Denis Donoghue
Denis Donoghue; drawing by David Levine


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.

But Donoghue, who regards Walden as an “abrasive” book, is not seduced. He has found another passage in which Thoreau relishes the resilience of Walden Pond, despite the inroads of woodcutters, ice-men, and the nearby railroad. “Of all the characters I have known,” Thoreau writes,

perhaps Walden wears best… where a forest was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as lustily as ever.

The passage seems innocuous enough, but such sentiments, according to Donoghue, “allow Thoreau to feel that the despoiling of forests and rivers doesn’t matter, he can be assured—as President Bush is—that they will grow back again, with nothing lost.” If Thoreau could be summoned from the grave, Donoghue implies, he would support drilling for oil in Alaska and the laying of mining roads in our national parks. The Thoreau who was skeptical of vaunted technological progress has made little impression on him.

As for living unobtrusively on the land, Donoghue is equally indignant:

In Walden Thoreau had not a word of sympathy for James Collins and his family, miserably poor Irish emigrants, to whom he paid four dollars and twenty-five cents for their shack on condition that they vacated it by five o’clock the following morning.

Far from being an experiment in ecologically sensitive living, Walden, according to Donoghue, was really a landgrab, a cynical ploy of gentrification. It is true that Thoreau seems contemptuous of the Irish workers squatting on Emerson’s land; he is more sympathetic to American Indians and African-American slaves. But Donoghue neglects to say that Collins was working on the Fitchburg Railroad, whose Concord branch was apparently complete when Thoreau approached him, and that Collins seemed happy to get some cash for his shack before moving along to the next spur of the railroad for more work.

Donoghue thinks that Thoreau’s highhanded treatment of James Collins is typical of classic American writers, who preach a good line about democracy and their fellow men while hypocritically sticking it to them in private. It is almost Donoghue’s biggest complaint against Thoreau and Emerson that they were unsociable. Thoreau “wrote essays on friendship and love” but was “not an especially likable man” and “did not like people.” Likewise, “Emerson had very little interest in people at large.” The charge is certainly true of both Emerson and Thoreau. “Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind,” Thoreau observed. But Donoghue confuses dislike of philanthropy with misanthropy. Emerson and Thoreau felt that a self-satisfied interest in “people at large” tended to blind philanthropists to people as individuals. “The philanthropist,” according to Thoreau, “too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own cast-off griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy.”

Even Walt Whitman, who really does seem to like “people at large,” doesn’t do so in a way acceptable to Donoghue. Of Whitman’s beautiful poem about a young woman longingly watching “twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,” Randall Jarrell once wrote that there was “such tenderness and subtlety and understanding that…Chekhov himself couldn’t have treated it better.” Not at all, Donoghue rejoins; the woman is really just a stand-in for Whitman, who is guilty in the poem of “the reduction of third person to first.”

Donoghue’s real concern in these passages is a wider indictment of American democracy and its callousness toward the poor and oppressed. He thinks that there is a conflict between Emersonian individualism and true democracy: “Like Thoreau, Emerson fears and therefore affects to despise society.” Donoghue is hardly the first critic to suspect Emerson of being at best a reluctant democrat. But Donoghue insists that anyone who admires Emerson’s call for self-reliance is guilty of complicity with American injustice. Stanley Cavell and George Kateb, a philosopher and a political scientist who have written respectfully of Emerson, are, in Donoghue’s blistering words,

notably complacent about the American character of the democracy they enjoy. They have apparently forgotten that the regime of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft contrived not only to interpret the USA Patriot Act illiberally but to keep an American citizen, José Padilla, indefinitely in solitary confinement without charge. Not to speak of the use to which the Bush administration has put Guantánamo Bay.

He chides Cavell for writing (in 1990, long before it was possible to recall Ashcroft, let alone forget him) that American society is characterized by “good enough justice.” Donoghue sees an opening: “To which it is necessary to reply: there is never good enough justice.” Is it really necessary to reply in this way? Donoghue ignores or seems to ignore that Cavell is alluding to the psychoanalytic thinker D.W. Winnicott’s notion of “good enough mothering”: despite individual shortcomings, most mothering, in Winnicott’s view, is “good enough,” and mothers should not feel guilty of falling short of perfection. American judges and juries are certainly imperfect, and miscarriages of justice can have disastrous consequences, but what better judicial system does Donoghue have in mind?

Donoghue interprets all of the “American classics” in this post– September 11 way. “So how would I propose to read Moby-Dick now, now meaning since September 11, 2001, and the rise of George W. Bush as president and commander in chief?” Moby-Dick is useful, he persuasively argues, because it resists the kind of “simple allegory of good and evil” that the Bush administration sees as operative in the world. In a similar vein, Donoghue offers a new solution to an old conundrum: how to interpret the disturbing final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck, so sympathetic to the runaway slave Jim’s suffering in the first part of the novel, is drawn into Tom Sawyer’s fantasy-driven schemes to humiliate Jim. In suggesting that this section of the novel shows how the “taint” of racism in American society can reassert itself at any time, Donoghue asks us to read as tragedy chapters written as farce.

Donoghue grudgingly concedes that slavery was eventually deemed “morally repellent” by “a national and international zeitgeist” and

later (however haltingly) by the Supreme Court…. But the racist prejudice that made the war and the legislation necessary has not ceased.

