Chapter IV  Van Wyck Brooks

 

The career of Van Wyck Brooks seems to divide itself into three sharply distinct periods. First there was the young literary radical of 1915—mystical, fervently optimistic, detecting signs everywhere around him of some profound and perhaps imminent change in the American consciousness. Second there was the forlorn Brooks of the 1920’s who derived a grim satisfaction, even a masochistic pleasure, from convincing himself and his readers that there was simply nothing in the American situation to warrant a reflective man’s enthusiasm or hope. American civilization had crushed or blunted every creative and life-enhancing impulse, had left its artists in soul-destroying isolation or had corrupted them with its materialism. The despair of that conviction eventually overwhelmed him. In the late 1920’s, Brooks fell into a prolonged mental illness. In the early 1930’s he emerged from his illness, turned his back on contemporary literature, and slowly created his idyll, a place of calm and purposeful literary activity, of conviviality and serious scholarship, in that nineteenth-century American past which he had once found so unsatisfactory. From hope to despair to hard-won serenity—so the course of Brooks’ life seemed to run.

But of course these three seemingly distinct personae were the same man. If the despair of the second stage is not actually present in the first, there are many signs of its imminence, while in the third stage despair is simply held at bay. His first theme as a writer was failure-the spiritual failure of America in The Wine of the Puritans, the “spiritual tragedy” of John Addington Symonds, and the “malady of the ideal” that had afflicted the French writer Amiel, doomed by his “fatal mixture’’ of German and French blood. 1 Youthful books best forgotten, Brooks later said. 2 Yet failure persisted as a preoccupation long after his renunciation of it as a theme. Dismay at the course of American development in the twentieth century and a revulsion from what the place had physically and spiritually become—these the Brookses of the three stages had in common. They differed only in the strategies they devised or failed to devise to overcome or stalemate that despair.

“Who can say,” Brooks asked in America’s Coming-of-Age in 1915 “what would happen in America if some direct and positive outlet” were provided through which America’s enormous but so far misdirected capacity for idealism might express itself? Who could say what the result might be if “some one were to appear with a social ideal” that was at once relevant to the American situation and “genuine, central, honestly thought, honestly felt?” 3 This ideal would have to be truly “disinterested,” utterly resistant to the blandishments of corrupt commerce. It must strike deep, go to the heart of things, throw American life into relief, separate the weeds of civilization from the flowers.

In America’s Coming-of-Age, metaphors and images do not serve to clarify ideas, but to introduce more images and metaphors, and Brooks, staying within this figurative language to the end, successfully kept up an appearance of buoyant optimism and assured that the truth of the matter would never be revealed: he had no idea what the content of this regenerating idea might be or how it might be made to work upon such recalcitrant materials as he found in the United States. All he knew was that America desperately needed an idea, and even more, needed “one contagious personality” to illuminate the times with a moral vision. The individual capable of performing such a feat, he said, would “be a man out of ninety million.” 4 But what if the man in ninety million did not appear, and what if the outlet were never provided? The possibility was too bleak to be faced.

Brooks usually identified materialism as the cause of his disquiet. He came by his abhorrence of the business life at an early age. Born to an upper-class commercial family in Plainfield, New Jersey, Brooks lamented the fate of his father and his father’s friends, men whose capacities had been frustrated by the daily routine of Wall Street. “I feared and hated business,” he recalled in his autobiography, “and saw it as the Moloch that devoured whatever was best in the American mind.” 5

But it was not at bottom the drudgery of business, nor selfish individualism, nor the vulgarity of life under the regime of go-getting American capitalism that was the cause of Brooks’ disquiet. Rather, it was industrialism, the machine civilization itself. If Brooks in 1915 was vague about how the necessary American regeneration was to be promoted, it was because a regeneration such as he dreamed of could not be solidly portrayed, was really not conceivable, given the fact of machine production. One could hope in 1915 for the reform of American capitalism, and even for its abolition, but one could not hope for the abolition of the machine. Whether the future lay with capitalism or socialism, nothing was surer than the continuation of industrialism.

