February Books 3) The World of Washington Irving, by Van Wyck Brooks

This is very entertaining and witty account of the American literary scene in the first four decades of the nineteenth century, using Washington Irving’s life and career as a thread which unites a much broader discussion of American culture and other writers – I think there were as many chapters specifically about Poe as about Irving. There were a lot of things here I hadn’t thought about – how in 1800 Philadephia was at the heart of the new nation, rather than the smaller and dubiously Dutch-speaking New York; how service in the early US Navy was an intellectually broadening experience; how big an earthquake the 1828 election was; how closely linked the various writers were by bonds of blood and friendship. I must admit I haven’t read widely in this period – Davy Crockett, Poe, and failed attempts on The Scarlet Letter and The Last of the Mohicans and that’s it – but Brooks made me feel that I could profitably try a bit more.

I probably would not have bothered to acquire this had I not discovered, several years ago, that Van Wyck Brooks was my grandmother’s step-brother – his mother married my great-grandfather after both lost their first spouses and they lived in Plainfield, New Jersey. Brooks was thirteen years older than his little half-sister and they did not know each other particularly well (she did not get on with her stepmother and was packed off to Europe). Brooks didn’t like Plainfield either but remained on good terms with my grandmother, who in turne facilitated his biographers.

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