Van Wyck Brooks Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.)