Monday, May 2, 2016

“An Autobiography” by Van Wyck Brooks

It doesn’t seem like a traditional autobiography at all, this An Autobiography by Van Wyck Brooks (1886 – 1963), this literary historian who had so much to do with the shaping of our understanding of American literature from the 1920s to the 1970s. It is more a memoir, a memoir packed with recognizable names from American literature and culture, people whom Brooks knew extremely well or at least well.

Walter Lippmann. Sinclair Lewis. John Steinbeck. Carl Sandburg. Padraic Colum. F. Scott Fitzgerald., Ernest Hemingway. Maxwell Perkins. Robert Frost. Amy Lowell. Ezra Pound. Theodore Dreiser. Sherwood Anderson. E.E. Cummings. William Carlos Williams. Marianne Moore. Lewis Mumford. T.S. Eliot. And many, many more.

Brooks includes some of his own biographical information, but not as much as might be expected. And for a good reason: his life was the literature he read, studies, and wrote so voluminously about.

When Brooks was at Harvard in the early 1900s, he says there was a sense that America had a past literature generation, a past national literature, but that it was much better than the generation he was living in. That sense of loss, however, would, within a few years, give way to the flowering of an American literature that was not foreseen, a literature that would include the poetry of Frost and Eliot and the fiction of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, and more.

After college graduation, Brooks worked at Doubleday – thanks to connections of Maxwell Perkins, and then goes to California, where he serves as the secretary to the president of Stanford. He is married there, and he and his wife soon travel to London, where he meets Walter Lippmann and first hears of his plans for a new magazine called The New Republic.

He returns to the United States at the outbreak of World War I, and what is already forming in his mind is a series pf works that would become the many books he wrote about writers in America.

Van Wyck Brooks
He moves to Westport, Connecticut, in 1920, and he stayed there for 20 years. His circle of friends and neighbors included Sherwood Anderson, Fitzgerald and Frost. He becomes the literary editor of a magazine called The Freeman, a forerunner of the libertarian magazine of the the same name, and worked there with Dos Passos. Nearby was another literary magazine, The Dial, that published the poetry of Cummings Moore, and Williams. Brooks would edit and published articles by such authors as Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck.

He also edited Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, and defended Sandburg against on number of critical attacks that dogged the writer and poet for much of his life. Sandburg, Brooks said, was “one of those yea-sayers and lovers of life who were suspected and disliked by the smaller, more intense spirits of the coming generation.” Those same spirits would eventually target Brooks as well.

Two parts of the autobiography were published during Brooks’ lifetime; the third was edited by his lifelong friend John Hall Wheelock after Brooks’ death and published as a complete work in 1965. Wheelock wrote the foreword; editor Malcolm Cowley wrote the introduction.

Brooks is largely forgotten today; his style of writing and his themes are largely ignored by most critics and literary historians today (which is not necessarily an insult to Brooks). But he was one of the key people who shaped a national literary consciousness in the 20th century, and his autobiography helps to explain how that happened.


Top iIllustration: Portrait of Van Wyck Brooks by Frances O’Brien, University of Arizona Museum of Art.

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