On rare occasions, the crust of mediocrity covering our literary tradition cracks and allows a glimpse of its unappreciated foundations. This is surely the case with the brilliant polemicist, critic, and playwright John Jay Chapman (1862–1933), whose reputation, despite praise from Henry James, Edmund Wilson, and others, lies half-hidden, emerging from obscurity roughly once each generation. Chapman was the author of works on Dante, Shakespeare, Plato, and Emerson; wrote sharp portraits of his contemporaries; and was a translator of Greek of some distinction. However, he is not to the taste of the trendy theorists and “world lit” advocates who currently inhabit college literature departments.

The publication of this new collection from the University of Illinois Press is a welcome event; indeed, it is the only work of Chapman’s writings currently available. It is another sign of the distance between what passes...

 
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