Since Van Wyck Brooks’s death in 1963, his reputation has been well served, both as a writer and a figure influential for his time, by two essentially critical sutdies, James Vitelli’s Van Wyck Brooks (1969) and William Wasserstrom’s The Legacy of Van Wyck Brooks (1972); further, Gladys Brooks, the writer’s second wife, has penned an affectionate memoir, If Strangers Meet: A Memory (1967), and James Hoopes a competent biography, Van Wyck Brooks: In Search of American Culture (1977). To these books may now be added the definitive biography by Raymond Nelson, a volume comprehensive and critically astute, that treats not only the writer’s life but also his impact upon his generation.
A present-day reader may wonder at the extraordinary scholarly interest that Brooks still provokes among admirers. His work, although extensive and widely read between 1915 and 1932, began to lose critical support with The Life of Emerson (1932) and gradually, for the next two and a half decades, seemed ever more out of touch with the mainstream of American criticism. Even these years of declining critical acclaim, however, were productive for Brooks’s massive research and publication. His lifework was the five-volume Makers and Finders: A History of the Writer in America 1800-1915 (1952), a succession of major works which established for good his reputation as America’s most industrious literary historian, including The Flowering of New England (1936), New England: Indian Summer (1940), The World of Washington Irving (1944), The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947), and The Confident Years: 1885-1915 (1952). In spite of this vast literary output, Brooks’s position today, according to Raymond Nelson, “is not so much resisted, attacked, or modified as it is simply ignored. Particularly in the academy, a generation of literary professionals has come of age either not knowing of Brooks’s achievement or knowing it only as a sort of curious anachronism.”
Reasons for this apparent neglect of the author are not difficult to assess, and Nelson treats with fairness and perception Brooks’s limitations as well as his strengths. In his literary investigation, Brooks was far more interested in culture, in the total impact of an epoch upon writers, than are most modern-day scholars. Less concerned with the “spirit” of place or time, they are generally concerned with the close analysis of formal structures and, in a larger sense, with understanding the literary conventions of the time that promoted such structures.
Brooks, on the other hand, was rarely interested in structural analysis, and although his research was monumental—while preparing for Makers and Finders, according to Nelson, “Brooks read every work by every nineteenth-century American writer of even the slightest merit”—the historian’s judgments are often idiosyncratic, favoring in some cases minor authors over major, and judging the sweep of literature as a cultural tide from which discernible streams can be isolated and defined. Contemporary literary historians, for the most part skeptical about Brooks’s large generalizations and seemingly moralistic attitudes, are far more cautious about literary rankings and discrete groupings of writers. Today, as Nelson somewhat ruefully observes, an audience for Brooks’s impressionistic and moralistic criticism is on the wane; but Nelson argues with considerable force that future generations are bound to profit a great deal from Brooks’s heroic method of literary synthesis.
Like other students of Brooks, Nelson has the major biographical problem of treating with nearly equal attention the man’s life and his work. So deeply was Brooks involved in the life of the mind, that his activities mostly revolved around assiduous literary pursuits. For good reason, Nelson subtitles his study “A Writer’s Life.” Whenever Brooks was not reading whole libraries of books for research purposes or writing and revising his own work, he was spending much of his remaining time thinking about projects, corresponding with other writers, or reevaluating his ideas in the light of current scholarship. In his research for The Flowering of New England, for example, he read some 825 books. Up to that time, according to Nelson, “no literary history of similar depth and range had yet been attempted, and the task was possible only for a man who had the rare freedom of time, and the rarer dedication, to use it.” Such scholarship required a disciplined temperament, habits of intense concentration, and a willingness to sacrifice in place of the ordinary pleasures of life a great deal of time devoted to solitary study. After rising at 5:30 A.M., he would dress himself formally, with waistcoat and tie (“out of respect,” Nelson says, “for the work he was to do”), generally compose with pen until midafternoon,...
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