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Required Reading
Why Our American Classics Matter Now

Andrew Delbanco

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux/NY in 1997
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004


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Our American classics matter now because they have always mattered, but I think that Delbanco's point is that they matter even more now than they did when they were first written. Each of the writers whose works he chose to discuss and review broke "free of the structures of thought" into which they were born, and "by reimagining the world" they changed it. We live today in the world that they changed by their re-imagining, and we can only discover the roots of our life today by examining its roots in the lives and writings of those who imagined it long ago. What makes these works classics is that we are living in the world created by the imaginative authors of these works.

"Art is the process of destruction" is a thesis of my own which illustrates how what is truly artful comes about because someone offers an unprecedented idea which destroys the sameness of the world and, in the exciting possibilities released in its wake, new patterns form which grow into visible landmarks of that salient idea. Each of the writers Delbanco chooses to discuss in these essays has created landmarks in our world with their writing and it is these landmarks we call classics. Here's how he describes these writers in his Preface:

[page xi] First and last, they were inspired practitioners of the American language. Although they valued the literary achievements of the past, they were determined to enlarge the expressive range of the language beyond where their predecessors had left it. To read them is to experience anew the pleasure that everyone knows who has ever tried to coax a sentence out of the conventional form in which it wants to settle, and who manages to carry it instead toward a new shape, a new gesture, a new style. Recognizing this when it happens on the page is what reading is all about. To do it oneself is to be a writer. Through the literary experience — this refusal to submit to precedent, no matter how honored or honorable — we can partake of the democratic faith in the capacity of all human beings to perform the miracle of creation.

Delbanco is a writer by his own definition and as such he is sensitive to what other writers write about his craft. He opens his Chapter "Melville's Sacramental Style" with a quote from Norman Mailer that "a good half of writing consists of being sufficiently sensitive to the moment to reach for the next promise which is usually hidden in some word or phrase just a shift to the side of one's conscious intent."

[page 3] But the most lasting experience I have had that keeps me continually aware that writing is a great mystery is the experience of reading Melville.

Noting the propensity of Melville for making lists, Delbanco shares with us the 19th Century list of "liberating deficiencies of American life" given by Henry James. It makes for interesting reading in the 21st Century because one can easily find an American equivalent today for most of the items in the list, and one can ponder seriously whether their presence adds to the quality of our life today.

[page 6, 7] No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-house, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches, no great Universities nor public schools — no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class — no Epsom nor Ascot.

One can imagine that by now Churchill Downs and Belmont Park would suffice for an Epsom or Ascot, at least for Americans it would.

Melville's penchant for describing strange and scary events in terms of the familiar is illustrated thusly:

[page 8, 9] At the apocalyptic end of Moby-Dick, after the white whale dives, the "cedar chips of the wrecks danced round and round, like the grated nutmeg in a swiftly stirred bowl of punch."

By naval regulations Captain Vere must condemn Billy Budd to his death, and it is a scene Melville cannot tell us about. Like James Michener said in his novel, The Fires of Spring, when you read a steamy novel where the two people are in bed together, the author has but to say, "And you can guess what happens next" to end the chapter. When the lieutenant sees Vere's face, he sees an agony that lets him and us know that the condemned man will suffer less than the one who condemned him. It is here that Delbanco lets us see best the sacramental style of Melville.

[page 31] The cabin scene in which Vere tells his beloved Billy that he must die cannot be written, but it is nevertheless heard. It is a pianissimo melody amid brute noise; we dare not breathe for fear of obscuring the tiny sublime sound with our own intolerable rasping. The untold sacrament has done its office, and Melville — even as he conclude that the only sounds audible in the cosmos are echoes of the human voice — has let us hear God.

It is appropriate that in the next essay, Delbanco tells us, "Words, for Thoreau, carry traces of God." But first he begins with a story about Thoreau which, even if fabricated, rings true to his character. It also lets us know that school board members haven't changed much in 150 years in their propensity for confusing discipline with education.

[page 33] There is an unprovable story that when Thoreau was teaching school in Concord (a plum of a job after the 1837 financial crash), a school board member visited his class and reprimanded him for failing to cane his students. Thoreau walked back into the classroom, selected six students at random, and beat them vigorously. And then he quit.

