READING AMERICA: Essays on American Literature by Denis Donoghue

READING AMERICA: Essays on American Literature

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There is a distinct European tilt to this smart collection of previously published essays and reviews. The transplanted Irish scholar figures himself in the book's introduction as a ""resident alien"" in the American literary landscape before grappling with its giants. Thus most interesting is the way Donoghue's career-long classical concerns with order and continuity in literature (Connoisseurs of Chaos, The Ordinary Universe) shape his perceptions of an anarchic American literary spirit. About Whitman, Donoghue is kind but belittling: ""We are to live as little children"" is the message of the poet who, he writes, composed some passages assuming that ""if there is enough of it, some of it is bound to be good."" Of Whitman's kindred poetic spirit Hart Crane, Donoghue writes disparagingly that he lacked ""the force of continuity and development"" of a great poet--and later offers the less heralded Allen Tate as a better example. For Donoghue, Tate is grounded in every way Whitman and Crane aren't. The former writes of ""religion, tradition, the relation between imagination and the conditions it has to face,"" while Whitman is ""more a decadent than a naif."" Ultimately, Donoghue is most giving to writers who in some way share his values--Eliot, Henry James and John Crowe Ransom, for example--and he is even brilliant with those who charm him, like Wallace Stevens. Always, though, this is typically strong Donoghue: measured, graceful, supremely intelligent criticism not above admitting its own shortcomings, and always bold enough to dare new turns.

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1987
Publisher: Knopf