Saturday 29 June 2013

Van Wyck Brooks - The Flowering of New England (1936)

From the section Emerson in Concord: 
RALPH WALDO EMERSON had lived in Concord 
since 1834. The former pastor of a Boston church 
and a son of the Reverend William Emerson, he had 
withdrawn from the ministry. Having a little income, he 
had bought a house on the Boston turnpike, surrounded 
with pine and fir-trees. There was a garden by the brook, 
filled with roses and tulips. In the western window of his 
study, he placed an Aeolian harp. It sang in the spring 
and summer breezes, mingling with the voices of the 
birds, fitfully bringing to mind the ballads that he loved, 
the wild, melodious notes of the old bards and minstrels. 
He had been writing essays and giving addresses that 
grieved and vexed most of his older hearers. Dozens, 
even hundreds of the younger people, thinking of him, 
thought of Burns's phrase, 

Wi' sic as he, where'er he be, 
May I be saved or damned. 

But, although he had his followers in Boston, he was 
anathema to the pundits there. Everett sneered at Emer- 
son's "conceited, laborious nonsense. " John Quincy 
Adams and Andrews Norton thought he was an atheist 
and worse. The Cambridge theologians reviled him: he 
was a pantheist and a German mystic, and his style was 
a kind of neo-Platonic moonshine. The Concord prophet 
smiled at these accusations. He had the temerity to think 
that the great Cambridge guns were merely popguns. 
There was nothing explosive in his own discourse. He 
was a flute-player, one who plucked his reeds in the Con- 
cord river. But when he began to play, one saw a beauti- 
ful portico, standing in a lovely scene of nature, covered 
with blossoms and vine-leaves ; and, at the strains of the 
flute, one felt impelled to enter the portico and explore 
the unknown region that lay beyond. It was an irresistible 
invitation. As for the smiling musician, he was a mystery 
still. One thought of him as the man in Plutarch's story 
who conversed with men one day only in the year and 
spent the rest of his days with the nymphs and demons. 

Everyone had heard of him in Boston, where he was 
giving lectures. His birthplace there was a kitestring's 
distance from the house where Franklin was born and the 
house where Edgar Allan Poe was born. But, although 
he belonged to one of the oldest scholarly families, with 
countless names in the college catalogues, most of the 
signs had been against him. Tall, excessively thin, so thin 
that, as Heine said of Wellington, his full face looked 
like a profile, pale, with a tomahawk nose, blond, with 
blue eyes and smiling, curved lips, he had none of the 
traits, aggressive or brilliant, that marked his brothers in 
various ways. At moments, on the platform, he spoke 
with a tranquil authority, but his usual demeanour was 
almost girlishly passive. He had not acquired the majes- 
tic air, as of a wise old eagle or Indian sachem, that 
marked his later years. He appeared to be easily discon- 
certed, for his self-reliance was a gradual conquest. He 
had drifted through many misfortunes, drifted into and 
out of tuberculosis, drifted into teaching and out of the 
Church, maturing very slowly. He had known dark hours, 
poverty, pain, fear, disease. His first wife had died; so 
had two of his brothers. The trouble with him was, his 
elders thought, that he seemed to like to drift. He had no 
sort of record as a student. At Harvard, even three gen
-erations later, when people spoke of Emerson's "educa- 
tion," they put the word in quotation-marks,* it was not 
that he did not know his Greek and Latin, but that he 
was never systematic. He had read, both then and later, 
for "lustres" mainly. He had drifted first to Florida and 
then to Europe, and finally settled at Concord, the home 
of his forbears, where he had often visited at the Manse. 
The minister there, Dr. Ezra Ripley, who was Emerson's 
step-grandfather and very fond of the young man, felt 
that he was obliged to warn the people against this leader 
of the Egomites, those who "sent themselves" on the 
Lord's errands, without any proper calling. As for the 
lectures that Emerson was giving in Boston, on great 
men, history, the present age, the famous lawyer, 
Jeremiah Mason, when he was asked if he could under- 
stand them, replied, "No, but my daughters can." 

To the outer eye, at least, Emerson's life was an aim- 
less jumble. He had ignored all the obvious chances, re- 
jected the palpable prizes, followed none of the rules of 
common sense. Was he pursuing some star of his own? 
No one else could see it. In later years, looking back, 
Emerson's friends, remembering him, thought of those 
quiet brown colts, unrecognized even by the trainers, that 
out-strip all the others on the race-course. He had had 
few doubts himself. He had edged along sideways 
towards everything that was good in his life, but he felt 
that he was born for victory. He had not chosen his 
course. It had sprung from a necessity of his nature, an 
inner logic that he scarcely questioned. 


The  above excerpt is one of my favourite passages in on of my favourite books of literary criticism - a book that was once famous (Pulitzer Prize, a year atop the Best Seller list) and highly prestigious; but is now neglected and deeply unfashionable.

Brooks wrote it (and the accompanying four volumes in the Makers and Finders series of the history of American Literature) by years of immersion in the primary texts (many of which he was the first to reread for many decades or centuries), and detailed note taking - then wrote the texts almost as a pastiche of the style of each author as he considered them - and without footnoting.

The vast primary scholarship was thus concealed, the style was made varied and vivid, and the book made accessible and appealing to a broad 'middlebrow' audience as well as to academics for whom this was, for a while, the only overview and the first point of reference to several authors.


About 15 years ago, the above passage was especially relevant for me - I found it intoxicating, a description of 'what life is about' - more Emersonian than Emerson himself, somehow.

It captures something of permanent value which Emerson brought to the West - that close-up Aeolian Harp sensitivity to the phenomena of the world.

Emerson broke away from Unitarianism, which was already a break from Christianity - and that was a terrible error; but I feel that if this Aeolian Harp sensitivity could be brought-back into Christianity - or rather, allowed to grow from the incompleteness of current mainstream Christian perspectives - it would be a wonderful thing!



George said...

I think that Emerson was a fine journalist (as on England) and polemicist (typically on abolition). I vote with Mason on Emerson the philosopher.

Nearer 30 than 20 years ago, I read one of Van Wyck Brooks's New England books and enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the decline in Van Wyck Brooks' reputation is a truly lamentable thing. I once asked around a gathering of my Americanist colleagues (I'm an 18th century man myself)what they thought of Brooks. Tellingly, most of the 19th century specialists had never even heard of Brooks, while the ones who had had never read him.....