Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now

Andrew Delbanco, Author
Andrew Delbanco, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $24 (225p) ISBN 978-0-374-23007-4
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Paperback - 240 pages - 978-0-374-52559-0
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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 reviews--which 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. (Sept.)
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