A while back, I offered a list of older works of literary criticism that I think are increasingly neglected but still have a great deal of value. I considered putting F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance on this list, but I had not read the book in quite a long time, and it was besides somewhat more narrowly focused on a particular period in American literary history--roughly the mid-nineteenth century--than I thought was appropriate for a list of "general" criticism.
I have now re-read the book (itself an act of supreme patience, since it contains over 650 densely-packed pages), and I would have to say I still would not include it on a list of critical books that non-academic readers might want to check out--at least not at first--but for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality. It is in fact, a book of great erudition and discernment, and is probably more responsible for the very concept of the "American Renaissance," and thus for the multitude of survey courses on this period that followed in the wake of the book's publication (1941) for at least the next fifty years than any other single work of literary criticism or scholarship. It may even be said to have provided the model for this kind of "periodization" in academic literary study in the first place.
Furthemore, the book clearly has played a large role in the way its five chosen writers--Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman--are understood by subsequent readers interested in the period. I think Matthiessen undervalues Emerson, overvalues Thoreau, and exaggerates the degree to which Hawthorne was simply trying to provide a more sober view of human nature than was implied in the transcendental assumptions of Emerson and Thoreau. However, I also think the chapters in American Renaissance on Melville and Whitman are just about the best things I've ever read about those two writers. At any rate, the overall picture that emerges from this book of the literary goals and accomplishments of each writer is probably the starting-point from which different pictures might ultimately be portrayed.
But ultimately its impressive learning and lengthy explications are, paradoxically perhaps, the very reasons I probably would not recommend the book to readers without an existing interest in these writers and this period or who would rather read the writers themselves than such an extended work of critical commentary. Matthiessen's approach is essentially historical (in the "undertheorized" way of scholars from this generation more interested in literary history than in "subverting" this history), although Matthiessen also states that his primary interest lies "with what these books were as works of art, with evaluating their fusions of form and content." In essence, he wants to understand what these writers thought they were doing, how each of them in turn influenced what the others were trying to do, to let them as much as possible speak for themselves through judicious analysis of selected texts and passages, ultimately to help readers understand why these were and are writers worth reading and taking seriously. What a concept!
However, this has become in so many ways such an alien concept that many readers of American Renaissance might think it quaint, even a little bizarre. Why would someone so obviously spend so much time reading Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman so thoroughly, so clearly attempt to think through the implications of why and what they wrote, so patiently take the reader through their essays, fictions, and poems and invite this reader to think further about it all him/herself? Where's the attitude, the jargon, the theoretical superstructure, the knowing superiority to the writers being examined? Matthiessen barely mentions Whitman's homosexuality (or Melville's suspected same-sex orientation), isn't much interested in gender (although is plenty interested in class), only touches on these writers' attitudes toward race, doesn't seem concerned to pivot his analysis in an appropriately progressive political direction, actually thinks the writers he discusses ought to be read on their own terms. In some cases, these omissions are indeed problematic (the omission of race particularly), but more to the point, the book's overall focus on those qualities in these writers that make them important writers in and of themselves just isn't done any more.
And American Renaissance is admittedly somewhat digressive, moving ahead or backward from one writer to the other seemingly in midstream, breaking off for a discussion of the painter Thomas Eakins before returning to the homologies between Eakins and Whitman, etc. Its very breadth of knowledge can be intimidating if not irritating--it isn't always clear why we need to know quite so much just to appreciate Hawthorne's stories or Leaves of Grass--and its footnotes frequently insert what just seems superfluous information. It's a book for readers of its five chosen writers who are already convinced of their centrality--at least it is for readers now--and who would like to know more about why they wrote what they wrote when they wrote it.
Which is finally why it probably wouldn't be of interest to those who wouldn't already describe themselves as readers of this sort. Anyone who really wants to know what the "American Renaissance" was all about and what these five writers contributed to it couldn't really claim to have this knowledge without reading F.O. Matthiessen, but I fear there aren't many people around anymore who want to know these things. Maybe they shouldn't. Maybe books like Matthiessen's were written according to a "scholarly" model that is ultimately inappropriate for the appreciation of literature. I sometimes think this myself. But I'm glad to have read American Renaissance (twice), and my subsequent readings of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman will be richer and more informed because I did.