Friday, March 23, 2012

Stared at rather than otherwise appreciated - Denis Donoghue's American Classics

Denis Donoghue’s The American Classics (2005) has a sad back story.  He was teaching a graduate course at New York University on what he considered the five greatest American classics: Moby-Dick, Walden, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn.  Because the books would be so familiar to graduate students in American literature, he thought the students could really dig in, that “I didn’t need to make the case for reading [these books]; they could be taken for granted” (1).

But he discovered that not only were his students not familiar with the books, but that they had barely read them at all.  “The students did not dispute that the five books are somehow privileged in American culture, but so are the heads on Mount Rushmore; stared at rather than otherwise appreciated” (2).  Grad students at NYU!  It may be worth noting that Donoghue, a distinguished scholar of American literature, is Irish.

Donoghue’s response was this book, six (the above plus Emerson) long essays that aside from an unusually personal tone are straightforward close readings and accounts of reception, just Donoghue working on the texts and on other good critics who did the same.  He does not seem to spend any time in these chapters arguing about whether they are “classics.”  He gets all of that out of the way in the introduction.

Donoghue wants the books to be classics.  He want “classics” to be meaningful.  He uses a T. S. Eliot lecture from 1944, “What Is a Classic?”, to pin down a starting point.  Eliot develops criteria so amusingly stringent that they “are fulfilled, so far as European literature is in question, only in Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy” (4).  Donoghue has to bend Eliot a bit to fit the American context, but he is interested in a similarly narrow definition, one that excludes any particular work of Emerson, for example, even though Emerson’s writing is central to all five of his “classics.” 

A classic book is not merely good but important, not merely long-lived but an “event” which “impels other events only less radical” (8).  Some of those lesser events are criticism; Donoghue is actually quite close to the agonistic definition by J. M. Coetzee that Rise kindly shared yesterday, “the interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed.”  He is also oddly close to Calvino (the classic “has never finished saying what it has to say”) if we understand that the text cannot speak but requires a mediator, a reader, a critic.

I am still not sure what good the word “classics” does for me, whether I prefer there to be many or few.  What do I use in its place?  My battered arsenal of designations of quality take care of one side:  good, great, masterpiece, minor.  I establish or intuit some set of aesthetic principles and knock the text against them.  If I am reading well I may be able to employ a number of different and even contradictory principles.

My point is that nothing, once I am reading, depends at all on the status of the book.  Status is important for books I have not read.  Several years ago I made my only real attempt at advocacy, a two week consideration of the novels of John Galt.  I had no interest in Galt’s importance, but rather argued that a number of his books were unusually good ranging up to genuinely great.  I think a number of good readers would get a lot out of him.  End of argument.

My other tool is literary history.  Divvy up the books by language, period; place the book in its tradition.  So that’s where I will go tomorrow.

A little irony:  the last time Denis Donoghue appeared on Wuthering Expectations was as a defender of literary beauty, as the author of a different book about a different tricky word I avoid.


  1. An intriguing post. I'm especially interested in your thoughts on literary history. (About which I know fairly nothing.)

    *Divvy up the books by language, period; place the book in its tradition.*

    Facinating. :)

  2. Again, the definition/meaning of Classic has not been made any less easy.

  3. “A classic book is not merely good but important, not merely long-lived but an “event” which “impels other events only less radical”

    I may agree with the above, except that long live could be relative, long live in terms of years, or long live in terms of usage and or readability. For example, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is quite contemporary (2003), but it's commanded such a wide readability, created heated debates all over the world albeit controversially. And quite an event!

    All in all, I may go with Jillian when she says concerning the Classics Club she is hosting that we should decide what to term as Classics. Of course there must be a yard stick. But then times have changed, and issues discussed in a 'classic' may not hold much sway in today, though the writing and style of the classic writer may be unique. Maybe we could start arguing ‘what is a classic?’ ut in a cultural context. Food for thought!

  4. "Nothing, once I am reading, depends at all on the status of the book." This is actually pretty close to what I meant the other day in my perhaps poorly-formulated comment about not being able to say for sure that something was a worthwhile classic until I had read it and evaluated it for myself. I like Donoghue's list of American classics OK (even if it seems to suggest the relative dearth/non-importance of non-male, non-white, non-19th century contributions to the "best" of creativity), but the way "classics" is often used in the book blogging world is as a marketing term--the funniest spinoff of which is how many bloggers treat "classics" as a genre when cataloging and labeling their books reads for a month or year!

