The Crimson Bookshelf
THREE ESSAYS ON AMERICA, by Van Wyek Brooks. E. P. Dutton & Co. New York. 1934. 216 pp.
THIS little book is a collection of three essays first published between the years 1915 and 1927. The last two merely develop and claborate the contral thesis introduced in the first, "America's Coming-Of-Age." In the first year of the war Mr. Brooks found the United States still in Knicker-bockers, although tall for its ago. The present year of grace, by his standards, would mark America's first long trousors, while still enjoying the adolescentpains of adjustment and still, perhaps, in a state of arrested development, Certainly America, still by Mr. Brook's standards, has not yet come of age. For that reason his essay still apply to the country as much as they ever did and they can be read with the same pleasure and profit as did the first readers.
What is it that has arrested America's development, that has stunted her spiritual and intellectual existence? Mr. Brooks finds the answer in the early colonial life from whence emerged both our philosophy of attainment or acquisition, and our tradition of arid spirituality. These two separate forces have worked an awful leaven in our civilization; they have produced a singular dichotomy in our national personality. Thus we have "highbrows" and "lowbrows," the former devoting themselves to a sterile, abstract kind of spirituality which has no roots in the reality of our life, and the latter running out their years in ceaseless, pointless activity, unaware that above them hangs a heaven of blue.
From this initial point of departure Mr. Brooks advances with assurance and easy facility. The evidence which he adduces serves to bolster his case well. The spiritual desert upon which we find ourselves in the beginning was made by Jonathan Edwards. "He was able to spin his inept sublimities by subtracting from his mind every trace of experience, every touch of human nature as it really was among his innocent country folk." He was a rapt and isolated scholar whose wrathful theology found no listener in the market place. On the other hand our great Dr. Franklin with his immense practicality and the common sense of poor Richard: what knew he of that inner spirit which lifts man and his works into the realm of the sublime?
From these two great and lovable men springs our essential trouble. Between them they divided America in such a way that the honest labor of man could never be fused with his inner spirit, and until such fusion comes we must await the years of our own majority. Nor is Mr. Brooks without proof. What have Longfellow, with his untried sentiments, Bryant with his manufactured moralities, Emerson with his solitary self reliance got to do with the heat and the sweat of life? They are as a barrel organ beside the still, sad music of humanity. Poe and Hawthorne, the two greatest artists who ever lived in America were driven by the materialism of the actual world about them into neurotic dream universes of their own. Not until boisterous Whitman shouldered across the country shouting his belief in man did literature bear any relation to actuality, and Whitman failed to drive his point home because of his lack of intensity and paucity of ideas.
This is the case against our maturity which Mr. Brooks makes. It is too schematized, too simplified to carry the robust convictions of the author over to his readers. Yet while one doubts his causes or his effects it is impossible to neglect his analysis of the actual facts themselves. There is a dichotomy in our life. Our literature is an isolated, extremely simple, cultural gymnastic. As Mr. Brooks points out a student in economics had but two choices of a career (though now he possesses an obvious third); he can remain and study more about economics and become more and more confined by mere terms, or he may go into business and forget all about his theoretical knowledge. It is possible that Mr. Tugwell, Mr. Warren, and the others are even now assisting America to come of age, but, at the moment, one still awaits that perfect fusion of theory and practice which is the essence of Mr. Brooks' maturity.
So, while one may question the perfection of the author's scheme he may find much of value along the way. In a fine and vigorous style criticism, thoughts, and mots, are struck off with a refreshing frankness.
Some readers may feel that Mr. Brooks is fencing with windmills that have already been shaken down by the cataclysms of the recent years, that America has come of age. To those is offered the following passage which would seem to have some to have some bearing upon our recent events: "The most striking American spectacle today (1915) is a fumbling about after new issues. We have seen one president advocating a 'Now Nationalism' another president advocating a 'New Freedom,' a well known novelist talking about a 'New Patriotism'--phrases that illustrate just this vague fumbling. With us the recognized way of pinning down something we feel to be in the air is to adopt some cast-off phrase and put a 'New' before it. A pleasant thrill runs over the country, something which is felt to be new having been recognized.