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Van Wyck Brooks was one of the leading literary critics and authors of the first half of the twentieth century. A biographer and historian as well, he is best known for his series, Makers and Finders, which chronicles the history of American literature from the early 1800s to 1915. One of the volumes in the series, The Flowering of New England, won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1937. Some of his other significant works include Wine of the Puritans, America's Coming of Age, New England: Indian Summer, and The Confident Years: 1885-1915. The primary focus of Brooks' work was devoted to the creation of a "useable past," which would give American writers the sense that they were part of a long lineage of authors. Brooks' early works tended to focus on the cultural and social background of America and its effect upon literary figures. He suggested that the Puritan work ethic stifled the true creative impulse within the artist, due to its emphasis on practicality and business. This ethic, Brooks claimed, resulted in an American literary and artistic tradition that was overly concerned with commercial success. Writers were forced to look to Europe for a sense of past but encountered a tradition different from their own. Brooks believed that American authors needed to accept the commercial beginnings of their craft, no matter how distasteful they might be, and work from there. As a result, Brooks' later volumes concerned themselves with developing a history and past that American writers could identify as their own.
Brooks was born 16 February 1886 in Plainfield, New Jersey. The second son of Charles Edward and Sally Ames Brooks, Van Wyck was primarily raised by his mother, with his father essentially remaining a non-figure in his sons' lives. Plainfield was a town of upscale homes belonging to predominantly wealthy families, and Van Wyck grew to loathe the cutthroat business competitiveness that lurked beneath Plainfield's placid exterior. Charles Edward Brooks spent nearly all his time working, in order to keep up the family's illusion of prosperity and to maintain pace with the neighbors, essentially removing him from family life. Later in life, Van Wyck steadfastly refused to return to his birthplace under almost any circumstances. It is suspected that the financially stressful atmosphere in which Van Wyck was raised contributed to the mental breakdown he suffered in his early 40s.
Every year the Brooks family would go on extended outings to various locales, and it was from a trip to Europe in 1898-99 that it appears Van Wyck developed his interest in art and literature. The Brooks family went on a tour through England, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, and Switzerland, and young Van Wyck, along with his older brother Charles Ames, spent much of his time visiting museums and other cultural areas. It was during this period that Van Wyck first discovered the works of John Ruskin and, after reading them, decided that he would be a writer. During this trip Brooks also made the acquaintance of Arthur Ryder, who was a graduate student at the time. Ryder was very impressed with the thirteen-year-old Brooks and spent significant amounts of time teaching him about literary and artistic theory and life. Following his graduation from the Plainfield public school system in 1904, Brooks left for Harvard, following his friend Max Perkins, who had entered the year before. At Harvard Brooks met a number of life-long friends, including playwright Ned Sheldon and poet John Hall Wheelock. Along with Wheelock, Brooks published his first book, a volume of poetry entitled Verses from Two Undergraduates. Brooks graduated from Harvard in three years with a degree in English. After graduation, he traveled to England, where he spent the next year working for Curtis Brown Publishing, while simultaneously writing his first book, Wine of the Puritans.
Wine of the Puritans, published in 1908, outlined most of Brooks' key beliefs regarding American literature--topics to which he would return for the rest of his literary career. Brooks argued that the Puritan emphasis upon practicality and commercial success had bred a climate so inherently hostile to the arts that the "inherited" patterns of traditional behavior (which, Brooks argued, were necessary for a true sense of art and spirituality) were virtually nonexistent. American authors and artists had no real sense of an artistic cultural heritage and were forced to look to Europe and England, in particular, for inspiration. There were two problems, however, with his approach: first, Americans had settled too far away from England to return emotionally; second, European culture was in decline and did not offer a useful model for American emulation. Brooks claimed that America needed to embrace its literary and cultural past, regardless of its history of commercialism. It was only through this acceptance that writers could develop a sense of tradition, which, up until this point, was sorely lacking in American literary work and theory.
Brooks returned to America during the winter of 1908-09 and settled in New York City. There he became acquainted with members of the newly-formed "Ashcan School" of art, who regularly met at Petitpas', a combination boarding house/restaurant popular with the artistic crowd in New York. During his visits to Petitpas', Brooks began friendships with authors such as R. L. Sneddon and Horace Traubel, as well as aging artist John Butler Yeats. Yeats influenced the vast majority of Petitpas' regulars, imparting to them wisdom regarding the nature of art and society. At this point in time, Brooks began to explore the ideas of socialism. Brooks moved to California in 1911, where he married childhood friend Eleanor Stimson, and the couple's first child, Charles Van Wyck, was born in 1912. Brooks made a living as a professor of literature at recently-founded Stanford University, while continuing to develop his literary theories. The family moved to England in 1913 but returned to America in 1915, when Brooks published America's Coming of Age.