  5. I would guess that Donoghue would want to define "event" stringently enough to exclude Dan Brown. His book would be a "publishing event." If the initial sales of Moby-Dick and Leaves of Grass were relevant to the idea, those books would be non-events. anti-events. The "event" is artistic or intellectual.

    But, just as you ask, Celestine, is that limit useful or arbitrary? Who knows what the big splash of the big book will inspire?

    The "cultural context," if you mean what I think you do, is actually the only context that I think is useful, but the discussion requires some understanding of literary history, of the tradition of the work.

    Richard, I see you are tempted by the "classic" = "I think it's good" definition. My own reading of a book tells me nothing about its reputation, or what use other people have made of it. I am much more in the "classic" = "other people think its good" camp. I, and most critics, resolve the difference by avoiding the word.

    Donoghue is a specialist in 19th century American literature, so his list in understandable. Emily Dickinson is the only woman of comparable status he could include, but she baffles Donoghue's categories by the lack of a well-defined book, which is his problem, not hers. Given the personal turn the criticism takes in Donoghue's later chapters, Little Women or The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass would work fine, but I take this as confirmation of my prejudice: "classic" is incoherent. Yes, mostly marketing.

    The "classics" as genre business drives me crazy. I have been suppressing my frustration, I hope. In a way, though, the word just becomes a substitute for "literature" or "literary." I mean, I also put The Tale of Genji and "Tartuffe" and "My Last Duchess" and The Savage Detectives in a single category, the category of literature.

    1. What genre would Mansfield Park be? I always call it "a classic" and didn't realize this was baffle-making. I can't call it "historical fiction" because it was contemporary to the author's time, and "romance" or "love story" just seems insulting, though I know "romance" actually refers to something different than is assumed today.

      I'm really asking because I have no "schooling" on classics (or whatever it is one should call what I like reading that when called by the label "classic" produces brows of kerfuffle.)

      I can understand the frustration if one comes from a background where "classics" is a meaningless term, and to label a genre "classic" is so clearly a tool of the market. But I would like to put in a word for lay-readers like myself and say we may be clueless, we may have our labels wrong, but hey -- we're going in with sleeves rolled to the elbow and ready to get messy. I commend fearless, well-intentioned awkwardness above proper ability to label and categorize, any day.

    2. I am tempted by the "classic" = "I think it's good" definition but only really to the extent that I bristle at having certain works uncritically brandished as classics by mainstream audiences (i.e. all of Wilkie Collins' back catalog is now classic to certain readers, but Lautréamont's Maldoror, a superior "sensation novel" to The Woman in White in many respects, is summarily ignored or unheard of). I kid, a little, about the spurious Wilkie Collins-Lautréamont rivalry which I've just invented, but maybe you get the point anyway. I have a feeling, by the way, that I'd enjoy Donoghue's essays for some of the same reasons even if his period specialty isn't my own favorite anymore: "straightforward close readings and accounts of reception," as old-fashioned as such an approach is in a day and age when every other academic journal writer wants to mediate a personal response to literature through their theory or theorist of choice, seems to privilege the individual reader's response to literature in a way that seems less mediated by outside authority. Loving the discussions, Tom, but I realize that much of the back and forth over the boundaries is irrelevant: the work still has to deliver the goods for the individual reader at some point whether it's considered a classic or not, no?

    3. Jillian, is there any reason why one couldn't just call Mansfield Park a novel? What Tom and I were talking about is the confusion between the use of genre (a term about form) and the use of "classics" (a term implying an evaluation of worth). There is no classics genre; it doesn't exist.

    4. Cannot "classic" have become a genre term? Cannot the worth of a novel make up a part of its form? A person is either tall or short or nice or unkind or shy or outgoing. So then, a novel (while simultaneously fitting into the novel category) can be further classified as a mystery, a sensational mystery, a sensational classic mystery. Or would it be less off-putting to call it a Victorian mystery, which means the same to me as "classic" but is itself further classified?

