Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective – Part 1


I have decided to separate this topic, Edmund Wilson and Van Wyck Brooks, into two parts, and I will begin with Van Wyck Brooks (1886 – 1963).

Who is Van Wyck Brooks? Besides being a literary critic, I would say he was a well-read man. I say this because at one point in his life he scoffed at writers such as Lawrence of Arabia who bragged about the number of books he had read. Mr. Lawrence had reported to have personally read over 40,000 books at Oxford, and Thomas Wolfe allegedly claimed to have “devoured” 20,000 books. Mr. Brooks, to demonstrate the impossibility of such claims, used his own reading habits as an example.

  For the last twenty years I have been obliged to read on an average
  of six or seven hours a day. I have certainly read far more than these
  others have had time for, in the short periods referred to and how many
  books have I read in these twenty years? Something less than 6,000, I
  think, less than a book a day (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 11).

Of course, Mr. Brooks was probably a more careful reader, considering that many of those books were being read for reviewing purposes or historical research for his own writing projects.

He was born in 1886 and started his writing career in 1908. His early publications dealt with the American writers of the colonial period. I think most of us grew up with and learned about this period from the visual media and the historical dramatizations of it. That is, what we did not learn in fourth grade or ninth grade history, we supplemented by watching television, particularly such Disney programs as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Limited in its facts and heavy in adventure, its format was much easier to digest than pages from the Britannica. Now, films portraying this period are much more accurate and still maintain their ability to entertain.

The actual facts of this time period were sourced from the personal experiences and anecdotal stories recorded in letters, diaries, and personal memoirs. Parson Weems is one such individual who Mr. Brooks introduces us to in The World of Washington Irving. Parson Weems kept notes on the people he met and the stories he heard. He was a bookseller who traveled the rural countryside hawking books.

  With his ruddy visage and the locks that flowed over his clerical coat, one
  saw him bumping along in his Jersey wagon, a portable bookcase behind and
  a fiddle beside him. A little ink-horn hung from one of his lapels, and he
  carried a quill pen stuck in his hat; and he stopped now and then at a pond
  or a stream to wash his shirt . . . suspending his linen to dry on the frame
  of the wagon (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 1).

Wow, what a wonderfully drawn picture. Parson Weems needed ink and quill for his memoir that he later hawked with the other books. He is also attributed to having recorded the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

  Nothing in the way of an anecdote ever escaped him. He had preached at
  the Pohick church, hard by Mount Vernon, and once he had even visited
  the father of his country; and he may have picked up in the neighbourhood
  the story of the cherry-tree that soon became so famous when he published
  his book (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 1).

And it is from these source documents that Mr. Brooks uses to retell the intellectual story of the early colonists. The book that interested me the most was his The World of Washington Irving. Although it has sections about Washington Irving, it is more about America in the times when Irving lived, about the book clubs and what the colonist read: “Everyone read Tristram Shandy, and the sensibility of its author was a topic discussed in New York and all over the country” (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 31).

He does more than give us book titles, he amazes us on how well read they actually were. Whether wearing tri-corner hats or a coonskin cap, from the east coast in the 1800’s to settlers of the west in the 1840’s, the list of books and their availability is quite astounding. Mr. Brooks discusses Jefferson’s library, the library in Lexington, Kentucky (a city known as “the Athens of the West”) as well as William Byrd’s, who had “the largest library in the country, with the exception perhaps of Cotton Mather’s” (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 71), and he also noted the various language many of these books were printed in.

  This was true even in the recently settled state of Georgia. An
  observant traveller in the 1800 found books in thirteen languages there,
  including Chaldaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Coptic and Malabar (Brooks,
  The World of Washington Irving 71).

I would like to continue on and on about how exciting this time period was in the creation and adoption of American literature, how the local people fastidiously recorded recollections and histories while at the same time reading the great English novels of Pope, Addison, Defoe, Swift, and discussing them in community book clubs, but this would bypass my initial interest in the writings of Mr. Brooks. And that would be his style, his use of simple prose to tell a story or to describe an event. This description of rural Virginia is an example:

  The taverns were like ale-houses in the remoter parts of Russia, where
  travellers slept three in a bed and six in a room, with bare bleak dirty
  walls and a few old broken chairs and benches, desolate, noisy, cold
  and alive with vermin. One recognized these taverns by the hogs at the
  door and the sign of an earthen jug suspended from a pole, and a corner
  of the public-room was railed off for a bar, with a rum-keg and a row of
  dingy tumblers (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 66).

