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Mark Van Doren’s Literary Letters

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989
The Selected Letters of Mark Van Doren. Edited by George Hendrick. Foreword by Dorothy Van Doren. Louisiana. $30.00.

This well-edited, attractive selection (about one-fourth of the surviving letters) brings Mark Van Doren alive, especially to those who knew him and can hear the voice behind the written words. It should help criticism begin to engage the works and personality of a very considerable American “man of letters”: superb poet and critic, wide-ranging editor, accomplished storyteller and playwright, and devoted educator. The list of his published books, and other writings, is more than impressive, and still awaits the labors of a critical bibliographer. Three decades have gone by since he published an Autobiography (1958) at the age of 64; and 16 years, since his death in 1972; yet these Letters are the first step yet toward a sorely needed biography. Once highly esteemed, he is now unjustly neglected. The question that this book asks, in many words, is “what to make of a diminished thing.”

Literary fame and popularity in these United States is notoriously chancy and often unjust, as the peculiar careers of Edward Taylor, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson, for example, illustrate. Late or inadequate publication, uncertain criticism, changing fashions, cutthroat competition—these can wreak havoc with the “common pursuit of true judgement” (Eliot’s formula). Paradoxically, MVD (a convenient abbreviation to set him off from all the other literary Van Dorens) was highly praised, misunderstood, awarded prizes, overlooked, and poorly read. His stature, I feel sure, will grow with the years; but it will not be easy to get his voluminous and varied achievements into perspective. He will prove impossible to pigeonhole, because he was richly complex, and had the courage to swim against the mainstream when he felt he had to do so. He was a precocious Midwesterner: his Henry David Thoreau and John Dryden books (the latter making critical history) had been published by his 26th birthday; his first slender volumes of poetry were well received, on the whole; and this early period culminated in An Anthology of World Poetry (1928), which was something of a best seller. If anything, he was over-published and too lucky at first, like Melville. But the last letter included here, to his publisher (Nov. 10, 1972) a month before his death, reads as follows:

Early in 1973 I’d like to send you the manuscript of my new book of poems, entitled (probably) Good Morning. It’s for 1974, when I’ll be 80 if I live. . . . I seem to be assuming that you still want the volume. The last one that you so generously brought forth [That Shining Place, 1969] has been the occasion of wonderful letters to me, even if (I guess) it hasn’t sold especially. Queer, that. I’ll never understand. . . .

The end was happy, on the whole, and his friends cherish photographs of the smiling Mark. But the frontispiece here supplied by his widow is serious, almost grim; and MVD in this rather formal pose seems sadly puzzled by some aspects of the modern world, and the vagaries of fate and criticism. So are we.

Professor Hendricks is from the University of Illinois at Urbana, where Carl and Mark both studied with Stuart P. Sherman before going east to New York City and Columbia University. MVD loved to write and receive correspondence: “Your good letter arrived” is how many of his own begin. He made selections himself of letters by Cowper and others, and liked to dwell on the paradox that, the more busy a writer was, the more likely he might be to find time for letters. The line separating “business” from pleasure and friendship between writers is sometimes hard to draw. A majority of these letters relate to practical problems—if worrying about revising and occasionally rejecting poems, for instance, can be called “practical.” Untermeyer referred to Frost’s letters to him as an unguarded autobiography, and most of MVD’s communications of course were not intended for publication; sometimes the opinions expressed are sharp or vitriolic. Not malicious, however, or nasty—just strong likes and dislikes, forcefully expressed, often with humor:

I don’t know De Voto except as a writer, in which capacity he is a solid brass ass. . . . To hell with B.D.V.—he can’t even initial his underwear straight.

(To Allen Tate, Jan. 8, 1938)

This is sheer fun, of course, between poets; actually the review of BDV’s Mark Twain’s America is a classic, and the letters MVD had written to De Voto (October-November 1932) were serious and friendly. He concluded by thanking his adversary: “. . . I have enjoyed both of your very good letters.” In sum, almost all of this book is literary history in the making, and exhibits God’s plenty: every mood and style conceivable, depending on the person addressed and the immediate occasion.

Short of the implicit full-scale biography such a book suggests, I shall concentrate in this review on MVD’s friendships and their relationships to the overall pattern of his career: early, middle, and late. For Early (1894—1920), we can supplement the first three chapters of The Autobiography with the first part of brother Carl’s classic memoir, Three Worlds (1936)—he was nine years Mark’s senior. By 1930, midway of his mortal life at age 36, the basic patterns of MVD’s life-style were established, and it might have been thought of then as a pure success story: teaching at Columbia, blossoming poetry, literary editor of The Nation, marriage, the Village (Bleecker Street), and a summer home in Connecticut (Cornwall)—an “earthly paradise.” Family and friends: Carl, Allen Tate (his closest friend in poetry), Joseph W. Krutch (Joe), Mortimer Adler, and others. The letters to Tate throughout are especially full and free. What more could a man want, who seemed to “have everything”? Well: let’s call it true “greatness” as a poet, fame (“that last infirmity of noble minds”), immortality—to live forever. And why not?

