Monday, April 25, 2016

Van Wyck Brooks and American Literature

For several weeks now, I’ve been posting about the writings of literary historian Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963). My wife saw me reading his autobiography yesterday (published in 1965), and asked what I was reading and writing so much about him. It’s a good question.

Van Wyck Brooks
Brooks was roughly of my grandparents’ generation, so there’s some interest I have in seeing what literary events and developments affected their lives. He was close in age to poet T.S. Eliot, a favorite poet, and in fact they spent some of the same years at Harvard. (This is how Brooks summarized his Harvard years: “When one added…the royalism and the classicism, the Anglo-Catholicism, the cults of Donne and Dante, the Sanskrit, the Elizabethan dramatists and the French Symbolist poets, one arrived at T.S. Eliot, the quintessence of Harvard.”)

Then there was the ease of availability of his works. Over the years, I’ve collected a number of old books, and I had quite a few of his works found at used book stores, book sales, and estate sales. He wrote a lot about literature and authors, and I have an abiding interest in both. I was waiting for the right time to read them, and the time arrived.

Maxwell Perkins
Brooks had a theory about American literature that he developed throughout his works. And that was that most of writers considered great authors essentially did their best work in the in their early lives, and tended to “flame out” in middle age. He had two reasons for this – one psychological, developed from the work of Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung, and one literary.

The literary reason was the most important – the “great” American authors tended not to produce great work once they reached middle age because of a lack of of a national literary tradition. In other words, there was no ongoing “literary culture” that kept feeding authors. American literature had tended to developed in bursts, with little if any continuity.

Malcolm Cowley
So for a time Washington Irving dominated the landscape, and then came a burst in New England (followed by an echo), and then a national literature burst on the scene with Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. That was followed by an extended pause – the period when Brooks and Eliot were growing up and at Harvard – until there was another burst,
With the realists and the modernists, with the poetry of Ezra Pound, Eliot, Robert Frost, and others, and the novelists like Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, and more.

When Brooks first started writing his works, and particularly with The Ordeal of Mark Twain in 1920, he was considered something of a young Turk, with a lot of young admirers (and older critics, who objected to the idea of suggesting that Mark Twain did not achieve what he might have). That lasted for 10 or 15 years, when the so-called “new critics” began to tear at the idea of a national literature or that prophets and patriots might actually write poetry. And yes, many of these critics had lodged themselves in universities.

John Hall Wheelock
Brooks did not sit idly by. He defended himself and his ideas, both in his autobiography and his general works. And good friends (who happened to be of like mind) defended him as well – writers and editors and Malcolm Cowley (who helped rescue William Faulkner from almost total obscurity) and Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor at Scribner’s who published Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and many of the great modernists of American literature. Brooks and Perkins had literally grown up together in New Jersey and attended Harvard at the same time; a fellow Harvard classmate, poet John Hall Wheelock, also defended Brooks and helped Cowley edit the final installment of Brooks’ autobiography.

For all the reasons to study Brooks and his works, most personally for me is the realization that he had much to do with shaping American literature as taught by my teachers in high school and professors in college. His understanding was broad and deep; he admitted that he read seven to eight hours a day, and he wrote some 31 literary studies and biographies that were hugely influential.

He’s mostly ignored today. His ideas and works are not acceptable in academic circles, which are focused on far more esoteric and microscopic understandings of literature. Brooks pursued big ideas and big theories. His topics were large, and he could speak with authority to all of them.

We could probably use a Van Wyck Brooks today, but he would not be popular.


Top photograph: The Brooks home in Westport, Connecticut, from 1921 to 1941.

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