Not to be writing a book was not to be alive

William H. Pritchard reviewing a biography of Van Wyck Brooks, 1981:

For “not to be writing a book was not to be alive at all,” Brooks said in his autobiography. Beginning with The Wine of the Puritans in 1908, he lived through his pen; and except for a brief foray into teaching at Stanford in 1941 (he moved to California in order to marry Eleanor Stimson) and in England later, he stayed at his desk, usually beginning to write at 5:30 A.M.


The remaining 32 years of Brooks’s life are thankfully not as “interesting” as that middle passage. All he set himself to do now was read every book written by an American between 1800 and 1915 (The Flowering of New England alone was the result of reading 825 of them) and write a five-volume history (or epic, or novel, or romance) of the writer in America, creating—as he once wrote in a notebook—”an American memory.” Writing was still a matter of life and death (“every morning, at my desk, I feel that I am on trial for my life”), but he managed grandly to survive into old age, remarrying after his first wife’s death, growing in public literary eminence as he came to matter less and less to younger critics of literature.