Brooks’ first book, The Wine of the Puritans, published in 1909, was written before his indictment of materialist America had been clearly formulated, and in that book Brooks was concerned not with the American chase for profit, but with the American mania for reducing everything to fact, the national penchant for seeing reality as process, quantifiable and determinative. The technical frame of mind, not commercialism, was the enemy of all that was poetic, idealistic, mysterious, ineffable—all that, if it were to live, must be saved from precision. The American, young Brooks observed, did not believe in “impulses and intuitions, because they interfere with the silent, regular, inexorable grinding of the machine.” The American disease was efficiency, “the well-oiled machinery by which one seeks a particular purpose,” and not efficiency for profit but efficiency for its own sake. There was “an immense amount of undisciplined, undirected, clashing wasted efficiency,” Brooks wrote, “an immense amount of derelict machinery, spinning and tearing at high pressure without the least intention of producing anything.” 6

Brooks also deplored American ingenuity, the national predilection for “putting together the machinery and inventing labour-saving machines for the sheer pleasure of the thing. We devise every possible short-cut toward the finished product because we feel that labour itself has no virtue.” If Americans were at all conscious that happiness was the outcome of individual work, of artisanship, then they simply assumed that “happiness must be sacrificed more and more to progress.” Such a ruthless assumption ignored “that indefinable difference between the machine-made and the hand-made, which represents the heart of the individual workman; of course it ignores the element of the unexplainable in hand-made work, that curious product of human ambition and pride called quality.” 7

The literary origins of such sentiments are clear enough. They are from John Ruskin and William Morris, and exist as axioms got at second hand, not as perceptions of life. That machine-made goods must invariably be inferior to hand-made goods is little more than a prejudice of connoisseurship. Nor could this recent Harvard graduate, writing his book in a rented cottage in Surrey, know from personal experience that true happiness consisted in “labour.” The Wine of the Puritans was, as the older Brooks wrote, an “unripe little book,” and might easily, and patronizingly, be pigeonholed as “Harvard aesthete, 1909”. 8 Yet the clichés it contains are humane as well as fashionable, tokens of ideas and attitudes that would later be deepened and filled out. Only twenty-two years old at the time, Brooks was already in possession of his richly aphoristic style, and of something closely related to such a style, the conviction that the aesthetic dimension of life is the most important and underlies all the rest. In this respect he was truly and quite naturally the heir of Ruskin, who held that “good taste is essentially a moral quality.” 9 Taste might be developed, but taste and morality, for both Ruskin and Brooks, were at their common source Instinctive and intuitive.

Brooks, this is to say, may be thought of most generously not as a critic of society but as a man of temperament who was affected by society in interesting ways. That is why even when his argument of the moment was confused, as his arguments often were, his metaphorical descriptions of American psychic states had for his readers an authority quite independent of the ideas they were meant to illustrate. For a time, the authenticity of the feeling, the beautiful rightness of the metaphor, gave to the confused program an equal though not so well deserved authority. It was as if Brooks, at the level of feeling, were a receptor for the vague currents of American life, as if the “jarring and clashing to no purpose whatever” of the machinery of America had set off a reactive vibration in his being which he lived with and felt and was able to describe. The major complaint of the young men whose conversation forms The Wine of the Puritans, a conversation taking place on a hill overlooking the Bay of Naples, is simply that “American history is so unlovable!” 10 That complaint, expressed nobly or petulantly, echoes through all of Brooks’ books of the 1910’s and 1920’s. It was the expression of a profound dismay at a culture which had committed itself completely to industrial progress. Even as he sat writing The Wine of the Puritans in the English countryside, Brooks heard in his inner ear the echoing throb of the American machine an ocean away.

Brooks’ private concerns, as William Wasserstrom has written, “expressed some general dilemmas,” and an understanding of just how deep Brooks’ own dilemma went can be gained from two now almost forgotten books published within a year of America’s Coming of Age. They are his biographical study of John Addington Symonds, published in 1914, but evidently written two years before, and his The World of H. G. Wells, published in 1915. Two more different types than Symonds the aesthete and Wells the brisk problem-solver would be hard to imagine. The division between them is complete—as complete, for that matter, as that between the two parts of the famous dichotomy Brooks established in America’s Coming-of-Age—high ideals and catchpenny realities.

