Professor of English at Columbia University, author of studies on Emily Dickinson, Melville, Whitman and most recently, The American Novel and Its Tradition. Richard Chase presents here a capsule-type summary, through the form of a symposium, of the condition of American life and letters. Portions of the book first appeared in the form of essays and review articles in Commentary, Dissent, Partisan Review and The American Novel and Its Tradition. The setting is a Massachusetts coastal community, the seven participants -- a recently naturalized American, a ""solid citizen"" and his wife, a middle-aged ""woman of projects"", a professor and his wife, a babysitter -- converse at length and necessarily artificially on the past, present and future of American culture. The discussion is generally concerned with the possibilities of maintaining, in an atmosphere of growing conformity, ""a fruitful versatility of taste and opinion"". The author, who speaks for the professor, regards the ""success of our civilization as illusory"" and believes that ""despite material advance, the last decade seems to have been a time of denial, retreat, short-range vistas, a time of retrenchment and revision"". Through a consideration of American classics and criticism, he attempts to show how ""little conformism and middle-browism are justified by the best traditions of American literature"". The form of the book, which often seems mainly a monologue, places the characters within on unequal footing -- they are not all capable of their assignments -- not, therefore, adequate spokesmen for their roles. The essential value of the book remains its eminent quotability.