In the 1940s, Van Wyck Brooks’s reputation was riding high. There he is in 1944 on the cover of Time magazine, along with an inset photo of his book which I have just finished reading: The World of Washington Irving. Go to a used book store, and you won’t have much trouble finding nice hardbound copies of his best books, titles like The Flowering of New England, The Times of Melville and Whitman, and New England: Indian Summer. Go to a new book store, and you are not likely to find any of his work.
I guess it’s all a matter of fashion. I read The World of Washington Irving and The Flowering of New England with rapt attention, Brooks’s knowledge of his subject matter was nothing less than awesome. But the tone is different from today’s literary critics. Brooks was an antiquary: He worshiped and celebrated the past, which for him was a pageant from beginning to end.
Take, for example, this quote from a letter written by Philip Pendleton Cooke to Edgar Allan Poe, about how rural Southerners were no longer as literate as they used to be:
My wife enticed me to visit her kinspeople in the country, and I saw more of guns and horses and dogs than of pens and paper. Amongst dinners, barbecues, snipe-shooting, riding parties, etc., I could not get my brains into humour for writing to you or to anybody else.
And yet, Brooks had, I felt, a better of understanding of Poe than any other writer I have read:
Meanwhile, the tales Poe was writing had much in common with [his poems],—and they were sometimes as musical in the beauty of their prose,—and there one also found dim tarns, wild and dreary landscapes and phantom figures flitting to and fro. Evil things in robes of sorrow presided over some of these tales, with their strange effects of horror, the macabre and the grotesque, a world of the phantasmagoric, suggesting the dreams of an opium-eater and reverberant with Thomas de Quincey’s “everlasting farewells.”
Brooks is one of those writers who sends me looking for new authors. The Flowering of New England introduced me to Francis Parkman, and I suspect that The World of Washington Irving will send me on a similar voyage of discovery with its eponymous writer as well as William Bartram, John James Audubon, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper.
Not coincidentally, I want to read more Brooks. Perhaps I, too, am an antiquarian of sorts, but nowhere in his league!