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American Creator

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

New England: Indian Summer. By Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.75.

Creators come few to the century, and the creative touch barely a grain or two to the literary pound. Most critics of literature, past and present, are too busy with other men’s books to do much by their own. That is not the case with Van Wyck Brooks. Every book of his is a new thing and better than its predecessor, for this man is a builder of living tissue. Before he finishes, he may well construct as tremendous an American symphony in the form of biographical criticism as Willa Cather has given us in the novel. And with that, he may well emerge as one of the most original writers America has produced. This man is growing out of his authors and expanding into the map of the United States.

In “New England: Indian Summer” even more than in “The Flowering of New England,” Van Wyck Brooks has touched us on our American soul as it was inside the brains of our fathers. Revolution, rural life, and the Romans—these are the three springs our begetters drank from to become the peculiarly naive and lusty men they were. They fed on Latin books, Indian maize, and a fine passion for improving all matter that they touched. That menu fits my own New England father as well as the big bugs of Concord and Cambridge. Mr. Brooks makes all our New England past seem as clean and simple as that. And of course it was as clean and simple as that. And always, when a man whose mind moves in wholes and in real substances, as the poet’s does, speaks for one city or section of a country, he speaks for the whole country. The best local artist is the best national one. Witness Frost, whom neither New Hampshire nor all New England can contain. So Van Wyck Brooks was writing of a fiery zeal that burst over the Allegheny Mountains and the prairies when he wrote of the giant minds of Boston and vicinity in the first half of the nineteenth century. And now, when he deals with the dying down of that blaze which had fed on Virgil and the Roman Republic and hard work with the plow, he is dealing not merely with an Indian Summer in New England but in all America and, in a measure, all the world. For the blight of big business and of machinery for the sake of the machine is a worldwide phenomenon.

Of course, Howells, who represents the younger, Western America, and whom Mr. Brooks uses as a chain to bind his years and his minds together, helps him to achieve a unity and his embracingly American point of view. But the author owes more to himself, and to a mind that is always superior to the documents, for his success. Maybe Van Wyck Brooks had more elbow room to grow into a major interpreter of our culture in this last book of his because his men were smaller men who took up less space and allowed him more room for himself. But I doubt it. I think he would have been this greater creator of American meaning even though he had reversed the order of his last two books.

For this writer has grown steadily in every kind of power.

He can say in ten words now, words all alive and helping one another on, what it used to take him fifty to say. His is beautiful writing, of the best biographers’ and the best poets’ kind, in which any phrase may catch afire and become the light for another man with imagination to write a book by, “The great unwritten epic, the epic of Eastern wives and Western husbands”—that is the kind of phrase I mean. Mr, Brooks’s sentences sparkle, crackle, and are alive, Humor is almost something of an American achievement in serious letters. This writer uses it to make the blood of dead men run and leap on every page. He says a few words of Howells, and those words say almost the whole of Howells: “The young girl was the most triumphant fact of American civilization.” At any moment, no matter how stiff or deadened with plush his matter may be—and Boston after the Civil War could be so wrapped in plush that little sound of life came through, in a day dedicated to concealment in men’s whiskers as in women’s dress—this sort of sentence and summary can happen.

There are unforgettable pictures in this book which pieces together a thousand books into a single whole one: of Park-man, too fiercely bright and rudimentary to be believed among placid average contemporaries; of Child, the greatest ballad editor, living on breath borrowed from six hundred years away and playing with his children as if they were parts of a nation’s childhood; of Longfellow standing and reading his Dante translation at Craigie House. And Mr, Brooks does as well by the weather and light and landscape of New England, which are always the concerns of the creator of literature but seldom of the critic, as he does by its women and men. The Isles of Shoals loom sadly and beautifully sharp as all our northern New England islands actually do; the light of Concord pours out clear to match the crystals in Emerson’s brain.

This is not criticism merely. This is living tissue. This is life in its own right and a remarkable and hopeful promise of a greater kind of American writing and being to come.


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