- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Kessinger Publishing, LLC (June 23, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1419156306
- ISBN-13: 978-1419156304
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,173,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Times of Melville and Whitman
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We are more than familiar with the writers and poets who emerged from New England during the 19th century described in these books, because they became part of the American literary canon. Irving. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Emily Dickinson. Henry David Thoreau. Henry and William James. And many more.
But the geographical center of the country was shifting, and the literary cultural center was shifting at the same time. As the United States expanded westward, its writers and poets followed.
This is the world described by Brooks in “The Times of Melville and Whitman” (1947). It is the world of pre-Civil War San Francisco, which drew writers like Bret Harte and Mark Twain. This is the world of Herman Melville, whose “Typee: A Peek at Polynesian Life” captivated readers across the country and well beyond to Europe, years before he wrote “Moby Dick.” This is the world of Walt Whitman, whose” Leaves of Grass” transformed American poetry forever.
Twain, Melville, Whitman: America’s writer, the Great American Novel, America’s poet. Between them, they created what became known as an American literature.
Brooks particularly highlights the role of Twain. “Mark Twain, with his fathomless naivety prepared the ground, as Whitman did, for a new and unique American art of letters,” he writes, “in a negative way with The Innocents Abroad, in a positive way with the Western writings in which he contributed to establish and foster this art.” Those “Western writings” included “Roughing It,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and “Huckleberry Finn.”
But the new national culture still had its New England influence. Melville was influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne (and also by Shakespeare, especially in “Moby Dick,” Brooks says). And Whitman’s poetry, as heavily influenced by his political work, his newspaper work, and the growth of trade and industry as it was, was also influenced and promoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Literary culture broke out of the essential regionalism of New England and simultaneously become more geographically western and national.
Brooks wrote a time when there was still a sense of national consciousness among the political, literary, cultural, and business elites. Six decades later, that sense is largely gone. In academia, the idea of a literary canon is considered quaint and rather prehistoric, and would likely result in protests by students and professors alike.
But to read a work like “The Times of Melville and Whitman” from today’s vantage point is to see how much has been lost. And we are the poorer for it.
His writing was well-regarded by his contemporaries: witness the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize garnered by the best book in this series, The Flowering of New England. His books will obviously reflect both the times in which they were published, as well as the fact that he was born in the late 1880s. (This volume appeared when he was already in his 60s.) Compared to current criticism, his writing is richer in detail, more engaging, and less hurried in pace; to me at least, it warmly invites the reader to move at a slower pace and even linger a bit at times. It is a style which has a lot in common with that of the authors he is writing about, and if you like them, you should like Van Wyck Brooks.
Still well-worth reading today, over 60 years later.
In this installment he focuses on the transcendentalist period in writing and the way that writers emerged and blossomed in the American landscape. He makes an explicit link between the regions and the writers, with chapter headings such as "Melville in the Berkshires" and "The South: Constance Fenimore Woolson".
As a reader I found myself out of sympathy with the tone of the book. It may simply be the age of the prose that made it hard for me to read. The book was published in 1949 and there has been considerable change in the style of literary criticism since that time. I liked the anecdotes about the writers and the quality of the prose itself. However, I missed a sense of unity and clarity. I frequently found myself getting impatient and out of sorts while reading.
The book may well be of interest for someone looking for background color for the time period, but seems limited for more focused research purposes.