I began reading my fourteen volume set of Thoreau's journals about six years ago by keeping a volume by my bedside for late night in-the-bed reading before dropping off to sleep. I have begun to look forward to those late night visits to New England where I lived for only four years during a particularly hectic and busy time in my career as a systems and software specialist. Each volume covers about a year and I try to keep my reading ahead of the month of the current year in Thoreau's time so that I will be ensured of finishing at least one volume a year. You can read reviews of those I have completed as of this time here. I agree with Delbanco that Thoreau's journals are an excellent antidote for the overly skeptical mood of science today.

[page 45] I would venture the prediction that Thoreau's reputation has not yet reached its peak, because we are only beginning to know the journal. As it emerges we shall recognize more and more his prescient formulations of what has become the leading intellectual problem of our time: the effort to move from the skeptical to the constructive mood; to come to terms with the discovery that rationality is just one in the infinite range of possible cultural performances; to remake a humane world when the human "sciences" seem devoted to exposing their own arbitrariness.

Before we leave Thoreau, I cannot resist offering you a sip of the backwoodsman's drink which I quaff each night before dropping off to sleep:

[page 48] Midway on his hike toward Mount Katahdin, he accepts a proffered drink from a backwoods man and finds that "it was as if we sucked at the very teats of Nature's pine-clad bosom." Then, in words of wonderful pungency, he gives us (and himself) the full flavor of the drink: it tasted of

      the sap of all Millinocket botany commingled, — the topmost, most fantastic, and spiciest sprays of the primitive wood, and whatever invigorating and stringent gum or essence it afforded steeped and dissolved in it, — a lumberer's drink, which would acclimate and naturalize a man at once, — which would make him see green, and, if he slept, dream that he heard the wind sough among the pines.
      To read Thoreau is almost to taste this elixir, and, with the unbearably tactile sense he gives us of its absence, to crave it all the more.

In his next chapter, "The Little Woman Who Started the Great War," Delbanco gives us insights into the motivations for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. He leads off with an amazing quote from George Wallace:

[page 49] Speaking from the sickbed to which he has been consigned since he was shot in the spine in 1968, George Wallace made a public statement on the subject of what might be called comparative racism, North and South. "The New York Times," he said (with, one imagines, a ghoulish grin, since he was talking to a Times reporter), "never did understand that segregation wasn't about hate. . . . I didn't hate anybody. I don't hate the man who shot me. When I was young, I used to swim and play with blacks all the time. You find more hate in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., than in all the Southern states put together."

That resonates with my own experience growing up in the South, but one incident from the early '60s shows the other side to the circadian relationship between races locally. My mother-in-law at the time kept a glass on the window sill above her sink. One day I reached for it to get a drink of water from the tap and she stopped me. "What's the matter, Audrey?" I asked. She whispered to me, "It's for the maid." I was shocked. It was clear to me that it was not drinking after another person that she was warning me against because the glass was freshly washed. This was her maid's "glass" — meaning the maid could not drink from any other glass, as if there was something the maid could to do the glass that could not wash off. That came to my mind when I read this next passage:

[page 66] Uncle Tom's Cabin is a book that exemplifies the distance between righteous antagonism to evil institutions and awareness of the full humanity of the victims.

What led Harriet to write with such compassion about slavery? She lost three children: one to cholera, one to drowning, and one to a lingering death as she kept a bedside vigil.

[page 58, 59] One way that she dealt with the first stunning tragedy was to transform it into the fictional death of Eva St. Clare in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the angelic girl who befriends her parents' house slave, Tom, and recites Revelation with him, certain that they will live forever as equals in the kingdom of God. Eva's death has become (along with Little Nell's in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop) the most famous child death in nineteenth-century fiction — a "lingering and sainted death," as Ann Douglas has described it, which invites us "to bestow on her that fondness we reserve for the contemplation of our own softer emotions." Stowe was certainly a writer who allowed her readers to bathe in the sweetness of their own compassion.

