Tony Tanner

Tony Tanner is a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and an authority on American literature. He is the author of The Reign of Wonder and City of Words. Adultery in the Novel was published in 1980.

Not Rough Enough

Tony Tanner, 19 October 1995

In 1911, George Santayana gave an address to the Philosophical Union of the University of California in which he sought to identify and define what he called, in his lecture title, ‘The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy’. Santayana had a bracing view of what it was ‘to possess a living philosophy’ (‘to have a distinct vision of the universe and definite convictions about human destiny’), and in this talk, he outlined a schematic division, or opposition, in American philosophy, or ‘mentality’, which was to have a profound influence on subsequent American attempts at cultural self-analysis. ‘America’, he began,

Arctic Habits

Tony Tanner, 25 May 1995

To a person inquiring about his life, Emerson wrote: ‘I have no history, no fortunes that would make the smallest figure in a narrative. My course of life has been so routinary, that the keenest eye for point or picture would be at fault before such remediless commonplace. We will really say no more on a topic so sterile.’ Not so, responds Robert Richardson; we will say 670 pages more on the topic. By the end you might wonder whether Emerson wasn’t rather in the right of it. An unremarkable, rather spartan, childhood; average performances at school and university; an appointment to, followed by a resignation from, the Unitarian Church; three short trips to Europe; two marriages; the loss of a young son; agitation over the slavery issue – and some fifty placid years in Concord. In one year ‘he reorganised his notebooks’; in another he ‘took a new interest in fruit trees’. When such things loom large enough for biographical attention, you sense that it was a pretty quiet life. But Richardson might fairly object that the more important matter is the story of the growth of Emerson’s mind, his intellectual adventures, his creative life. A detailed version of this is what we certainly get, and I doubt if it has previously been attempted so comprehensively. The determination to be exhaustive and definitive is clear on every page; but the result is not unequivocally felicitous.’

Voice of America

Tony Tanner, 23 September 1993

Was Huckleberry Finn black? Of course he wasn’t. By today’s accredited categories he was poor, male, white trash. So what – besides a desire to be arresting – lies behind Professor Fishkin’s clearly tendentious title? Mark Twain, Clifton Fadiman wrote, is ‘our Chaucer, our Homer, our Dante, our Virgil, because Huckleberry Finn is the nearest thing we have to a national epic. Just as the Declaration of Independence … contains in embryo our whole future history as a nation, so the language of Huckleberry Finn (another Declaration of Independence) expresses our popular character, our humour, our slant.’ ‘All modern American literature,’ Hemingway famously announced, ‘comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.’ So if, in one sense or another, Huck was black, then it has to follow that American literature, American literature, is, in one sense or another, also black.’


Tony Tanner, 22 April 1993

‘I take up my pen once more after this long interval to converse with my in many ways twin bro.’ Thus William James to Henry in 1873. We might put against this comments from earlier letters. ‘Our ways are so far apart that I doubt if we ever really get intimate’ (1867). But then again, a year later: ‘I feel as if you were one of the 2 or 3 sole intellectual & moral companions I have.’ Leon Edel, in his majestic biography of Henry James, stressed what he saw as a deep unconscious rivalry between the brothers, which pulled against their more consciously maintained fraternal affection. If there is a fault in that magisterial biography it is that Edel rides that particular Freudian horse too hard.

Anxiety of Influx

Tony Tanner, 18 February 1982

Of course Empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul?

In Praise of Vagueness

Richard Poirier, 14 December 1995

From the beginning of his distinguished career, with his influential The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature, on to the more recent Adultery and the Novel and his fluently...

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Yawning and Screaming

John Bayley, 5 February 1987

The past is there to be made use of, and everyone makes use of it in his own way. Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson invent alternative Englands where radical social experiments were nipped in...

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Fine Chances

Michael Wood, 5 June 1986

Henry James was a great haunter of drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, but it is not easy to picture him in a place called the Library of America, which is the name of the edition of which these...

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Novels about Adultery

Frank Kermode, 15 May 1980

It calls for no great acumen to spot a connection between adultery and theft. According to Dr Johnson, ‘the essence of the crime’ lay in ‘the confusion of progeny’, for by...

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