Saturday, February 16, 2013

Van Wyck Brooks was top literary critic

Van Wyck Brooks on Time cover in 1944

It is the birthday of literary historian Van Wyck Brooks (1886), whose detailed study of early American literature, The Flowering of New England (1936), won the Pulitzer Prize for history and the National Book Award. It is notable for placing such writers as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau into historical context, examining the social, religious, and political forces of the nation and the region that affected these literary icons.

The book was part of his Finders and Makers series that covered American literary history from 1800 to 1915. Books from the series also include New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1916 (1940), The World of Washington Irving (1944), The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947), and The Confident Years: 1885-1915 (1952). Indian Summer was well received and was a best seller. Brooks was hailed for his vivid style and clarity. He drew from the letters and other contemporary documents to paint clear pictures of the men and their times.

Brooks' volume, On Literature Today (1941), harshly criticized the likes of Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway, whose dim views of humankind were in direct conflict with Brooks' desire for literature of affirmation rooted in an abiding faith in human nature.

Brooks graduated from Harvard University in 1908. While he was a student, he published with a friend his first collection of poetry, Verses by Two Undergraduates. He followed that with The Wine of the Puritans (1909), his first book of literary criticism. Brooks wrote that Puritanism had a profound effect on the formation of American culture and ideas.

Brooks also wrote a detailed study of the great American author Samuel L. Clemens in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920). He blamed the author's shortcomings on Twain's mother and wife.

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