Books discussed in this essay:

The American Classics: A Personal Essay by Denis Donoghue

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman by F.O. Matthiessen

Why is great American Literature—in this so different from English literature—radical, that is, lacking in the middle registers of experience? Has American society lacked the texture and density that tend to define the human in terms of the social, thus emancipating and glorifying the self against minimum resistance? Or did writers, aware of the tyranny of the democratic majority analyzed by Tocqueville, react against looming conformity by pushing extreme individuality?

Mr. Donoghue, University Professor and Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University, and a very fine critic, tries his hand here with some difficult and problematic works. Emphatically, they are not European. Like our new country itself, these "American classics" often seem to stimulate resistance. Donoghue provides his book with a subtitle, "A Personal Essay," a signal that he will offer some resistance.

The ancestor of Donoghue's book is F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, a work of unassailable brilliance which holds up well more than 60 years after its publication. Both Matthiessen and Donoghue discuss a remarkable group of American writers who produced major works within a five-year period: Emerson's Representative Men (1850), Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville's Moby Dick (1851), Thoreau's Walden (1854), and Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855, first edition). Donoghue adds Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). These works, collectively, resemble no others. Unlike English literature, they express radical polarities and drastic emotion. Captain Ahab, peculiarly American in his thought, cannot be imagined in ordinary life—Ahab in committee? We do not get to the normality of work, family, and community until we reach William Dean Howells, and he does not much register on the critic's Richter scale. Characteristically, the American classics employ new forms and distinctive styles, and interpreting them involves special difficulties. And of course they have been central to the discussion of what America is, and how it is to be evaluated as a new presence in the world.

These American classics, and what we say about them, also stand at what Lionel Trilling called "the bloody crossroads" where literature and politics meet.

Matthiessen's American Renaissance claimed importance for these works in a way that seemed to reflect the growing power of America in the world. And appearing in 1941, the book (with its aggressive title suggested by Matthiessen's Harvard colleague Harry Levin) was read as buttressing America's cultural legitimacy as a combatant against the Axis.

In making such a claim to world standing, Matthiessen argued that these books represented the translatio studii, the passage of learning from one great power to the next. Renaissance writers had looked back and seen empire pass from Greece to Rome, with Virgil challenging Homer, the Aeneid replying to the Iliad and Odyssey. Beginning with Dante, the epic poem or its equivalent had staked a claim to imperial greatness: Dante, Camões, Rabelais, Montaigne, Racine, Molière, Shakespeare's Henriad history plays, Cervantes, Goethe's Faust. Great powers had great literatures. 

The American energies that would crush the Confederate insurrection—that would confirm America as, in Jefferson's words, an "empire of liberty"—were gathering in books during the 1850s. Matthiessen's evident approval of this development caused his book to become suspect during and after the Vietnam War, when academicians judged the American Renaissance in light of their own political preoccupations. An odd species of critic called the "New Americanist" arose and posthumously charged Matthiessen with enlisting on the American side in the Cold War—a loyalty which, needless to say, they condemned.

Similarly, Donoghue's "Personal Essay" is both literary analysis and political indictment. Donoghue finds elements in the American classics that can be blamed not only for the 1945 atomic bombing of Japan but for American aggression—as he sees it—in the struggle with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Donoghue indicts the distinctly American elements he finds in these books for the rise of George W. Bush. To be sure, in blaming American literature for political trends he finds distasteful, Donoghue is far from unique. Quentin Anderson traced the upheavals of the 1960s to the same literary works—especially Emerson's Representative Men—and called his book The Imperial Self (1972), by which he meant the "imperial selves" running amok at, among other places, Anderson's beloved Columbia University. Ralph Waldo, old fellow, you knew not what you wrought. Or did you?

The American Mind

Donoghue does fairly well with Emerson's teaching, which after all Emerson makes plain enough, but he might have paid more attention to Emerson's prose, which enacts the teaching. What we get from Emerson are not thoughts round and complete, and now delivered to the reader. He reacted against the Augustans whose thoughts were in mind before they put them down: "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed," in Pope's words. Emerson's prose gives us Man Thinking. He believed that thinking itself constitutes action, because he considered mind capable of knowing, indeed experiencing, the whole of reality. He was a Transcendentalist because he was a philosophical idealist. A cartoon of the time showed Emerson with a large eye, drawing everything into itself and turning it into thought. But it was the "I" behind the eye that imposed order and intelligibility on the world of sense-data, that enabled man to transcend nature and necessity.