One of the evils of slavery was that it allowed forcible separation of mothers and children. In The Red Badge of Courage movie, which I watched recently after reading about Stephen Crane later in this book, there is a scene where a Union sentry steps out into the moonlight, and the Confederate sentry on the opposite side of the river calls across to him advising him to retreat back into the trees or else he might be shot. It illustrates a principle that it is much more difficult to kill a single individual of the enemy than to kill an invading horde of enemy. This principle is illustrated by Stowe's achievement with her book — it was much more difficult to save a single individual from cholera than to save "a whole race of mothers and children . . . rent apart by a human institution." It seems as if the result of splitting mothers and children apart by force of a human institution sowed seeds of discontent in society whose harvest we are yet reaping today.

[page 65] If the "perfectly submissive" Tom stands at the center of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he is surrounded by angry slaves, personifications of black rage, of whom one of the slave owners says, "Our system is educating them in barbarism and brutality. We are breaking all humanizing ties, and making them brute beasts; and if they get the upper hand, such we shall find them."

It is the "clean moral categories" that allows the principle I mentioned above to operate, e.g., the difference between the individual, Hans, and the stereotype, "Hun", during World War II. This principle can be seen in operation today when one looks at Omar who serves you at a restaurant vis-a-vis the "Arab Terrorists" who vow to destroy America. Stereotyping today is called "profiling" and a clean moral category of today denounces profiling as unsuitable. As a Southerner I wish the profiling of Southern Plantation owners as all being Simon Legree's would be likewise denounced. There was an interdependence and love between the whites and blacks in the South that can only be understood by those who grew up in the South — we drank the elixir and felt the mood of life that existed outside the scientific rationality of clean moral categories.

[page 65] In the end, Harriet Beecher Stowe looked on the phenomenon of slavery through the clean moral categories of the Yankee reformer, and what she saw was a race of children being abused by a race of fiends. She could not grasp the strange mutual dependence of blacks and whites in the South — their perverse intimacy. This is where George Wallace's point about hatred in the North outrunning that of the South is not entirely dismissible.

I'll skip the "Two Lincolns" chapter as one Lincoln seems to have been enough for one country's lifetime, except to share this eponymous quote by Abraham Lincoln shortly after his election to the presidency reporting this vision which presages how his sentiments and his country will be soon split in two:

[page 67] As I reclined, my eye fell upon the glass, and I saw distinctly two images of myself, exactly alike, except that one was a little paler than the other.

During this time, 2004, when news media of all kinds are besieged by plagiarism, falsified reporting, and accusations of liberal bias, among other things, it interesting to read this c. 1904 quote from Henry Adams about the leading newspaper in England.

[page 89] The radical trouble is that man is by nature a liar. The London Times, in the thirty-eight years I have known it, has never once told the truth, unless it was on indifferent matters. The press is the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where its interests are involved.

When I looked up Henry Adams in Google this morning I found this quote by the itinerant journalist:

[Web Page] Henry Adams summarized his notions of travel in a 1902 letter to one of his nieces: "My idea of paradise is a perfect automobile going thirty miles an hour on a smooth road to a twelfth-century cathedral."

Delbanco closes the Henry Adams chapter with a quote he thinks Adams would have agreed with. From Emerson, "the discovery we have made that we exist . . . is called the Fall of Man."

The chapter on Stephen Crane filled me in on another author (along with Melville, Stowe, and Adams) that I have not read, but am somewhat familiar with. It gave me a chance to come to terms with T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative" — a term that I managed to escape a direct encounter with during my scientific academic training. Now I find it has a place in the nascent science of doyletics, as I will explain after this passage:

[page 103] Much of [Crane's] writing is committed to illustrating the absence, not just in art but in the affective life of human beings, of what T. S. Eliot was soon to call the "objective correlative" for emotion.
       "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art," Eliot decreed, "is by finding an 'objective correlative'' in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."

The objective correlative of a particular emotion is what in the science of doyletics is called a doyle trigger. A doyle is some set of physical body states that may, among other things, comprise a particular emotion. The set of objects, situations, or chain of events that will generate that particular emotion, that doyle, is called the trigger for that doyle or simply doyle trigger.

