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A Cycle of New England

ISSUE:  Winter 1937

The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865. By Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $4.00.

The definition of Van Wyck Brooks’ “The Flowering of New England” printed on its dust cover— “A Literary History”—indicates that Mr. Brooks has not here written a history of literature. The literature of the fifty years which he surveys furnishes him with his motive for writing, and with his approach to his subject, but is not itself that subject. Nor is this book a collective biography of New England authors. Indeed, those of its readers will profit most from it who possess some previous knowledge of the authors who appear in these pages. What, then, has Mr. Brooks created? The answer is, “A panorama —a panorama of the intellectual life of New England, unrolling itself in leisurely fashion, later sketches succeeding earlier sketches of the same scenes as time alters its perspectives.” The background is composed of two elements. Of these, the first consists of the occupations of New England—farming, foreign trade, and later, manufacturing— rendered not through statistics, but through vignettes of countryside and town. The second element consists of the beliefs and characteristics of the New England people, sketched by anecdote, comment, and generalized description of their literary nutriment. In the foreground of the panorama are posed the prominent writers of Yankee flowering-time, represented, unattended by tables of dates, events, or books, as they lived—walking, thinking, writing, talking, and reading.

Particularly the first and last—walking and reading. For in retrospect, this book almost seems—to abandon, for the moment, the figure of a panorama—like a pageant enacted on two stages. The one stage is outdoors: it is the whole New England of rolling hill and valley, of fir-wood and clustered birch and sumac-thicket, of apple-hung orchard, unexpected pasture, and elm-colonnaded village, of rocky headland and wind-swept cape, of sparkling stream and grey sea. The other stage is indoors—a library. Here an author toils over grammars of strange tongues or muses over scriptures of ancient religions—intangible cargo not listed among those imports from the Orient which passed through the customhouses of Salem and Boston. There a writer delves in dusty archives of Spain and the Low Countries, or dreams over legends and lays of skald, minnesinger, and troubadour— treasure-trove from an enchanted student Wanderjahr in Europe. Yet, for the New England writer, the two stages became, more or less completely, one stage. Books furnished the seed of tradition and culture; and the scenery of New England furnished the soil and the vigor for a new growth.

I do not wish to suggest that Mr. Brooks neglects the literary issue of this New England life. To be sure, he does not give a catalogue raisonne of his writers. But as the procession of notables passes in review—George Ticknor, Chan-ning, Bancroft, Prescott, Daniel Webster (and Noah Webster too), Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Bronson Al-cott, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, the younger Richard Henry Dana, Motley, Whittier, Mrs. Stowe, Holmes, Lowell: a procession beginning with the Boston of Gilbert Stuart’s days and ending, approximately, with the deaths of Thoreau and Hawthorne—Mr. Brooks distills into a just paragraph or a pregnant phrase the essence of each man’s writing. Particularly good is this, about the verse of Emerson—on whom, as might be expected, Mr. Brooks is at his best: “Of Poe’s melodious magic, Emerson had scarcely a touch. Of colour, he had none, or next to none, except when at moments, behind his verse, one seemed to catch a sort of polar splendour, as of an aurora borealis. There was something bleached and dry, in the best of this verse, like that of an age-old wisdom, exposed for thousands of years to sun and wind, and a strong, clear, bracing mountain air seemed to have blown upon it.” Incidentally, it is noteworthy how much more kindly Mr. Brooks’ estimates are now than they were in such an early work of his as “Letters and Leadership.” In that book, emphasizing as it did the thesis that American cre-ativeness in letters had been stifled by the practicality which an unsubdued continent engendered in Americans, Longfellow was a writer of “lullabies, crooning to sleep the insatiable creative appetites of the soul”; Thoreau was a “preeminent crank.” Now, Mr. Brooks holds that “If Longfellow’s poetic feeling had had the depth of his moral feeling, he would have been one of the major poets, instead of the ‘chief minor poet of the English language’—a phrase of Arnold Bennett’s that strikes one as happy, if ‘minor’ is understood as ‘popular,’ popular in the high sense, not the machine-made popular of later times.” And Thoreau, we are now told, “became a teacher of wisdom, even in Asia.” A change of attitude such as this does not, however, manifest any lowering of critical standards. It indicates that Mr. Brooks has perceived his earlier generalization about American culture to be like a somewhat hazy atmosphere, which supports a voyager airplaning swiftly over a country, but somewhat veils from him the country itself. He now believes that in New England, between 1815 and 1865, a Spen-glerian culture-cycle ran its course: first, a homogeneous, religious, and inarticulate populace; next, the awakening of a mood of eager expectation of achievement, culminating in a generous outpouring of creativeness, centering in a “culture-city”—Boston (with Cambridge and Concord counted in); then a growth of self-consciousness, dividing the intellectual leaders of the community, and shaking their confidence in their powers and destiny; and finally, with the degeneration of the culture-city into subservience to the world-city, New York, the spreading of a conviction that the golden age lay in the past, and that those who had outlived it were inheritors of a disintegrating stock. Through this concept of the culture-cycle, Mr. Brooks has been enabled to appraise more justly the flowering of New England in its sturdiness and cool Northern beauty.

Finally, I return to another implication—though an unintended one—of the phrase “A Literary History.” For this book is indeed itself literature. Although Mr. Brooks tells us in his preface that, despite the air of fiction which may pervade his pages, “I can quote chapter and verse—in some trustworthy source of the time, some diary, memoir, letter or whatever—for every phrase that appears in the book,” the outstanding impression he leaves is not of his scholarship, thorough as this is, but of the delight which formed these pages. The shapeliness of the book is its crowning merit. To anyone who examines the transitions from topic to topic—those joints where, in any book, academic schematizing, if present, makes itself most painfully evident—the smoothness and grace of the conduct of the narrative will become patent. Note also the arabesques of human nature with which the panorama is enlivened: the episode, for example, of Bronson Alcott’s refusal to pay his taxes —$1.50 a year—to a government of which he disapproved morally. The scene is the village of Concord. “Alcott was overseeing the children’s lessons when Sam Staples, the constable, his neighbour, regretfully came to say that he would have to carry him off to jail. ‘Very well, Samuel,’ said Alcott, ‘if you will wait a moment till Mrs. Alcott can put some food in a basket.’ The prison fare was too rich for him. Mrs. Alcott brought the basket, and down they walked slowly to the jail. At the door the matron met them and said she was very sorry but Mr. Alcott’s cell was not made up yet. ‘Very well, Samuel,’ said the sage. T will go back and resume the children’s lessons, and when you want me you can come for me.’ In the meantime, Squire Hoar paid the taxes, with no regard for principle whatsoever.” Nor should we overlook what happened to Miss Elizabeth Peabody, although it is only in a footnote that we discover it: ” ‘I saw it,’ Miss Peabody said, when she walked into a tree and bruised her nose. ‘I saw it, but I did not realize it.’” But, whatever felicities may surprise the reader of these pages, he may be sure of finding Mr. Brooks’ style at its most polished at the end of a chapter. Almost any one of these final sentences could be a text for a homily on literary effectiveness.

These finely executed termini mark the limits of a well-meditated and richly freighted text. First the flowering, then the fruit, then the good wine in the bottle. Mr. Brooks has given us the expressed bouquet of the greatest, fruit-fullest seasons in New England’s literary history. This book will long remain the standard vintage to use in celebrating the remembrance of these particular times past.


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