Denby, David 1943(?)–

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Denby, David 1943(?)–

PERSONAL: Born c. 1943; married Kathleen Schine (a writer), 1981 (divorced, c. 2000); children: Max, Thomas. Education: Graduated from Columbia University, c. 1965.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Little, Brown and Company, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

CAREER: Film critic, journalist, editor, and writer. New Yorker magazine, New York, NY, film critic and writer.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Critics Circle award finalist, general nonfiction, 1997, for Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World.


Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.

American Sucker (memoir), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2004.

Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals, including Premiere, New Republic, and the New Yorker.


The 400 Blows: A Film by Francois Truffaut from a Filmscript by Francois Truffaut and Marcel Moussy, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.

Film Seventy-Two to Seventy-Three: An Anthology by the National Association of Film Critics, Macmillan, 1973.

Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present, Vintage (New York, NY), 1977.

(With Susan Hayward) ACTIF: Aston Papers on Contemporary Trends in France, Department of Modern Languages, Aston University (Birmingham, England), 1986.

SIDELIGHTS: David Denby, longtime movie reviewer for the New Yorker magazine and author of Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, gathered together forty-four of the most interesting reviews and essays by his professional colleagues for his 1977 book, Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present.

The table of contributors is a who's who of the great, good, and controversial film critics of past and present. Notables such as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, and James Agee are represented by more than one review. The book's sections include treatments of critical methods (a section a critic writing in Choice magazine found especially valuable), studies of the various film genres, and discussions of individual performers and directors. The Choice contributor noted that the five essays on criticism were supplemented by a sample critique exemplifying the several critical methods discussed. "The reader of these essays can achieve a solid understanding of both film and film criticism," wrote the reviewer. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented: "The book crackles with intellectual energy and thought-provoking insights."

Denby's 1996 intellectual memoir, Great Books, sprang from Denby's self announced mid-life crisis, which he underwent in 1991 at the age of forty-eight. As self-therapy, he decided to return to Columbia College in New York City and retake the two core Great Books courses there, repeating his experiences as a freshman thirty years earlier. Feeling that he had lived life too much as a spectator—of movies, for example—he wanted to confront experience more directly.

Denby also wanted to investigate firsthand the state of the "culture wars" in academia, which had been bemoaned repeatedly in the press. His aim, as quoted by New Republic poetry critic Helen Vendler, was to write "an adventure book … and also a naive book, an amateur's book—in other words, a folly." Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing Denby's book for the New York Times Book Review, quoted the same passage, and commented: "Great Books is hardly a folly, though it is in fact a lively adventure of the mind, with particular resonance for a time in which the very legitimacy of 'great books of the Western world' has been under heavy fire." What Denby found, according to the reviewer for Economist, was that "far from being a frozen and 'hegemonic' celebration of the West, the 'great books' … raise one big question after another." The core courses, or canon, were invitations for untrained adolescents and post-adolescents to stretch their intellects and their sensibilities. Literary critic Frank Kermode, commenting in the New York Review of Books, wrote: "On the question of the canon, [Denby] seems to me to be forthright and also right. He correctly denies that the canon is an instrument of 'hegemonic discourse.' On the contrary, he claims, it is subversive of hegemonies."

Kermode found Denby's enthusiasm for the courses "pretty impressive." On a similar note, Oates wrote that "his response to virtually all the texts is sympathetic and positive." Oates observed that Denby, at year's end, thought Shakespeare's King Lear to be the greatest of the great books, and that he was disappointed by Dante's Inferno and Goethe's Faust. Personal favorites aside, Oates called Denby "above all things an inspired reader, a contemporary pilgrim combining the zeal of an ideal eighteen-year-old freshman with the shrewd-ness and detachment of a forty-eight-year-old veteran journalist for whom the experience of rereading Homer, for instance, is ecstatic." The passages in Great Books that Oates found "most engaging" included "those in which the author relates his reading to his life." In contrast, Vendler, criticized the passages, upbraiding Denby to the extent that he went along with current ideological modes emphasizing ideological rather than aesthetic criticism.

