Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: "The Wine of the Puritans" by Van Wyck Brooks

So I suppose I should start this review off by pointing out that there's not much about either wine or the Puritans in this short book by Van Wyck Brooks. Oh sure, Brooks starts off with a discussion about the Puritans and about the folly of putting their old-world wine in the new wineskins of the American setting, but that gets left behind pretty quickly as we wander into the subject Brooks really wants to discuss (and one found in the subtitle): "A Study of Present Day America."

This is, however, no ordinary study of present day America. Brooks has structured his work as a "dialogue" between two individuals who don't really dialogue at all, but just feed off of each others comments and move the discussion forward through instant agreement and mutual support. This is not to say the book is boring or poorly done, just that it's not what we think of when we think of a dialogue.

So what are Brooks' conclusions about the state of "modern" America? (Keep in mind that this book was written in 1908.) In short, it is about the difficulty of Americans in finding their own voice/spirit/philosophy/whatever. We are as a nation a set of "new wineskins", yet as we all know old wine (the thought and lifestyles of Europe) doesn't work well with new wineskins. Which means that we need a new wine to go in our new setting, but we haven't been great at discovering this new wine. In fact, we aren't really clear on what the nature of the new wineskins is, let alone what should go into it.

To give an example from the book, Brooks talks about art:
But it seems that an artist can produce great and lasting work only out of the materials which exist in him by instinct and which constitute racial fibre, the accretion of countless generations of ancestors, trained to one deep, local, indigenous attitude toward life. A man is more the product of his race than of his art, for a man may supremely express his race without being an artist, while he cannot be a supreme artist without expressing his race. (121-122)
The problem is, we have no concept of what it means to be part of the American "race," no way of exploring our own perspective on the world and on life. That in part was the goal of Brooks' career (The Wine of the Puritans was, I think, his first book). Through books on Washington Irving, the New England writers, Mark Twain, and other giants of American arts and letters, Brooks strove to find the thread tying them all together. Here, Brooks doesn't so much find a unifying theme as he does suggest that such a theme might best be found by comparing American writings to European ones. He writes:
And what trait do you find that these American artists all have in common? Precisely that not one of them could be mistaken essentially for a Frenchman or an Englishman or a Spaniard. Their technique may be the technique of any of these foreign schools, but where anything lies behind the technique we know that it must be the American spirit, because we can see that it is not the French spirit or the English spirit. (125-126)
This may be a bit of a dodge, but there may also be something to it. We may not be able to articulate the American spirit, but we know it when we see it.

Overall, this quick little read is an excellent jumping-off point into thinking about what it is that makes America distinct artistically, philosophically, etc. While I don't agree with all of Brooks' comments or conclusions, he is an excellent writer and has good points to make.

Recommended for those interested in the subject.

This book is available free through Google or not for free through Amazon:

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