Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Flowering of New England. Van Wyck Brooks.

New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc. 1952 (1936).

Why read it? Tells the story of the New England Renaissance in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

It was a springtime surge of energy and intellect, a revolution against theology which had crushed the human spirit and confidence. People were no longer willing to be damned. The New England air was filled with a sense of expectation. The present age was the spring season in the moral world.

In Boston, a morning freshness and a thrill of conscious activity. For Bancroft, God was visible in history and history culminated in the United States. There was a springtime feeling in the air, a joyous sense of awakening, a free creativeness and unconscious pride. The New England mind had crystallized. There was a renaissance in Boston, one of those "heats and genial periods" of which Emerson spoke in "English Traits," by which "high tides are caused in the human spirit."

Sample Quotes:

“Longfellow’s remark that ‘every Bostonian speaks as if he were the Pope.’ ” p. 341. ………. “…and every American morning was a Fourth of July.” p. 138. ………. “What was the meaning of these declamations, this cant about the inalienable rights of men in a country where it was known that Jefferson’s nephew had chopped a slave to pieces with an axe, where beating, branding, mutilating slaves, selling them, kicking them, killing them was all in the nature of the situation?" p. 404.

“Whenever he [Christopher Cranch] came back from Italy, he was struck by the look in people’s faces, the hard, weary expression about the mouth, the quick, shrewd eye, the anxious air; everyone seemed to be worried.” p. 259. ………. Emerson: “Observing the rocks, the grasses, the fishes, the insects, the lions, vultures and elephants, he felt a conviction stirring in him that all these forms of life expressed some property in himself.” p. 207. ………. Louis Sullivan: “Form follows function, function creates form.” p. 463.

“…and everyone knew that his book [Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast] had done as much for the sailors as Dickens had done for the debtors and orphans of England and Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the slaves.” p. 320. ………. Of James T. Fields: “He had served his apprenticeship as a bookseller’s clerk and had startled all the other clerks by guessing, whenever a customer entered the shop, the sort of book the customer presently asked for.” p. 492. ………. “…virtues of silence, secrecy and circumspection…. One should keep one’s countenance open but one’s thoughts close.” p. 10.

“A rule of the household of Wendell Phillips’s father, the first mayor of the city of Boston: “Ask no man to do for you anything that you are not able and willing to do for yourself.” p. 11. ………. “He belongs to that noble race of young Americans for whom the true happiness of man consists in the culture of the intelligence.” p. 132. ………. Of James Russell Lowell: “…his leading trait was a gift of pure enjoyment whether of books or garden flowers, walking, talking, smoking, drinking, reading, a gusto that was new…..” p. 321.

The story of a kind of American Renaissance. A time of achievement and excitement about intellect and culture. But the period had its dark side, too. Slavery. The Flowering of New England is one of the most enjoyable books I have read about one of the most unusual times in American history. The Puritans had put a damper on the human spirit. When that damper was removed, the spirit of New England was elevated to a belief that anything and everything could be learned and achieved. But always in the background was the “sin” of slavery. RayS.

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