Van Wyck Brooks, “The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865” (1936) and “Indian Summer, 1865-1915” (1940) – Van Wyck Brooks used to be a big deal. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a major critic, an influence on the emerging field of American Studies. The early American Studies scholars had a few goals in mind: combatting both right- and left- (but mostly left-) wing radicalism in American culture, proving America’s cultural weightiness as opposed to European stereotypes of cultureless Americans, and creating a sort of high-middlebrow American monoculture to incorporate immigrants, the working classes, and new generations into safely.
I don’t know how much Brooks actually participated in American Studies, which was a pretty well-organized (and CIA-backed) enterprise from the beginning; Brooks seems to have been an “independent scholar,” i.e. a rich guy who could do research, write, and get published by respectable outlets without institutional help. But the monoculture thing is definitely part of Brooks’ project in these two books. Between them, “The Flowering of New England” and “Indian Summer” cover a century of literary history in New England, the years between 1815 and 1915. They follow a sort of sine-wave pattern- rise, fallow period, lesser reconstitution, of New England influence over American culture, particularly but not solely writing.
But he doesn’t make straightforward arguments about why New England “flowered” or went fallow as it did, he doesn’t try to empirically measure New England’s literary influence, even qualitatively, and he only barely lays out a thesis to the books at all, and not in an introduction, where you figure it would go. He writes very flowingly and impressionistically, dedicating chapters to writers or artists and their circles in rough chronological order, stopping in at certain hot spots (Cambridge, Concord) from time to time. In the first book, “The Flowering of New England,” he puts a lot of emphasis on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, and it bleeds into his writing, both structurally and stylistically, not for the better. I never cared for either one, seeing them as individualistic phoney philosophers, jumped-up graduation speakers, and Brooks did not change my mind.
As it turns out, Brooks was borrowing heavily from German historian/pseudo-philosopher Oswald Spengler. He rejects Spengler’s racism (though his books aren’t free of patronizing attitudes to black people and Native Americans, and his literary New England is blindingly white), but uses something like his theory of how cultural spaces develop in history. “Culture cities” like Florence or Bruges in the Renaissance, Spengler argued, came from a concatenation of sources: a certain degree of wealth and power (not too much!), connection with “the soil,” meaning with a specific place, and a kind of spark of genius provided by rubbing those together with a broadly educated public, and hey presto! You’ve got yourself a “culture city.” Insofar as the model makes any sense and isn’t idealistic gobbledegook, it applies perfectly well to Boston/Cambridge/Concord in the nineteenth century, which did indeed have all of those things going for it (though I tend to think the real genius was Herman Melville, who get short shrift from Brooks, possibly because he bailed to New York when the opportunity came). Decline came in the post-Civil War era, when people (well, rich New Englanders, but that’s “people” as far as Brooks is concerned) gained interest in making money and marriages and lost interest in causes and greatness. This produced a sort of subsidiary bounce of genius as figures like the James brothers and Henry Adams portrayed and criticized this society, but in the end, we are left looking wistfully back at the genius of New England now eaten by the maw of modernity.
I read this book as part of a project on the intellectual history of New England, how it constituted (and constitutes) itself by the light of ideas. Brooks’ project here was part of a bid to make the literary history of New England part of a broader monoculture for America as a whole, a civilizing project for the unwashed masses, the kind of thing some of Brooks’ characters would take up. Obviously, I am not part of this project, nor am I especially sympathetic to it, though I do think people could benefit from looking at literature once thought “canonical,” both on its own merits and for historical purposes.
I guess what I got out of this was more archaeological than anything. The ruins of a lost civilization, or rather, two: the New England of the American Renaissance (scholars prefer the broader term, incorporating non-New England figures, than the “Flowering” metaphor Brooks used), and the mid-twentieth century literary Americanism project. It’s like you need to decode the latter before you can get at the former in Brooks’ work. This is basically pointless to the modern reader because others (Louis Menand, David Reynolds, probably loads more) cover much the same ground but don’t expect you to know or care who these triple-named Yankees are before they explain why. In Brooks, it’s assumed you know most of them and care. I try to imagine even scholarly friends of mine reading these books and I get the idea of a comical morass, like the begets of the Bible or the sludgier portions of the Silmarillion, though Brooks does have some nice turns of phrase. You can see the accomplishment here — I don’t know if I got this across, but the books are really exhaustive, as far as white upper-class New England literature goes — but I don’t think Van Wyck Brooks is going to make his way back from obscurity any time too soon. ***