, the others,” Faulkner told a seminar of Japanese students, “they were Europeans, not Americans.” Amid confident talk of America’s “coming of age,” only Mark Twain seemed part of a “usable past,” while earlier writers like James Fenimore Cooper seemed impossibly remote, relics of a national childhood. “We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books,” D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1923, in his Studies in Classic American Literature. But Lawrence, with his Old World perspective on what was distinctive in American writing, thought Americans ignored these books at their peril. Lawrence proposed to take a fresh look at Moby-Dick and at the “little thin volumes” of Hawthorne, Poe, and the rest, and what he discovered was a literature of extremity, beyond anything in the supposedly modern literature of the early twentieth century:

The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them to-day.

Denis Donoghue’s The American Classics is very much in Lawrence’s mode: a stranger from abroad reads the neglected American classics to tell us what they say, and in doing so he promises to tell us who we are. There are no surprises among the five books that Donoghue identifies as the American classics: the four already mentioned and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Donoghue aims neither to shore up the “canon”—that supposedly agreed-upon list, underwritten by publishers, critics, and professors of literature, of the important American books—nor to undermine it. These are the books, he believes, that have lasted and can speak for American culture; if books replaced the heads on Mount Rushmore, these would be the books. Familiarity itself is the criterion; these five books “make available to readers—or have a good chance of doing so—a shared cultural experience, something,” Donoghue adds, “in which American society is otherwise impoverished.”

Just as some politicians have suggested that Ronald Reagan’s head should be added to Mount Rushmore, some readers may feel that Don-oghue’s list—“five white men,” as he concedes—is unduly short. His criteria for exclusion are sometimes expressed, sometimes not. He argues that since no single work of Emerson’s or poem by Dickinson has come to stand for those writers, neither writer can be considered “classic.” Presumably Poe, a French classic though not securely an American one, is excluded on the same technicality. Donoghue sneers at Fenimore Cooper (a favorite of Lawrence), whose “nearly unreadable” novels have a prestige that can only be explained by “the need of American readers to feel that they have made their peace with the native Americans.” He dismisses Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the old charge that it is propaganda, though critics more formidable than Donoghue, such as Edmund Wilson and Constance Rourke, have found it to be far more complex than that—“a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect,” Wilson wrote in Patriotic Gore. As for American literature after Mark Twain, Donoghue—following T.S. Eliot’s lead—finds twentieth-century American society too fragmented to produce anything truly classic. His students, he writes, prefer Ayn Rand’s tirades or To Kill a Mockingbird; Donoghue himself may prefer The Waste Land and Absalom, Absalom!, but such books are not, in Donoghue’s word, “privileged” as his five books are.

Donoghue characterizes The American Classics as “a chapter of autobiography” and gives it the subtitle “a personal essay.” He invites readers to set the work slightly aside from his twenty-odd books of literary criticism, including such memorable interventions—Donoghue has always had a knack for the sharp and timely corrective—as The Arts Without Mystery and Speaking of Beauty, vigorously argued books in which he attempts to rescue the concepts of the mysterious and the beautiful from pseudo-religious Victorian rhetoric. In stressing the personal and the autobiographical in The American Classics, Donoghue excuses himself from systematic argument while allowing for idiosyncrasy and cantankerousness. As such, The American Classics can be viewed as a sequel to his affecting memoir Warrenpoint (1990), which described his upbringing as the son of a Catholic policeman in the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland and his rigorous education in Catholic schools there. Having come to America in his “middle years,” and having taught for decades at New York University, Donoghue

wanted to discover what it meant that these five books have been accepted by American culture as the cardinal books. What does this acceptance say of the culture? How do American readers use them; in the service of what causes?

In Donoghue’s view, the question has assumed a renewed urgency in the light of recent American policies abroad: “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.” You might think that Donoghue would want to send American readers back to the American classics in order to recover some better vision of national purpose. But he is convinced that the seeds of disaster in current American foreign and domestic policy are patent in the American classics themselves. For Donoghue, the American classics are symptoms, not touchstones.


To many readers, Henry David Thoreau has seemed exemplary in his understanding of how human beings might peacefully coexist with plants and wild animals. His experiment on Emerson’s woodlot at Wal-den Pond, beginning on July 4, 1845, has inspired many for its seemingly “green” demonstration of how lightly we might live on the land. A passage such as the following is typical of Thoreau’s tact, and his nuanced concern regarding human depredation in the wilderness:

What is a country without rabbits and partridges? They are among the most simple and indigenous animal products; ancient and venerable families known to antiquity as to modern times; of the very hue and substance of Nature, nearest allied to leaves and to the ground,—and to one another; it is either winged or it is legged. It is hardly as if you had seen a wild creature when a rabbit or a partridge bursts away, only a natural one, as much to be expected as rustling leaves. The partridge and the rabbit are still sure to thrive, like true natives of the soil, whatever revolutions occur. If the forest is cut off, the sprouts and bushes which spring up afford them concealment, and they become more numerous than ever. That must be a poor country that does not support a hare.

Thoreau adopts here a strange, al-most grass-level perspective, making the kinds of distinctions—winged or legged, rustling leaves or rustling animals—with which a vulnerable creature, a mole or vole, might assess a potentially dangerous intruder.

  1. 1

    For the significance of the year 1837 for Emerson, Lincoln, John Brown, and the leaders of the literary and political movement known as “Young America,” see Edward L. Widmer, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3–5. For “Natur,” see chapter nine of Louisa May Alcott’s Jack and Jill: “You, sir, are a model of a man fresh from Natur’s mould. A true-born child of this free hemisphere; verdant as the mountains of our land….”

  2. 2

    From the first chapter of Walden:

    I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south. It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.

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