Monday, May 23, 2016

“America’s Coming of Age” by Van Wyck Brooks

By the time he was 29, literary historian Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) had published five books: a collection of poems written while he and John Hall Wheelock were at Harvard called Verses by Two Undergraduates (1905); The Wine of the Puritans: A Study of Present-Day America (1908); The Malady of the Ideal: Senancour, Maurice de Guerin, and Amiel (1913); John Addington Symonds: A Biography Study (1914); and The World H.G. Wells (1915).

Later in 1915, Brooks published a slender but rather provocative volume called America’s Coming of Age. In five related essays, Brooks argued that culture “… should bear a critical relationship to social reality,” notes his biographer, James Hoopes. “Culture should express the ideal and exhort society to realize it.” That’s how Brooks believed culture functioned in Europe. In America, however, that had not happened.

Rather than a centralizing influence, culture (including literature) occupied two distinct positions in American society, Brooks said – high-brow and low-brow. He traced the two positions back to the 18th century, finding high-brow culture originating in the writings of the theologians like Jonathan Edwards and low-brow culture coming from the writings of Benjamin Franklin. Two cultures had not met in the middle, and each continued to occupy specific positions.

How this operated at the level of American literature, Brooks said, was that high-brow culture was a kind of meaningless idealism, while low-brow culture was a kind of meaningless realism. The two were divided, and prospects didn’t seem good for a union any time soon.

These two cultures could easily be seen in popular writing (Brooks cites Edgar Allen Poe as rather “vulgar”) and contrasting with serious writers like writing like Nathaniel Hawthorne. In Brooks’ view, Walt Whitman came close to unifying the two, but Whitman seemed more an exception than the rule.

Culture, of course, has consequences, and Brooks saw the division of American culture as having consequences. Business, for example, he associated with low-brow culture, and academic writers with high-brow. And the two were separated by what looked like an unbridgeable gulf.

Van Wyck Brooks in 1909, painted by John Butler Yeats
The result, Brooks said in America’s Coming of Age, was unsettling, with American culture like some pre-Darwinian state. “America is like a vast Sargasso Sea – a prodigious welter of unconscious life, swept by ground-swells of half-conscious emotion,” he wrote. “All manner of living things are drifting into it, phosphorescent, gayly colored, gathered into knots and clotted masses, gelatinous, unformed, flimsy, tangled, rising and falling, floating and merging…everywhere an unchecked, uncharted, unorganized vitality like that of the first chaos.”

It’s fascinating to read this discussion of pre-World War I America a century later during a raucous, unsettling, and rather wild election campaign. It would be rather too easy to define the various presidential candidates as either high-brow or low-brow. And it would be too easy to understand American culture broadly as our celebrity-dominated and often crude entertainment society and the rather sterile and to most Americans meaningless activity that passes for a lot of academic culture.

Too easy, yes, but there are elements of truth in what Brooks identified a century ago that we experience daily in 2016.


Top photograph: 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

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