Van Wyck Brooks BERNARD DeVOTO - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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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