Monday, April 11, 2016

Van Wyck Brooks’ “The Times of Melville and Whitman”

Van Wyck Brooks published three related works of literary history over the span of about a decade (while he was publishing other works as well). The World of Washington Irving depicted U.S. literary culture, and some history, in the first 20 years or so of the 19th century. The Flowering of New England 1815-1865 showed the seeds that were being planted for a national literary culture, although it was still largely a regional phenomenon.  New England Indian Summer 1865-1915 concerned the lingering influence of New England on national literary culture, but a major shift was underway.

We are more than familiar with the writers and poets who emerged from New England during the 19th century described in these books, because they became part of the American literary canon. Irving. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Emily Dickinson. Henry David Thoreau. Henry and William James. And many more.

But the geographical center of the country was shifting, and the literary cultural center was shifting at the same time. As the United States expanded westward, its writers and poets followed.

Mark Twain
his is the world described by Brooks in The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947). It is the world of pre-Civil War San Francisco, which drew writers like Bret Harte and Mark Twain. This is the world of Herman Melville, whose Typee: A Peek at Polynesian Life captivated readers across the country and well beyond to Europe, years before he wrote Moby Dick. This is the world of Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass transformed American poetry forever.

Twain, Melville, Whitman: America’s writer, the Great American Novel, America’s poet. Between them, they created what became known as an American literature.

Herman Melville
Brooks particularly highlights the role of Twain. “Mark Twain, with his fathomless naivety prepared the ground, as Whitman did, for a new and unique American art of letters,” he writes, “in a negative way with The Innocents Abroad, in a positive way with the Western writings in which he contributed to establish and foster this art.” Those “Western writings” included Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn.

But the new national culture still had its New England influence. Melville was influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne (and also by Shakespeare, especially in Moby Dick, Brooks says). And Whitman’s poetry, as heavily influenced by his political work, his newspaper work, and the growth of trade and industry as it was, was also influenced and promoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Walt Whitman
Literary culture broke out of the essential regionalism of New England and simultaneously become more geographically western and national.  

Brooks wrote a time when there was still a sense of national consciousness among the political, literary, cultural, and business elites. Six decades later, that sense is largely gone. In academia, the idea of a literary canon is considered quaint and rather prehistoric, and would likely result in protests by students and professors alike.

But to read a work like The Times of Melville and Whitman from today’s vantage point is to see how much has been lost. And we are the poorer for it.


Top illustration: The great comic scene of the buffalo climbing the tree in Twain’s Roughing It.

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