However one might agree with such assertions, they do little to illuminate Huckleberry Finn. Some of Don-oghue’s best pages are not about racism at all but instead concern Mark Twain’s deification of the Mississippi River, which inspired in turn his fellow Missourian T.S. Eliot’s moving evocation of the river in the opening lines of “The Dry Salvages”:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,

Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;

Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

“The particular merit of Eliot’s reading of Huckleberry Finn,” Donoghue remarks, “is that it respects the work as a poem, a work of fiction, and discourages readers from thinking that it is primarily a tract or an editorial.” Exactly right, but it has not discouraged Donoghue from finding a tract in the concluding chapters of the novel.


Most puzzling of all is Donoghue’s indictment of Hawthorne. When I recently reread The Scarlet Letter, I found it wasn’t quite the book that I remembered—great books never are. I felt that I had the gloomy costume drama and its four main characters firmly in mind: Hester Prynne and her weak-willed lover, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale; Hester’s cuckolded husband, the scholarly physician Roger Chillingworth; and little Pearl, the offspring of Hester’s illicit love for Dimmesdale. But this time I noticed how strongly Hawthorne insisted on the English origins of his cast of immigrants, how recently they had embarked on what Perry Miller called the American “errand into the wilderness.”3 And I noticed, too, how Hawthorne asked us to acknowledge what a bad marriage Hester had made with her Casaubon-like husband, who had sent her ahead to the New World while he completed some important research of his own.

“Thou knowest that I was frank with thee,” she tells him of their marriage, when Chillingworth confronts her on her adultery. “I felt no love, nor feigned any.” To which Chillingworth, equally forthright, replies:

It was my folly, and thy weakness. I,—a man of thought,—the book-worm of great libraries,—a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,—what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own!

In its account of lofty expectations spectacularly unmet, and improvised arrangements cobbled together in the breech, The Scarlet Letter prefigures many American immigrant narratives. Abraham Cahan set Yekl, his 1890s version of The Scarlet Letter, on Hester Street in lower Manhattan.

For Donoghue, however, The Scarlet Letter is a parable of the American refusal to admit mistakes. Donoghue wants Hester Prynne punished for her sin. He wants her to take poison like Emma Bovary or jump in front of a train like Anna Karenina. He is shocked that she gets off scot-free: “There is not a hint of remorse, contrition, or confession.” In the generational conflict at the heart of the novel, Donoghue sides with Chillingworth and the punitive Puritan ministers. (D.H. Lawrence, by contrast, thought the young lovers worried too much about their elders’ disapproval: “If they had had the honest courage of their own passion, there would have been no sin.”) Donoghue is impressed by how “strikingly impoverished in ritual and symbolism” Hawthorne’s imagined Puritan community is. It seems perverse of Donoghue, however, to keep repeating that Catholicism has clear answers to the problem of sin when, as Perry Miller long ago observed, what was “persistent” in the thinking of New England

from the covenant theology…to [Jonathan] Edwards and to Emerson is the Puritan’s effort to confront, face to face, the image of a blinding divinity in the physical universe, and to look upon that universe without the intermediacy of ritual, of ceremony, of the Mass and the confessional.

It is always rash to question Hawthorne’s sense of history—one finds so often that he has been there before you. Donoghue is disappointed that in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne “conceives of sin as a social transgression only.” But when Donoghue wonders why Hawthorne reduces sin to its social effects, the reduction is not in Hawthorne, who read the Puritan sermons with great care, but in the Puritans themselves. Hawthorne was particularly drawn to those recurrent New England sermons on social backsliding that Perry Miller identified as “jeremiads,” consisting of a doleful “public review of the shortcomings of the society.” If you compare the jeremiads of the founding generation of immigrants and the later generations, “you will be struck by the fact,” wrote Miller in Errand into the Wilderness, “that the second and third generations had become oriented toward the social, and only the social problem.”

In an irony that Hawthorne might have appreciated, Denis Donoghue set out to write in The American Classics a blistering and up-to-date attack on the shortcomings of current American culture and society: our intolerance for the poor; our racism; our cavalier treatment of the environment; our conviction that September 11 means never having to say we’re sorry. In doing so, however, he has unwittingly produced only the latest installment of the earliest distinctively American literary genre. Donoghue has endeavored, as Perry Miller said of earlier ineffectual attempts, “to fire again the once-shattering blunderbuss of the jeremiad.”4 Some readers will no doubt be grateful for Donoghue’s quixotic attempt to demonstrate that “the classic books do not offer any resistance to the determination of American culture to go for power, conquest, the empire of globalization—the new version of slavery.” But surely one may view with dismay the policies of the current administration without believing that Whitman and Hawthorne are complicit in the spread of American power abroad. What is just as troubling is that Donoghue does not seem to recognize the deep in-sight into conventional American hypocrisy in the works of Hawthorne and Thoreau and the feeling for democratic experience in Whitman’s poems and in such a book as Specimen Days. It is understandable that a critic should be appalled by the brutalism of recent American policies; but it is regrettable that voices that should be heard in the works he discusses are drowned out by the passion of personal protest.

This Issue

September 22, 2005