Portrait by John Butler Yates, 1909
Van Wyck Brooks became well known through his work as a literary critic, although he generally is not considered an author of literary works himself. Brooks is also well known through his work as a historian of American literature during the 19th century, and he produced a series of studies, which were known and published as the “Makers and Finders” series. One of his books in this series, “The Flowering of New England”, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1937. Brooks was also known as a biographer, focusing mainly on autobiographical works. Because of his work as a literary critic of 19th century literature, Van Wyck Brooks was considered to be the chronicler of America’s Literary Heritage.
Van Wyck Brooks got his Dutch name, Van Wyck, through his mothers’ side. His mother’s maiden name was Sarah Ames, but following her marriage to Charles Brooks, Sarah was known as Sally Brooks. Sally’s Dutch roots went back some seven generations to her forefather, Cornelis Barente Van Wyck, who settled in New Amsterdam in 1659. His descendants became part of a prosperous Long Island farming family, and Sally was one of the members of that group.
Van Wyck Brooks was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on February 16, 1886. His parents, Sally and Charles Brooks were well off, and as a result Van Wyck was able to get a good primary education. Van Wyck eventually ended up in Harvard University, from where he graduated in 1908.
There is little doubt that Van Wyck Brooks’s major contribution consisted of his literary history of the 19th century. He brought to the fore, the importance of the literary contributions by such major 19th century authors as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, Theodore Dreiser, and Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. It is generally accepted that the reason we are still reading about these 19th century authors today, is because of the work Brooks has done, on publicizing their contributions to American literature, during that time period.
As was mentioned above, Brooks is best known for his “Finders and Makers” series. The five books that make up the series consist of the Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Flowering of New England—1815-1865”, published in 1936, “New England: Indian Summer—1865-1915”, published in 1940, “The World of Washington Irving”, published in 1944, “The Times of Melville and Whitman”, published in 1947, and “The Confident Years—1885-1915”, published in 1952.
Other Van Wyck Brooks studies in the literary critic genre consist of, “The world of H. G. Wells”, published in 1915, “The Ordeal of Mark Twain”, published in 1920, “The Pilgrimage of Henry James”, published in 1925, “The Life of Emerson”, published in 1932, “Opinions of Oliver Allston”, published in 1941,”On Literature Today”, published in 1941, “The Writer in America”, published in 1953, and “The Dream of Arcadia: American Writers and Artists in Italy, 1760-1915”, published in 1958.
Brooks also liked working on biographies, including several autobiographical studies. The biographies include, “John Addington Symonds: A Biographical Study”, published in 1914, “John Sloan: A Painter’s Life”, published in 1955, “Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait”, published in 1956, and “Howells: His Life and World”, published in 1959.
Brooks autobiographical works include, “Days of the Phoenix: The Nineteen Twenties I Remember”, published in 1957, “From A Writer’s Notebook”, published in 1958, “From the Shadow of the Mountain: My Post Meridian Years”, published in 1961, and “An Autobiography”, published in 1965. The above listing of Brooks’ works is fairly comprehensive but not totally complete.
Van Wyck Brooks was a long time resident of Bridgewater, Connecticut. Following his death, the town decided to build an addition to a library building and name it after Brooks. Funding delayed the completion of the building addition, but finally in 1980 the library wing officially opened.
Van Wyck Brooks passed away in Bridgewater, Connecticut, on May 2, 1963.
Van Wyck Brooks, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Wyck_Brooks
Van Wyck Brooks, http://www.nndb.com/people/965/000117614/
Van Wyck Brooks, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Brooks-V.html
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