Monday, May 16, 2016

“The Confident Years: 1885-1915” by Van Wyck Brooks

My junior year in high school included a course in American literature, paired with the required course of American history. My teacher was a rather flamboyant character, who talked in exclamation points and believed that Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls was one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century.

Well, no. I was 16 at the time, and even I knew better.

But she was a good teacher, and she loved the subject she taught. And what I remember most was the readings and the course projects we had to do. My poetry project was on Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, and it remains a favorite to this day.

Willa Cather in 1912
My fiction project was a two-parter. The entire class had to write about the Realists as a group – Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Jack London, and others. And then we had a separate paper on one specific author – an assignment which required we read at least three of the author’s works. I chose Willa Cather, and read Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers, My Antonia, and Shadows on the Rock.

It was delightful but not quite a surprise (I expected it and would have been surprised otherwise) to find Willa Cather in The Confident Years: 1885-1915 by literary historian Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963). Published in 1952, it was the last of a series of five books in his “Finders and Makers: The History of the Writer in America.” The first four were The World of Washington Irving; The Flowering of New England; The Times of Melville and Whitman; and New England Indian Summer (see below for my posts on each of them). The Flowering of New England won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1936.

While his general theme can be seen in all of his works, it is in this last volume in his series (although not the last book he wrote; he was quite prolific) where it becomes explicit. And it was this: that the years from 1885 to 1915 were the last in which there was an English / colonial / pioneer / American cultural substructure. It was changing, but there was still enough cultural consensus that people knew what was meant by a phrase like “American literature.” The United States would still have a literature, and we might call it American, but the consensus was gone.

A number of prominent critics disagreed with him, and Brooks grew increasingly unpopular in literary criticism circles from the late 1940s on. Fifty years after his death, one can argue that he was more on target than his critics after all. There is no longer an American literature, at least as it would have been understood a century ago.

Brooks tells a great story. We read about Stephen Crane (1871-1900), who published Maggie, A Girl of the Streets in 1893 to almost no notice, and two years later published The Red Badge of Courage, which was a sensation and made Crane famous overnight. According to Brooks, Crane was the bridge between Mark Twain and the writers who followed, and the bridge between Emily Dickinson and the poets who followed.

Stephen Crane in 1896
The Confident Years also emphasizes the importance of William Dean Howells (1837-1920), novelist and editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Howells promoted or heavily influenced such writers and poets as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Thorstein Veblen, Frank Norris, Robert Frost, and Hamlin Garland, and convinced Twain to write for The Atlantic.

Brooks covers scores of other writers as well, including Kate Chopin, Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, T.S. Eliot, and Booth Tarkington. He describes Tarkington as “the prince of popular novelists (who) was never taken seriously, -- in critical circles, he salt below the salt, -- in spite of a brilliant satirical gift that rivalled Sinclair Lewis’s and a feeling like Scott Fitzgerald’s for the glamour of youth.”

William Dean Howells
The Confident Years acknowledges that underscoring the very idea of American literature was a faith in human goodness. “It was precisely in this faith,” Brooks writes, “that America came into existence, affirming the capacity of men to govern themselves, and the main body of American tradition, as literature expressed it, exhibited this faith to the beginning of the first world war.”

That faith in human goodness, as admirable and inspiring as we might find it, couldn’t survive two world wars, the Holocaust, and a host of other atrocities that accompanied the 20th century and continue into the 21st.

Painting: New York, oil on canvas by George Bellows (1911); National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


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