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Commonplace Book, 1934-2012

Commonplace Book was Aaron’s last publication, a selection and condensation of passages and poems from journals he had been keeping since the 1930s. A kind of intellectual autobiography, the book also established Dan as bemused chronicler and sharp observers of his contemporaries, from Upton Sinclair and Lillian Hellman to Richard Hofstadter. The late poet William Corbett originally published it as part of his famous Pressed Wafer imprint. Dan took an active part even in the design of the book, which he wanted to be as plain as possible, including the cover, intended to mimic a dictionary entry. Commonplace Book is now out of print; remaining copies of may be obtained from the owner of this website.

The Scrap Book

Daniel Aaron kept this scrap book from 1937 through 2011. “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous,” wrote the novelist Nathanael West, a quotation that Dan claimed was a good summary of this compilation of pictures and newspaper clippings that haunted, horrified, and amused him. In an extended interview with Noah Feldman and Hillary Chute, added to the facsimile of the original artifact, Aaron reflects on his long, complicated relationship with American culture. The Scrap Book, originally published in the format of a newspaper by Pressed Wafer, is out of print; remaining copies may be obtained from the owner of this website.


The Americanist

The Americanist is Daniel Aaron's memoir of nearly a century of public and private life in America and abroad.  Aaron writes with his trademark wit about his childhood in Los Angeles and Chicago and his later academic career, which took him around the globe, often in the role of America's accidental yet impartial critic. The Americanist is a veritable Who’s Who of twentieth-century writers Aaron interviewed, interacted with, or otherwise encountered throughout his life, from Ralph Ellison and Robert Frost to Upton Sinclair and Edmund Wilson. “Many memoirs try hard to re-create past moments, the arguments around the family dinner table, the horrors of poverty, the elation of first love. But Aaron, now in his 90s, eschews all this scene-setting and melodrama. Instead, he pointedly tells us just what he thought....” (Michael Dirda, The Washington Post).

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 Francis Parkman to Eudora Welty). A final section devoted to the connections between history and literature 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.”


Aaron’s epilogue serves as a sort of epitaph for the kind of jargon-free, wide-ranging critical practice he embodied like few other critics in 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.”  

The Inman Diary

The Inman Diary was perhaps Daniel Aaron's most unusual assignment. Inman (1895-1963), an unsuccessful poet originally from Atlanta, was a reclusive hypochondriac and psychopathic voyeur who spent the better part of his life holed up in an apartment in Boston's Back Bay, paying legions of men and (preferably) women to come and share their life stories with him, which he then distilled into the most monstrous diary (17,000,000 words!) ever written. Seething with prejudice, Inman was not an impartial observer, and his voyeurism, taken at face value, is often more appaling than appealing. Yet Aaron, commissioned by Inman's family to condense the diary into the two volume version Harvard University Press published in 1985, recognized that Inman's most enduring creation was Inman himself, a character of Joycean proportions: the diary was the great literary achievement that had eluded Inman when he set out to write poetry. 


Aaron's own achievement as an editor was not limited to the enormous work that went into the editing and cutting of Inman's manuscript. The interpassages he wrote to connect the entries in Inman's diary are literary vignettes in their own right. Here is his description of freckle-faced Kathy Connor, the daughter of Irish immigrants, one of Arthur's most loyal “informants,” taking leave of him at Arthur's funeral (he had shot himself earlier in the week). This is the one supreme moment of unabashed affection and human contact in the journal that Arthur had not asked or paid for, all the more poignant because he is no longer around to appreciate or to record it: “The body lay in an open casket, and before the funeral began, Kathy had an hour alone with Arthur. She had seen lots of corpses at wakes, but she wasn't prepared, she says for the sight of Arthur. ‘Joseph, Mary and Jesus,’ she siad, ‘what have they done to you?’ The Arthur who loathed perfume and powder and who more than once had ordered his girls to scrub the paint off their faces was gussied up with cosmetics. It made her laugh and cry. She told him he looked terrible. She reminded him of her promise not to abandon him--and straightened his tie. As she got ready to leave, she spied a bit of blood in his ear and removed it with a moistened corner of her dress.”

