Van Wyck Brooks Three Essays On America

Puritan society in America was about as cohesive as it gets. A milestone of literary criticism, Van Wyck Brooks's "America's Coming-of-Age" (1915) is somewhat disjointed when read today.

America's pioneer spirit pushed people toward the utilitarian, which stood in opposition to the artistic and free-wheeling.

Brooks found writers such as Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, and Jack London crass - not merely in their subject matter, but in their pursuit of popularity. Henry James was brilliant, but he decamped to Europe, which for Brooks was a much more nourishing environment.

"They were like high-minded weathercocks on a windless day." The young Brooks's writing is sometimes surprisingly lucid, for 1915.

He has some great zingers: "Emerson's method of simply announcing as axiomatic what is in his mind is justified only by the possession of a faculty which he does not always possess, the faculty of hitting the nail inevitably on the head." At other times you need some type of decoder: "Beside the English business man, as one figures him at those Guildhall banquets which array themselves like a Chinese wall of beef against every impulse in life that moves and breathes...." (A Chinese wall of beef?

At some points, Brooks advocates for his middle-ground fusion of the abstract and concrete; at others, he favors either the abstract or the concrete.

Ironically he criticizes Transcendentalists for focusing too much on the concrete.

It is a principle that shines impartially on the just and on the unjust that once you have a point of view all history will back you up. It is a principle that shines impartially on the just and on the unjust that once you have a point of view all history will back you up.

Aside from the question of talent, there is not, excepting Walt Whitman, one American writer who comes home to a modern American with that deep, moving, shaking impact of personality for which American literature was hurting, the young critic Van Wyck Brooks wrote in the three essays gathered here (published in 1915, 1918, and 1927).

Unlike America, which only had one or two, Europe had multiple great writers (grands écrivains).

Brooks coined the terms "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in his 1915 essay America's Coming-of-Age.

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