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Reviewed by:
  • Writing the American Classics
  • Linda Wagner-Martin
James Barbour and Tom Quirk, eds. Writing the American Classics. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990. 301 pp. $37.50 cloth; pb. $12.95.

Although the 1990s reader might quibble about the monolithic focus on works by white male writers, this collection is both valuable and interesting. Extensively detailed essays on those stalwarts of American fiction—Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and Tender Is the Night —bring new information, and accordingly, new interpretive possibilities to any reader. Exceptions to the rule of novel as focus are the two essays on Thoreau's Walden and Franklin's Autobiography, among the most interesting pieces in some respects; and the essay on Willa Cather's The Professor's House gives a nod to gender issues, as does the coverage of Richard Wright's Native Son bring in critical issues of race. The essay on Steinbeck's East of Eden, not the expected choice for that writer, may bring a different Steinbeck work into the canon of American modernist fiction.

When the editors refer to the approach used in the studies as "genetic-biographical," one tends to feel that too defensive a posture has been assumed. There is nothing wrong with knowing as much as a reader can about the development of a literary work; such criticism has been useful for at least most of the twentieth century. One does not have to pretend that such an approach is new, however, and the editors' comments in both the preface and the afterword seem unnecessary. Readers who are interested in knowing more about texts will find this book.

Scott Donaldson's study of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night is both informative and somewhat revisionist, whereas James Woodress's essay on The Professor's House holds few surprises, except to reaffirm how personal a tie Cather herself felt with the professor as a character. William Balassi's detailed consideration of The Sun Also Rises summarizes a quantity of material that had been available in scattered sources earlier, Kenneth Kinnamon writes the most comprehensive essay, on Wright's Native Son, including cultural and publishing history as well as good comments about the place of the novel in Wright's oeuvre. Louis Owens' intentionally wry treatment of "Bad, Bad Cathy Trask" in the Steinbeck novel may have misfired, in that the reader's disagreement with his reading may nullify the useful information elsewhere in the essay. Sally Wolff and David Minter seem to be rehashing some common knowledge in their study of The Sound and the Fury, keeping the reader at the edge of the real mystical power of that 1929 novel.

Most successful in presenting readings that are both informative and insightful are Leo Lemay's essay on Franklin, Robert Sattelmeyer's study of Walden, and Barbour's reading of Moby-Dick. [End Page 253]

Linda Wagner-Martin
UNC, Chapel Hill
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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
p. 253
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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