Virtually from the beginning of the American republic our writers have uttered a consistent complaint and issued a consistent call. They have complained of the inhospitable atmosphere of American life to literary creativity, and they have called for a national literature equal to the country’s great material accomplishments.
Thus in the year after Emerson had declared in “The American Scholar” that the time was ripe for us to establish our cultural independence from Europe, James Fenimore Cooper in THE AMERICAN DEMOCRAT spoke harshly of the repressive effects of the democratic system upon men of superior ability and individualistic bent. A dozen years later Herman Melville, tempted to satisfy his public’s desire for more South Sea adventure tales but impelled by his genius toward the darkly symbolic, unpopular, and epic, wrote in a letter to Hawthorne, “Dollars damn me.” And in 1879 Henry James, soon to become a permanent expatriate, wondered in his book on Hawthorne how that writer had cultivated so rich a talent on so thin a cultural soil as the United States.
Walt Whitman, however, thought of America as itself the greatest poem of all, and in his poetry, his prefaces to the several editions of LEAVES OF GRASS, and his essays he prophesied a national literature created by a new breed of poet-prophets the like of which the world had never known. As the century closed William Dean Howells expressed a similar, if subdued, optimism for the future of American literature.
Therefore Van Wyck Brooks’ AMERICA’S COMING-OF-AGE, which in 1915 seemed a radical and revolutionary treatise can be viewed in retrospect as but one of a series of pronouncements on a vital but hardly unexplored subject. Yet because of its own quality and pertinence, and because it came at exactly the right cultural moment, it had tremendous impact upon its time and has continued to influence a phase of our literary thought. In length not much more than an extended essay, AMERICA’S COMING-OF-AGE undertakes no less a task than the analysis of the ailing condition of American civilization, the specific diagnosis of its ills, and the etiology of the disease. Operating by means of perceptive surmise, shrewd inference, and brilliant deductive leaps rather than by careful, reasoned argument based on amassed evidence, AMERICA’S COMING-OF-AGE carries the reader along on the movement of its emotional force and rhetorical eloquence. The technique is reminiscent of that used by Marx and Freud, wherein manifest logical flaws in the various parts are overcome by the weight and sense of revealed truth in the whole.
At first reading and to many of its contemporaries, AMERICA’S COMING-OF-AGE appeared to be a stern denunciation of the United States, its civilization, and its accomplishments. Yet beneath the book’s sharply critical, even abrasive tone, one hears the urgent and hortatory voice of a youthful idealism and optimism which has been disappointed but not destroyed. In effect, it conjoins the bitterness of the complaints made by Cooper, Melville, and James, with the stirring affirmation of the call sent out by Emerson, Whitman, and Howells.
As has been pointed out, the essential motivation behind AMERICA’S COMING-OF-AGE, a motivation impelling much of Brooks’ work during his long and distinguished career, was the ambition to merge art and life, to effect a synthesis between culture and society. As Brooks begins by declaring, and as his book declares throughout, America’s failure to achieve this synthesis has blighted its culture. Our culture, he avers, splits in two, divided between the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow”: on the one side the ideal, the theoretical, the intellectual, the artistic; on the other the mundane, practical, philistine, commercial. This dichotomy originated in the Puritan theocracy, which erected a rigid barrier between divine and earthly realms, was embodied during the nation’s formative years in the contrasting figures of Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, and was passed down through them. The result, Brooks claims, is a civilization located around the polarities of a detached and dessicated “culture” and a mindless, money-grubbing activism. Without contact with life, the intellectual risks dehumanization; without culture, the businessman is confined to mere earning and spending.
With the exception of Whitman,...
(The entire section is 1823 words.)