Monday, March 21, 2016

Van Wyck Brooks and “The Flowering of New England 1815-1865”

I was curious, so I went and looked.

Our local high school publishes its academic guide online, and I wanted to see if it listed what books were required or optional reading in the English classes. I discovered it lists required readings and teacher optional readings, and does so for regular courses, honors courses, and advanced placement courses. Each course description is “NCAA approved.”

The listings weren’t as bad as I had feared. But they also weren’t as good as I might have hoped. There was also an error. One reading in 12th Grade Advanced Placement English was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by H.G.Wells. If Wells’ name is on the book, then Robert Louis Stevenson should sue.

English teachers shouldn’t make that kind of mistake.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
The readings are heavy on social issues and contemporary angst. You find virtually everything written by Albert Camus, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and works by Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Nora Zeale Hurston, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglas, and Walter Dean Myers’ Monster. You find Fast Food Nation. And (of course) you find Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, without which no high school can function. (I like the book, and have always liked the book, but it fits a narrative in education circles, and that’s why it’s there, as required reading for freshmen. Harper Lee nearly destroyed her reputation with teachers when Go Set a Watchman was published and Atticus Finch turned out to be a racist.) Malcolm Gladwell, he of The Tipping Point, is also noted as a teacher’s option (no one’s apparently learned that the basic thesis of The Tipping Point has been disproved; but I digress).

Someone in the English department likes the ancient Greeks – Medea, Oedipus the King, The Odyssey, Antigone and other works are all over the curriculum. And several Shakespeare plays are listed, usually as required reading.

While students can select books (likely approved by the teacher) for study in their junior and senior years, there do appear to be some holes. Ralph Waldo Emerson is mentioned, but there’s no reference to Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, or any other author associated with what we think of as “our national literature.” Reading Huckleberry Finn in junior year English used to be a rite of passage. Now we get Fast Food Nation. In English class. I’m sure there’s a good justification for it. Times have changed.

To read a book like The Flowering of New England (1815-1865) by Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963), seems almost like stepping into a dusty, musty museum that no one visits any more. The writers, the sense of a nation and its writers that Brooks wrote about with passion and likely love, have been pushed to the side for the bright new things of causes and fads.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
This book, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, tells the story of a remarkable time in the literary history of New England and the United States. From what looked to be rather unpromising soil, the literary arts and a literary culture seemed to erupt in a profusion of talent and achievement.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Francis Parkman. William Cullen Bryant. William Prescott. Henry David Thoreau. Bronson Alcott. Louisa May Alcott. Edward Everett, the most orator in America who’s best remembered today as the man who gave the long speech at Gettysburg. Oliver Wendell Holmes. And so many more.

Ostensibly a work of literary history, The Flowering of New England reads more like a novel. It sets the atmosphere; it tells little side stories; it puts these writers in their environment, their specific location, and their context. The chapter introducing Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, first brings the reader into Salem, Massachusetts, a Salem whose glory is in its past, and then into the completely strange home where Hawthorne grew up and lived as a young man. By the time the chapter ends, we know how he came to write The House of Seven Gables and The Scarlett Letter – and neither novel is even mentioned in the chapter.

Henry David Thoreau
Brooks is clearly in love with his subject. It shows on every page. He vividly brings these authors and their friends to life.

The edition I read – the first reprint edition published in 1946, 10 years after the book was first published – has a preface, in which Brooks explains that he does indeed have documentation. He explains why and how he wrote the work the way he did, and his words are slightly defensive, as if (and perhaps because) he was already experiencing criticism. And he was, and it would grow worse. In 1944, Brooks was on the cover of Time Magazine. Imagine any literary critic or historian on the cover of Time Magazine today.

Brooks on the cover of Time
In turning our backs on the idea of a national literature, we’ve lost something not likely to be regained for a long time to come. That loss is the literary sense of ourselves, which parallels the loss of the political and social senses of ourselves.

So instead of learning what Huck Finn and Jim the runaway slave have to teach us, we settle for Fast Food Nation, Malcolm Gladwell, and the social cause de jure.

Top photograph: Acorn Street in Beacon Hill in Boston. The houses date to the 1820s.


nitewrit said...


You know I have sometimes sat here, looked about at my personal library, and wondered about what they are pushing as literature in schools today. From what I have seen when the bookstores (which are fast disappearing here about) put up the school's required reading tables I have noticed they are top-heavy with social and faddish causes rather than the Literature I knew. I agree with you, I think we need a sampling of the American works that showed us this nations character through fiction.


Glynn said...

Larry -- unfortunately, you appear to be right. I think there's been a drive for "relevance" which emphasizes the transient over the important. Some of these kids will never have the opportunity to study these writers with an impassioned teacher. I was blessed with four English teachers in high school who loved what they taught. One introduced me to Dickens, one to Shakespeare, one to Twain, and one to Cervantes, along with everything else.

Rdw said...

Thank you. I’ve always enjoyed The Flowering of New England for the warmth and richness of Brooks’ writing.