When Delbanco says that "reality is only apprehensible through the habitual or eccentric interpretations that the mind projects onto raw phenomena," he is talking about doyles that are triggered by the raw phenomena. These doyles add the affect to the raw phenomena. These doyles of apprehension are live recapitulations of felt emotions stored during our pre-five-year-old life. To apprehend means to grasp with understanding or to recognize, and we have each doyles which arise in us to signal what we have apprehended something. To call them habitual is to acknowledge the automatic generation of doyles without conscious volition. To call them interpretations is to completely misunderstand the physiological nature of the human being which stores doyles before five and re-creates them upon suitable triggers post-five.

What made Crane's Red Badge of Courage such a powerful novel in its time was that he assiduously avoided discussing "the causes, meaning or outcome of the war," as John Berryman put it.(Page 109) Crane's novel broke the mold of what had constituted a successful novel about the oxymoronic Civil War, up until that time. He plowed through and destroyed the sameness of such novels and liberated exciting possibilities in his wake (1).

The next writer Delbanco takes up is Kate Chopin, whose novel Awakening I read several years ago because she had set it in New Orleans and Grand Isle locally. Her heroine, Edna, was like a caged bird in her own home, and to paraphrase Maya Angelou's book, I could say, "I Know That the Caged Bird Squawks," because Chopin trots out this metaphor for us in opening her book.

[page 119] Chopin conveys the sense of confinement from the first sentence of the novel, which presents "a green and yellow parrot . . . hung in a cage," making imitative sounds to the amusement of visitors.

But Edna does not stay confined to her cage forever and gets to visit a top floor French Quarter apartment which Chopin describes in this next passage:

[page 119] "There were plenty of windows in [Mademoiselle Reisz's] little front room. They were for the most part dingy, but as they were nearly always open it did not make so much difference . . . From her windows could be seen the crescent of the river, the masts of ships and the big chimneys of the Mississippi steamers." If Edna's house is all surfaces, the home of Mademoiselle Reisz has an interior genuinely expressive of its owner, but also bravely open to the world.

Edna was open to the world in her life, and she shared her various suspensions between the two aspects of her life with us:

[page 123] By the time of her husband's departure, The Awakening has become a book about her suspension not merely between Kentucky Presbyterianism and Creole Catholicism, or between halves of the city divided by Canal Street, but between the genders themselves.

Edna takes refuge in a mullato woman's garden and when her husband confronts her there, he asks if she comes here often, and she answers, "I almost live here."

[page 131] This bitter remark tells what sort of book The Awakening finally becomes. Edna's flight from her condition as her husband's possession is strikingly akin to what one encounters in many turn-of-the-century novels that take the predicament of the mulatto as their main theme. These books are built on a tragic paradox: that the only hope for the fugitive is to become indistinguishable from those from whom she is in flight.

The title of this chapter "Was Kate Chopin a Feminist?" clues us in on the hard choices that Kate and her alter ego Edna had to make in their lives. As for Edna, she is not able to avoid the forced choices that society has laid upon her and, even after her awakening, ends her life in despair by swimming into the Gulf of Mexico. She had discovered the truth of what Delbanco says in Chapter 9 about Martin Scorsese's 1993 film of the Edith Wharton classic, The Age of Innocence:

[page 158] Scorsese's film succeeds because it catches the feeling of a time when conflict between public propriety and private desire was an inescapable fact of life, and when, if they came into direct opposition, the former proved stronger than the latter.

When Delbanco said, "And now that I have read Native Son again, this time with a mind clogged by other books, I find myself in the grip of an entirely new experience," I knew exactly how it felt to have my mind clogged with books, having just finished this book of "Required Reading"! Reading novels separately allows one time to assimilate each one before proceeding to the next. But to be confronted with Billy Budd, Moby-Dick, Red Badge of Courage, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Education of Henry Adams, Awakening, Sister Carrie, Native Son, and Age of Innocence in such short order between the covers of one book is enough to require the literary equivalent of a Roto-Rooter to clean-out the over-stuffed soughs of my mind.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------


Any questions about this review, Contact:
Bobby Matherne


Footnote 1. 1. My essay on the thesis that true art is the process of the destruction of sameness can be read here.
Return to text directly before Footnote 1.
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