Kermode was more generous, applauding Denby's willingness to confront difficult texts and to connect them to real life—and applauding, especially, the charismatic, devoted teachers whom Denby described. "Are the courses shallow?" asked Kermode. "Well, say rather that the books have to be treated too briefly. But they do begin to teach people to read and reflect on what they have read. With luck a perception of the sheer interest, the adversarial qualities, even the beauty of these books will inhibit the cant about inert cultural monuments and dead white males." Kermode concluded by calling Denby "a very good sort of man" and by telling the reader, "the best thing about his rather garrulous but pleasing book is his sane attitude toward the canon." An Economist reviewer, meanwhile, praised "a captivating book that casts light on … the job of a critic, on what classics are, on the pleasure of sustained reading … and on how the best teaching in the humanities can still stretch young minds." The reviewer added: "In fascinating detail Mr. Denby describes how professors lead their charges in argument without patronizing them, let alone trying to indoctrinate." The reviewer also noted: "If, as well you might, you envy Mr. Denby his year-long reading party, you should read his exuberant book." Almost as enthusiastically, Oates, despite criticizing Denby for his description of a feminist "Take Back the Night" protest and some other points, wrote: "The strengths of Great Books far outweigh its weaknesses. The reader is left with a sense of optimism regarding the future of the humanities and a conviction that, fine film critic as he may be, David Denby seems to have missed his true vocation: a professional involvement in the teaching and transmission of literary 'greatness.'"

Denby turns inward with a memoir about losing money in the stock market after the bubble burst in 2001 with his book American Sucker. Spurred on by his failing marriage and a desire to cash-in on a booming market in part so he could keep the couples' expensive Manhattan apartment, Denby decides to invest in high-tech stocks only to see himself lose 900,000 dollars in a relatively short amount of time, some of which he later recovered. "His American Sucker offers a master class in the art of asset mismanagement," wrote James Wolcott in Vanity Fair. In a review in W, Aaron Gell called the book "a compelling and admirably self-lacerating memoir." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman noted that the author "turns his chronicle of trading madness into a compelling meditation on greed." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "His dissection of his own Upper West Side narcissism offers some of the most candid critiques of the Manhattan bourgeoisie ever found outside of a Woody Allen film."



Denby, David, American Sucker, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2004.


American Scholar, spring, 1997, Alan Rutenberg, review of Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, p. 290.

Booklist, August, 1996, Patricia Hassler, review of Great Books, p. 1878; April 15, 1999, Barbara Baskin, review of Great Books, p. 1542; December 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of American Sucker, p. 630.

Business Week Onine, January 23, 2004, Christopher Farrell, review of American Sucker.

Chicago Sun Times, January 11, 2004, Stephen J. Lyons, review of American Sucker.

Choice, December, 1977, review of Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present, p. 1370.

Christian Century, November 19, 1997, Joanna M. Adams, review of Great Books, p. 1062.

Economist, October 19, 1996, review of Great Books, pp. 4-5.

Entertainment Weekly, January 16, 2004, Jeff Jensen, review of American Sucker, p. 74.

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January, 1997, Saul Rosenberg, review of Great Books, p. 42.

Harper's, January, 1997, Vince Passaro, review of Great Books, p. 66; January, 2004, John Leonard, review of American Sucker, p. 75.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2003, review of American Sucker, p. 1348.

Library Journal, January, 2004, Richard Drezen, review of American Sucker, p. 127.

Money, March 1, 2004, David Futrelle, review of American Sucker, p. 30.

New Leader, January-February, 2004, Paul Gray, review of American Sucker, p. 15.

New Republic, October 7, 1996, Helen Vendler, review of Great Books, pp. 34-40.

New York Review of Books, September 19, 1996, Frank Kermode, review of Great Books, pp. 31-33.

New York Times Book Review, September 1, 1996, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Great Books, pp. 10-11; January 25, 2004, Walter Kirn, review of American Sucker, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly, March 28, 1977, review of Awake in the Dark, p. 76; July 22, 1996, review of Great Books, p. 219; November 24, 2003, review of American Sucker, p. 52.

Traders, April 1, 2004, Gregory Bresige, review of American Sucker,

Vanity Fair, February, 2004, James Wolcott, review of American Sucker, p. 76.

W, February, 2004, Aaron Gell, review of American Sucker, p. 98.


Beatrice, (April 29, 2006), Ron Hogan, interview with author.

BookPage, (April 29, 2006), Alden Mudge, review of American Sucker., (April 29, 2006), David Exum, review of American Sucker.

Bookslut, (April 29, 2006), Jen Crispin, review of Great Bookos., (February 27, 2004), Q&A: David Denby."

Paula Gordon Show Web site, (April 29, 2006), "Models for a Life."

USA Today Web site, (April 29, 2006), Joe Eaton, review of American Sucker.