America's Coming of Age continued a number of themes that Wine of the Puritans had initially explored. Brooks continued his attack on Puritanism, although he did focus on different issues. Central to this work's theories was Brooks' emphasis upon the concepts of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture and literature. He argued that both stereotypes – "highbrow being the superior person whose virtue is admitted but felt to be an inept unpalatable virtue" and lowbrow being "a good fellow one readily takes to, but with a certain scorn for him and all his works" – were equally undesirable. Highbrow art and thought, to Brooks, was exemplified by such individuals as Jonathan Edwards and Thoreau, while lowbrow thought encompassed such men as Benjamin Franklin, as well as most humorists. As he did in Wine of the Puritans, Brooks blamed Puritanism for these problems in American art and literature, claiming that the Puritans' willingness to submit to a deity for both divine and practical affairs had resulted in a lack of centrality of thought. Brooks stressed the need for a fusion of the highbrow and lowbrow strains, calling for a socialist leader to rise up and obliterate the class distinctions that had led to such a gap in the first place.
In 1917, after a short stint with The Seven Arts, a literary magazine, Brooks moved back to California, where he completed work on his next book, The Ordeal of Mark Twain. The Ordeal, published by Dutton Press in 1920 (Dutton brought out virtually all of Brooks' books from this time forward), was a psychoanalytic study of the author in the Freudian literary style that had recently become popular in academia. Brooks concluded that Twain was borderline schizophrenic; outwardly, he rejected his Calvinist upbringing, but he had so deeply internalized it that it consistently interfered with his attempts to abandon the compulsive moralism of his mother and wife. Brooks saw Twain's use of a pseudonym, among other things, as indicative of multiple personalities brought on by this conflict.
Once The Ordeal was completed, Brooks turned his attentions to the figure of Henry James. The Pilgrimage of Henry James was released in February of 1925. Brooks focused on James as the image of the American scholar artist, unable to relate seriously to culture in the United States or in England. James, Brooks concluded, was unhappy in America, so he traveled to Europe to live abroad. He was rejected, however, by European artistic culture and effectively became a man without a home. Brooks used James' plight to further his theories regarding the American scholar's inability to find a proper historical and cultural grounding for the American arts.
At about the point when The Pilgrimage of Henry James was released, Brooks began to show signs of severe depression. Brooks had been experiencing steady financial difficulties up to this point (he and Eleanor had taken up translating French texts to earn extra money), and the combination of financial woes and Brooks' problems reconciling his socialistic impulses with the need to make a living seem to have pushed him over the edge. It seems likely that Charles Ames Brooks' suicide in 1931 had an effect, as well. From 1927 to 1932 Van Wyck spent the majority of his time being shuttled from one clinic to another in efforts to deal with his severe depression. He was proclaimed cured in 1932, at which point he returned to writing. Eleanor's family, who were very well off, gave Brooks a gift of $100,000, which alleviated his financial worries and allowed him to focus upon his work in literary theory. Issues of depression would be a recurring problem in Brooks' life, but the most severe problems were over by the mid-1930s.
Brooks' next major project, The Flowering of New England, was published in 1936 and won the Pulitzer Prize in History the next year. The Flowering of New England marked the beginning of Brooks' masterpiece: a multiple-volume series entitled Makers and Finders. Brooks set out to gain a coherent understanding of all New England literature. He began by reading any work of literature that he felt might be even marginally relevant to the discussion--some 825 books for Flowering alone. The next fifteen years saw Brooks continue the series, which comprises New England: Indian Summer, The World of Washington Irving, The Times of Melville and Whitman, and finally, The Confident Years. The result was a remarkable comprehensive history of the writer in America from the early 1800s to 1915.
At the same time as he was writing the Makers and Finders series, Brooks was becoming more heavily involved in politics. He had been sympathetic to socialist and communist ideals since his days at Petitpas', and his time on the managing boards of such magazines as The Freeman and The Seven Arts had introduced him to a large number of people who had similar feelings. From the early 1930s into World War II, Brooks spent a great deal of time engaged in socialist pursuits; in 1935 he joined the League of American Writers, an organization which grew out of the American Writers' Congress. Ostensibly, the League's purpose was to support the Soviet Union and to condemn fascist and capitalist attacks on socialism. Brooks was one of forty writers elected to the League's national council, along with contemporaries such as Malcolm Cowley, Waldo Frank, and Kenneth Burke. His membership, however, seems to have been focused more on combating the rise of fascism than establishing a socialist regime, and Brooks later resigned from the League's board after arguments over League policy. He was followed by a number of other key participants, and the League essentially dissolved by the middle of 1940.
