VAN WYCK BROOKS invokes the technique of the novelist. Three principal characters, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain, move in and out of his chapters; then a troop of secondary figures, writers, soldiers, statesmen, explorers, naturalists; and finally a horde of lesser contemporaries, the masons and carpenters of nineteenth-century America.
This is not the first time Mr. Brooks has employed such a technique. In The World of Washington Irving the narrative was organized around Irving, Cooper, and Poe, and in New England: Indian Summer his protagonists were Howells and Henry James; but in this present volume the narrative is more densely orchestrated. Forty years ago it was a cliché to complain that Brahms’s orchestration was “muddy,” which meant merely that orchestras and conductors had not learned to clarify its inner voices. Reviewers have complained that Mr. Brooks’s pages are sometimes “cluttered,” by which is meant merely that they are jam-packed with solid meat, all very succinctly written, and that they exact close attention. The reader is expected to visualize. These pages supply him with the scenes, personalities, events, ideas, historic movements, and all in highly concrete language of a force and immediacy; but he must read slowly in order to take it in and work it over. In short, the author is an artist and pays us the compliment of expecting imaginative collaboration.
This period from about 1840 to 1880 is the torso of the nineteenth century in the United States. The intercalary chapters on the South, the Middle West, the Far West, the Plains and Mountains, and Farm and Country, which alternate with those dealing with protagonists and action, vivify places and periods with the intimate feel of their daily life in the habit of our past century as it was lived. Out of that cradle endlessly rocking, Whitman emerges as the giant that he was, Melville as the heroic youth cut off creatively in mid-career though living on in the flesh, and Mark Twain as a house somewhat divided against himself through dwelling either from choice or necessity in a House of Rimmon partly of his own making. There emerges also a young colossus of a nation, half out of agrarian political democracy and half into a struggle with its own plutocracy which has by no means abated yet. Mr. Brooks’s final chapter of the 1880’s is grimly contemporaneous.