Monday, May 23, 2016

“America’s Coming of Age” by Van Wyck Brooks

By the time he was 29, literary historian Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) had published five books: a collection of poems written while he and John Hall Wheelock were at Harvard called Verses by Two Undergraduates (1905); The Wine of the Puritans: A Study of Present-Day America (1908); The Malady of the Ideal: Senancour, Maurice de Guerin, and Amiel (1913); John Addington Symonds: A Biography Study (1914); and The World H.G. Wells (1915).

Later in 1915, Brooks published a slender but rather provocative volume called America’s Coming of Age. In five related essays, Brooks argued that culture “… should bear a critical relationship to social reality,” notes his biographer, James Hoopes. “Culture should express the ideal and exhort society to realize it.” That’s how Brooks believed culture functioned in Europe. In America, however, that had not happened.

Rather than a centralizing influence, culture (including literature) occupied two distinct positions in American society, Brooks said – high-brow and low-brow. He traced the two positions back to the 18th century, finding high-brow culture originating in the writings of the theologians like Jonathan Edwards and low-brow culture coming from the writings of Benjamin Franklin. Two cultures had not met in the middle, and each continued to occupy specific positions.

How this operated at the level of American literature, Brooks said, was that high-brow culture was a kind of meaningless idealism, while low-brow culture was a kind of meaningless realism. The two were divided, and prospects didn’t seem good for a union any time soon.

These two cultures could easily be seen in popular writing (Brooks cites Edgar Allen Poe as rather “vulgar”) and contrasting with serious writers like writing like Nathaniel Hawthorne. In Brooks’ view, Walt Whitman came close to unifying the two, but Whitman seemed more an exception than the rule.

Culture, of course, has consequences, and Brooks saw the division of American culture as having consequences. Business, for example, he associated with low-brow culture, and academic writers with high-brow. And the two were separated by what looked like an unbridgeable gulf.

Van Wyck Brooks in 1909, painted by John Butler Yeats
The result, Brooks said in America’s Coming of Age, was unsettling, with American culture like some pre-Darwinian state. “America is like a vast Sargasso Sea – a prodigious welter of unconscious life, swept by ground-swells of half-conscious emotion,” he wrote. “All manner of living things are drifting into it, phosphorescent, gayly colored, gathered into knots and clotted masses, gelatinous, unformed, flimsy, tangled, rising and falling, floating and merging…everywhere an unchecked, uncharted, unorganized vitality like that of the first chaos.”

It’s fascinating to read this discussion of pre-World War I America a century later during a raucous, unsettling, and rather wild election campaign. It would be rather too easy to define the various presidential candidates as either high-brow or low-brow. And it would be too easy to understand American culture broadly as our celebrity-dominated and often crude entertainment society and the rather sterile and to most Americans meaningless activity that passes for a lot of academic culture.

Too easy, yes, but there are elements of truth in what Brooks identified a century ago that we experience daily in 2016.


Top photograph: 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Drink this

After Joel 1

Drink this new wine,
this wine of disaster,
the wine that devours you,
this bitter grape you
planted in your vineyards,
the vineyards of the locusts,

An army of locusts
buzzing and feeding
upon the land
upon your soul.

And then the dreams
and then the visions
and then the wind pours out,
the wind pours out.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday Good Reads

One rainy day last October in London, I made my way from the Temple tube station to the Samuel Johnson House, walking through windy alley ways and streets of the area known as Temple. I peeked into courtyards and caught a glimpse of the Temple church. It’s an area known for solicitors and law firms (like Rumpole’s – I passed several pubs which could easily pass for Pomeroy’s Wine Bar). BBC has a story about the area.

Last Sunday was the 70th anniversary of the death of writer and novelist Charles Williams. The Englewood Review of Books posted video commentaries on Williams – one by C.S. Lewis and one by Malcolm Guite. Williams, the author of several rather strange novels (think “magic surrealism”), was one of the Inklings with Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Pew Research Center did a study, and found that, yes, indeed, the American middle class is shrinking (the fuel of the presidential candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump).

And good poetry, good advice on writing (like when to ignore advice), a conversation with poet Dana Gioia, a beautiful photograph of the city of York, and a video about how far back in time could you go and still understand English?

British Stuff

London Stone in seven strange myths – Museum of London.


When to Ignore Writing Advice – Mike Duran at deConpose.


The Greatest Miracle in History – Richard Scott at  Plough Magazine.

C.S. Lewis and Malcolm Guite on Charles Williams (videos) – Englewood Review of Books.

Letter to the Church at Market Street – Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.

Arriving Where We Started – Leilani Mueller at Curator Magazine.


Yesterday’s News – Darlene at Simply Darlene.

Cold Can Be Beautiful – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

End of School Year – Chris Yokel.

Life and Culture

The Myth of Progress – Victor Davis Hanson at the Hoover Institution.

America’s Shrinking Middle Class – Pew Research Center.

Art and Photography

Autumn’s Stripes – Tim Good at Pixels.

All Saints Across the River Ouse – Stephen Candler.

Pompeian Quality – M. Laine Wyatt at Oxford American.

How far back in time could you go and still understand English?

Painting: Girl in Grey, oil on canvas by Louis le Brocquy (1939).