?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

American literature

Scott Johnson at Power Line links to an essay on American literature in the Claremont Review of Books by Professor Jeffrey Hart. The essay deals mostly with F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman and Denis Donoghue's The American Classics: A Personal Essay. Donoghue's book and Hart's essay both dwell on Matthiessen's analysis of 19th century classics such as The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn. The essay is worth reading, although at times it descends into academic "inside baseball" chatter about politics which tells us more about Donoghue's shortcomings as a critic than anything else.

In any event...are these books as influential (as books) as they once were? I myself have read none of them, though I have taken repeated stabs at Moby Dick; nonetheless, they are such iconic works that on seeing a movie such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan I and millions of other fans immediately recognized its identity with Moby Dick as Khan quotes that novel's Captain Ahab at length. Likewise, the picaresque adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer have been replicated in a host of modern movies and TV shows. Still, we are raising a generation that knows Luke Skywalker, Trinity, and the Master Chief better than Ishmael, Hester Prynne and Huck, a generation to whom the societies of colonial Boston, whaling ships, and antebellum Missouri are as strange and alien as any science fiction. What meaning do the classics of American literature have for today's children? Are they truly classic, as Shakespeare is classic, or merely period pieces, valuable only for the insights they give us on vanished times? Would we be better off raising them on Lewis, Tolkien, Heinlein and Norton instead?