      For example, Mansfield Park is a love story, and a Harlequin romance is a love story. In my mind, one is far more worth my time than another, because I dislike reading a lot of sex glued together by story. Are they both "novels"? I say yes, they are novels, but then they are different kinds of novels. How can we differentiate between them? The word "classic" automatically makes the distinction.

      I have a feeling I'm about to be called "elitist" again, so I should probably bow out of this conversation, because I'm not trying to be elitist. My own grandmother liked a good Harlequin, and you can bet I don't judge her for it. But can Mansfield Park really compare to the latest bodice-ripper? Not in the eyes of the folks who read for literary quality over story and entertainment. And I'm guessing it's those who read for literary quality who make the distinction.

      You say you laugh at "mainstream readers" for calling books classics. I guess I don't understand why something that has become mainstream is laughable. A "Kleenex" wasn't always the catch-all term for a tissue. A "Coke" didn't always refer to every brown soda. These things evolved over time. Sure, "classic" once referred to Greek literature (or whatever.) But that was what? Five hundred years ago? Then plays (while completely scandalous at some point in history, though not before) became popular, and some crazy person had the gall to write a whole novel without once rhyming it. And somebody came up with the name "novel." (Originally French, I think?) And a whole lot of time passed, and people stopped reading Latin, and people stopped learning Latin, and somebody was cocky enough to print a Bible for "the mainstream" not in Latin. And all of this incredible literature became available to the masses (professors included in that qualifying term "masses", unless they can speak Latin!), and they had the gall to read this literature and develop another label to distinguish it from the commercial stuff that's written just to sell. And somehow Dickens got in there, even though he was writing to sell hot off the presses, and it all started getting blurred.


    5. (cont'd from above)

      You say (I assume) that novels should just be novels and that's it. You ask me, "Is there any reason why not?" I guess I'd return, "Is there any reason why we shouldn't call Mansfield Park a classic?" To me it seems like an evolved word.

      I say there is a classics genre. It exists as much as the genre "mystery" --- which is itself only a concept symbolized by letters that to the Latin readers of 700AD wouldn't mean anything.

      If we can label a novella a novella because it has fewer words than a novel, why is it a stretch to call Mansfield Park a classic because it's higher quality (or not) -- whatever measure defines that or not? The problem here isn't that it should have no bearing on the label, but that it's impossible to determine what is quality. One must determine it by insight and experience, intangible things that puts the measure of them into the hands of authority and makes everybody all squirmy.

      I don't know. I don't get it at all. But I guess I can't rewire mainstream thinking in a single conversation on the blogosphere. One day I will ask a professor. At any rate, no -- I don't think Mansfield Park is (just) a novel.

      Maybe the distinction would simply be that one love story is written by Jane Austen and the other is not -- but then, mainstream thinking automatically classifies Austen for me as a "classic author."

      We are likely to disagree. I'm intrigued by this conversation though and appreciate the question. I'll have this on the backburner for a while, I imagine...

  6. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe we don't do ourselves a disservice by using the word "classic"--or at least as carelessly as it seems usually applied. It seems as if it's become a pre-assignment of quality, based on age + availability, rather than a thoughtful assessment of the work at hand. I guess this is my round-about-way of saying that "classics" as genre is a problem...

    1. Is it classics as a genre that's a problem, or the quality of book that is being fitted into the category "classic" that's a problem? (We hope for quality, but things are being tossed into the category just because they are old and people have heard of them?)

      I'm not arguing. Really asking if there is a distinction there, or if "classic" should be outlawed altogether.

      When I think of the word "classic," I think of "a thoughtful assessment of the work at hand," perhaps because I haven't read enough yet to see where the word "classic" has failed.

      I was just talking to my sister about this (also mainstream reader who loves "the classics"), and she said if she was a bookseller, she'd market the heck out of the word "classic" to sell books. Perhaps that's the stem of the problem. She also said that my name is "jill," and that's a label just like "classic." Completely valid.

      I still don't understand the issue. I still don't discount the label. If I did, I'd be discounting it based upon someone else's determination that there is no difference in books -- and that wouldn't make any more sense than blindly following the label. Perhaps that's part of the problem. Evolution of words, and nobody actually knows what it exactly defines anymore...

