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American Audacity

Literary Essays North and South

Christopher Benfey

Publication Year: 2010

One of the foremost critics in contemporary American letters, Christopher Benfey has long been known for his brilliant and incisive essays. Appearing in such publications as the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and the Times Literary Supplement, Benfey's writings have helped us reimagine the American literary canon. In American Audacity, Benfey gathers his finest writings on eminent American authors (including Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, Millay, Faulkner, Frost, and Welty), bringing to his subjects---as the New York Times Book Review has said of his earlier work---"a scholar's thoroughness, a critic's astuteness and a storyteller's sense of drama." Although Benfey's interests range from art to literature to social history, this collection focuses on particular American writers and the various ways in which an American identity and culture inform their work. Broken into three sections, "Northerners,""Southerners," and "The Union Reconsidered," American Audacity explores a variety of canonical works, old (Emerson, Dickinson, Millay, Whitman), modern (Faulkner, Dos Passos), and more contemporary (Gary Snyder, E. L. Doctorow). Christopher Benfey is the author of numerous highly regarded books, including Emily Dickinson: Lives of a Poet; The Double Life of Stephen Crane; Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable; and, most recently, The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan. Benfey's poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Pequod, and Ploughshares. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Currently he is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. "In its vigorous and original criticism of American writers, Christopher Benfey's American Audacity displays its own audacities on every page." ---William H. Pritchard

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page and Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-8

This selection of essays covers roughly ten years of work. During that period I was writing books about the Gilded Age, reviewing art exhibitions for Slate, and teaching American literature at Mount Holyoke College. Twenty years earlier, beginning in the fall of 1977, I attended graduate school at Harvard; after receiving my doctorate in 1983, ...

Part I: Northerners

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Emerson at Age Two Hundred

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pp. 11-19

Two-thirds of the way into Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1900), the rebellious heroine Edna Pontellier finds herself alone in her mansion on Esplanade, her restrictive husband gone on a business trip and all the temptations of New Orleans beckoning at her door. Dressed only in her comfortable peignoir, she devours “a luscious tenderloin,” ...

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Hawthorne’s Smile

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pp. 20-28

Nathaniel Hawthorne made Holgrave, the hero of his second major novel, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), a daguerreotypist. Descended from a Salem wizard burned at the stake, Holgrave pierces the dark secrets of the ancient house. “There is a wonderful insight in heaven’s broad and simple sunshine,” ...

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Longfellow Lives Again

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pp. 29-34

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most revered and reviled of all American poets, would have been two hundred years old in 2007. Perhaps the most that can be hoped is that his third century will be kinder to his reputation than his second. Longfellow was the most famous American writer of his age, and the most widely admired, ...

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The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

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pp. 35-53

To prepare a new edition of a poet’s work, a scholar may spend years in the archives, weeding out the “corruptions” planted by previous editors and scribes, only to see his own decisions denounced by the next generation of editors. In his poem “The Scholars,” W. B. Yeats saw a comic contrast between the passionate poet and the painstaking editor: ...

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The Convert (Emma Lazarus)

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pp. 54-66

For most Americans, the name Emma Lazarus is likely to recall at best a brief injunction associated with the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s statue Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift from the people of France, meant to serve as a monument ...

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Dark Darker Darkest (Robert Frost)

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pp. 67-79

Robert Frost’s poetry is full of actions taken on obscure impulse. A man reins in his horse on “the darkest evening of the year” to watch the woods ‹ll up with snow. Why does he interrupt his journey? “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Another man hesitates where “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and takes “the one less traveled by.” ...

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Flawed Perfection (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

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pp. 80-92

Edna Millay got her vivid and aristocratic-sounding middle name from the hospital in New York City that saved her Uncle Charlie’s life. Drunk on the New Orleans waterfront, Charles Buzzell boarded a ship while it was loading grain and fell asleep on a bale of cotton in the hold. He woke to find himself pinned below deck, out of earshot and unable to move. ...

