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What are literary politicians anyway? Ross says they meet the most important qualification of literature, which is the enhancement of our perception of life; but all are primarily engaged in politics. Their writings ""both mark and redirect the shifting political winds."" It seems plausible to place William F. Buckley, Jr., Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal into this category, but Ross also squeezes in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Lowell, and Henry Kissinger, among others. The artificial device serves this 22-year-old critic as a springboard into a range of writers, and the results are unexpectedly impressive. Ross' age does occasionally show--in a dose of hero worship that mars his grasp of Galbraith, and in the assumption of a curmudgeon's prose style that is sometimes pompous or ridiculous (""The facts, like a lady's nose, are better left unshined""). But on the whole intellectual excitement and balance prevail. The Mailer chapter is ruthless, and convincingly so. Ross writes of The White Negro: ""We are assaulted by a barrage of threading needles being shot from cannons. . . . Two elements appear inviolate: (1) develop an obsessive enjoyment of jazz; (2) feel the 'inner experience of the possibilities within death'; this is to serve as your 'logic.'"" Ross' critical method has links to Stanley Edgar Hyman and Edmund Wilson. He merges pertinent biography of each subject with a reading of all his work and a solid examination of his ideas. The biographical details resonate: Vidal, as a young man, made pilgrimages to the hospital room of George Santayana in Italy. When they parted, Santayana told Vidal he thought he would have a happy life, ""because you lack superstition."" Devoid of preconceived opinions about literature, Ross is open to its delights and murky idiocies. He says, ""There is no mystery to critical understanding; one takes one's openings where one finds them, and crawls inside.

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 1977
Publisher: Doubleday