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The Pilgrimage of Van Wyck Brooks

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

The Life of Emerson. By Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00.

“THE Life of Emerson,” by Van Wyck Brooks, is

not so much a formal biography as a prose poem,

not so much a piece of cultural history in the orthodox sense as a series of finely modulated hypothetical reconstructions of Emerson’s consciousness. As the dream-like panorama is unrolled, Emerson and his associates, more or less sharply outlined (Emerson least of all), walk past it like the knights in “Parsifal” to the sound of beautiful music, the modulated cadences of Mr. Brooks’ prose. It is a book in low relief. Of chapter after chapter one may say: “How exquisitely written!” but at the end, one longs for clash, for drama, for acrid comment on the principal character, for something solid and earthy to emerge from this luminous mist. When, in his recent “Expression in America,” Mr. Ludwig Lewisohn referred to Emerson as a chilled, under-sexed valitudinarian, he was inelegant and malapropos, but he was at least vigorous and rude; before one has finished Mr. Brooks’ account of the Concord sage one wishes that he, too, would be vulgar and violent. For beautiful as is Mr. Brooks’ characteristic style, it is ever at the same level, runs always at the same exquisite pace; and the effect of both the style and the method of the volume is that Emerson is only a point on which experiences converge, is ever the knife-edge present past which the endless procession of his thoughts and discoveries and experiences is being marshalled. Ellery Channing, Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, Alcott—such characters are three-dimensional and sharply seen, but Emerson never emerges. He is too much like the Transcendental Unity of Apperception.

While “The Life of Emerson” traces chronologically the long curve of Emerson’s experience, time is no important element in this version of him. We do not see the growing boy, the emerging man, the young reformer, the mature thinker, the sage, the senescent dreamer. We have instead an endless chronicle of Emerson’s perceptions. The intent is aesthetic creation rather than historical re-creation; the method is amusingly illustrated by two revealing, if minor, instances. In 1927 Mr. Brooks published a collection of eight essays entitled “Emerson and Others,” the first, and longest, of which was “Emerson: Six Episodes.” This material he has silently incorporated in “The Life of Emerson” with some minor re-arrangement and changes, chapters eight through sixteen of the present volume constituting the bulk of this material, some chapters being reprinted verbatim and others with modifications. (Other portions of the earlier material are scattered in other parts of the present book.) The fifth of these “six episodes” in the original form is entitled “Lecturing,” and details Emerson’s experiences as a lecturer in the East, and then, after a brief excursus on Horace Greeley and Brisbane, his experiences in the West, In “The Life of Emerson,” the same matter on the eastern lectures appears in chapter thirteen; there is a long interval (chapters fourteen to sixteen) in which Emerson “experiences” his children, the friendship of Hawthorne, months of travelling in England and on the Continent, the return to Concord, to Thoreau, and to Sarah Ripley, and other events —a lapse of four or five years; and then in chapter seventeen we find the identic material on his experiences in the West. Again, episode two of the earlier version contained a relatively compact literary portrait of William Ellery Chan-ning; in “The Life of Emerson” half of this portrait appears on pages 156-158, and half of it on pages 227-230, after five or six years have elapsed.

The interest of this analysis is only in one point: namely, that a modern biographer allows himself rather questionable liberties with the chronology of his subject’s life. For if the lecturing tours of Emerson furnished but one episode in his life, Mr. Brooks was right in his first version; but if, as a matter of truth to history, they extended over a period of years, during which a genius like Emerson was developing (or, at the least, changing), it seems a little odd that Mr. Brooks can use the same language to describe experiences widely apart in time that he employed when these experiences apparently constituted a single “episode.” And if the facets of Channing’s character as revealed to Emerson were exactly what they were when he first knew Emerson as they were when Emerson returned to him after so important a period of absence, we must conclude either that Emerson and Channing never themselves changed, or that the “new” biography is sometimes careless in point of dates and their associated material.

Mr. Brooks’ “Emerson” is, then, a book to be read for beauty, for pleasure, for a kind of sympathetic insight which must be carefully defined and distinguished from the insight of a biographer like Woodberry, employing the standard formula of biography. It is Mr. Brooks a propos of Emerson that we read. Mr. Brooks has come to this extended essay, I surmise, as one comes to the end of a long quest. In 1915, in “America’s Coming of Age,” he was of the opinion: “How can one speak of progress in a people like our own that so send up to heaven the stench of atrophied personality?” In 1920, in “The Ordeal of Mark Twain,” he pictured the atrophy of a creative personality in America in terms so vigorous as to draw down on him the correction of a critic like Friedrich Schonemann. In 1925 he more mildly described “The Pilgrimage of Henry James,” and while the stench of atrophied personality seemed to Mr. Brooks one source of artistic illness in James, the interpretation offered was less doctrinaire than in the case of Twain. Now Mr. Brooks finds in Emerson an almost model case of a great personality freely developing under American conditions. Of course, Twain lived in the age of the imperial facade, and Emerson earlier; and yet there are in Emerson passages as vigorously denunciatory of the ethical materialism, the greed, and the purblindness of the country as anyone has ever penned.

I think Mr. Brooks is more nearly right about Emerson than he was about Twain; and I, for one, rejoice that a critic of his capacity has sincerely reached the conclusion he has come to. The work which Mr. Brooks did in 1915 was a necessary work at the time; but whereas a writer like Mr. Mencken has not advanced a foot beyond the position he held in those earlier years, Mr. Brooks has fearlessly shifted ground. It would be hard to show that the conditions of American life were any more inimical to creative talent when Emerson wrote “The American Scholar” and the “Essays” than they were when James wrote his novels or when Twain wrote “Huckleberry Finn”; and while Emerson had behind him the gracious and powerful traditions of New England, it is also true that James had behind him the gracious and powerful traditions of the New England of the golden day. It would appear therefore that the theory that we need a “usable past,” as Mr. Brooks used to put it, and that we have not, and have not really had that past, is being silently revised.

I hope I have not misinterpreted Mr. Brooks. Certain it is that he was, and is, one of the most powerful and important critical personalities in the United States. When I indicate a certain weakness in his method as a biographer, it is because I, too, am interested in our usable past and in getting it fully presented and faithfully used. It is obviously also his desire. If the structure of the present volume were as sound and thorough as the writing is beautiful and sympathetic, this would be a really great life of Emerson, one that would be tonic for culture and for criticism. It remains a sympathetic study, a book to read for pleasure and profit, but not one that speaks with the authority it might have.


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