The Flowering of New England
MR. VAN WYCK BROOKS’S latest volume, the subject of which he declares to be ‘the New England mind, as it has found expression in the lives and works of writers,’ is intended as ‘an episode in a larger cycle,’ possibly a literary history of America. It is the account of a definitely limited literary period in New England from youthful exuberance, when the air was filled with a sense of expectation, to fulfillment and eventually to self-consciousness and decay — a progress on a smaller scale like that of the Elizabethan Age from Marlowe up to Shakespeare and down to Webster and Shirley. Mr. Brooks’s drama stretches from 1815 to 1865, culminating in 1857 with the founding of the Atlantic Monthly, which represented in its first contributors ‘the high tide of the Boston mind.’
Instead of isolating and analyzing the more conspicuous Olympians one by one, Mr. Brooks begins with the background of Beacon Hill and Harvard College, continues with chapters on the scholars, George Ticknor and Edward Everett, ‘The Younger Generation in 1840,’ ‘The Boston Historians,’ ‘Cambridge in the Fifties,’ and ‘The Romantic Exiles,’ grouping them according to location or aims, and permits Longfellow, Emerson, Holmes, and the others, including Daniel Webster and Edward Channing, to reveal themselves here and there in the narrative. Disdaining any elaborate apparatus of quotation marks and footnotes, Mr. Brooks builds each author’s own words into a philosophy without indicating his sources — a device which makes for informality but may exasperate a reader with a passion for checking references.
The result is what his earlier work has taught us to count on from Mr. Brooks—no dull chronicle or arid array of titles and dates, but an enlivening performance, clearly conceived and skillfully carried out, w ith w itty characterizations and vivid word pictures. Master of his ample material, Mr. Brooks has exercised wise discrimination and selection. One of the Nation’s smart young men has belittled the hook, apparently because it is not a communistic treatise. An eminent New York critic, alumnus of a Connecticut university, has complained, not without justice, that Mr. Brooks has devoted too little attention to Yale. But these alleged blemishes will not permanently lessen the appeal of what is indubitably a model of intelligent, mature, and impartial criticism.
Mr. Brooks is at his best in his descriptions of minor figures: Nathaniel Bow ditch, the ‘little, nimble man with burning eyes’ who prepared The Practical Navigator; Elizabeth Peabody, ‘the salt of BostonJared Sparks, the ‘American Plutarch’; Christopher Cranch, ‘a kind of accomplished hydra’; the ‘scarred old prophet,’ Father Taylor; Ellery Channing, ‘erratic as the sky in early spring’; Ik Marvel, ‘the bachelor who thought of nothing but marriage’; Washington Allston, spending twenty futile years painting ‘Belshazzar’s Feast,’ the nightmare of his life; and Daniel P. Thompson, author of The Green Mountain Boys, the sloven who flickered into flame w ith one spark of genius. Under the domination of such natural leaders as Tieknor and Emerson and Holmes this panorama of picturesque personalities moves along from page to page.
All true Bostonians will enjoy a glance backward to the days when their city was teeming with advanced ideas, full of vociferous energy and assurance, tolerant of individualism, and certain that its citizens were dwelling for the moment in the best place and days of the republic—when it was actually an American Athens or Florence or Weimar or Edinburgh, a genuine ‘culture-city,’ looking forward hopefully to a brave new world of which the Bulfinch State House should be the capitol and symbol. Not all these dreams were realized. But when Boston’s literary prestige had declined, when it had become fragile, cautious, and doubtful, when what was once so vital had become provincial, New England still triumphed, for little Concord had the memories of Haw thorne, Thoreau, and Emerson, who, as Mr. Brooks points out, ‘were clearly of the main stream.’ Fittingly enough, the book closes with Emerson, walking the glens and groves of Concord, the noblest and most influential example of the New England spirit.
Mr. Brooks’s book, which deserves more extended comment than it can be given here, will take its position among the noteworthy volumes of American criticism, and its importance will increase as reflective readers ponder its appraisals. Not everybody will agree with his obiter dicta. 1 myself feel that he is a trifle unjust to Lowell, whom he damns as ‘a sort of shadow poet,’ and a shade too generous to Longfellow. But the portrait of the Autocrat, so witty and urbane, is admirable, and his comment on Whittier is discerning as well as kindly. At any rate Mr. Brooks is entitled to his own opinions; and it will be difficult in the future for anyone to speak more sagaciously and authoritatively regarding the epoch which he has covered.
CLAUDE M, FUESS