Van Wyck Brooks 1886–1963
American critic, historian, and autobiographer.
Brooks was one of the most controversial literary scholars of the first half of the twentieth century. His career may be divided into two periods. In the first, from 1908 to 1925, Brooks, a literary radical, attacked the blighting effect of America's Puritan heritage on the artistic mind and championed the preeminent role of the artist in shaping American culture. In the second period, from 1932 until his death, Brooks upheld conservative values, idealizing the American past as a firm foundation upon which to build a strong body of literature. Critics generally agree that in the earlier era Brooks was the more compelling thinker, and that much of Brooks's later writing is ill-informed, sentimental, and rambling.
Brooks gained critical attention with his first book, The Wine of the Puritans (1908), which attacks the ideals of Puritanism and points the way toward The Malady of the Ideal (1913) and America's Coming-of-Age (1915). Central to these three volumes is the thesis that American writers are thwarted from fulfilling their artistic potential by the traditional and idealistic goals of their forebears. When these works were published, critics looked upon Brooks as an optimist who saw the artist as a leader of social reform in America. However, with the publication of The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) and The Pilgrimage of Henry James (1925), Brooks fell from favor with many critics, who accused him of employing incompetent psychoanalysis and "dubious data." Brooks held that Twain's fatalistic outlook originated from childhood guilt and from the stifling conditions of America's frontier; this theory, though later refuted, gained wide popular acceptance at the time. One of Brooks's major opponents on the Twain issue was Bernard DeVoto, who held that Twain's bitterness was caused by personal tragedies encountered late in his life and that frontier life had, in fact, added a positive dimension to Twain's writing. DeVoto and Brooks maintained a celebrated critical feud over the matter for many years.
In 1925 Brooks suffered a nervous breakdown and was in ill health for several years. When he began writing again, his critical outlook had changed drastically. He now succeeded in finding the "usable past" that he had vainly sought earlier in his career. That past was Ralph Waldo Emerson's humanistic New England, which Brooks considered to be the model on which the present America and its literature should be built. His call for a return to the positive values of Emerson opposed the pessimistic vision of Modernist writers such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and particularly T. S. Eliot, whom Brooks once called a "bat that flew in the twilight between the wars" and whose poetry and vision Brooks continually attacked. It was through his series Makers and Finders: A History of the Writer in America, 1800–1915 (1936–1952) that Brooks promoted his newly-found vision. Despite the radical difference in his two critical approaches, Brooks was consistently concerned with the reciprocal relationship between the writer and society. Although Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history for The Flowering of New England (1936), he never received the favorable critical response for his later work that he had garnered for his earlier books. Two works on Brooks's per-sonal and professional life were published posthumously: An Autobiography (1965) and The Van Wyck Brooks—Lewis Mumford Letters (1970).
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6.)
[America's Coming of Age] is one of the books which worry the reviewer and delight the reader. It cannot be summarized. To attempt to summarize it would be about as just to the author as trying to dry a jelly-fish over a fire. The summary would omit too much of the life of the creature. Nor is the book an argument, which can be accepted, or refuted and left for dead. It is gifted conversation, a sort of high comment, a little more deliberate than table-talk, more artful than journalism, yet free of pedantry and all the deeper responsibilities which weigh down so much of our thought. It is the reflection of a young mind that is rich in knowledge. It has the quality we should wish our conversation to have if we were happy, clever people living in a spacious world.
Mr. Brooks swings through time and space with gaiety and anger…. [The book] is companionable and exhilarating, and the only reaction that counts is the total reaction. You like Mr. Brooks or you don't for what he exposes is a temperament, and about temperaments people do not reason. They trust their instincts to say yes or no. So it is well perhaps to confess that I read without stopping, and that after a few pages a thing happened which occurs rarely to a reviewer of books. I became more interested in the author than in my review. I forgot to think on what there was to say about Mr. Brooks.
Only a net impression remains which seems to say: "I'm for him, but what is he for?" Between the lines glowed a sense of life to which a man would respond, a feeling for values, for distinction and dash, for the chivalry of democracy. But exact definition of his ideal escapes Mr. Brooks as it would anyone else. After all, the virtues of life have almost always been defined in negatives, and of negatives Mr. Brooks makes liberal and justifiable use. He finds that the American spirit may be summed up historically under two catchwords—"highbrow" and "lowbrow," and that unhappily they have been almost...
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Many books have been written about Mark Twain; but with the exception of Paine's biography—perhaps the best biography ever written by an American—this work ["The Ordeal of Mark Twain"] by Mr. Van Wyck Brooks is the most important and the most essential. Mr. Brooks is one of our ablest critics, for he combines catholicity of taste with an almost austere sincerity. His book, like all books filled with ideas, is a challenge; it contains so much truth that it provokes and disturbs the reader, as all critical writing should do….
I say that this book contains much truth. I do not think it contains all the truth, or that it is wholly true. But it is packed with ideas….
The main idea in this book is that Mark Twain's career was a tragedy—a tragedy for himself and a tragedy for mankind. Every man who does not live up to his highest possibilities is living in a state of sin. Mark Twain was, therefore, one of the chief of sinners, because his possibilities were so great and he fell so short….
If I understand Mr. Brooks correctly, there were two villains in Mark Twain's tragedy—his mother and his wife. His mother was more eager to have him good than to have him great; his wife wanted him to be a gentleman. Between them they tamed the lion and made him perform parlor tricks. This hypothesis is worked out by Mr. Brooks with such ingenuity and such force that I can only advise every one to read the whole book with serious attention to every page. Yet although there is much truth in this explanation, I do not believe it to be the whole truth nor the real reason for Mark Twain's pessimism. (p. 1)
I do not believe that Mark Twain would have been happier if he had completely shaken off his mother's influence or if he had trampled on his wife's sensibilities. If he really were dissatisfied with his achievements—however unconscious that discontent may have been—this was not, I think, owing to the restrictions placed on him by his conventional wife; it was owing to the natural self-reproach in...
