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Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior

by Brooke Allen

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 2004
ISBN: 1-56663-595-0
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield

A collection of previous published essays/reviews about writers ranging from Samuel Pepys to Sinclair Lewis and beyond.

Allen is not a timorous or uncertain critic. The author of a previous collection, Twentieth-Century Attitudes (not reviewed), does not herself lack attitude. For works she likes she employs superlatives: e.g., Boswell’s biography of Johnson is “the greatest biography in the English language.” (Has she read them all?) For works or writers she does not admire, “shit” is the Most Favored Noun. William Saroyan, she writes, was “a world-class, king-sized, copper-bottomed Shit, with a capital S.” Lord Byron, too, was “one of the great shits of history.” Most of these putative reviews (whose original dates of publication should have been noted) first appeared in The New Criterion, which permitted Allen much space to expatiate upon the book under consideration as well as its context. These pieces tend to have a similar organization. For example, in a review of D. J. Taylor’s Thackeray biography, Allen spends most of her 19 pages summarizing and analyzing Thackeray’s life, work, and reputation; she confines her comments about Taylor to a handful of sentences. Books about Laurence Sterne, Wilkie Collins, and others receive much the same treatment in much the same fashion. Her New York Times Book Review pieces are briefer but likewise focused on the content of the book rather than its author’s capabilities or achievements. These also feature Allen’s characteristic certainty. For instance, in an assessment (somewhat altered from its original Times appearance) of Brenda Wineapple’s biography of Hawthorne, Allen declares that high-school students should not read The Scarlet Letter—too difficult—but should instead read The Blithedale Romance, a dark, melancholic novel featuring suicide and disillusion that she bizarrely characterizes as “a delightful send-up of the [Brook Farm] commune and its pretensions.”

Bold criticism from a knowledgeable, bright writer who would rather declare than question, speculate, or wonder.