If historical literature needs a defender, then David Levin is the appropriate person. These are brilliant essays which hopefully will be read by more than historians. The first chapter, ""The Literary Criticism of History,"" worth the price of the book alone, is an unusually perceptive examination of the art of historical writing and reading. As a critic, Mr. Levin lays bare and reconstructs the historical techniques of interpreters of Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin and the methods of such writers of historical fiction or drama as Hawthorne, Arthur Miller, and William Faulkner. Mr. Levin's thinking is refreshingly free of stereotypes and he is quick to spot, as among interpreters of Mather, when slovenliness gets the better of the critical sense. In each of the six short chapters, the author evidences not only a humane and rigorous understanding of the difficulties of recreating and interpreting life situations, but demonstrates his own ability to handle such a task with sophistication and accuracy. Mr. Levin's book needs no defense; it merits only praise.