The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War

Hailed by Allen Tate as “one of the greatest works of scholarship in this century in the combined fields of American literature and American history,” The Unwritten War, first published im 1973, is the final volume of Aaron's trilogy on the hopes and failures of American liberal thinking and writing. It casts a jaundiced look at a cast of major and lesser writers who experienced the Civil War first-hand or observed it from a distance and who, by and large, failed to grasp its essential character. Aaron’s wide-ranging narrative begins with George Templeton Strong and ends with William Faulkner. It considerably complicates an optimistic view of American history in which a strengthened nation emerged from the cathartic bloodshed of the Civil War purified and ready to forge ahead to face a new but different series of trials. “The war kept throbbing in Faulkner’s South” (preface to the 1987 edition). At the heart of Aaron’s argument lies a concern with the invisibility of black Americans in Civil War literature. While Aaron stops short of identifying the “blocking out” of race as the only reason for the dearth of literary masterpieces about the Civil War, he does point out the irony that such a period of national convulsion, with such a lasting impact, left most writers at a loss for the right words and blinded by bias. A sentence by Freud quoted in Aaron’s introduction might serve as a motto for the entire book: “The shrewdest people will all of a sudden behave without insight, like imbeciles, as soon as the necessary insight is confronted by emotional resistance.”  


In his review for the New York Times, Quentin Anderson saw The Unwritten War as the capstone of Daniel Aaron’s lifelong project, which was, in his opinion, remarkably cohesive: “Mr. Aaron has steadfastly maintained, despite the continuing erosion of political awareness and dedication among writers, and the diversion of critical energies into new criticism, myth criticism and so on, the possibility and value of seeing thinkers and writers in the context of their engagement with society and politics. He has tried to keep alive the hope of the Progressives for rational institutional change that would fulfill the original promises of a society of free men.”

Writers on the Left

In 1955, Aaron was invited to contribute to a series of studies of Communist influence in American life sponsored by the Ford Foundation. “The author never really finished the book. He just stopped writing,” he reflected in a new preface written for the Galaxy Book edition.  Since Writers on the Left was first published in 1961, it has remained the standard introduction to the 1930s, the most comprehensive attempt to understand why the desire for political change that gripped writers during the Depression led to the disenchantment of the forties and fifties. Aaron immersed himself in the correspondence of the writers he studied, read their memoirs and articles, and, above all, listened to them. Aaron’s scholarship had a catalyzing, cathartic impact on some of the writers he studied, prompting Joseph Freeman to write long, discursive essay-letters to him; encouraging Mike Gold to revisit, in a series of articles written for People’s World, the world he had so memorably captured in Jews without Money; and helping Max Eastman find a form as well as a publisher for the second volume of his autobiography. In Aaron’s own assessment, Writers on the Left thus helped “loosen the social and political constraints that ... had inhibited the writing of a frank and objective history of ... literary communism.”

Men of Good Hope: A Story of American Progressives

First published in 1951, Men of Good Hope is the first volume in Aaron’s trilogy focused on the American progressive tradition, its hopes as well as its failures.  Revisiting the political and economic philosophies of nineteenth-century progressives Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Henry Demarest Lloyd, William Dean Howell, and Thorstein Veblen, Aaron takes a long hard look at what he calls “the bogus progressivism” of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, which, in his view, did not fare well in the twentieth century. “This book is written in the belief,” he wrote, “that the idealistic and ethical concerns of the old progressives are essential to any liberal movement.... I think it possible that the visions of the nineteenth century can encourage the twentieth and that we may discover in Emerson’s ‘men who entertain good hope’ a faith and strategy for today.” The reviewers agreed with him. “This is the book for the times, but it is more than that,” wrote Merle Curti in American Literature. “Mr. Aaron undertook the hard task of writing a book that is at once a work of scholarship and of illumination for these dark and confused years.”

Cincinnati: Queen City of the West, 1819-1838

Daniel Aaron's 1942 dissertation, supervised by Howard Mumford Jones, was the first submitted in the newly established American Civilization Program at Harvard University. It remained unpublished for 50 years, during which time it became, in the words of Carl Abbott, the author of the preface to the book version, “an interlibrary loan classic.” The impetus for his dissertation came, recalled Aaron, from his study of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. His hope was that the study of a relatively confined sample such as Cincinnati would allow him to test de Tocqueville's generalizations about American character and institutions. 


Aaron spent two very hot summers working in the library of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio (now the Cincinnati Historical Society) as well as at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, “tropical ordeals,” as he later confessed. The finished work was accepted without request for revision and without enthusiasm, as he wryly noted. But such retrospective self-deprecation belies the fact what a bold work Aaron’s first major scholarly effort was. Extolling the unflappable optimism of the early Cincinnatians, Aaron demonstrates how values such as mutual aid and cooperation helped them survive financial crises and natural disasters even as they forgot to plan for the “contigencies which always accompany social and economic progress.” In developing his famous frontier thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner had lumped the rural and the urban West together, ignoring the importance of communities such as Cincinnati in the formation of American identity. Turner's theory had emerged from “a chorus of self-congratulation” rather than solid analysis: “Studies of western urban communities during the first four decades of the nineteenth century should, I think, modify many stock conclusions about the West and its culture and perhaps dispel some illusions of the romantically minded.”