Brooks was drawn not so much to Symonds’ writings, he said—the multi-volume history of the Italian Renaissance, the several travel books, the essays on Elizabethan drama—as he was to the Victorian Englishman’s personality, the unique fascination of his psychological “case,” the poignancy of his personal tragedy. The miscellaneous writings were no measure of the man. There was about Symonds’ mind a “lack of system” which prevented him from developing his genius to its fullest extent in his works. There was a pathetic paradox here, for that very lack of system which was Symonds’ defeat was at the same time “the essential condition of all illuminated thought”—Emerson had displayed it, and so had Carlyle. But Symonds’ greatest misfortune was to be born into an unsympathetic age. Systems did build empires, and Symonds, “who should have been in another world, was living among the kind of men who build empires.” In an age of ruthless pragmatism, Symonds was one of those beings who pursue “the Absolute with a hopeless passion.” 12 Here was the malady of the ideal revealed, a psychic imbalance: an excess of temperament wedded to a will lacking vitality. In an age which was all will, and had contempt for temperament, the malady must be fatal.

Before Brooks had formulated an American problem, then, he had uncovered and brooded over an English problem and a French problem—in fact, a modern problem. The study of Symonds was meant as a cautionary tale: 0 Reader of temperament, beware the seductive appeal of idealism! And yet this was constantly undercut by Brooks’ only too obvious identification with Symonds as well as with Amiel. When Brooks said of Amiel that “prolonged and chronic tension” raised his malady to “exquisite heights” and “made him immortal,” he could hardly have felt disapproval, even if he meant to express it. 13 The identification with Symonds took the form of an eerie prescience. Writing with what must have been mixed feelings of admiration, fascination and dread, Brooks described the course of Symonds’ life—the “exclusively intellectual period” which ended in a nervous breakdown and fears of madness; the slow process of recovery until at last “with growing assurance and power” he made

his peace with life. His discovery of the radiantly sane Whitman and the way in which the poet’s “invigorating earthiness” at last prevailed with him, enabling Symonds to enter confidently into his later, highly productive years. Symonds’ life, Brooks said, “was like a book broken in the back, which falls into two parts”—as concise a description of his own life as could be written. 14

In moving from Symonds to Wells, Brooks leaped over a host of dichotomies and antitheses. Most obviously, from disease to health; from the poetic to the prosaic, from temperament to intelligence, from enervating idealism to invigorating practicality, from inspiration to method—finally, from a man whom Brooks perceived to be an alien in his century to one who, to all appearances, presided over his. Symonds had no answers; Wells seemed to have them all. Finally, Brooks found Wells’ personality enormously attractive. In Wells the man, Brooks said, the “new world, governed by the intelligence, is already exuberant with instinct.” Wells beckoned toward a future which, if offered by some bureaucrat or practical engineer, Brooks would almost certainly have found distasteful. But Wells did it all with such admirable elan, such zestful goodwill. Quite aside from the details of Wells’ program, Brooks thought, he wished for a world “thrillingly alive.” 15

In Wells’ genial presence, Brooks temporarily overcame his conviction that sanity is possible only in a social order rooted in habit and tradition, that, as he had put it in The Wine of the Puritans, “We are civilized, as it seems to me, in proportion to the amount we are able to presuppose.” 16 Wells represented the contrary view, the hope that salvation might be achieved, as he wrote in A Modern Utopia, through “the complete emancipation of a community of men from tradition, from habits, from legal bonds, and that subtler servitude possessions entail.” 17

Brooks suppressed a league of doubts and embraced Wells’ socialism partly because it seemed to do away with the ugly necessity of class conflict. Set over against “capital socialism” and “labor socialism” there was what Brooks called the “constructive socialism” of Wells, a socialism founded on the belief that class antagonism would be eliminated through the protean agency of technology. With the arrival of that “strangest of saviours,” the machine, Wells said, toil was no longer essential to civilization. Brooks did not go all the way with Wells, but he did venture to hope that there was a “fighting chance” that “inasmuch as the world has already lost touch with experience and committed itself to a regime of ideas, by organizing this regime of ideas and by mechanizing so far as possible the material aspect of things, the values of life can be reengendered on a fresh basis.” 18

Finally, Wells’ program for the sweeping application of disinterested scientific intelligence to the problems of mankind seemed to Brooks to be particularly suited to the American situation. In America there was intelligence only—intel1igence “uprooted from the state of instinct,” mind “rationalized to the point of anarchy.” If America had irretrievably committed itself to intelligence, Brooks thought, then let it be Wells’ sort of intel1igence—generous, devoted to large human ends. Wells had said that the future state should be “planned as an electric traction system is planned, without reference to pre-existing apparatus, upon scientific lines.” That was at least a notion, Brooks mused, “remarkably of a piece with. the American imagination and one which the American imagination is perfectly capable of translating into fact.” 19

