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REVIEWS NEW ENGLAND: THE RECENT PAST E, K· , BROWN The new vitality which the study of American literature a'nd culture has shown in ' the past twenty years comes from a ·sense;··· · now widely diffused, that the American past is "useable," 0 In the 0 nineteenth century and in the first years of the twentieth, Aryteric3ns dlought of their past as a wonderful curiosity shop, in which one could find ~ementoes of such odd c~stoms as spectral evidence and bundling, or as a portrait gallery of heroes o and heroines whose. features expressed a strength and a purity which in Fourth of July orations could be 0 contrasted with the pettiness and sel1ishness o( the present. The past was glorious but it was gone forever. In reeen t · years, especially since the intensio fication' of national con- ~cjousness in the War, American schblar.ship and criticism have asserted that the P.3St is shaping the present, that the culture of ~he present ca'nnot ·be understood if one does not relate it to thato -of the past, and that the kind of culture which· ma.y be expec;:'ted 'in the future will depend almost entirely on the culture of the past and a living awareness of it. To a European this would seem a -commonplace; but on this continent, apart from French Canadao , th~ idea that the past is the mould of the present and the future is one which does not easily make its way. We prefer to think of Hunlimited possibilities," so great that so far we have only I(scratched the surface." That part of the American past which has been most explored in the new historical way is ° the culmination of New England's culture in the middle of the last century. Appropriately, Mr. Van ' Wyck Brooks, who has done more to give the new direction than a.nyone else outside the universities, begins his history of American ' )jtera~ure and culture with an account of New England froo m 1815 to 1865.1 He has souO ght to show American intellectual and 1 The Flow"itrg of N~CJJ Eng/and, 181S~1865, by Van Wyck Brooks, E. P. Dutton Co" 1936. The second volume of the history has been announced: it will trace the decline of New Eng-land's civllizution from 1865 to 191 S. 126 REVIEWS aesthetic life in the time and place of its highest civilization. His book is extraordinarily rich in background. No other study of the American past is so evocative; th~ reader comes not only to know, but to see'and to feel, what Boston, Concord, and Ca-mbridge were like a hundred years ago. Emblematic incidents abound and are developed into vivid pictures: Ticknor in Rome refusing to make a fourth in a hand of whist with three cardinals because he would not play on Sunday; Bakunin lunching with Longfellow and so charmed that he invited himself to dinner; Holmes trudging or riding along the roads of New EngJand and stoppin'g to measure with his tape the girth of all the large trees; Bancroft newly back from Germany and disgracing himself, by kissil1g old Andrews Norton on both cheeks. Whittier's kitchen, Emerson's study, T~cknor's library) TJlOreau's hut are set before us not only as physical realities but as symbols of diverse elements in the life of the age. Mr. Brooks makes a sure use of such material. His conception of the forces in conflict at that time is dear, and at times new. He sees more clearly than other interpreters that long as was the step from Calvinism to Unitarianism, the step from' Unitarianism to Transcendentalism was even longer; as a consequence of his insight much detailed work in the intellectual biograph'ies of the men of Concord will have to be reviewed. He sees that the intellectual history of the age can be clarified if one takes Boston, Cambridge, and Concord as three centres of thought arid feeling, e~ch of them representing something distinct; Concord he thinks-of as engaged in a major, war with the other centre~, while Boston and Cambridge carried on a guerrilla campaign...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 126-131
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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