The Puritan Legacy

by Malcolm Cowley | August 26, 1936

The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 
By Van Wyck Brooks
(New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 550 pp., $4)

Toward the end of the fine essay on Van Wyck Brooks printed in this issue, it seemed to me that Bernard Smith did less than justice to "The Flowering of New England." He might of course urge that he was discussing a literary career of almost thirty years, in which this new book was a single episode. He might urge that "The Flowering of New England" was deficient in the qualities he most admired in Brooks's earlier work—conviction, indignation, moral force—and that it seemed over-tolerant, even fatalistic. Beyond this he might urge that it presented the great New England era as a dramatic pageant of growth and sudden decay, without sufficiently explaining the forces behind one or the other. But he was wrong, I think, to characterize the book as "purely description and narration"; these words apply to its method, not its purpose. And he was totally wrong to dismiss it as "scholarly story telling"; for the story told by Brooks is capable of changing our conception of American literature.

The book repairs a bridge into history that had seemed to be broken; it recovers for us a "usable past." Lewis Mumford had attempted something of the sort when he wrote "The Golden Day": he had assured us that our culture had its morning star in Emerson, its dawn in Thoreau, its high noon in Whitman, its twilight in Hawthorne and Melville. But Mumford's book was purely an essay, a stimulating outline that remained to be filled in. Brooks bas taken a somewhat similar though less symbolic group of ideas and has expressed them so completely, documented them so carefully from the books and letters and memoirs of the New England writers, that they cease to impress us as ideas at all: we read them as a narrative of people and events. But the people and events are placed in a new focus. More than any other writer, Brooks makes us feel the strength and richness—and the continuing effect —of American literature during its one great period.

He achieves this end by painting a series of carefully vivid pictures. First he gives us New England in 1815, serene in its revolutionary heritage and its faith in the future. Then come the Yankee scholars working twelve hours a day in the German universities, paying long visits to Goethe and Lafayette and finally sailing back to Harvard with books and ideas and foreign languages, the spoils of a continent to lavish on their students. Then we learn of the desire for education and self-improvement that infected all ranks of society, from John Quincy Adams, who rose at four o'clock to read his Bible with English, French and German commentaries, down to Elihu Burritt, the learned blacksmith of Worcester. (Burritt wrote in his diary for June, 1837: “Monday, headache; forty pages Cuvier's ‘Theory of the Earth,’ sixty-four pages French, eleven hours forging. Tuesday, sixty-five lines of Hebrew, thirty pages of French, ten pages Cuvier's 'Theory,’ eight lines Syriac, ten ditto Danish, ten ditto Bohemian, nine ditto Polish, fifteen names of stars, ten hours forging.")

Out of all this self-confidence and labor and infiltration of new ideas, something had to be born; and thus the first half of the book creates in us a mood of eager expectancy. The second half creates a mood of exultation, with its picture of the years from 1840 to 1860 when the New England mind was blossoming like New England lilacs— first the Boston lilacs, then those in the Concord dooryards, then a blaze of purple and white and false-blue from the Housatonic Valley to Penobscot Bay. Those were the days when a dozen men of genius gathered in the Saturday Club and talent seemed to be everywhere; but Brooks makes us feel how much of this genius and talent was going to be wasted. He foreshadows the end of blossom time, the beginning of the midsummer drouth, in another fine series of pictures—and notably in a sketch of Hawthorne's last years, when the novelist, was so obsessed with doubts and scruples that "life shook before his eyes, like the picture on the surface of a pond."

But although it is generally believed that the New- England mind grew thinner and less fertile after the Civil War—that its best fields were abandoned like Green Mountain farms—still it seems to me after reading this book that more of its vitality has survived than is recognized by most critics, even by Brooks himself. The trouble is that we have been looking for the New England spirit in the wrong places. If we believe that it is fully embodied in poets like Robinson and Frost, or in the hooked-rug and lobster-pot novelists of the Maine coast, then we can be certain of its decline. Frost is a Whittier without the fiery earnestness (and with not much more skill) ; Robinson was a blank-verse Hawthorne still more fettered by still more shadowy scruples; as for the hooked-rug novelists, they would have to stand on tiptoe to touch the skirts of Sarah Orne Jewett. But the New England spirit has also appeared, without being recognized, in writers born thousands of miles from Beacon Hill. I should say that its purest representative today was T. S. Eliot, of St. Louis and London, whose Catholicism is partly Calvinist and partly Buddhist, strictly in the Brook Farm tradition. I should say that Conrad Aiken (born in Savannah) and George Santayana (born in Spain) and even John Dos Passos (by descent half Portuguese and half Virginian) are all New Englanders by virtue of their scrupulousness and Harvard diffidence and half-concealed moral fervor, and still more by virtue of a thin, stubborn integrity that bas carried them through the years when so many other writers were being flashily successful and going to pot.

Van Wyck Brooks, born in New Jersey, is a Yankee both by inheritance and education. During his long career he has even been two kinds of Yankee. He belonged at first to the tradition of Channing and Emerson and Wendell Phillips, the men of social purpose, the exhorters and prophets; during this period he wrote the books that Bernard Smith most admires. But "The Flowering of New England," which will be the first volume in a general history of American literature, suggests another type of Yankee tradition—the tradition of Bancroft and Prescott and Motley, the patient yet worldly scholars and historians. Prescott's father said, "If you wish to be happy, always have ten years' work laid out before you"; that is the Yankee way of planning one's future. At fifty, Brooks seems to have laid out before himself a labor that will occupy more than ten years. One can prophesy already that when the series is even half complete it will be compared with Prescott's narratives of the Spanish conquest and with Motley's hook on "The Rise of the Dutch Republic."

But these great scholarly works almost always have a meaning not directly expressed by the author, a meaning that inheres in the subject itself. Writing of Bancroft, for example, Brooks makes it clear that his "History of the United States" was inspired by the confident nationalism of the young republic. Writing of Motley, he explains that the Dutch republic was Motley's subject because the modern business man, the archetypical Yankee, had first appeared in Holland. If he had written of the purpose behind his own work, Brooks might have told another story. Today when the American republic is no longer lusty and crowing; when it feels that its fate is involved with that of Western civilization as a whole, which in turn is threatened by world upheavals that threaten to destroy all inherited culture—when the guns are booming one day in Addis Ababa, the next on the outskirts of Madrid, the next, perhaps, along the Rhine—today many sensitive men like Brooks arc turning back to the great past in order to see the real nature of the traditions that we are trying to save, and in order to gain new strength for the struggles ahead.  

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