Van Wyck Brooks

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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 course of his discussion he says: "We were a simple, homogeneous folk before the Civil War and the practical effect of pioneering and the business régime was to keep us so, to prevent any of that differentiation, that evolution of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous which, since Herbert Spencer stated it, has been generally conceived as the true note of human progress." Nothing can be done with such thinking. It represents not a superficial knowledge of America before the War but no knowledge whatever. A theory that is capable of calling the America of 1700–1860 homogeneous racially, intellectually, emotionally, philosophically, economically, or aesthetically, is powerless to describe America. (p. 226)

Mr. Brooks nowhere called his treatise "a genuine Freudian analysis of Mark Twain's unconscious motives." But Mr. Harold Stearns promptly did, and there...

(This entire section contains 1182 words.)

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can be no doubt that Mr. Brooks undertook exactly that objective. He may, in fact, to some extent, be horribly charged with the fashion of lay analysis that raged across American biography in the ensuing six or eight years. He pointed the way to a fatally easy method of reinterpreting history, and though his effort was carried on at a level of integrity and intellectual brilliance that few if any of his successors attained, something of their frequent absurdity must be ascribed to his pioneering enterprise.

The validity of psycho-analysis as a fact-finding instrument in biography and criticism remains debatable…. One who undertakes to psycho-analyze literature must be a competent psycho-analyst. Mr. Brooks is not. He displays no greater acquaintance with the materials and methods of his science than was common to the literary during the decade when he wrote—that is to say, the acquaintance with analytical theories to be acquired from the reading of half a dozen books. He had the amateur's freedom of procedure. An analyst who attempts the exploration of a neurosis must spend months in regular study of a living man. The pattern which he eventually perceives is subject to constant reference, for correction, to the actual patient, who can never be disregarded. Furthermore, his method enforces on him the inclusion of all data and forbids him to bridge discrepancies by the use of theory. Finally, he is usually unwilling to explain a neurosis by the use of contradictory principles.

It must constantly be remembered that Mr. Brooks's patient is a dead man. The material of psycho-analysis is not the dead man's mind but his books and letters, together with the more dubious data of Mr. Paine's book about him. Over this material Mr. Brooks exercises an arbitrary and even capricious selection. His effort is not the determination of a pattern but the proof of a theory. He selects what data will support that theory and if he does not suppress those that contradict it, at least they do not find their way into his pages. Judgments that a psycho-analyst would make only after months of probing a living mind leap to Mr. Brooks's pen when he reads a single line of type—frequently not even Mark Twain's. He exhibits the amateur's reverence for the principle of ambivalence. (pp. 227-29)

We observe the momentum of a thesis which derives from religious sentiments about the reformation of American life. Evangelical enthusiasm subordinates the data of investigation to the necessities of the thesis. It persuades Mr. Brooks that accuracy is not essential to criticism. His inaccuracy is of no moment when, for instance, he habitually refers to the Nevada silver mines as gold fields, but becomes somewhat more serious when he offers as proof of Mark Twain's spiritual squalor passages from "The Gilded Age" which a footnote of Mr. Paine's informed him were written by Charles Dudley Warner. Yet this habit of informality provides most of the data that are employed to support the assumptions of theory after they are made. A kind of misrepresentation on behalf of theory—the product of enthusiasm or carelessness—is so common throughout the book that it cannot be more than illustrated here. (pp. 233-34)

Bernard DeVoto, "The Critics of Mark Twain," in his Mark Twain's America (copyright 1932 by Bernard DeVoto; copyright renewed © 1960 by Mrs. Bernard DeVoto; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company), Little, Brown, 1932 (and reprinted in his Mark Twain's America and Mark Twain at Work, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967, pp. 217-39).∗


William Lyon Phelps


Edmund Wilson