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by Kevin J. Hayes

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-19-986206-1
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

American literature in fewer than 200 pages? Fasten your seatbelts.

Hayes (English/Univ. of Central Oklahoma; The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2008) invites us aboard a runaway train careening through the literature of America, zigzagging from Capt. John Smith to Jonathan Franzen. The journey is chronological only within chapters; the organization otherwise is by genre. His first full sentence is the thesis: “American literature is about identity.” Like any similar volume, this one has all the virtues—and failures—of brevity. There is comfort in a simple thesis, surely, though it invites readers to wonder how Hamlet and much of the rest of British literature is not about identity. Hayes’ chapter topics (travel narrative, biography, short story, poetry, drama and the novel) offer a sensible set of destinations, but more literary readers will wonder why some of their favorite writers—Phillis Wheatley, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Kate Chopin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sam Shepard and other luminaries—are either not here at all or are confined to a clause or phrase. Hayes occasionally pauses to consider a single work, some of which are no-brainers (Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, The Great Gatsby), some mere head-scratchers (Melville’s poem “Donelson,” Louis Armstrong’s Swing That Music). The author also includes some writers few will know—e.g., Josiah Gregg, James Lane Allen, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. Hayes' grasp of American literary history is impressive, though not flawless. He writes that As I Lay Dying is told by “several different characters”; there are actually 15.

For readers craving a one-night stand with American letters, this is satisfying; for a more enduring relationship, look elsewhere.