Vigorous, engaging essays (many originally published in the New Republic) on the revolutionary impulses of 19th- and 20th- century writers, ``inspired practitioners of the American language,'' offering an explicit repudiation of the more arid contemporary forms of literary criticism. Delbanco (Humanities/Columbia Univ.; The Death of Satan, 1995, etc.) suggests in a brief preface that all the writers under consideration, from Herman Melville to Zora Neale Hurston, have in common the distinctly American idea that ``individual human beings can break free of the structures of thought into which they are born and that, by reimagining the world, they can change it.'' This democratic impulse to make things new seems clear with Thoreau (``to read him,'' Delbanco notes, ``is to feel wrenched away from the customary world and delivered into a place we fear as much as we need''), or Abraham Lincoln (the best example, Delbanco says, of a restorative ``universalizing impulse that cuts across the flimsy barriers by which people try to wall themselves off from those they deem unworthy of inclusion in their circle''), but less obvious in the work of Henry Adams or Stephen Crane. It is to Delbanco's credit that his highly original readings of these authors, as well as of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Dreiser, Kate Chopin, and Richard Wright, are all fresh and persuasive. Delbanco is also frankly dismayed at the kind of literary criticism that turns texts ``into excretions through which, while holding our noses, we search for traces of the maladies of our culture.'' He argues for a criticism that asserts that great prose, far from being an artifact of capitalist culture, is revolutionary, having the power both to change us and to give us pleasure. The first job of a literary critic, he asserts, is to incite readers to pick up a book. In that, Delbanco is entirely successful. A deeply felt, persuasive, and eminently useful work.