Brooks was far from embracing Wells’ vision out of a conviction that it was the best that might be imagined. it was simply that, given America’s commitment to more and more technology, there was “only one salvation” imaginable, that which Wells offered and exemplified: rationalism without anarchy, a rootless yet somehow instinctive guiding intelligence. From the point of view of “the artist and moralist,” however, modern American civilization remained “a cause of hopeless pessimism.” 20

Brooks’ Letters and Leadership, which appeared in 1918, is an altogether gloomier book than either the Wells study or America’s Coming-of-Age. His judgements of all things American are here monotonously exasperated and contemptuous. But he reveals himself to be still of two minds concerning the potential of industrial civilization. In his preface, Brooks seems to assign to industrialism a positive role. It has, he suggests, developed among nations a certain “community of experience,” and under the aegis of industry, nation after nation has cast off “whatever incubus of crabbed age, paralysis, tyranny, stupidity and sloth has lain most heavily upon the peoples’ life.” 21 Industrialism,

from this world perspective, must be counted a blessing.

But industrialism seemed no agent of liberation when one regarded its work in America. There Brooks found as before only a demonic and repressive energy. For two generations, he reminded his readers, “the most sensitive minds in Europe” had summed up their mistrust of the future in the word “Americanism,’ and this was because “altogether externalized ourselves, we have typified the universally externalizing influence of modern industrialism.” 22 The less than vigorous hope that industrialism would free minds was quickly extinguished by the solider expectation that it would only deliver them into the clutches of a sterile utilitarianism. The conclusion of Letters and Leadership was, like the preface, optimistic, but as certain passages in the body of the book indicated, Brooks was in 1918 taking ever deeper soundings of his own pessimism.

By 1920, when he began to write a weekly “Reviewer’s Notebook” column on the last page of Albert Jay Nock’s The Freeman, all hope for advancement through industry had been given up. In 1915 he had dared to hope that mechanized America might still be made humane. By 1920 it was evident to him that “the American process is a systematic process of decivilization.” 23 There was, it should be noted, no mention made in Brooks’ columns of specific causes or provocations for this pessimism—say the defeat of the great steel strike or the deportation of aliens. Brooks spoke of the contemporary American situation without mentioning events in the same way that he spoke of literature without mentioning books;

it was in both cases as if general conditions were so deplorable that it was more than he could bear to look at their specific manifestations.

By 1920 he had broken completely with Wells. Five years before he had endorsed Wells’ opinion that heroes no longer counted in a technological age, that the great experiment of civilization would go forward smoothly without them. This had been a measure of the soundness of Wells’ “socialist instinct;” it illustrated his abhorrence of overweening personages. In 1920, Brooks employed the same quotation from Wells to illustrate the spiritual poverty of Wells’ view of man and history. Wells’ rejection of heroes, Brooks now decided, was based, like Marxism, on “the logic of the economic interpretation of history,” which Brooks as a reconfirmed idealist decisively rejected. If the industrial civilization were an experiment, as Wells held, then by 1920 that experiment had ended in a thorough botch as far as Brooks could see. The situation was far too desperate to be entrusted to Wells’ league of faceless and selfless intellectual Samurai. The world required great and exemplary men. “We are obliged, in a word, to believe in heroes,” Brooks concluded, “whether they swagger or not.” 24 Brooks was not calling for men on horseback but for writers—or rather, for a writer, that man in ninety million, the protean poet, the redemptive force. None appeared.

Brooks’ writings of the early 1920’s have long been familiar. It was the period of “The Literary Life in America,” of The Ordeal of Mark Twain, of The Pilgrimage of Henry James. The literary soil of America after industrialism was as the soil of Carthage after the Romans had sown it with salt. If the writer stayed in America his fate would almost surely be one of surrender to commercialism and vulgar machine worship. If he exiled himself, he ran the risk of cutting himself off from whatever nourishment his native place might provide him. Either way, futility would be the result.

