Professor Henry Nash Smith's latest book, a highly readable handful of essays on such "classic" American writers as Hawthorne, Melville, Howells, Twain, and James is hardly the "profound reinterpretation of 19th-century American literature" the dust-jacket puff proclaims it to be. His remarks on Melville, for example, center on a bynow- familiar interpretation of Ahab's madness rather than on how or why Meville's audience drove him out of the novel business before the Civil War. His analysis of Howells' A Modern Instance relies on a standard, though acute, scrutiny of Howells' sometimes ill-conceived narrational point of view. Yet this is an intellignet, useful work.

The most original essay in the book, "A Textbook of the Henyteel Tradition: Henry Ward Beecher's Norwood ," brilliantly treats that period between the American Renaissance (Merson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman being its major figures) and the Age of Realism (Howells, Twain and James), which has long perplexed literary historians. Smith asserts that one way to comprehend these major figures of the 19th century is to examine the seemingly inexplicable success of Norwood , a forgotten novel, in terms of the audience it attracted and their assumptions. This task Smith accomplishes with aplomb and rare insight.

He quotes Charles Eliot Norton's recollection of meeting the aging Ralph Waldo Emerson on a return steamer from Europe in 1873; the portrait of Emerson with his memory fading, his beliefs hardened into a dogmatic creed, symbolized in Norton's words by "the pure whiteness of his soul." The robust ideal of Transcendentalism has atrophied into a senlie vestige of what it once was and been replaced by a new mode of perception -- Realism, which, unlike Transcendentalism, recognized evil and disorder and the misery wrought by individual and collective despotism.

Although democracy and the Novel will not attract the wide readership of Smith's earlier classic study, Virgin Land , the book does provide useful explorations into those faxcinating relations between author and audience, author and publisher, author and critic, which (with notable exceptions) have been so often neglected by cultural and literary historians. (Oxford, $13.95)