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American Notes: Selected Essays

A collection of five decades worth of Daniel Aaron’s essays, published by Northeastern University Press in 1994, when he was eighty-four. In an introduction written for this edition, Aaron rejects the temptation to impose a unitary narrative on his career, describing himself instead as “an observer and reporter, something of a social historian and literary critic and academic scholar and journalist.” Reviewing American Notes for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Stephen Whitfield suggested that the twenty pieces gathered for this volume were united by Aaron’s “open curiosity and a keen intelligence.” The five sections of American Notes range from terrain familiar to readers of Writers on the Left (“Writing about the Left”) to essays about “Outsiders” (notable here is “The Inky Curse,” Aaron’s succinct summary of the role played by miscegenation in the white American literary imagination) to a series of sharp biographical portraits in III and IV (from Richard Henry Dana and Franicis Parkman to Eudora Welty) to a final section devoted to the connections between history and literature, which ends with a tribute, recently written, to Don DeLillo: “I see him as an Ear, an Eye, a Nose, a Camera, a Tape Recorder, a Sound Track.” According to Aaron, DeLillo’s novels “breathe a kind of historical essence.” An epilogue turns into a sort of epitaph for the kind of jargon-free, wide-ranging critical practice Aaron embodies like few others of his generation. “The Etiquette of Grief” evokes the lost tradition of the condolence letter in American writing, “at once a statement of faith in the power of words to soothe and fortify and an act by which the disbelievers in immortality [of which Aaron was one! CI], confronting their own extinction, might immortalize themselves in the process of comforting or memorializing another.”