Donoghue begins his analysis with "The American Scholar," Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa Address of August 31, 1837, at Harvard. You can bet that Emerson's "American scholar" is not the usual sort—and certainly not the Harvard students and faculty listening there that day. In a sense, Emerson's address was insulting to his audience, though they are said to have applauded. For Emerson, the "American scholar" is yet to be; or perhaps the only genuine example stood there at the lectern. In this speech Emerson is, as always, inventing a nation that does not yet exist. Just as that large eye draws everything into itself, a man, Emerson says, may transcend social class and the division of labor and be a "priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier." The American scholar through imagination, through Mind, can be all of those things, and more. As Walt Whitman later said, "I contain multitudes."

The actual Americans we know too well, Emerson says, are not these bold free-thinkers. His fellow citizens are dull, conformist, "a people too busy to give to letters any more." He hopes that "the sluggard intellect" of this generation "will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better that the exertions of mechanical skill." 

Look at our world, Emerson demands, possess it with the comprehensive mind:

We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe…. We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;—show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as it always does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature.

This was a declaration of independence, and American possibility. If you sense Whitman there listening you would be right. In a few years he would say, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil." The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, eighteen years after Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa Address. Emerson saw America as possibility and called our nation to self-invention and greatness. Gertrude Stein said that America was the oldest nation because it was the first to enter the 20th century. When we read Emerson, we may be tempted to say with Harold Bloom that Emerson is the American Mind. Tempted to say that, but not quite conceding it. Didn't Emerson leave a great deal out?

 The Great White Whale

Donoghue then turns to Moby Dick, linking it to Emerson as Melville himself did. This is an American novel indeed, so individual it resembles nothing else—unless one goes back, in one respect only, to such eccentric, jammed-with-learning, 17th-century compendia as Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, the sort of thing that Jonathan Swift tried to satirize out of existence with A Tale of a Tub. As Donoghue writes,

We are reading a disparate book; parts of it are the descriptions of the natural world, sermons, soliloquies, elucidations of the trade and appurtenances of whaling; parts allude to revenge tragedy, epic poetry, romances, yarns of the sea, adventure stories, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Milton's Satan, Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lear, and the Fool. Readers have not known how to read the white whale.

It should be added that Moby Dick is a kind of myth, in the sense that people who have not read the book know what it is "about": a man with a monomaniacal passion to kill the Great White Whale. Other myths in that sense include Robinson Crusoe, Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Faust, all embodying an extreme instance of a recognizable human motive. But Moby Dick differs from all of these because of its allegorical reach. What is the white whale? Donoghue quotes Matthiessen to good effect:

Melville created in Ahab's tragedy a fearful symbol of the self-enclosed individualism that, carried to its furthest extreme, brings disaster both upon itself and upon the group of which it is a part. He provided also an ominous glimpse of what was to result when the Emersonian will to virtue became in less innocent natures the will to power and conquest.

This brings to mind the men of will who fought the Indians, pushed the railroads across the continent, built the Brooklyn Bridge, tossed up skyscrapers, and became corporate titans. Indeed, Matthiessen's frontispiece to the American Renaissance is a portrait, immensely evocative, of Donald McKay, who built the clipper ships Flying CloudSovereign of the SeasJames Baines, and Lightning. But that only shows the limits of such a comparison. McKay was both heroic and flawed, but he was no Ahab, who is unique in his isolation and destructiveness.

The power of Melville's Ahab and of his White Whale transcends such cultural references and defeats almost all attempts at interpretation. Donoghue is excellent in showing how Melville's language presses against the boundaries of meaning to the point of self-destruction. That Moby Dick cannot be categorized is suggested by the varieties of interpretation cited by Donoghue in Northrop Frye, Yvor Winters, Robert M. Adams, James Guletti, all sailors laboring on the critics' Pequod.

Not content to leave it at that, Donoghue wanders far out onto the fringes of academic interpretation in his treatment of the literary critics from the post-Vietnam 1970s, the so-called New Americanists, especially Jonathan Arac and Donald Pease. As Donoghue notes, these two viewed F.O. Matthiessen as a Cold Warrior avant la letter, arguing that by defining a group of indispensable American books, Matthiessen gave moral support to the morally dubious containment policy. In the New Americanist mind, Matthiessen and those 19th-century American books were cultural intercontinental ballistic missiles, which had helped to make the world a grim and tyrannous place.

The New Americanists didn't bother to explicate Matthiessen's actual politics. He was a socialist open to Communism (which is to say, in the parlance of the time, a "fellow traveler") and hostile to the free market. He posited the existence of an American "Gold Curtain" but disputed the reality of the Soviet "Iron Curtain." He considered the San Francisco labor leader, and Communist, Harry Bridges an exemplary American politician. In his book From the Heart of Europe (1948), Matthiessen wrote benignly of the Czech Communist coup, wondered why Czechoslovak diplomat and politician Jan Masaryk had defenestrated himself, and reported that the Polish Communist economy was humming smoothly ahead. Some Cold Warrior.