Despite this rigid bleakness of outlook, Brooks was not unaware in the early Twenties that some remarkable books were being written in America; in fact, he commended several of the new novels to his readers in the brief notes that appeared at the end of his Freeman columns. His remarks on the state of American letters took on an appearance of flagrant inconsistency. One week he could only bemoan what seemed to him the current fiasco of American literature; the next week he might see forming about him a “school already almost as vigorous and mature as that which our fathers knew before the Civil War”—the highest praise possible. 25 But while Americans had written some excellent novels which might from the aesthetic point of view be called successful, nothing was happening as a result in society. Literature was not for Brooks a preserve unto itself, but a medium for the communication of social ideals, and the final test of any literature was its effectiveness as an agent of social and spiritual transformation. Crudely put, literature was uplift or it meant next to nothing, and since Brooks was now convinced that Americans had become “undoubtedly the maddest race the sun has ever seen,” only one conclusion was possible concerning American literature. 26 In their absolute futility, American writers reminded him of a “swarm of waterbugs on the surface of a pond.” They would continue to swarm, he thought, “until by some miracle, a commanding writer, a true-blue Olympian., emerges from the existing ooze.” 27 What Brooks really required was not so much a titan of letters as a Messiah to lead America out of its spiritual wilderness. “What draws me to this Valley of Jehoshaphat,” he wrote in one essay, “is a belief that the bones will have to be reassembled before we can expect to ascend into heaven. We are reaping the whirlwind of the industrial system.” 28

In the meantime, young writers who were denied living masters must “apprentice themselves to books.” The idea of humble literary apprenticeship, of learning from the greats of the past, was ramified to take in both the idea of an essentially devotional approach to reading and a guild-like solidarity with the working class. It was true, Brooks said in one essay 29

 

that the ancient traditions of honourable craftsmanship have been almost lost among the workers. In that respect again the workers and the artists are in the same boat! Those traditions, the preindustrial heritage of humanity, were the expression of man astride his instincts, and the whole effort of the social revolution is to reinstate those instincts again. One might say that the social function of the artist, fortunate as he is in his relative independence of the industrial process, in his residue of ‘free will,’ is to reinfuse the workers with the sense of the craft, of the ‘joy in work’ of which Morris spoke.

 

But what was the industrial worker to do with this sense of craft? Since it was not relevant to his work, was he simply to admire the writer for his possession of it? Brooks attempted at the end of the same essay to reformulate the matter, to cast it in revolutionary terms, and in doing so he revealed again the essentially religious and escapist direction of his thought. The deepest function of literature, he said, was to “assist in bringing to birth that Utopia to which the cause of the proletariat is committed by long tradition, by the voice of the prophets, and by the instinct of workmanship itself.” Everything—the instinct and the self-interest of writer and worker alike—was moving toward that Utopian goal of which the poet alone apprehended the full glory. “Matter itself is flowing his way, human matter that asks for nothing but to be transmuted into spirit.”

Brooks was ostensibly looking toward the Russian revolutionary example. The American writer, he said, must “subject himself to Petrograd,” as in Emerson’s day the American scholar had subjected himself to Germany. But while Brooks may have thought he saw developing in the Soviet Union an alliance of workers and writers such as he called for in the United States, the revolution he yearned for, he surely must have known, bore no resemblance at all to the Bolshevik Revolution. A proletarian tradition that aimed toward the transmutation of matter into spirit? But the Soviet Union was devoting itself to constructing the very social machinery, and plain machinery, the excess of which Brooks deplored in the United States.

Brooks’ utopia lay elsewhere. He had by 1920 washed his hands of industrialism, and hence of the American future, but was unable to face the consequences of this renunciation. What could those strange sentences mean, however, but the inauguration of that craft utopia of which Ruskin had dreamed and Morris had described in News From Nowhere where there would be no divisions between artists and workers? Not for another twenty years would Brooks allude to it again, but then in The Opinions of Oliver Allston he described its aims: “to abolish poverty, to take men out of the cities where they fester, to restore country life on a social basis, to replace the parasitical occupations with skilled handicraft and real production.” 30 But all of this was, in 1920, far in the future. At that time he found it impossible to relinquish hope that somehow that better society might be brought into being soon, and in his urgency even began to discern omens that the tide of spirit was indeed overwhelming matter. The first step must be, as he said, an alliance of the craftsmen of the brain and hand. Looking about him, he thought on one occasion that “the most striking fact” in contemporary culture was “the all but universal alliance of the younger artists and writers with the wage workers.” Capitalism had pushed the creative life to the wall, and “intellectual proletarianism” had been the result. 31

