Van Wyck Brooks -The Saviour of American Literature

Steve Newman Writer
5 min readJul 20, 2018


Van Wyck Brooks. Image: University of Arizona

Today we read writers like Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, Louisa May Alcott and Theodore Dreiser as if they have always been there. And if we haven’t read them we have at least heard of them. The point is they would not have been available to read without the work of one man, one American, Van Wyck Brooks.

Brooks was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on February 16th 1886, which, in that year, was no longer the small backwater it had been, but a thriving, bustling New York commuter dormitory, which didn’t suit people like Van Wyck’s mother, Sallie Brooks, who thought it unnecessary and rather common.

As James Hoopes reminds us in his 1977 biography:

“ Sallie Brooks never questioned her own qualifications as an arbiter of American taste and culture, and it would have been surprising if she had done so, with her secure upper-class childhood and ancestry that was, as she understood the word, impeccably American. Consciously proud of her Dutch and English forebears, she was quick to join the ‘Daughters of the American Revolution’ when the organization was founded in the 1890s.”

The first of Sallie Brooks’ ancestors to settle in America, some seven generations before the birth of Van Wyck, was Cornelius Barente Van Wyck, who settled in New Amsterdam in 1659, with his descendants becoming prosperous Long Island farming gentry, with two of his great-grandsons fighting as generals with the American Army during the Revolutionary Wars. One of the general’s sisters, Altje Van Brooks, married a colonel, John Bailey, who was of English descent. One of their sons, Theodorus, became a senator, with another, William, becoming — by marrying into the Platt family — a wealthy land owner.

His son, Theodore, became an admiral in the American Navy, and was second-in-command at New Orleans when the Union took that city’s surrender in the Civil War. John Bailey, the brother of the landowner, was Sallie’s grandfather who “…married a poet, Emily Thurber, who bore him three sons (two of whom perished in the Civil War) and in 1832 a daughter, Phebe, who became Sallie’s mother.”

Steve Newman Writer

Playwright and Freelance Writer…