Monday, May 30, 2016

“Van Wyck Brooks” by James Hoopes

There is only one biography of literary historian Van Wyck Brooks. It was published in 1977, some 14 years after Brooks’ death, when author James Hoopes was with the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Today he is a professor of Ethics in Business at Babson College in Massachusetts.

I suppose this is, and was, a measure of the regard for Brooks and his writings in the 50 years since his death. For a literary historian who won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and was one of the most influential critics of his day, it seems rather odd that he is generally forgotten and disregarded today.

Reasons exist, for this, of course. Brooks talked about the feminization of American literature, which by the late 1960s and early 1970s didn’t exactly earn laudatory responses in academia or the literary set. By “feminization” Brooks didn’t mean that women writers were coming to dominate literature. What he did mean, however, that writers were losing what little strength and direction they had, was then and is now politically incorrect enough to cause offense.

As biographer Hoopes points out several times in Van Wyck Brooks: In Search of American Culture, Brooks was seeking a national American literature, a national American culture, something between literary/academic writing and low-brow popular entertainment. And he wasn’t finding it. Without it, without a strong center, ultimately the culture couldn’t hold, he believed.

Considering the general state of culture, academia, and politics today, perhaps he had a point.

Van Wyck Brooks
Hoopes spent a considerable amount of time researching Brooks, including living for three months in Brooks’ last home and having access and support (but not control) by Brooks’ second wife, Gladys. He’s written a considered, balanced account of Brooks’ life and especially his literary works. Hoopes disagrees with much of what Brooks believed and write, and he notes his differences. But he’s still conscious of what Brooks contributed to American literary history and the influence he had on numerous writers and critics.

Perhaps because this book was published in the 1970s, there is a psychological flavor to it. For a time, well into the 1990s and not entirely gone today, psychological biographies were popular among academics, and my own first experience with this genre of biography was Frederick Karl’s William Faulkner: American Writer, published in 1989. What a psychological biography can do is require a writer to make assessments, and projections, that might possibly be on the mark but may also be overblown, especially if the writer doesn’t have a background in psychology. In the case of Van Wyck Brooks, Hoopes seems to generally have avoided that problem.

James Hoopes today

Where Hoopes excels here is his discussions of Brooks’ books – the context, how they were published, and what happened afterward. He also notes the controversies Brooks could engender – historian Bernard De Voto, for example, seems to have had a permanent case of vented spleen when it came to Brooks, and possibly because of Brooks’ criticism of Mark Twain, whom De Voto devoted a large chunk of his career to writing about. Nothing is as ugly as a literary spat.

Photograph: A group of writers, movie stars, and artists meet with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Van Wyck Brooks is standing at far left.

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