Scribner's Magazine
Book Reviews by Eli Siegel 1931-1934

From Scribner's, May 1932

The Life of Emerson, by Van Wyck Brooks. Dutton. $3.

Mr. Brooks's "Life of Emerson" is too quiet and too mannered. It would have been truer to its subject if it had welcomed some fits of speed, tumults, angles. Emerson is one of the most grandly independent, and, certainly, the most iridescent of those Americans who have felt impelled to write down the willy-nilly activities of their minds. Mr. Brooks most enjoyably and keenly puts down the sights, aromas, sounds, elemental happenings within and about the New England Concord that for years hung around the acquisitive senses of Emerson; but it is a too static and limited Concord that is seen in the book.

What Mr. Brooks's book lacks is (no matter how ordinary it sounds) what the yellow-paper magazine people and the gentlemen around prize-fights call "action." The life of a literary man is really as much a series of momentary events as anybody's. It is not a procession of psychological tableaus. At every moment something happened to Emerson. He rode on cindery railroads beyond the Mississippi, and was affected by belching steel. He saw quarrels. He heard oaths. He very likely groaned a few times, or at least heard the new steamships groan. There were staccatoes of magnitude in his life, and cuttings and unshaped, angular, heavy things. Mr. Brooks's book does have, surely, finenesses and beauties. These are, to me, altogether legitimate, but of a Chinese kind; that is, they come from life and destiny being seen as soft, smoky, wavy. As in old Chinese paintings, the Emerson of Mr. Brooks is the centre of a set of social and cerebral traceries. All is mel-lifluousness and culture, even though Concord and Concord workingmen and farmers are used. For even Mr. Brooks's frequent awareness of brutality and un-couthness is of a gentle sort. Keenness, culture, landscape, mind of course are much of Emerson and life: the fact persists that there is more to both.

Eli Siegel.


Reviews by Eli Siegel from Scribner's Magazines 1931-1934. Copyright 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 Charles Scribner's Sons; copyrights renewed. Reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.

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