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Deserters ( John Dos Passos)

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pp. 93-104

Whatever Gertrude Stein meant when she called Ernest Hemingway and his expatriate entourage a lost generation—lost to whom or to what?—it is now clear that some of the young Americans born around 1895 were more lost than others. Stein may have seen limited promise, at least when measured against her own unimpeachable genius ...

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Covering Her Century (Martha Gellhorn)

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pp. 105-115

Whatever else she was—novelist, travel writer, celebrity wife, socialite—Martha Gellhorn was one of the greatest American war correspondents of her generation or any other. Through almost four decades, she covered in succession the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, ...

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The Critter Poet (Gary Snyder

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pp. 116-125

Gary Snyder was a character in a novel before he published his own first book. In Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, that vivid account of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and the Beat movement, there is a biographical sketch of Japhy Ryder, “the number one Dharma Bum of them all”: ...

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Lowell’s Curse

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pp. 126-132

On June 11, 2005, The New York Times ran a correction: “A picture in Weekend yesterday with the Books of The Times review, about ‘The Letters of Robert Lowell,’ was published in error. It showed the columnist Murray Kempton, who died in 1997, not the poet.” Accidents happen, or mistakes: it wasn’t made clear how the face of the acerbic columnist ...

Part II: Southerners

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The Ding-Dong of Doom (William Faulkner)

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pp. 135-146

Postage stamps, those quaint and colorful vestiges of a vanishing twentieth-century mode of communication, figure conspicuously in the strange career of William Faulkner. If a whaling ship, as Herman Melville famously claimed, was Melville’s Yale College and his Harvard, Faulkner’s Ivy League was the tiny post office ...

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The War between the Tates (Allen Tate)

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pp. 147-161

In 1949, when he turned fifty, Allen Tate published an essay called “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe.” In that essay, Tate confessed that as a boy of fourteen he had stared for hours at “the well-known, desperate, and asymmetrical photograph” of Edgar Allan Poe, which he hoped that he “should some day resemble.” ...

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The Family Man ( James Agee)

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pp. 162-172

During the half century since his death in 1955, James Agee has maintained a saintly aura, though it remains unclear just what sort of martyrdom he suffered. He had in excess what used to be called “advantages.” Born into comfortable circumstances in Tennessee in 1909, he was educated at Exeter and Harvard ...

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Love in the Ruins (Walker Percy)

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pp. 173-180

“No warmer and more secret books than these two,” the Austrian novelist Peter Handke wrote of Walker Percy’s first novels, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, both of which he translated into German. “And the secret is not made, cooked—it is not cheap mystery, it is felt and developed with writing, work.” ...

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A Sense of Place (Eudora Welty)

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pp. 181-195

EudoraWelty has chronicled the legends and landscape of her native state of Mississippi with such tireless brilliance that she herself has become a legendary ‹xture of that landscape. As a young and unknown writer, she was an enthusiastic cicerone to the likes of Henry Miller (exploring the South for his “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” of depression America) ...

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Poet in the Sun Belt (Randall Jarrell)

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pp. 196-208

Randall Jarrell thought of the poet as “a sort of accidentprone worker to whom poems happen.” Jarrell wrote reviews, children’s books, translations, and a comic novel; but his letters make clear that he lived for the accidents. In times of safety, when no poems came, he was despondent. When he was young the poems happened in abundance. ...

Part III: The Union Reconsidered

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American Jeremiad

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pp. 211-223

The generation of American writers that came of age around 1840—the men and women who initiated what we now think of as a national literature—aspired more to youthful vigor than to the “classic” status of ancient Greece and Rome, so dear to the generation of the Founding Fathers. ...

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Patriotic Gore

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pp. 224-234

Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, the men with the exotic names who turned the Civil War decisively in the North’s favor, are sometimes credited with putting an end to the romance of war. The once popular Southern novelist John Esten Cooke lamented that in modern warfare as conducted by the Union forces, ...

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Friends by Chance

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pp. 235-246

If snakes, as Emily Dickinson once said, prefer a boggy acre, American literary biography must be crawling with them. Size counts in American biography; wade in for twenty pages and you sink to your knees. The English do it differently and better. English biography, like so much else in contemporary British intellectual life, ...


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pp. 247

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025800
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472033997

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2010