In Search of American Literature
Van Wyck Brooks loved the outdoor life as much as listening-in to the intellectuals of the day and reading, and with his friend and neighbour Max Perkins (who later went on to become Hemingway’s and Scott Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribners), went on long walks, climbed trees, went bird-nesting and swimming, which resulted in Van Wyck becoming a strong and independent young man who could use his fists as well as his brain.
In 1898, soon after moving house, the entire Brooks family boarded the Red Star Line steamship, ‘Friesland’, and headed for Europe. On board the old steamer were two other Plainfield residents: a recently divorced Mrs John Ward Stimson, and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Eleanor, a young woman Van Wyck fell in love with there and then, and married some thirteen years later.
The family spent the winter in Dresden, visiting the fine art galleries and churches, and then on March 1st,1899, headed south to Italy, spending Easter in Rome, before taking a train for Naples and the short boat journey to Capri, an island Van Wyck loved all his life.
During the months spent in Europe the budding writer filled note book after note book with his thoughts on everything, and everyone, he encountered. Nine years later Van Wyck rented a farmhouse over-looking the Bay of Naples to write his book, The Wine of the Puritans.
After the family’s return to the US, Van Wyck’s reading and intellectual pursuits had alienated him from his family, a situation that found him spending more and more time in the company of Eleanor Stimson, who loved literature just as much as he, and quickly became the recipient of dozens of love poems from Van Wyck. When she moved away from Plainfield to take up her sophomore year at Wellesley in 1903, Van Wyck was heart broken.
But they wrote to each other virtually every day, with Van Wyck showering Eleanor with even more poems.
A year later Van Wyke Brooks was enrolled at Harvard, a place he disliked, but where he was instantly accepted by the social and literary circles.
What made the place bearable was his old friend Max Perkins.
The two of them went on long early morning walks reading to each other. Another of their contemporaries at Harvard at that time was the future journalist, John Reed.
What Harvard gave Van Wyck was the time to read, and re-read, and to write, with his work for the house magazine, The Harvard Advocate, singled out as outstanding by his peers, which resulted in him becoming editor of the magazine.
In 1906 Van Wyck and Eleanor became secretly engaged, which helped him put up with a Harvard he was finding harder and harder to take. But he stuck at and graduated in June 1907, after which he spent a month with his mother in Plainfield, before embarking for England.
Van Wyck Brooks had a love affair with England for the rest of his life, but in 1906 he was far too shy to introduce himself to the many literary circles he’d heard off, and unlike some of his American contemporaries, was never able to hob nob with the likes of Somerset Maugham or H.G. Wells.
What he was able to do was get a job with the London office of the American literary agency, Curtis Brown, where he spent his days clipping news items from English newspapers, and re-writing them for several American papers.
Eleanore encouraged him to stick at the job so that he could make enough money for them to get married, but he was simply not suited to Fleet Street, and could not write the short snappy stuff editors wanted. Instead he decided to write a book about America.
Brooks self-published the result, The Wine of the Puritans, in 1909, which was reviewed by a Harvard undergraduate called T.S. Eliot, who found it “…impressive, unusually acute, refined and chilling…”, with the book becoming something of a minor best-seller within the confines of Harvard.
Van Wyke Brooks had made something of a breakthrough, suggesting that it was impossible for Americans, at that stage in their development, to understand art and literature, especially their own. They needed to be shown the way. Wyke Brooks had found his niche.
Like many writers before and since, Van Wyck Brooks now struggled, managing to sell the odd feature here and there, and working at whatever editing jobs came his way. But gradually his name, and his ideas became acceptable, especially after he and Eleanor — now married — moved to California, where he lost a certain amount of the political idealism that had built up after his return from England, and began to concentrate on writing about the history and future of Literature.
The first of which was about the English poet, John Addington Symonds, now considered by many to be one of the best researched of his early books.
Then, very slowly Van Wyck began to look more closely at American literature, which resulted in his 1920 volume, The Ordeal of Mark Twain. He’d found his subject.
This volume was followed by others on H.G. Wells, then by a seminal volume of three essays called, America’s Coming-of-Age, which looked, in essay three, at Walt Whitman, a writer Van Wyck considered to be at heart of American literature.
Click below to Read Part 1
James Hoopes — Van Wyck Brooks: In Search of American Culture (The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1977); Van Wyck Brooks — The Times of Melville and Whitman (J.M.Dent & Sons, London, 1948); Van Wyck Brooks — The World of Washington Irving (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1945); Van Wyck Brooks — New England: Indian Summer 1865–1915 ( E. P. Dutton & Co; Inc, New York, 1940); Van Wyck Brooks — From The Shadow Of The Mountain: My Post-Meridian Years (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1962); Van Wyck Brooks — The Confident Years 1885–1915 (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1953)…