  7. Where did the word "mainstream" come from? Oh, I see it. I would not put so much weight on that word. I believe Richard's argument is not so much anti-mainstream as pro-knowledge, pro-curiosity.

    Wuthering Expectations is an inherently elitist enterprise, although it is also pro-romance novel, which may confuse things. So if anybody wants to throw that word around, bring it on!

    Jillian, there is no "can't" here. My question is more over what people mean when they use a term, which is why, although I am doubtful about the word "classics," I turned to Calvino and Donoghue, experienced critics with useful ideas. They use the word!

    Typically "genre" is used to categorize by form or subject. "Epic poem" is a genre, and "mystery novel" is a genre. Genres have formal properties, independent of quality and include both the good examples and the stinkers. A long poem can be good or bad, a short story can be good or bad.

    You want to distinguish the good ones from the stinkers, which is sensible, (you are right, there are enormous differences in quality) and you use the word "classic" as a modifier, which is commonly used and communicates what you want, even if everyone has trouble with exactly what the word means.

    So Mansfield Park is a classic romance novel, or a classic novel, or just shortened to a classic. This is all fine. The shorthand has lost any designation of form, though. Imagine you say you are enjoying Mansfield Park and I say "What is that? I have never heard of it." I don't think "It's a classic" is a helpful answer. "It's a classic novel" is much better. Other modifiers like "romance" and "English" might be good, too, but I typically want some formal category as part of my base description. "The classics" include works from all categories.

    Charlie Parker plays jazz; Hank Williams plays country music. "Who are they?" a West African asked me (true story, about Parker). I did not answer "They play good music" even though they do. I answered with their genre.

    "Can 'classic' have become a genre term?" Maybe! Great question. Genres do not just sit still, and the definition of a genre is nothing but how people use the term. If a genre is defined by its formal properties and conventions, what would the for. pr. & conv. of the classics genre be? I think, as Amanda suggests, we run into a problem there.

    What a long way to say that I find it useful to keep formal properties of a work of art separate from judgments about quality. It's that last one we're always going to argue about.

    Did I miss too many important points, Jillian? That's the risk of such substantive comments: I will likely blunder past the part that was the heart of your argument.

    1. No, this helps! I often blunder through what I’m saying as well :), so I’m not quite sure I ever got around to my point either. But the example with “jazz” – that makes sense. You (& Richard) are not suggesting that the word classic be abolished altogether as meaningless; rather, that it maintain its place as a modifier for the genre (whatever its definition, which has yet to be defined), and not stand in as a catch-all word for anything that is an old book.

      I was arguing that the word “classic” does still have relevant meaning, and not qualifying a book at all (but simply calling them all “novel”) makes no sense.

      “What are you reading?”

      “A classic.”

      “… But what are you reading?”

      Ah, that I understand! It’s an empty response that doesn’t actually answer the question.

      And saying “classics” isn’t nearly as specific as saying “classic Victorian detective novel” or “classic epistolary novel” or “classic post-modern novel” or “classic epic poem.”

      Okay, carry on. I’m with you and in agreement.

      Thank you for explaining. I am also pro-knowledge, pro-curiosity -- which is why I pried into this. So we agree there as well. Cheers then! Great cracking open of an idea. :)

    2. Also, looking at the above, I concede that "Victorian detective novel" or "early 18th century epistolary novel" or "ancient epic poem" says as much as what I said above -- without ever using the word "classic." I think I'm seeing the argument more clearly now...

      Though I do still see the need for a qualifier, in today's literary market, where the varied shades of whatever it is that makes a "classic" (pardon the term!) -- depth and resonance and universiality -- are so far apart. (I don't know if the same could be said of, say, 14th century literature, since the works without resonance didn't resonate.) :)

    3. Jillian, I agree with what you're saying here much more than I do with much of what you say above. Unfortunately, I didn't see that until I typed out my comment below! We should get Tom to moderate a discussion on so-called "literary fiction" next, though--that one would be even more fun than this one, I'm sure!

