One-Minute Book Reviews

December 11, 2007

Which Writers Best Define English and American Literature? 25 Scholars and Critics Respond in ‘Literary Genius,’ Edited by Joseph Epstein

America’s finest literary essayist assembles a bracing collection of reflections on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and others

Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature. Edited by Joseph Epstein. Wood Engravings by Barry Moser. Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $34.95 hardcover, $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading these exceptionally fine essays is like catching up with all those brilliant professors you missed in college because you were sure you would benefit more in life from all your film theory classes on the semiotics of Patrick Swayze movies.

Literary Genius is a kind of print equivalent of a course from the Teaching Company, which rounds up academic supernovas and records their lectures on DVDs, so you can watch them at home over a beer and a bowl of Doritos. (No nasty homework assignments! No messy exams that conflict with your spring break plans! No loss to your grade if you go to class drunk or stoned out of your mind!) Joseph Epstein has collected 25 essays by world-class scholars and critics on vanished titans of English and American literature — Hilary Mantel on Jane Austen, A. N. Wilson on Charles Dickens, Justin Kaplan on Walt Whitman, David Womersley on Edward Gibbon, John Simon on T. S. Eliot. And you might wonder about more than what the Irish will think about Epstein’s decision to include James Joyce in the book: Why did Willa Cather make the cut but not Virginia Woolf? Why did Ernest Hemingway but not F. Scott Fitzgerald?

But the essays are everything that literary essays should be – bold, fluent, authoritative and written with flair and at times wit. Here is the first paragraph of a sparkling essay by John Gross on Joyce:

“One of the questions Napoleon used to ask, when a solider was recommended for promotion, was ‘Does he have luck?’ Writers need luck, too, and an important part of James Joyce’s achievement is that he was born at the right time. He was a modernist who was able to get his claim in first.”

Gross takes perhaps the most difficult literary genius of the 20th century and, with a few strokes, places him in context. He argues that wrote fine and distinctive books in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and a “perhaps mad” one in Finnegans Wake (which, unabridged, is “strictly for addicts”). But if he qualifies as a genius, it’s because of Ulysses and “the novel’s two greatest achievements” — its portrait of Dublin and its portrait of Leopold Bloom.

Most of the essays are similarly bracing. They typically range widely over an author’s work, avoiding the claustrophobic narrowness of so much recent literary criticism. Lois Potter gives Hamlet only a sentence in her essay on William Shakespeare. But her entry holds its own, in part, by reminding us that “Shakespeare’s reputation owes something to the dominance of the English language in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the fact that the ability to understand Shakespeare has become the ultimate test of the ability to use that language.”

Literary Genius includes brief excerpts from the work of all of its subjects and 59 handsome wood engravings by Barry Moser. These enhance its appeal as a gift, but its essays could stand on their own. You might expect no less from a book edited by Epstein, America’s finest literary essayist and its nearest counterpart to the late English critic V.S. Pritchett. “Timelessness, grandeur of vision, originality of outlook – all these, in concert and worked at a high power, comprise genius in the writer,” he writes. By those standards, this book shows genius, too.

Best line: Every essay has its own. A passage in Robert Pack’s essay on Frost suggests the freshness of perspectives in this book: “Along with being our leading nature poet, Robert Frost is also the poet who writes most extensively about marriage, love, and desire – all in the context of loss and death. Surely, no poet since John Milton treats the theme of sexual desire and marriage more extensively or more profoundly than Frost.” Pack might have replaced one of the “extensively”s. Even so, how many people associate Frost with poems about “sexual desire”?

Worst line: The first line James L. W. West III’s essay on Hemingway: “One sees Hemingway’s style best in his early short stories.” The problem isn’t the “one,” though West’s style is less conversational than that of most contributors. It’s that his essay is narrowe. West deals only with Hemingway’s short stories, while most of the writers give an overview of their subject’s work. His essay doesn’t mesh with the others, and Epstein seems to acknowledge it by burying it at the back.

Recommendation? This is could be a wonderful gift for serious readers and helpful to the many books clubs that are reading Austen and Cather.

Published: October 15, 2007. The publisher’s site includes Epstein’s introduction to the book . A brief excerpt from its essay on John Milton appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Friday

Furthermore: Joseph Epstein edited the American Scholar for more than 20 years and has written 19 books. Barry Moser won the American Book Award for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. John Gross is a former editor of the London Times Literary Supplement and a staff member at the New York Times. Since 1989 he has been the theater critic of the Sunday Telegraph

Other links: The Teaching Company

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It also for people who dislike long-winded reviews that are full of facts or plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. You may not agree with views you read this site but you will know what those views are.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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