In essays that appeared mostly in The New York Review of Books, veteran critic Crews sets out to rescue major American authors through common-sense and empirical readings in an evenhanded but firm indictment of current academic ideologues and lit-crit theorists. ``My discussions of American novelists and their professor- critics will show that even within the theory-saturated academy, truly liberal criticism still exists,'' Crews declares; and, severing himself from ``conservative'' critics like Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball, he sets down what might be his own real credo: ``I want keen debate, not reverence for great books.'' And keen debate he provides, albeit not always along with the easiest of reading. A reformed theorist himself, Crews rescues Hawthorne from the tail- wagging-the-dog Freudian analysis he himself once created in his influential The Sins of the Fathers (1966); and in ``Whose American Renaissance?'' he calls for a reading of American literature that's free of the ``partisan myopia'' brought to it by recent, aggressively politicized critics. Granting that ``political belief of one kind or another'' is ``part of the motive force behind most intellectual and cultural interests,'' Crews draws the line at the craven twisting of evidence, books, and their meanings to fit political agendas--in his words, ``the ad hoc adjusting of investigative premises to forestall politically unwelcome implications.'' Fair play, then, for Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and John Updike doesn't mean denying these writers' warts and blemishes--or even their cancers--but it does mean calling them no more nor less than they really were. Sometimes heavy going for the nonacademic reader, but, even so, a bracing dose of high literary reasonableness with, at its heart, ``a concern for understanding American fiction with as few illusions as possible.''