What younger artists and writers could Brooks have had in mind here? There is no way of knowing. He named none and it is difficult to think of any young writer of the time to whom the description would apply. The one protest novelist of any appeal was Upton Sinclair, whom Brooks dismissed, perhaps justifiably if with excessive indignation, as a scribbler of useless potboilers. 32 As for the American working class, it was Brooks’ repeated complaint in these months and years that far from displaying a sense of class solidarity it was “actuated by the same buncombe as the American middle-class: it hates capitalism because it wishes itself to be capitalistic.” 33 As the workers of America were making down-payments on their Fords and electric ranges, the

younger writers were taking to the French Line pier as Harold Stearns had urged them to do, and as many must have concluded that Brooks thought they should do also if they had read The Ordeal of Mark Twain. Brooks himself, for whom the expatriation of the writer from his homeland would soon be the first and most telling evidence of cowardice, was tempted to think in 1920 that the literary regeneration of America might be achieved from abroad. Writers, he said once, “have to move about and see the world; their growth depends on it,” and if few American writers had done so, if most had “languished in their provincial corners,” it was due to a “notion of gentility that is foreign to the true literary life; a notion of patriotism that is also foreign to it.” 34

Brooks was conflict-ridden: Writers must go abroad; they must remain at home. Workers and writers must form an alliance; the working class was hopeless. Utopia was attainable; it was farther away than ever before. Thus Brooks lurched from dogmatism to dogmatism in the early Twenties and saw bad faith and betrayal on all sides. Occasionally he would express some wild hope for regeneration, but in his realistic moments, when he thought of the books that were being written, books that he read but never discussed, his despair was total. “How inert, on the whole, our literature is;” he said once, “how utterly it fails to leaven our civilization!” 35

As such statements reveal, Brooks was already well into that terrible depression that would completely overwhelm him a few years later. Even as he worked on his study of Henry James—like the Symonds, like the Amiel, like the Twain, another study in failure—his friends were moved to express their concern. Paul Rosenfeld portrayed Brooks sitting behind drawn shades in a small house, “a prim, pretty, but strangely introverted dwelling, turned in on itself away from the street.!” The man within sat silent and refused to respond to the knock of Life on the door—or more distressing still, perhaps he no longer heard it. 36 A pitiable image, and one describing perfectly Brooks’ complete estrangement from the literary life around him. In one respect, however, the image is not quite right. Brooks was not silent in his house, and not yet sunk in lassitude. As his Freeman columns indicate, outrage was the condition of his despair, not torpor. One senses behind those scathing and contradictory denunciations a choked fury and almost unbearable disgust, a condition suggesting—If one looks for parallels—not the gentle Symonds on the verge of collapse, but John Ruskin in an eloquent rage.

Brooks’ thought was discontinuous and contradictory, as he himself was the first to admit. “Allston,” he wrote of his fictional alter-ego, “was not skilful in expository writing....his mind leaped from point to point, he could not develop an argument or a train of thought.” 37 Brooks could admit this so readily because it was not, so far as he was concerned, in the least damaging. He preferred the upper Emersonian realms; what counted was the eloquence and moral force contained in the bold assertion, the incandescence of the single, illuminating phrase. In this there was wisdom as well as arrogance, for Brooks was at his best an artist, a painter of marvelously evocative word-pictures. In this respect, too, he resembled Ruskin, the greater artist. It was Ruskin’s beautiful and accursed ability simply to see, to describe the squalor of the nineteenth century English industrial landscape as no one else was quite able to do which, perhaps as much as his intense moral seriousness, made him the great social critic that he was. 38 Brooks’ ability to describe the experience of a landscape was also beautifully developed. By far the most memorable section of Letters and Leadership is the one with which the book opens, in which Brooks presents to us a series of haunting images of America—picture post-card views of the neglected America of the fringes. He requires of us that we see the country as clearly as he sees it, and he begins with pictures because only when we have undergone a visual experience comparable to his own will we comprehend the nature of his concern and the necessity behind his argument.

Brooks, in these passages, anticipates the Twenties in quite another way than he is usually thought to have done. Much more directly than his vague 1915 prophecies pointed to a renaissance of letters, these pages of word-pictures anticipated that alienated and somber view of the American scene that is to be found in the paintings of Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield. The first scene Brooks presents to us is of a “lonely, sunny, windy plaza” in a warehouse district of Manhattan, to the right and left of which stretches one of those “interminable sunswept avenues that flank the city ... wide, silent, and forsaken, perpetually vibrating in the blue haze ... bordered on one side by rickety wharves,” on the other by tenements. This passage, in its evocation of a blue, vibrating silence, suggests almost any Hopper cityscape of the period, but perhaps most perfectly his “Manhattan Bridge Loop.” 39