There is a curious pattern in MVD’s life, of ambition and frustration. The only letter I have noted where he refers to “greatness” was to his publisher (Oct. 2, 1939), who had just nominated his Collected Poems for a Pulitzer prize: “. . .it was as much your generosity as my greatness, if not more.” He had written his first ambitious poem Jonathan Gentry (1931) during the early years of The Depression; and he would soon be writing The May field Deer (1941) during World War II:

It has seemed indecent to go on with the poem these past few weeks, but I decided it would be more indecent not to do so. Hitler has stopped enough life as it is; anything we can save should be saved. . . . Not that I have more hope, but I have lost some of my power to feel. Terrible, isn’t it, what one man—or is it many appeasers—can do to us?

(To Sloane: June 20, 1940)

On the theme of feeling, Wordsworth (with Hardy) was his favorite “modern” (MVD edited Selected Poetry in 1949)— and Wordsworth, too, was frustrated in his “epic” ambitions. Thus, the difficulties for MVD were as much inner—spiritual, psychological—as social and political—as any reader of Collected Poems (1939) could plainly see. In the early volumes, before the 1929 Depression, there are such “dark” poems as “Apple-Hell,” “Crow Madness,” “Ambush,” “Defeated Farmer,” “Death,” “Mad Songs,” “Poorhouse Dream.” So-called “success” was superficial.

The thirties (when, incidentally, I was his student) were MVD’s “Inferno” and “Purgatory.” The exemplary “European” poets for him were Dante and Shakespeare: could he eventually become a comparable poet for the USA? This noble dream accounts for some of his recurrent moods of anger, terror, and self-criticism. I remember loving him as a teacher who shared with me the reading of “great books,” but what I responded to most gratefully in him as a person was his candor, temper, and humor: beside him, most of my other teachers (and there were some great ones at Columbia) seemed a bit distant and unreal. To paraphrase what MVD wrote about his brother: “I worshipped him” (Mark). All this comes back with an overwhelming vividness as I read his letters of the thirties and later to Berryman, Merton, and Robert Lax. I first read Shakespeare in the very class which Merton described in The Seven-Story Mountain; and during my freshman-sophomore years the young John Berryman was one of our senior campus poets (he was class of ‘36, I was ‘38); therefore, the letters to Berryman (and later to Ginsberg) have a special poignancy for me. But any reader will find the letters to Tate, Berryman, Merton, and Lax (especially) to be priceless in their wisdom, humanity, and intensity. We are taken into the workshop of a poet, and of a teacher and friend of poets.

Most impressive, for me, is the genuine humility and self-doubt and (withal) generosity that MVD displayed throughout his creative struggles. He was fortunate to have in Tate an incomparable friend and critic. Destiny (good fortune, really) had decreed that he should develop in the company of other men of stature (not all poets), beginning with his elder brother—and he was as generous in his praises of them as he was severely critical of himself. He had a sufficiency of conceit as a younger man, but little false pride—and a sufficiency of humility as he grew old. His future biographer will need not only all these letters but all the children and heroes of his imagination to understand a sense of “crisis” (to Tate: Feb. 19, 1939) that devastated him around his 45th year:

This is the first real illness of my life, and Hedwig says it is payment for years of overwork. . . . There is also a bit of psychology somewhere in all this woodpile, too. Finishing proofs on the Poems and the Shakespeare all at once, and thus winding up twenty years in a day, was something like coming to a precipice and looking over.

He had 33 more years of vivid life and creativity ahead; but one can see why the Pulitzer prize may have seemed like a relatively minor incident, alongside the larger crises of war, the problems addressed in Liberal Education, and the challenges of such “great friends” as Hamlet, Achilles, Don Quixote and Bottom (see the “My Great Friends” poem). Fortunately, in life he also had flesh-and-blood friends, to whom such letters as these were sent.

Some words must be said about MVD’s relations to universities, especially Columbia and Harvard—not unlike that of his elder and more popular contemporary, Robert Frost. Frost was the pure “poet in residence,” wherever he happened to be living—but he was also a teacher and took his role as educator seriously. MVD, of course, was very learned, but disliked pedantry and dry scholarship—a fact which impeded his advancement in the usual academic hierarchies. Luckily, Columbia College (and University) in the twenties and thirties was alive with experimentation: it was a laboratory out of which grew nationwide programs of “liberal” and “general” education, including the famous Humanities and Contemporary Civilization courses. In the Autobiography, MVD tells about his early associations (in the early twenties) with the original General Honors course, John Erskine, and Mortimer Adler; and his English Department course on “Six English Authors,” in which his special qualities as a critic and teacher could develop freely—culminating in the CBS “Invitation to Learning” program, scripts from which he edited and published in two volumes. The point is that, modeling himself somewhat on Stuart Sherman as teacher, MVD kept on “doing his thing” at Columbia, along with his close friend Raymond Weaver; and one high moment is described in a letter to Mortimer Adler (April 13, 1935) about his promotion to associate professor:

The fundamental satisfaction I feel is over the apparent decision of the department to accept me on my own terms— not as a scholar, not as a politician, not as a useful person in any sense, but simply as a teacher and poet.

