VAN WYCK BROOKS: A Writer's Life by Raymond Nelson

VAN WYCK BROOKS: A Writer's Life

Email this review


A pedestrian authorized biography, intended for a general audience, and dedicated to redeeming youthful iconoclast Brooks' later mainstream works--the five-volume Makers and Finders series which began with The Flowering of New England (1936). In toto: a variously misguided enterprise--of interest for its very existence, but unlikely to satisfy anyone. On the basis that he's writing for the ""general reader,"" Nelson supplies no source notes--so that the serious reader cannot assess anything that diverges from established fact. The bibliography is a disservice to everyone: a ""list of works quoted,"" it represents Brooks' own writings only spottily (arranged, moreover, by title) and omits all previous full-length studies, the literary history in which he figures largest, etc. (some of which are, however, quoted in the text). And why the nod to the general reader in the first place? Van Wyck Brooks (18861963) is still a literary-cultural presence today because he sought ""a usable past"" for American creative talent in the 1910s, because he explored the cultural/material tensions in American life in his 1920 Ordeal of Mark Twain, because (less auspiciously) he fought against Eliot and formalism in the 1930s and '40s: all matters of interest principally to serious readers. On these, Nelson is merely adequate--parsing the content and themes of Brooks' writings, recapping the conventional judgments. Added interest inheres in Brooks because he emerged from a long mental collapse (1926-31) altered in outlook--now ready to find affirmative values, not alienation, in the American past. Here, Nelson stresses continuities, and thereby reaches the final, Makers and Finders chapter with a surface coherence. But the many shifts in Brooks' position are thereby obscured; the relation between his personal breakdown and his interpretive stance is not clarified; neither his life nor his work resonates. (As a biographer, Nelson is totally without descriptive, narrative, or analytical skills.) As for The Flowering of New England et al., nothing Nelson says in their behalf (""Of course Makers and Finders is fictive. All history in a sense is fiction. So is all philosophy, theology,"" etc.) will convince the doubters--to be found, of course, among serious readers. Nelson does evoke the milieux, he does lay out the course of Brooks' life--but beyond that he either restates the obvious or he founders.

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1981
Publisher: Dutton