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This selection of uncollected essays and reviews by Stanley Edgar Hyman, coming eight years after his death, is, for the most part, a sharp reminder of Hyman's salient gifts and attributes as a literary critic. Among them was a solid knowledge of psychoanalysis, anthropology, history, sociology, and philosophy--his own prescription for a critic's equipment. Apart from the opening three essays on literature, two penetrating pieces on the blues, and a longish final section on myth, ritual, and religion, the contents are mainly book reviews from the 1960s that achieve an uncommon resonance and depth within a few pages. In many cases--Richard Wright, Nabokov, Kenneth Burke, A. J. Liebling, Sinclair Lewis, Nathanael West, John Barth, Joseph Mitchell--they sum up a writer's lifetime achievement. Hyman is adept at ferreting out the right phrase from a work, whether to damn or to praise, and at singling out the unusual detail: Mark Twain ""reducing Siground Freud to paroxysms of helpless laughter"" while lecturing in Vienna. He pays discerning tribute to Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, a writer too long neglected. And he takes in counterparts in Third World countries (George Simeon Mwase of Nyasaland, now Malawi; Sembene Ousmane of Senegal); Japan (Kawabats and Kobo Abè); Switzerland (Gottfried Keller); Italy (Cesare Pavese and Dino Buzzati) and Russia (Pilnyak and Zamyatin). The book concludes with diverse pieces of uneven interest. Hyman wanted to utilize all disciplines to understand every aspect of the written word. But as Phoebe Pettingell, Hyman's widow, writes in her introductory memoir, he came to realize in his later years that ""his own talents were never primarily speculative. . . [but] lay in judicious excellence of taste and clarity of thought enhanced by a witty, incisive style."" As most evident in the quick, sensitive reactions to writers which illuminate his concise book reviews.

Pub Date: March 17th, 1978
Publisher: Atheneum