This was almost like what Frost had been doing “barding around” since the twenties—though any doubts about MVD’s competence as a scholar were really a bit ridiculous. (Incidentally, though MVD was never “Frost’s disciple,” they always had a friendly relationship, evident in these letters, based on mutual respect as poets.) A third figure in this developing pattern was Archibald McLeish, fellow Middlewesterner and poet and friend, who gained some reputation as poet in residence at Harvard. However, by the time MVD was invited to teach at Harvard (1963), around the time of Frost’s death, he was old enough to have lost some of his enthusiasm for teaching (to Krutch: Feb. 12, 1963). His incomparable skills as a teacher had flourished in the more familiar and intimate atmosphere of Columbia’s Hamilton Hall.

In the history of American literary reputations, attention must be paid to the existence and rivalries of university centers: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Virginia, Vanderbilt, Chicago—and later Los Angeles, Berkeley, and others. MVD was associated with Urbana and Columbia (the Big Commercial “Radical” City), though he never ceased feeling himself a “regional” Midwesterner, and New Englander (South of Boston), with strong sympathies for the South. Perhaps his not fully “belonging” anywhere led to his strategies of withdrawal. In any case, it must have rankled, when F.O. Matthiessen of Harvard edited The Oxford Book of American Verse in 1950, to find himself left out—when Pound, Eliot, Aiken, Bishop, Tate, and such youngsters as Schwartz and Robert Lowell were included. So in the Yale historian Rene Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism (Vol. 6: American Criticism, 1900—1950), his name is not even mentioned; the Dryden, Shakespeare, and Noble Voice books, along with others, certainly fall into Wellek’s half century—but it seems not into his scheme of values. As late as 1971, we find MVD writing (to Miles, March 23): “Forget the Literary History of the U.S. I’m used to that. I scarcely exist in the minds of such. And I don’t give one good God Damn (or I think I don’t).” But he obviously did care that he had come to be rejected as poet and man of letters by the academic and critical establishments. Possibly, the aggressive stand he had taken in The Private Reader (1942) invited some such rejection. He wrote to Tate (April 15, 1942): “I suppose I tried to walk an invisible line—between pedants and pukes. A dangerous game”—and he paid a heavy price.

Saying that MVD aged gracefully is too much of an understatement. His Autobiography (finished in 1957) had ended on a series of high notes: a concluding chapter, “The Final Miracle,” ended with “Undersong,” which is indeed his master-lyric—to my taste, a great poem, and an important statement about himself as a poet. Approaching his mid-sixties, he had another decade and a half to live, in which the TV scandals around son Charles gave the Van Doren family a hard time. Hendricks devotes 50 pages to “The Last Years,” in which we find James Thurber (neighbor in Cornwall) paying a heartfelt tribute to MVD. Brother Carl had died in 1950; and one by one old friends began to disappear from the scene: Frost (1963), Delmore Schwartz (1966), Merton (1968), Krutch (1970), Berryman (1972). All this might have added up to a mood of pessimistic depression or tragedy; but as MVD wrote in The Autobiography:

Between tragedy and comedy I have elected comedy for my mask; or if not that, for my muse. I have learned how to live with contradiction: to accept the unacceptable.

This seems to have been a matter of temperament, rather than a thoroughly rationalized philosophy. We learn from the Letters that when Shakespeare was completed, both brother Carl and friend Weaver agreed that the chapter on “As You Like It”—that perfectly balanced criticism of pastoral or romance sentiment—was the best (to Tate: Oct. 6, 1938). That this choice for MVD was fundamental is evident from his late flowering as a dramatist, especially in two remarkable comedies in verse: A Little Night Music and The Weekend That Was (Three Plays, 1966). They are brilliant gems of playwriting and testify to his resilience of spirit at 72.

One final note: MVD was invited to visit Israel in 1969, as he wrote to Merton in his last letter to him (Nov. 29, 1968); this was prevented by a heart attack. Writing to Lax (December 30), he used the term “heartbreaking” about the loss of Merton—and I have wondered whether the two events might have been somehow related. To Allen Ginsberg (May 5, 1969) he wrote: “I’m going to be quite well, I think, thank you. No pain, much ease.” One of his last pieces of extended writing was a long piece on Chaucer, for The Great Ideas Today, edited by his son, John Van Doren.

My main regret is that these chiefly literary letters tend to show us so much of the antagonistic and angry Mark Van Doren—a very partial view of the man. The omitted three-quarters no doubt display more of his legendary charm, geniality, and good humor. For that side, we can always turn to his happy and loving Autobiography, dedicated “To Dorothy.”


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William Claire's picture
William Claire · 5 months ago

This long essay on Mark Van Doren is one of the most important I have ever seen in an important literary magazine. It illuminates one of the great careers in American life who MacLeish called "the ripest. wholest talent in any art" in our time. The writer not only studied under Van Doren, but can be added to the extraordinary number of his students who became well known in their own time, and extolled their former teacher.


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