This brings us to Donoghue's own "contextual" reading of Moby Dick; that is, a reading in light of 9/11 and the "war on terror." Bush's war on terror—that unfortunately imprecise phrase—constitutes in Donoghue's mind the obsessive pursuit of a white whale, a war destructive and potentially without limit, with the American people bemused and uncritical (Donoghue clearly wrote this quite a while before publication in 2005). If Ahab is Emersonian individualism run amok, well, Emerson must be back somewhere behind Bush. Donoghue apparently realizes that he has taken this point too far, because he quickly throws in the contextual towel, rights himself, and returns to literary criticism.

Nature and Nature's God

He next asks of Walden, what is it? Why do we still read Thoreau's account of his sojourn at Walden Pond? Donoghue notes its appeal to "ecocentrics," who urge that wild animals have their place in the scheme of things, that wood, river, and mountain have intrinsic value, and that we should tread lightly upon our given world. (A moderate amalgamation of these thoughts appeals to many under the rubric of "conservation.") The ecocentric is the foe of the anthropocentric, who regards everything in nature as his to exploit. But Thoreau had no objections to the railroads, telegraph, and other aspects of advancing industrialism. Even less, Donoghue adds, is Walden any kind of precursor to the 1960s' "tune in, turn on, drop out" ethos. He rejects also the view that Walden might describe a pastoral vacation, even though that's how Yeats took it in his "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," heavily influenced by Walden.

Rather, Donoghue argues that Walden provides a critical position outside society, a perspective from which to achieve an ironic distance from the concatenation of forces eroding what Trilling called our "authenticity," our spiritual independence, a way of not being defined solely by social role. My own experience of Walden is of Thoreau's meticulous observation andwriting, the writing itself a force for authenticity.

Donoghue reads Walden as autobiography, a neutral term that protects it from being co-opted by the partisans of any point of view, whether ecocentrics, pastoralists, dropouts, whomever. The book is insistently Thoreau, with his sour view of other people, social institutions, and even friendship, and his pull towards Eastern thought, sensing an identity between God and Nature. Thoreau sternly guarded his private self, and was sui generis, an Emerson without the optimistic vision.

 Sin and Damnation

Surprisingly for such a gifted reader of texts, Donoghue proves inadequate to the task of interpreting The Scarlet Letter. His failure here is especially disappointing, given that Hawthorne's masterpiece is so fully achieved that scarcely a word could be changed. Trouble begins as early as the epigraph from Robert Lowell, undistinguished lines of doubtful pertinence:

Leave him alone for a moment or two,

and you'll see him with his head

bent down, brooding, brooding,

eyes fixed on some chip,

some stone, some common plant,

the commonest thing,

as if it were a clue.

The disturbed eyes rise,

furtive, foiled, dissatisfied

from meditation on the true

and insignificant.

Donoghue follows those lines with two statements: "none of the characters has a convinced sense of sin," and "Hawthorne seems to equivocate among the values he brings forward." 

In fact, Hawthorne's 17th-century Boston is drenched in a sense of sin—it even has a witch in Mistress Hibbins—and both Hester Prynne and her lover, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, fully share the city's conviction of sin. A major problem with Boston's Calvinism is that it offers no forgiveness. Once you have sinned, that's it.

In Hester's situation, reader, you or I would book passage on the next boat back to England and civilization. Hester does not. She knows that she would merely carry her sin with her. 

Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil…. There dwelt, there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and…endless retribution [that is, damnation]. (Chapter V)

Together before the bar of final judgment, perhaps, but not in any other sense. For one thing, when they are buried, their graves are widely separated. But more importantly, Hester and Dimmesdale's views of their sin come to radically diverge: Hester ultimately believes that in her sin is a kind of redemption; Dimmesdale believes no such thing. 

In Chapter XVII, "The Pastor and His Parishoner," Dimmesdale says, "I do forgive you Hester…I freely forgive you now. May God forgive us both," but…

We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one [italics added] worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge [Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband] has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!

Dante would ratify that judgment, and so does Hawthorne, a judgment that never wavers, contrary to Donoghue.

