Veteran teacher, writer, and editor Rubin (The History of Southern Literature, 1985, etc.) offers up a collection of essays on American literature that at their best--which is most of the time--have a refreshing authority and appeal. Least persuasive are Rubin's attempts to find the elusive ingredient (if there is one) that's unique to Southern literature; in his essays on Faulkner, for example, he's eloquent on the genius of the author's achievement in fiction, but less commanding on what makes him ``Southern.'' When Rubin takes up topics for their own sake, however, rather than to support an inherited thesis, he scores one discerning and gratifying success after another. ``The Mockingbird in the Gum Tree'' shows how the vernacular style (after Mark Twain) finally made American literature not merely European- imitative but ``able to say what it thinks.'' Effortlessly blending criticism with his own experiences as a young man, Rubin clarifies the success and the failure of Thomas Wolfe; both sears and honors the once-influential writer and critic Bernard DeVoto; and creates a memoir and evaluation of Robert Penn Warren that one wishes wouldn't come to an end. Without cant, ideology, or high-tech jargon, Rubin takes up the world of American letters and argues wonderfully for the life that's in it--in showing the idealist's despair under H.L. Mencken's crabby surface (``The Mencken Mystery''); in taking Alfred Kazin to task (this side idolatry) for his New York parochialism (``Alfred Kazin's American Procession''); in showing Joseph Epstein how to be fruitfully negative about literary culture instead of just programmatically so ``(Mr. Epstein Doesn't Like It''); and in defending the humane legacy of the New Criticism against the doctrinal ravages of what we now call post- structuralism and deconstructionism (``Tory Formalism, New York Intellectuals, and the New Historical Science of Criticism''). A biographical memoir closes the volume. Its roots in the soil, astute criticism that won't stoop to abandon literature for theory. A book for anyone, say, who seriously wants to become an American writer.