Monday, June 6, 2016

“The Writer in America” by Van Wyck Brooks

I started this series on the writer and literary historian Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) more than three months ago. This post is the conclusion, and perhaps it’s fitting that it ends with his defense of his work, The Writer in America, published in 1953.

In a series of seven related essays, Brooks takes on the critics – essentially, the “literary form” crowd who believed that literary history was only about form (they’re still with us today); why he wrote his “Movers and Shakers” series of literary histories; the tendency to over-psychologize writers and their works; the question of a “national literature;” and the stewardship of a writer’s talent.

What he writes, it seems to mem is not unreasonable. But it stirred up a hornet’s nest with the form critics who held academic sway and the time and still generally do.

Here’s Brooks in his own words:

On critics’ obsession with literary form: “One feels criticism itself has followed the path of scholasticism and has traveled too far from its source in literature.” (This would only get worse in the 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of postmodernism’s “deconstruction” and the obsession with form as a lever of power.)

On poets in academia, Brooks quotes Dylan Thomas: “Why do so many American poets teach? They graduate from college, and then they stay in college. When do they learn anything?” (One could say the same of today’s political class in the United States, the people who have spent their entire working careers in government.)

On psychologizing writers and their works: “In our hour of insecurity, the critical spirit tends to admit only the writers of the past who throw some light on our personal problems, differing widely in this way from the spirit that prevailed when the young grew up in a world that seemed secure.” (And so today we likewise junk whole sections of the literary canon, or even the notion of a canon, and write learned treatises on minor and obscure writers because they seem to fit the temper of our times better than “dead white European males.”)

Brooks spends time on discussing the literary culture’s fixation with always finding new (and younger) writers but doing nothing to helped older writers mature and become better. This was a major difference between American and European literary culture, he believed. What he may not have understood was that this fixation with youth (he called it a “cult”) would get far worse, and would extend beyond literary concerns to American culture in general.

Van Wyck Brooks
This helping writers mature idea is generally what Brooks called “the stewardship of a writer’s talent.” He saw this as largely ignored by literary critics “in their recent preoccupation with the grammatical and rhetorical minutiae of literary texts.” And then he says this, which struck not only at the literary culture of his own time but our contemporary culture as well:

“How many writers’ conferences, how many summer schools, how many classes, how many books and magazines dwell each year, with fanatical concentration, on the ‘form’ of writing, never diverting a moment’s thought from the question, How to write well, to the question, How to live well to be a writer?”

His words were noted but not heeded. We’re still obsessed with form. Publishers are still obsessed with the cult of youth and the next new thing. We still obsess with our personal problems, paying attention only to those writers who give us insight into them. Our poets still (largely) teach. And we still neglect the stewardship of writing talent.

As Brooks pointed out repeatedly, as long as we continue to do these things, our literary culture remains immature, a teenager expected his opinions to count for everything and demanding that every expectation be met.


Top photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Sherry said...

How to live well to be a writer? It's a quandary to me. It really doesn't look as if, when you read biographies of great writers, that it is necessary to live well (what I would call well) in order to be a good writer. Victor Hugo, Poe, Twain, Dickens, to name a few of my favorites, did they "live well"? The Romantic poets certainly didn't all live very well, didn't "love mercy, do justice, or walk humbly with God." And yet they produced enduring poetry.

Yet, I suppose they all had to have lived well enough to have something true to say, and then they had to work at writing those truths in a way that communicated truth and beauty to readers. It would be a good topic for discussion among reading friends.