History, literature entwined in essays

July 05, 1994|By Robert Taylor | Robert Taylor,Boston Globe

"In 1938," Daniel Aaron recalls, "at the end of the final examination of English 7 (I was a teaching assistant at Harvard College), John F. Kennedy rather loftily, I thought, slapped his blue book on my desk and passed into the future." Kennedy received a grade of B, respectable enough for the course. The operative phrase of that everyday encounter, however, ("rather loftily, I thought") personalizes the teller of the story as distinctively as it does Kennedy's attitude toward the incident itself.

"American Notes" makes available 20 distinguished essays by Dr. Aaron that appeared throughout the years in journals ranging from the South Atlantic Quarterly to the New Republic. There are prefaces and reviews and a lecture, each bearing the intellectual stamp of this most readable of social observers. Emphasized are certain themes that have engaged him throughout his career -- writers on the left; social and cultural conflict and the outsider's hunger for acceptance; writers who are personally significant; and the companionship of history and literature. Several articles are autobiographical and exhibit the additional charm of intimacy.

As author, teacher and a founder of the Library of America, Daniel Aaron has profoundly influenced American culture; but the interdisciplinary American studies movement in which he became one of the earliest students was often thought suspect. It was still a controversial subject in graduate schools of the '50s, although, as Dr. Aaron points out, the day would arrive when American studies, long since legitimized and enormously popular, "would splinter into factions, each with its theorists, journals, newsletters and star articulators."

His own concerns are, in fact, quite different and evoke the intellectual climate of the versatile man of letters, exploring the relationships of writers to society rather than practicing a theoretical, mythopoetical or psychological criticism.

That approach exemplifies a tradition anything but genteel -- the broad-based vision of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Newton Arvin and Edmund Wilson. "These writers looked at America critically but never apologetically and although steeped in other literatures weren't ashamed of their own. America in their eyes wasn't Whitman's 'greatest poem' so much as a complex place usually praised or blamed for the wrong reasons and still in need of excavation."

One could look to such critics for tangible enlightenment, for they did not inhabit a world bounded by an abstruse vocabulary and the opinion of their peers. When, for example, Waldo Frank, e. e. cummings and Edmund Wilson visited Russia during the '30s, they had different responses to the Soviet experiment.

Frank, the earnest intellectual from the Woodrow Wilson era, saw a utopian prospect; cummings loathed the place (Dr. Aaron draws a parallel between cummings' response to Russia and Mark Twain's to the monuments of Europe), while Edmund Wilson tried to find a balance between Frank and cummings, and ultimately recorded the crimes of Soviet officialdom. Perhaps the salient point about all three is that they were journalist-humanists seeking to explain and circulate ideas rather than self-regarding mandarins existing "in pompous isolation."

The specific subjects here -- Don DeLillo, Brooks Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Nathanael West, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, George Santayana, Edward Dahlberg and Eudora Welty -- disclose a similar sense of exhilarating involvement. But Dr. Aaron also brings up the possibility that in an era of transition in which intellectuals "are a class of transmitters hooked up to the knowledge and communications industries," the old-fashioned generalist, who has added so much to the intellectual vitality of the nation, may be made obsolete. Edmund Wilson and his ilk are sorely missed. In these pages, however, they still live.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "American Notes: Selected Essays"

Author: Daniel Aaron

Publisher: Northeastern University Press

Length, price: 324 pages, $29.95

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