Although Edmund Wilson, who will be the topic of the next discussion, had not been too kind toward Mr. Brooks and repeated the charge that “he is not really a literary critic because he is not interested in literature as an art and lies indeed under serious suspicion of not being able to tell chalk from cheese (Wilson 13). He does have some kind words to say about The World of Washington Irving, that it “revived the intellectual ferment of the period just after the Revolution” and Mr. Wilson goes on to say, referencing this book and the previous one of Mr. Brooks, that they seem “to have a freedom of movement and an exhilaration of spirit, as well as a brilliance of writing” (Wilson 423).

Mr. Brooks was also a critic, and in his later years seemed to aim his criticism at other critics whom he often found himself at odds with. Even though he wrote about critics and criticism in general terms, at times he seemed to be defending his own books from critical attacks by others.

Mr. Brooks also wrote, From A Writer’s Notebook, which is a compilation of his notes and thoughts about readers, writers, critics, and literary life. This book consists of short paragraphical sections presented almost as aphorisms and also longer sections extending several pages. For example:

  It is difficult to understand living writers because they are involved in our
  own problems, which we cannot solve ourselves (Brooks, From A Writer’s
  Notebook
12).

  A writer is important not by the amount of territory he enters or claims, but
  by the amount he colonizes (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 16).

  There are writers who, as writers, ought to die, and the only way to contribute
  to this end is not to mention them (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 16).

In spite of being critical of some writers, Mr. Brooks did believe that an author’s background had little to do with creating good literature. This seems particularly topical in today’s e-book publishing world where fresh and interesting novels are derived from authors who have diverse educational backgrounds. Mr. Brooks argued against the concept that “great writing requires for its production a scholar’s training.”

  Something is wrong with this conception the common reader feels at once,
  and all the more when he considers how little education certain great
  writers have had even in our time, when education is virtually within reach
  of all, or how little Yeats had, or Kipling, Shaw, Lawrence, or George Moore,
  or Melville whose “Harvard and Yale,” as he said, was a whaleship (Brooks, The
  Writer
16).

And he raises the possibility of the critic’s hypocrisy when they do offer praise to such authors:

  When their work was well constructed, it was because they were craftsmen
  and not for reasons connected with university living, and when it was ill
  constructed it showed how far a writer can be a great writer without being a
  craftsman at all. That their work has often been ill constructed, like Dickens’s
  work or Dostoievsky’s, follows from the fact, –or what Melville took to be a
  fact,–that “all genius,” as he put it, “is full of trash.” Was not Melville partly
  right, at least, in this? (Brooks, The Writer 16).

Mr. Brooks continued with his own opinion:

  But when one speaks of the common reader and what he feels and likes, one
  takes issue with all the new critics at the very outset, though one has the
  sanction of Dr. Johnson who said that by the “common sense of readers . . . all
  claim to poetical honours . . . must be finally decided” (Brooks, The Writer 16-17).

He does have something to say about crime writers in the early 50’s, and particularly how the books are marketed:

  The present vogue of crime stories suggests the vast popular appetite for any-
  thing that assumes or proves the viciousness of man, and one might almost say
  now that popular success and critical success hinge equally on a low view of the
  human condition. To advertise a novel now, whether for popular or critical
  readers, one has only to call it “tough, sensational, brutal,” –I am quoting from
  the first book-supplement that is close at hand (Brooks, The Writer 161).

Why?

  This is created for him [the writer] by the climate of his time, its prevailing
  spiritual currents and modes of feelings; and in our time the unconscious minds
  of writers prompt them to see mainly the negative aspects of life (Brooks, The
  Writer
162).

Although most of the authors that he references have long since gone, the debate that he entered is not. He defended Frost, who was accused of being a “popular” writer, when he said:

  “. . . with Faulkner selling like bags of peanuts and in view of the enormous
  sales of Scott Fitzgerald, Wolfe and so many others, how can we feel that the
  question of numbers means more or less in our time than it meant fifty or a hundred
  years ago? As often as not, the best books have been the most popular books, and
  is that not really all one can say on the subject?” (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook
  121).

But he does say more: “Generally speaking, popular books have two traits in common, a subject of central human interest and a certain vitality in the presentation, and these traits may be found equally in good books and bad” (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 122).

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
— . The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
— . The Writer in America. New York, Dutton, 1953.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York:
  Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1950.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf