American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

Van Wyck Brooks


On Creating a Usable Past

There is a kind of anarchy that fosters growth and there is another anarchy that prevents growth, because it lays too great a strain upon the individual--and all our contemporary literature in America cries out of this latter kind of anarchy. Now, anarchy is never the sheer wantonness of mind that academic people so often think it; it results from the sudden unbottling of elements that have had no opportunity to develop freely in the open; it signifies, among other things, the lack of any sense of inherited resources. English and French writers, European writers in general, never quite separate themselves from the family tree that nourishes and sustains them and assures their growth. Would American writers have done so, plainly against their best interest, if they had had any choice in the matter? I doubt it, and that is why it seems to me significant that our professors continue to pour out a stream of historical works repeating the same points of view to such an astonishing degree that they have placed a sort of Talmudic seal upon the American tradition. I suspect, that the past experience of our people is not so much without elements that might be made to contribute to some common understanding in the present, as that the interpreters of that past experience have put a gloss upon it which renders it sterile for the living mind.

I am aware, of course, that we have had no cumulative culture, and that consequently the professors who guard the past and the writers who voice the present inevitably have less in common in this country than anywhere in the Old World. The professors of American literature can, after all, offer very little to the creators of it. But there is a vendetta between the two generations, and the older generation seems to delight in cutting off the supplies of the younger. What actuates the old guard in our criticism and their energetic following in the university world is apparently no sort of desire to fertilize the present, but rather to shame the present with the example of the past. There is in their note an almost pathological vindictiveness when they compare the "poetasters of today" with certain august figures of the age of pioneering who have long since fallen into oblivion in the minds of men and women of the world. Almost pathological, I say, their vindictiveness appears to be; but why not actually so? I think it is; and therefore it seems to me important, as a preliminary step to the reinterpretation of our literature, that we should have the reinterpretation of our professors that now goes merrily forward.

For the spiritual past has no objective reality; it yields only what we are able to look for in it. And what people find in literature corresponds precisely with what they find in life. Now it is obvious that professors who accommodate themselves without effort to an academic world based like ours upon the exigencies of the commerical mind cannot see anything in the past that conflicts with a commerical philosophy. Thanks to his training and environment and the typically non-creative habit of his mind, the American professor by instinct interprets his whole field of learning with reference to the ideal not of the creative, but of the practical life. He does this very often by default, but not less conclusively for that. The teaching of literature stimulates the creative faculty but it also and far more effectually thwarts it, so that the professor turns against himself. He passively plays into the hands that underfeed his own imaginative life and permits the whole weight of his meticulous knowledge of the past to tip the beam against the living present. He gradually comes to fulfill himself in the vicarious world of the dead and returns to the actual world of struggling and miseducated mortals in the majestic raiment of borrowed immortalities. And he pours out upon that world his own contempt for the starveling poet in himself. That is why the histories of our literature so often end with a deprecating gesture at about

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