Hester, however, far stronger than Dimmesdale and perhaps more intelligent, has had long thoughts while alone in her cabin on the outskirts of Boston, and has come to doubt that town's iron Calvinism:

What she compelled herself to believe,—what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England,—was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom. (Chapter V)

She has been compelled to wear her scarlet "A," but its elaborate embroidery signals her independent, in fact ambivalent, evaluation of her sin. For Hawthorne, the division in her mind may have been adumbrated historically by Anne Hutchinson (1590-1643), who had been banished from Boston for preaching the intuitive knowledge of God's grace. The reach of that possibility is reflected in Hester's irrepressible child Pearl, who cannot be contained by Boston, and does eventually take ship for Europe, marriage, and civilization. Dimmesdale in the end collapses and dies, undermined by the vengeful Chillingworth and his own awareness of unendurable hypocrisy.

As a love story, Donoghue compares The Scarlet Letter unfavorably with Wuthering Heights; but Wuthering Heights is really in a category of its own. And, besides, The Scarlet Letter is less a love story than the tragedy of a spirited and intelligent woman who, stuck in a bad marriage to a much older man, turned to a good but too weak younger man. Dimmesdale is no Heathcliff, as his name suggests. Hester had partially broken with Boston's Calvinism; Dimmesdale had not. Hawthorne obviously loathes Boston's Calvinism. Though he has a strong sense of the human capacity for evil, he also consistently considers it evil to violate "the sanctity of the human heart." Why Donoghue gets all this so wrong I fail to understand.

Mythic Embodiment

Leaves of Grass is an extraordinary literary object. "Song of Myself" looks on the page like no other poem, and certainly is different from the verses of other 19th-century poets, of whom Longfellow is preeminent. A working newspaperman on Long Island and in Brooklyn, Whitman brought out the 1855 first edition himself, using the printing facilities of his friends James and Thomas Rome, and even setting some of the type. Its 8 by 11 inch pages were unusual, but suited to the long lines of his verse. Its green cover bore images of grass blades, and it went on sale at Fowler and Wells, an outlet for phrenological literature. The astonishing poetry thus appeared as a sort of underground, almost private work.

Of course, Whitman sent the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson. Whitman had heard Emerson's clarion call to "walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…." And now Emerson heard from Whitman, and answered with his famous letter:

I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed…. I find the courage of treatment that so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.

Emerson was mildly annoyed when Whitman published this in the New York Tribune—and put it in an appendix to the second edition of Leaves of Grass.

Like almost all commentators on Leaves of Grass, Donaghue deals mainly with Whitman's prophetic teaching, though there is a great deal to say about his verse, which is unrhymed and free but far from anarchic—an analogue perhaps of Whitman's America. His verse rhythms depend on breath and sense; he uses repetition of phrases, the cross-referencing of alliteration, and internal rhyme. 

Donaghue correctly defines the "I" of "Song of Myself" as a persona, not the Walter Whitman who was born in 1819 in West Hills on the North Shore of Long Island, who was never in California, did not witness the execution of John Brown, was not born in Kentucky, and never came close to the Alamo. This persona is rather "Walt," vessel of the spirit, the mythic embodiment of America and of the future consciousness of the American.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a

spear of summer grass.

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the soul….

Would you hear of an old-time sea fight?

Among these self-definitions of the "I" as cosmic and universal, we have such exquisite vignettes as the 28 naked young men swimming, watched by a concealed woman who imagines being a 29th. (This scene, from section 11, probably inspired the famous painting by Thomas E. Eakins.) If the emotion is thought to be homoerotic, this being Whitman, it does not matter because the persona "Walt" is everything. As section 11 illustrates, Whitman has added sensuality and sex to Emerson, where they were entirely absent. Some, like Quentin Anderson in The Imperial Self (which Donaghue cites), find this imposition of the self disturbing, even "totalitarian." I would say that it is a fiction that permits the author to range at will over the American past and present, containing multitudes.

"Song of Myself," though of course central to Leaves of Grass, does not constitute the whole of Whitman's poetry. He could be masterly in the small lyric, for example "Sparkles from the Wheel," beautifully analyzed by Helen Vendler in Poets Thinking (2004). And this is to say nothing of more famous works, of which Donaghue provides a substantial list, sufficient to make a great poet without "Song of Myself."

Donaghue notices the important differences between Whitman's 1855 Preface and that of 1876. In 1855 he had written, "'The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,'…singing an old song of Emerson's, 'America is a poem in our eyes.'" In 1876, he is much less sanguine concerning the present of state of America as poetry: "I count with such absolute certainty on the Great Future of the United States…." Donaghue attributes Whitman's shift from present to the postponed future as his response to the onset of industrialization and the Gilded Age. It might also have had to do with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, with whom Whitman had a kind of symbiotic relationship. In Lincoln and Whitman(2004), Daniel Mark Epstein depicts Lincoln in his and Herndon's law office lying on a couch and reading aloud from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. According to Epstein, the influence of Whitman changed Lincoln's oratorical style, his lawyer-like logic giving way to rhythmic expression and inspiration. Lincoln, looking from a White House window once, glimpsed Whitman walking by and commented, "There is a man." Whitman came to see Lincoln as the American, even as the mythic "I" of "Song of Myself," and wrote his great Lincoln elegy, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd."