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[In The Ordeal of Mark Twain] Mr. Brooks proposed a Portrait of the American as Artist. The effort was to include three principal exhibits, which would establish categories capable of holding all other specimens. There would be the Artist as adaptation to environment: Mark Twain. There would be the Artist as flight from environment: Henry James. There would be the Artist as expression or summation of environment: Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second and third of these exhibits are not relevant here but [one] effort was common to all three: the examination of America. Clearly, if you are describing the Artist in relation to his environment, you must study the environment. The principle seems axiomatic. Yet, if the wide acceptance of Mr. Brooks's Mark Twain did not make detailed examination of his thesis obligatory, it would be possible to dismiss him on the ground that he is ignorant of the America about which he writes.
Just as Mr. Brooks's ideas of American literature are derived from a reading of the accepted canon, without awareness of large areas which contradict his conclusions (as when he says that we have inherited no folk art)—so his description of America is derived from the logical necessities of his theory. His America is an a priori description dictated by the requirements of theory; apart from the evangelism of his text, it is referred only to the theories of Mr. [Herbert] Croly and Mr. Waldo Frank…. In his analysis of Mark Twain, the eidolon "Frontier" has a primary importance; yet Mr. Brooks fails to consider Frederick Jackson Turner's study of the frontier, the basis of realism in any discussion, and there is no evidence that he had ever heard of it or of the investigations it begot. He had no knowledge of the frontier and considered none essential. (pp. 224-25)
The logical edifice was already built; it was simpler to assert what must be true about America than to inquire what was true. So we have those curious misrepresentations of Missouri, the Middle Western border, the steamboat age, Nevada, California—brilliantly evocative descriptions, eloquent with Mr. Brooks's denunciation of what he dislikes and his exhortations for repentance, but worthless as descriptions of societies, eras, and people, and gravely misleading in the criticism of literature. Mr. Brooks's eidolon, "Frontier", superbly enlarges on the frontier which Mr. Croly, Mr. Frank and other theorists had created, but it has no correspondence in history. His Mark Twain, a product of this phantom, has existed nowhere outside his pages. (pp. 225-26)
[No] rebuttal of Mr. Brooks's frontier will be attempted now. It is convenient, however, to quote [a passage] … to illustrate his understanding of the American past. He is discussing the roots in our colonial and early nineteenth-century past out of which grew the "Gilded Age." In the...
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Van Wyck Brooks has now suffered the fate of many a good writer before him. Beginning as an opposition critic, read by a minority of the public, he has lived to become a popular author, read by immense numbers of people and awarded a Pulitzer prize—with the result that the ordinary reviewers are praising him indiscriminately and the highbrows are trying to drop him. (p. 10)
Let me begin then by stating some of the objections which are being made to Brooks's books on New England by those readers to whom it is most distasteful to see him become the darling of the women's clubs.
1. Brooks's work falls into two distinct divisions, with the break just before his volume on Emerson. The...
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When I was in this country for the first time, some time in 1928, I read Van Wyck Brooks' America's Coming-of-Age and admired his penetrating observations on the literary conditions of America and his trenchant criticisms of many of the main authors of nineteenth-century America. I, as a Czech, relished the strongly critical attitude of Mr. Brooks to his own literature, as I myself had grown up in a similar critical atmosphere, which reacted against the idols and ideals of the nineteenth century and had begun a process of severe self-scrutiny which tried to discover the limitations of the existing literary tradition, the secrets of its vitality and the possibilities of its...
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Whatever may be Mr Van Wyck Brooks's distinctive mark in the contemporary American literary world, the five-volume work that comes to a close with The Confident Years seems to me to be in an essential respect very representative—representative, I mean, of a prevailing climate: while it is, to a portentous tune, inflationary in tendency, it at the same time shows an indifference to the real American achievement. The indifference must be judged to be unawareness, and if one asks how such unawareness could be preserved by a critic intention exalting and magnifying an established American literature, the explanation is to be seen in the nature of the inflationary bent itself. (p. 138)
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[An Autobiography is] a luminous testament of one of the most dedicated literary careers in our century.
What emerges from the reticent and at times almost impersonal sketches of his boyhood and youth, his days at Harvard, his uneasy flirtation with "Europe," his travels across America, his numerous friendships among writers and painters, is more a group portrait than a self-portrait. Brooks, the literary historian, triumphs over Brooks, the personal historian. Indeed he frequently interrupts his life story to tell the stories of others; and we have accordingly a fine series of vignettes of those close to him, and often simply of individuals who cross his path, as if he were writing still...
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The displacement of Van Wyck Brooks from the center to the farthest margins of literary influence today is surely a stunning shift of taste. In 1920 Brooks was regarded as the undisputed heir of the great tradition in American thought—the radical, reformist, prophetic, "organic" tradition which adopted Emerson as its source of inspiration, took The American Scholar as its point of departure, and envisioned as its point of terminus a civilization in which the creative spirit, in all its social and imaginative forms, might flourish. To this old enterprise Brooks had brought intransigent zeal and incomparable flair—a genius for clarifying thought, said his comrade-at-arms on The Seven Arts, James...
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Makers and Finders is a romantic history shaped according to the familiar liberal analysis that divides American society between the progressive, democratic values best represented by Thomas Jefferson and the aristocratic reaction represented by Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. That interpretation has been influential during much of this century, and Brooks might have had it most directly from Vernon L. Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought (1927–1930), among any number of other sources. As the patriarchal symbolism suggests, the history is not concerned exclusively with literature, but rather with broad developments in all aspects of the nineteenth-century American culture that grew...
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