  8. Jillian, let's stick with classics as a genre for a moment. Please note from the outset that I'm not bothered by disagreement at all and I won't accuse you of being elistist or anything like that (nor have I ever done so previously!), so there should be no need for defensiveness on either of our parts. What is the classics genre, though? For the sake of discussion, let's say Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, the anonymous The Song of Roland, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Austen's Mansfield Park are all commonly accepted classics. In terms of genre, one is a history, one is an epic poem, and the next two are novels. While aware that one could well ask, what type of novel?, the fact is that there is no "classics genre" per se. If your professor asked you to write a history, a poem, or a novel as a writing exercise, you could do that; if he or she asked you to write a classic, what type of form or genre would you write it in? I didn't say that novels should just be novels (that is a projection on your part, I'm afraid), but I don't have a problem with that point of view either. I would agree with you that Mansfield Park is probably more worthwhile as literature than a Harlequin romance (not that I've read any lately, ha ha), but calling it a "classic novel" is a designation of its worth or interest (to me, to you or the public at large--mainstream or not) that tells me next to nothing about its form other than in the "novel" part.

    1. Sorry if I was defensive, Richard. I feel awkward in this conversation, though I'm intensely curious. Awkward because I'm unprepared and uneducated on the topic, and I'm afraid intimidated in settings where I feel I know absolutely nothing and can speak only on gut instinct. My apologies if I registered defensiveness. I was called "elitist" by another blogger recently (not you, I never meant to imply that), and I'm afraid I'm still stinging from it. :)

      I'm going to back off this and just watch any follow-up conversation here, because I think I get the gist now. I agree: "classics" is not a genre. (See note to Tom above. We must have posted at the same time.)

      *I didn't say that novels should just be novels (that is a projection on your part, I'm afraid)*

      You wrote: "is there any reason why one couldn't just call Mansfield Park a novel?"

      That's where I got the projection?

      Cheers. :)

    2. No need to apologize, Jillian, and I hope your curiosity will lead you to participate in the discussions and not just be a bystander (by the way, everybody has or at one time had or will one day wish to learn the things you say you feel awkward or unprepared about--so I imagine everybody can relate to feeling uncertain about various things). I should point out that my question was a question and not a statement, though, which was where the "projection" comment came in--no worries, in any event. :D

    3. Ah -- a question. I actually keep saying that I am only asking questions not "making statements" about classics lately, then I turned and read your question definitively! My apologies, and fair enough. If I do participate next time, I should say straight off that I know nothing and am only prying to learn. ;-)

      A great conversation! I walked away with a lot, and now I'm curious about this literary fiction thing! Thanks for this. ;-)

    4. Tom has great conversations here on a regular basis. I enjoyed today's, too, so thanks for your input.

  9. "Literary fiction"! Oh no! That one is a nightmare. The idea of "the classics" at least has a long history and a lot of varied use behind it. "Literary fiction" dates to the 1980s! I will refer interested parties to Prof. D. G. Myers for some accurate harrumphing about the term.

  10. I use "classic" as one of my tags on Shelf Love. I don't use it as a genre term. In fact, I use no genre terms at all the way you're talking about, Richard, properly speaking -- no, I tell a lie, I use "poetry" and "drama." But for novels, I use the other kind of genre (and it's a properly use of the term): mysteries, speculative fiction, and so forth. When I use "classic" in combination with any of these other terms, I just mean "old" (and my alternative tag is "contemporary." I don't mean anything in terms of worth. Perhaps I thought it was a dreadful classic! These things do happen.

    1. I think "classic" (old) and "contemporary" (new) are perfectly understandable as dating convention tags, Jenny, but I've also seen bloggers elsewhere use the term classic as if they were speaking about a particular genre. I'm guessing you and Teresa would never say "we reviewed three poems and eight contemporaries on Shelf Love this month," but I have indeed seen statistics like that around the blogosphere before only substituting "classics" for "contemporaries" of course. P.S. "A dreadful classic" is awesome! I'm not sure if I've ever seen that one, but I'd be honored to borrow it from you. Cheers!

  11. Jenny, let's say, just in theory, that you read and want to write about a book along the lines of the Victorian religion fiction that The Little Professor reads. Those books are certainly not contemporary, and they are certainly dreadful. Would you want to put the "Classics" tag on them? Other than as a joke, I mean (e.g., pp. 181-185)?