Unfortunately Donaghue, as if inspired by the catalogues in "Song of Myself," produces at this point a prose catalogue of supposed American outrages: its "murderous adventures in the Philippines, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq (to name a few, with probably more to come)." Whitman often uses undifferentiated catalogues to celebrate pure being; Donaghue uncritically condemns what he supposes to be pure wrongdoing, the better to overturn Whitman's optimism. In fact, McKinley did not want the Philippines; but when Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet at Manilla Bay in 1898, German and Japanese cruiser flotillas nearby had empire in mind. Aguinaldo's rebels were not going to rule the islands, and the United States did not do a bad job in the Philippines. In Chile, Salvador Allende, elected by a minority, and pursuing the "Chilean road to socialism" (which was to say Castroism), made a succession of errors, climactically trying to nationalize the truckers, individual owners whose strike paralyzed the country. When Allende tried to insert his allies into key military posts, his reward was 18 Chilean Air Force rockets into his Moneda Palace, where, under siege, he killed himself with a machine gun given to him by Fidel. Under Pinochet, Chicago-educated economists reformed the Chilean economy, to the immense good of the Chilean people. Our intervention in Vietnam was part of the containment policy, which worked in Europe—was that wrong?—but failed in Vietnam, not because it was immoral but because Kennedy and Johnson knew little of the strategic situation there. In Central America, there was no reason to tolerate the creation of Soviet client states, and when the Nicaraguan people got a chance to vote in a fair election, they threw the Sandinistas out. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are ongoing, so on these I will not comment. What can be said with assurance, however, is that where the results are in, the U.S. has not done badly. Given how poor is his ability to make historical distinctions, one wonders why Donaghue does not include World War II in his catalogue of outrages.

Individual Experience

In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway commented,

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it, you must stop where Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

What Hemingway found in Huckleberry Finn is obvious. Huck and Jim, away from civilization on the raft, appear in Hemingway's fiction as the "good place"—in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," when Nick and his father seek relief hunting black squirrels in the woods, and later when Nick fishes at "Big Two-Hearted River," skis in the Alps, and Jake Barnes fishes at Burguete. Like Huck, the Hemingway hero lights out for the territory. Both Huck's language and Hemingway's, in different ways, defy genteel conventions. T.S. Eliot, from St. Louis on the Mississippi, thinly conceals Huckleberry Finn in "The Dry Salvages," the American entry in his "Four Quartets."

In that remark from Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway dismisses the Tom Sawyer episode that ends Huckleberry Finn. Critics have treated that nasty trick at Jim's expense differently, but it represents a problem. Donaghue solves it nicely. He cites Mark Twain 20 years later in 1895 describing Huckleberry Finn as "a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat." Twain, explains Donaghue, uses "conscience" here to mean a social construction. As Mark Twain says, "It is merely a thing; the creature of training; it is whatever one's mother and Bible and comrades and laws and system of government and habitat and heredities have made it."

In Huckleberry Finn, the deformed conscience approves of slavery, as well as of society's constricting hypocrisies. Donaghue judges, "In the short run, Huck [on the raft] defeated the deformed conscience or at least rejected it in himself for friendship's sake, but he succumbed to one of its forms–which he found in Tom Sawyer." Exactly: Tom's pranks, cruel though they can be, do not threaten society; but Huck's "sound heart" is subversive. At the end, Huck heads west to the not-yet states of the Union:

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before.

Matthew Arnold defined the "protestant principle" as "individual judgment." What Denis Donaghue, in this like F.O. Matthiessen, has described in American Classics is protestant literature, focused on the individual and individual experience. To borrow from Gertrude Stein again: America is the oldest country because it is the first modern country. And modernity is protestant in Matthew Arnold's sense. Donaghue has given us a challenging book, often brilliant, occasionally jagged, and staggering with interpolated editorials. For Donaghue the times are seriously out of joint, and this distorts his book. It is a worthy book, it might even be called generically "American" in its violations of its own form, but, as Hemingway might put it, Donaghue got into the ring with F.O. Matthiessen and American Renaissance, and Matthiessen is still Heavyweight Champion.