NONFICTION

Jefferson Davis: A Memoir by His Wife, Varina Davis

(Nautical & Aviation Publishing, two volumes, $68.50; paperback, $39.90). Victorian wives stood by their men; and the reserved wooden figure of the Confederate president had no stauncher defender than Varina Howell Davis, his second wife. Her account, which first appeared in 1890, somewhat humanizes Davis, whose own memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), are a masterwork of turgidity. However great a disaster Davis's presidency was, his early life was brilliantly successful. Born in a log cabin, the youngest of 10 children, he graduated from West Point, pursued Indians up the Mississippi in the Blackhawk War, removed squatters from the lead mines of Dubuque, Iowa, and served, very successfully, as secretary of war in the administration of Franklin Pierce. One of his acts in the latter office was to send camels to the American West to help in the surveying of the Southwestern deserts.

The Screening of America: Movies and Values from Rocky to Rain Man , by Tom O'Brien (Ungar/Continuum, $21.95). The film critic for Commonweal magazine has stepped back from the chore of regular reviewing to analyze how movies of the past 15 years have reflected and influenced American mores. One of his pets is the actress Cher, whose indictment of the industry for its self-absorption serves as the book's epigraph. Later on O'Brien notes how, for all her real-life rebelliousness, onscreen she often affirms values of home and hearth. "She bakes a cake in Mask; it does not seem to lessen her free-spirited independence. I just wish it had been apple pie. That indeed would have been delicious."

Historical Fictions: Essays , by Hugh Kenner (North Point, $24.95). Hugh Kenner looks exactly like the English professor he is -- bow tie, thick glasses, disheveled hair -- but his essays and reviews are anything but dryasdust or jargon-ridden. Instead imagine a blend of Groucho Marx fast talk, George Saintsbury-like literary connoisseurship and a range of reference that would daunt a sideshow Human Encyclopedia. Kenner has read everything and correlated all of it: He knows when telephones came into general use in London, and how they influenced T.S. Eliot; he knows, seemingly, everything that Ezra Pound ever read or thought about; he can discourse, with awesome expertise, on children's literature, Homer, Pope, Beckett, fractals, poetic closure, Riddley Walker. Every page of Historical Fictions is instructive; but, even more important, all of it is exceptionally entertaining.

Irving Howe: Selected Writings 1950-1990 , by Irving Howe (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $34.95). Irving Howe remains the godfather of all those who fight at the bloody crossroads of politics and literature. This largely retrospective collection, a present from Howe to himself on his 70th birthday, showcases literary essays, political polemics and cultural pieces. Everything Howe says is intelligent, earnest and to the point; he is moreover remarkably catholic in his tastes, writing here of Celine and Sholom Aleichem, of Pirandello and Delmore Schwartz, of Leskov and Solzhenitsyn, of the Snopes clan and the New York intellectuals. He is a critic easy to admire and respect, though somewhat hard to love.

Profiles , by Kenneth Tynan (Harper & Row, $22.95; paperback, $10.95). Easily the most brilliant drama critic of our time, Kenneth Tynan was funny, outrageous, sexually adventurous, dandiacal; he worshipped performers -- great actors, writers, artists, personalities -- and he could write better prose on deadline than most of us could with all the time in the world. Profiles collects dozens of his tributes, acts of homage and appreciation, to Orson Welles, Alec Guinness, Cyril Connolly, Paul Leautaud, Duke Ellington, Noel Coward, Martha Graham, Ralph Richardson, Tom Stoppard, Louise Brooks. A pleasure in themselves, they are also guaranteed to make you want to see, read or listen to these giants again as soon as possible.

The English Town: A History of Urban Life , by Mark Girouard (Yale, $39.95). This lovingly illustrated survey of town life in England manages to be evocative without sacrificing discernment. The author, a British architectural historian with a knack for appealing to the general reader, may sound ready to succumb to nostalgia for Olde England when he writes that "Georgian towns are based on an ideal of consensus . . . {T}he upper and middle classes in them were supported by the belief that, if only sensible educated men of property would act together, all problems could be solved." Yet he brings one up short in the next paragraph with the assertion that "A Victorian town was a battlefield."