Emerson and Others

by Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. 1927. 12mo. viii+248 pp. $3.00.
GREAT writers whose names lend themselves to adjectival deformation suffer an incalculable shrinkage in the process, so that ‘Shakespearean.’ ‘Miltonic,’and ’Carlylesque’ come to signify far less than the roomy names of Shakespeare. Milton, and Carlyle would seem on any count to deserve. It is perhaps as good a way as am to define what Air. Brooks does in his ‘six episodes’ from Emerson’s life to say that he does nothing with the Emerson of the adjective, and everything with Emerson the noun — I had almost said, and could defend the bull. Emerson the verb. At all events, it is not the half-Germanic, half-Bostonian sage of the word ‘Emersonian’ who emerges from these artful essays, but a far more complex, far more humanly imperfect, far less Olympian Emerson who has never got into the textbooks, and is only surprised at moments in the best of the standard biogrpahies.
Mr. Brooks has been so frequently taxed with writing merely tendentious biography — and indeed his books on Mark Twain and Henry James had so clearly a generalized purpose — that. it. is worth pointing out how richly representational, how unargumentative, how careful of all dimensions is his portrait of the man Emerson, If any ‘thesis’ takes shape in these pages it is only the kind of thesis that the facts themselves enforce, and i think it would he unjust to Mr. Brooks’s intention to give it explicit statement. What he has done with a skill so consummate as quite to suppress its own traces — has been, by drawing largely upon Emerson’s own self-revelations in his journals and essays, to reconstruct a picture of his inuer life, both as that was stirred and troubled byhis relations with men and women and as it renewed itself from within by the force of his own expansive temperament.
So we see Emerson, as no other treatment could show him to us. warming himself a little timorously in the hot radiance of Margaret Fuller’s personality, pouring his own benignance upon such responsive companions as Henry Thoreau and Alcott and Ellery Channing, sallying forth against the pressure of half his being to face the discomforts of railway travel and hotel life on his unavoidable lecture tours, or — most deeply characteristic of all — lying at full length under the trees by Walden Fond in an ecstasy of mystic relaxation, oblivious at last of the Many, wholly surrendered to the One. If the ‘new biography ’ were always handled with so much delicacy and insight, it would amply vindicate its existence.
Along with his chapters on Emerson Mr. Brooks has fortunately reprinted a half-dozen other papers on American letters, papers on such men as Herman Alelville, Ambrose Bierce, Randolph Bourne, and Mr. Upton Sinclair, and his essay, originally published in civilization in the United States, on ‘The Literary Life in America.’ These essays are so pregnant from the point of view of criticism, so near to the centre of a closely contemporary movement, and they are even now bearing so many of their first; fruits, that they can hardly be disposed of in a sentence or two. One thing, however, can surely be said here about them, or rather about all Mr. Brooks’s writings, and that is that they have done what is perhaps the cardinal critical work of our generation: they have brought all the episodes of our literary history, and dozens of its most representative men, into the focus of a widely cultivated and imaginative mind, giving them a coherence, a relevance, a meaning, which for most of us they would otherwise lack. In the light of this achievement, the weight of his authority among reflective people is not a matter for wonder.