Eleanor passed away in August of 1945, and Van Wyck remarried in 1947. His second wife, Gladys Rice Billings was introduced to Brooks by her close friend, John Hall Wheelock, with whom Brooks had remained in close contact. The couple moved to Bridgewater, Connecticut, where Van Wyck spent the rest of his life. Brooks concluded the Makers and Finders series in 1952, with the release of The Confident Years: 1885-1915; he then began work on an autobiography. Scenes and Portraits: Memories of Childhood and Youth, which covered his early life, was published in 1954 and was followed in 1957 by Days of the Phoenix. Brooks concluded his memoirs with From the Shadow on the Mountain in 1961. In 1962 Van Wyck suffered a serious stroke during the late summer, and his health began declining rapidly. He died on 2 May 1963.
The Van Wyck Brooks correspondence contains two series: the first comprises correspondence with Van Wyck Brooks from friends and professionals. The second contains familial correspondence to and from Van Wyck, as well as correspondence to and from Van Wyck's eldest son, Charles, along with a few miscellaneous letters between other family members. The collection consists of 54 boxes, containing 3482 folders of letters. The dates of letters within the correspondence series range from the early 1890s to 1963, which was the year of Brooks' death. Within each series, letters are arranged alphabetically by correspondent, and then chronologically within each correspondent's folder(s).
The first series contains 3,237 folders within 46 boxes, with approximately 2000 to 2500 correspondents, and covers correspondence from 1905 up until Brooks' death in 1963. This series contains a (presumably) complete set of Brooks' royalty statements from E .P. Dutton, the publisher who printed nearly all of Brooks' books. In addition, the series includes copies of official correspondence from organizations of which Brooks was a member, such as the League of American Writers, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as correspondence relating to speaking engagements at a number of functions (most commonly graduations). The vast majority of the series, however, is correspondence of a more or less personal nature. There are a number of requests for Brooks' autograph, as well as a sizeable number of fan letters. Most of the letters are from Brooks' friends and acquaintances.
Major correspondents within the first series, with "major" defined as being at least ten folders' worth of letters, consist primarily of Brooks' close friends and literary contemporaries, although there are exceptions, such as the afore-mentioned block of correspondence from Dutton, Brooks' publisher. Excluding the Dutton Financial/Royalty statements, the largest groups of letters come from poet John Hall Wheelock and author Lewis Mumford. Wheelock's letters span the years from 1906 until 1963 – his folders contain messages from the period in which Brooks had just entered Harvard and become friends with Wheelock, up to Brooks' death. The Wheelock correspondence occupies 17 folders. Mumford's letters cover a period from 1921 until Brooks' death, and take up 33 folders. Other key figures within the collection include Helen Keller, whose letters take up 14 folders, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, with 17, Newton Arvin and William McFee, both with 23, Theodore Maynard, with 17, and Louis Finkelstein with 12. Virtually all of these groups of correspondence span the years from 1920 until Brooks' death, although the Keller correspondence does not begin until the late 1940s, when Brooks and his second wife moved to Westport, CT, where Keller lived. These letters are most heavily concentrated in the years between 1920 and 1960. In terms of business/organization correspondence, the two largest contributors to the collection are the afore-mentioned set of correspondence with E. P. Dutton, which is contained within 20 folders of correspondence, and 29 folders of royalty statements. Additional key organizations include the American Academy of Arts and Letters, with 10 folders.
The second series, comprising 245 folders over 8 boxes, contains two major sections: the first is the set of inter-family correspondence, including letters between Brooks and his wife, his sons, and other close relatives. The second section contains a portion of the correspondence between Charles Van Wyck Brooks (Van Wyck Brooks' son) and a number of his friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Included within the Van Wyck Brooks family correspondence is a (presumably) complete set of letters between Brooks and Eleanor Stimson Brooks, his first wife. These letters comprise 21 folders and cover a time period from 1903 until Eleanor's death in 1945. Other major sections of the family correspondence include 35 folders of letters between Brooks and his son Charles, 48 folders of letters between Charles and his mother (Eleanor Stimson Brooks), and 11 folders of letters between Charles and Eleanor Maxson Stimson (his maternal grandmother). In general, the family correspondence, both of Van Wyck and Charles, tends to be less related to Van Wyck Brooks' literary work, and more focused upon personal interactions. The family correspondence contains most of the letters written between Van Wyck and Eleanor during their courtship, and also includes parental correspondence sent to Charles while he was at Harvard.
The Charles Van Wyck Brooks correspondence contains very few letters from persons of note. Nearly all of it tends to be letters from friends at school and in the years immediately after graduation (from Harvard – Charles followed in Van Wyck's footsteps). Charles eventually found employment as a woodworker, so his contact with literary figures essentially remained limited to his father's acquaintances. While the Charles Van Wyck Brooks correspondence does include a few letters from Newton Arvin, Wheelock, and other authors/critics, nearly all of it is from college and high school friends.
Gift of Van Wyck Brooks, 1949.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Adam Oleksa
- Finding Aid Date
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