Similarly, when Brooks goes on to say that this empty scene reminds him of a pioneer town of the prairie whose streets, alive at the center, extend outward “till at last, all but obliterated in alkali dust, they lose themselves in the sand and silence,” he might be describing one of Burchfield’s paintings of the dreary edges of Kansas towns, of empty one-pump gas stations and deserted pool parlors, and, stretching out behind them, the sun-baked prairie. 40

Every American town and city, Brooks wrote in Letters and Leadership, shared “an alternating aspect of life and death;” each possessed a center where “life is tense and everything spins and whirls,” and outer areas where “round about lie heaps of ashes, burned-out frames, seared enclosures, abandoned machinery, and all the tokens of a prodigal and long-spent energy.” In Brooks’ prose as in Hopper’s and Burchfield’s paintings, the focus is on the peripheral industrial wastes, the American aspect of death, where everything is old, “old without mellowness,” as Brooks said, “old without pathos, just shabby and bloodless and worn out.” 41

These few passages of description at the outset of Letters and Leadership are as fine as anything Brooks ever wrote. Certainly they are superior to the lush and charming evocations of place that one encounters everywhere in the later Makers and Finders series. (Pound quoted them in Patria Mia.) Brooks at his best was a writer of dark vision, related not to the optimists of American literature, as he later persuaded himself he was, but to the nay-sayers. 42 Brooks came to loathe his pessimism as one would a disease. It had led to despondency and finally to a mental breakdown. On no account, after his recovery, could he permit such feelings to dominate him again. Nor would he ever again see America with that almost hallucinatory clarity. Everything must be bathed in a soft light. It was for these reasons that Brooks, who saw nothing of promise in industrial America, turned with such malice in The Opinions of Oliver Allston on all those writers whose stoic or despairing attitudes reminded him of his former state. Brooks, who in the early 1920’s wrote of “the desert soil, the drought, the killing winds” of America, came to despise the author of The Wasteland so much that he could only refer to him as “our well-known expatriate poet.” This damning of contemporaries was a form of exorcism. In consigning them to the outer darkness, in stigmatizing writer after writer as being “devoid. of spirituality,” full of “the death drive,” representing the “suicide of the human spirit,” Brooks was putting himself through a compulsive and repeated ritual of self-purgation. By 1940, Brooks was calling for a literature of affirmation when he himself had long since ceased to find anything worth affirming in modern life (“Every day I grow more and more to think of city-people as cheese-mites, as mere infusoria,” he wrote in Allston) He called for a literature in which the “primary realities” and “moral verities” should alike be celebrated, when these, for all he could see, had simply ceased to exist except in a few scattered fugitive locales—the rural parts of Maine, for example. 43

He wanted, finally, an organic literature, a literature that would close the estranging distances of American life, a literature that would drain the national experience of pain, contradiction, discontinuity, and conflict. He found precedent for it in the nineteenth century. An attentive reader of the Makers and Finders series will be struck by Brooks’ dependency on organic, especially floral, metaphors in suggesting ambience, beginning with the title of the first volume, The Flowering of New England. Literary Cambridge, he says, “ripened... as a well-tended garden ripens in June. All in a mist of birds and honeysuckle, the literary mind had put forth shoots. Thoughts were growing under the quiet boughs of the ancient elm-trees, in the fragrant shadows of the locusts....” In describing Longfellow composing poetry, Brooks brings seasonal metaphors together in a startling way to speak of “reveries of the New England springtime” drifting through the poet’s mind “as the yellow leaves drift from the trees in autumn and silently fall to the ground.” He tells us that Lowell, maturing as an artist, “felt the thrill of the earth under hid feet as he absorbed the sunshine like a melon.” 44 Poets ripen like melons; thoughts grow like vegetables; lines of verse drift languidly through the minds of their creators. And it all happens in a mist of birds and honeysuckle. At its best and truest, literary creation is a painless, even mindless, process, an easeful blooming in sun-drenched stillness.

The Makers and Finders series was a sort of greenhouse in the wasteland. The bleak winds of modernism could not penetrate; temperature and moisture were kept constant; and Brooks, a horticulturalist among literary historians, went serenely from plant to plant with his watering can and shears, sprinkling and trimming, until at last his vegetable creations grew to such a height that they shut out completely the sight of the sullen grey skies beyond the glass.

 

NOTES

 

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