In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Van Wyck Brooks

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections and Archival Material

American Literature Van Wyck Brooks
Jennifer M. Nader
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0160


Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Van Wyck Brooks (b. 1886–d. 1963) was one of America’s most well-known literary critics, biographers, and cultural historians. After attending Harvard, Brooks wrote for and edited several literary magazines including the Atlantic Monthly, The Dial, The Freeman, and The Seven Arts. He published extensively and gained international renown. One of the hallmarks of Brooks’s works involved his use of creativity and a lyrical, thoughtful voice instead of an impersonal academic tone—a style that he began working on while at Harvard and maintained throughout his career that earned him both praise and criticism. His early book America’s Coming-of-Age (Brooks 1915) stamped his place as a controversial critic. In this book he argued that America’s Puritan heritage had caused a paradoxical split between religion and money; for Brooks, this resulted in a torn American public divided by highbrow and lowbrow ideals. In “On Creating a Usable Past” Brooks sought to create a “usable past” in order to answer the question of what Americans would want to know or ought to remember historically in order to progress. Brooks was one of the earliest to use psychoanalysis to create a literary argument. In The Ordeal of Mark Twain (Brooks 1920) Brooks argued that Twain’s Calvinist heritage stifled his creativity. The book was so provocative that it spurred a rebuttal by Bernard De Voto, and led to De Voto’s coining of the term “literary fallacy.” Brooks continued with psychoanalysis in the polemic The Pilgrimage of Henry James (Brooks 1925) where he contended that James had hindered his later writings by expatriating. Brooks found himself in yet another heated debate regarding the place of the critic when he supported Archibald MacLeish’s claim of the American writer’s social responsibility in presenting the American future as positive. Though Brooks believed he had found an American writer who had joined art and life together in The Life of Emerson (Brooks 1932) Brooks then suffered a breakdown. Upon emerging from this depression years later, he expressed very different ideas from those he had expressed earlier. Because of this, many refer to Brooks’s works as early Brooks and later Brooks. Brooks began the Makers and Finders series next, and worked to trace American literary history via biography. The series won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, but Brooks still faced heavy criticism—this time for being too conventional. In response to critics, Brooks wrote The Writer in America (Brooks 1953). Though Brooks’s popularity has faded over the past decades, scholarship and debate continue to grapple with Brooks’s ideas.

General Overviews

The sources listed in this section are a representative sample of the praise and criticism Brooks received and reveal Brooks’s influence. Mumford 1924 offers an imaginary conversation among critics, including Brooks. Wilson 1924 warns Brooks to be mindful of the work he inspired. Smith 1936 provides an overview of Brooks’s works and considers why Brooks’s popularity began to wane. Dupee 1939 offers an unbiased piece on Brooks’s works and career and includes critical responses to Brooks’s claims. Kohler 1941 finds Brooks is constant in his work but argues that many of Brooks’s early works are apprentice works. Cargill 1946 provides an excellent overview of several of Brooks’s works and critical responses to them. Hyman 1948 is critical of Brooks’s shortcomings as a critic but praises Brooks’s arguments on Twain. Gunn 1986 focuses on Brooks’s use of the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” as well as his desire to define a middlebrow area. These sources will be useful in providing a good base of information about Brooks’s ideas and critical reactions to them.

  • Cargill, Oscar. “The Ordeal of Van Wyck Brooks.” College English 8.2 (November 1946): 55–61.

    DOI: 10.2307/371346

    Overview of Brooks’ s life and works from The Wine of the Puritans to The World of Washington Irving as well as reader/critical responses to Brooks’s works. Discusses Brooks’s fall from popularity and subsequent rise and praises Brooks for withstanding harsh criticism from many sides.

  • Dupee, F. W. “The Americanism of Van Wyck Brooks.” Partisan Review (June 1939): 69–85.

    Objective evaluation of Brooks’s works and career, criticisms against him, and his successes and shortcomings. Interestingly, Brooks never directly responded to Dupee, though he responded to many other critics.

  • Gunn, Giles. “The History of American Studies and the Relation Between High and Popular Culture.” In High and Low in American Culture. Edited by Charlotte Kretzoi, 181–195. Budapest, 1986.

    Provides a solid summary of Brooks’s usage of the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” in Brooks 1915, and Brooks’s desire to find a middle ground, or middlebrow substitute for the extreme binary opposition of the categories of highbrow and lowbrow.

  • Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “Van Wyck Brooks and Biographical Criticism.” In The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism. By Stanley Edgar Hyman, 92–114. New York: Knopf, 1948.

    Works to explain Brooks’s critical approach to criticism. Though critical of Brooks and notes Brooks’s decline in popularity, Hyman finds Brooks 1920 successful. Will be useful for students who want to see the progression of criticism and changing attitudes toward critics over time.

  • Kohler, Dayton. “Van Wyck Brooks: Traditionally American.” College English 2.7 (April 1941): 629–639.

    DOI: 10.2307/370824

    Explores Brooks’s varied positions and argues that although he was inconsistent Brooks’s works made a serious impact for several decades. Notes Brooks’s change in approach and finds Brooks 1936 and Brooks 1940 to be literary histories that “point to a new literary nationalism” (p. 639).

  • Mumford, Lewis. “Aesthetics: A Palaver.” American Mercury III (November 1924): 360–365.

    Imaginary conversation among four critics that includes a voice for Brooks through “Charles Adams.” Each makes a case for criticism, but “Adams” is strongest. Adams offers his approach to criticism. Useful for students interested in debates about differing approaches in literary criticism.

  • Smith, Bernard. “Van Wyck Brooks.” New Republic 88 (26 August 1936): 69–72.

    Provides an overview of Brooks’s works, ideals, achievements, and shortcomings. Notes Brooks’s early and later ideas and marks “The Literary Life in America” as the beginnings of Brooks’s change in ideas and approach to criticism. Useful for students who want a broad overview of Brooks.

  • Wilson, Edmund. “Imaginary Conversations: Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mr. Van Wyck Brooks.” New Republic 38 (30 April 1924): 249–254.

    Imagined dialogue that warns Brooks about being unable to appreciate the work he had inspired. Useful for students interested in seeing the relationship among critics and writers.

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