Authors: Van Wyck Brooks

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American literary critic, historian, and biographer

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Wine of the Puritans, 1908

The Malady of the Ideal: Obermann, Maurice de Guérin, and Amiel, 1913

John Addington Symonds: A Biographical Study, 1914

The World of H. G. Wells, 1915

America’s Coming-of-Age, 1915 (also known as Three Essays on America, 1934)

Letters and Leadership, 1918

The Ordeal of Mark Twain, 1920, revised 1933

The Pilgrimage of Henry James, 1925

Emerson and Others, 1927

The Life of Emerson, 1932

Sketches in Criticism, 1932

Makers and Finders: A History of the Writer in America, 1800-1915, 1936-1952 (5 volumes; includes The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865, New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915, The World of Washington Irving, The Times of Melville and Whitman, and The Confident Years: 1885-1915)

On Literature Today, 1941

The Opinions of Oliver Allston, 1941

A Chilmark Miscellany, 1948

The Writer in America, 1953

Scenes and Portraits: Memories of Childhood and Youth, 1954

John Sloan: A Painter’s Life, 1955

Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait, 1956

Days of the Phoenix: The Nineteen-Twenties I Remember, 1957

From a Writer’s Notebook, 1958

The Dream of Arcadia: American Writers and Artists in Italy, 1760-1915, 1958

Howells: His Life and World, 1959

From the Shadow of the Mountain: My Post-Meridian Year, 1961

Fenollosa and His Circle: With Other Essays in Biography, 1962

Van Wyck Brooks, The Early Years: A Selection from His Works, 1908-1925, 1968, rev. ed. 1993

Biography

Van Wyck Brooks’s fifty-five years as a literary critic, historian, and biographer was not only one of the most productive and influential periods in American letters but also one that inspired more controversy than that of any other critic. From 1915 until 1925, Brooks was in the forefront of critics decrying the cultural sterility in the United States. Later in his career, Brooks attacked contemporary writers for their reliance on morbidity and negativism for their works.{$I[AN]9810000693}{$I[A]Brooks, Van Wyck}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Brooks, Van Wyck}{$I[tim]1886;Brooks, Van Wyck}

Brooks was born into comfortable although not wealthy circumstances; his father was a stockbroker. Brooks’s closest boyhood friend was Maxwell Perkins, who later became an editor with Charles Scribner’s Sons and worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. The friendship between Brooks and Perkins endured throughout their lives.

Brooks’s life changed when at the age of twelve his parents took him along on a trip to Europe. He was greatly affected by the older cultures of Europe and by such writers as John Ruskin. During this trip, Brooks decided to become a writer. He was able to complete his college education at Harvard University in three years (1904-1907). While there, he associated with a group of students interested in literature and the arts, a group that included Perkins and John Hall Wheelock. He was also an editor of the Harvard Advocate and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Among his professors was Irving Babbitt, who, though unable to win Brooks’s personal affection, was the one to introduce him to the writings of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, one of the significant influences upon Brooks.

After leaving Harvard, Brooks spent nearly two years in England, where he barely subsisted on the meager pay from various jobs as a journalist but enjoyed the keen intellectual stimulation derived from his activities and associations. During this period, Brooks became a socialist, and he published his first book, The Wine of the Puritans, which contains the germ cells of ideas that he developed in later books.

From 1909 to 1911, Brooks worked in New York City as contributor or editorial assistant to the Standard Dictionary, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and World’s Work. He was invited to teach at Stanford University, but during his brief career there, from 1911 to 1913, he decided that his talents were better employed outside the classroom. In California, he married Eleanor Kenyon, and the first of his two sons was born there.

After another trip to England, 1913-1914, Brooks returned to America to engage in the writing, editing, and translating that were his major activities for the remainder of his life. Aside from the prominence quickly accruing to him from his books, his editorship of The Seven Arts (1917-1918), the Freeman (1920-1924), and the American Caravan series enlarged his role in American letters before and during the 1920’s.

Brooks’s career as a literary critic divides into two distinct phases. The earlier phase resulted in such works as America’s Coming-of-Age and The Ordeal of Mark Twain and was characterized by Brooks’s strong criticism of the repressive conditions of American life for writers and thinkers. The later phase, whose chief product was the five-volume Makers and Finders series (beginning with The Flowering of New England), was mainly given over to Brooks’s affirmative re-creation of earlier ages of American literary culture. He turned from attack to reminiscence for two reasons. A prolonged nervous breakdown from 1927 to 1931–Brooks called it his “season in hell”–probably left him temperamentally unable to resume the combativeness of his earlier work. Moreover, he believed that it was now time for reconstruction and reaffirmation.

Among the many honors awarded to Brooks were the Dial Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and eight honorary doctorates. In addition to the respect of his professional colleagues, his Makers and Finders series won a large popular audience.

BibliographyBlake, Casey Nelson. Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. From the series Cultural Studies of the United States. Includes an index and a bibliography.Brooks, Gladys. If Strangers Meet: A Memory. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. Written by the second wife of Van Wyck Brooks.Hoopes, James. Van Wyck Brooks: In Search of American Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Nelson, Raymond. Van Wyck Brooks: A Writer’s Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981. A thorough biography.Vitelli, James R. Van Wyck Brooks. New York: Twayne, 1969. From Twayne’s United States Authors series. An excellent guide to and explanation of the literary and critical career of Brooks.Wasserstrom, William. The Legacy of Van Wyck Brooks: A Study of Maladies and Motives. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971. Wasserstrom reevaluates the impact of Brooks’s work.Wasserstrom, William. Van Wyck Brooks: The Critic and His Critics. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979. Another study by the noted scholar.
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