Van Wyck Brooks’s fifty-five years as a literary critic, historian, and biographer was not only one of the most productive and influential periods in American letters but also one that inspired more controversy than that of any other critic. From 1915 until 1925, Brooks was in the forefront of critics decrying the cultural sterility in the United States. Later in his career, Brooks attacked contemporary writers for their reliance on morbidity and negativism for their works.
Brooks was born into comfortable although not wealthy circumstances; his father was a stockbroker. Brooks’s closest boyhood friend was Maxwell Perkins, who later became an editor with Charles Scribner’s Sons and worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. The friendship between Brooks and Perkins endured throughout their lives.
Brooks’s life changed when at the age of twelve his parents took him along on a trip to Europe. He was greatly affected by the older cultures of Europe and by such writers as John Ruskin. During this trip, Brooks decided to become a writer. He was able to complete his college education at Harvard University in three years (1904-1907). While there, he associated with a group of students interested in literature and the arts, a group that included Perkins and John Hall Wheelock. He was also an editor of the Harvard Advocate and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Among his professors was Irving Babbitt, who, though unable to win Brooks’s personal affection, was the one to introduce him to the writings of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, one of the significant influences upon Brooks.
After leaving Harvard, Brooks spent nearly two years in England, where he barely subsisted on the meager pay from various jobs as a journalist but enjoyed the keen intellectual stimulation derived from his activities and associations. During this period, Brooks became a socialist, and he published his first book, The Wine of the Puritans, which contains the germ cells of ideas that he developed in later books.
From 1909 to 1911, Brooks worked in New York City as contributor or editorial assistant to the Standard Dictionary, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and World’s Work. He was invited to teach at Stanford University, but during his brief career there, from 1911 to 1913, he decided that his talents were better employed outside the classroom. In California, he married Eleanor Kenyon, and the first of his two sons was born there.
After another trip to England, 1913-1914, Brooks returned to America to engage in the writing, editing, and translating that were his major activities for the remainder of his life. Aside from the prominence quickly accruing to him from his books, his editorship of The Seven Arts (1917-1918), the Freeman (1920-1924), and the American Caravan series enlarged his role in American letters before and during the 1920’s.
Brooks’s career as a literary critic divides into two distinct phases. The earlier phase resulted in such works as America’s Coming-of-Age and The Ordeal of Mark Twain and was characterized by Brooks’s strong criticism of the repressive conditions of American life for writers and thinkers. The later phase, whose chief product was the five-volume Makers and Finders series (beginning with The Flowering of New England ), was mainly given over to Brooks’s affirmative re-creation of earlier ages of American literary culture. He turned from attack to reminiscence for two reasons. A...
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