Thursday, October 14, 2010

The flowering of mind

In my mother's library when I was growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, were two book that had a telling influence on my life: The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865 and New England, Indian Summer: 1865-1914, by Van Wyck Brooks. The books, published in 1937 and 1940, respectively, no doubt came into our house as monthly selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The first was a Pulitzer Prizewinner. Together, they traced a century of New England's literary and cultural history.

I can't say that I read the books. I can't say that I read any books other than the Hardy Boys and Red Randall. But I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor by the bookcase dipping and browsing. The two Brooks books entered my bloodstream by osmosis. That must be true, because when I pull them off the college library shelf today everything about them is familiar: the spines, the covers, the title page, the chapter headings, even paragraphs of text. Sixty years later!

New England, of course, loomed large in the myths of the nation's beginning which every American child learned in school. The Mayflower. Plymouth Rock. The First Thanksgiving. "Speak for yourself, John Alden." Sam and John Adams. Paul Revere. The rude bridge that arched the flood. "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes."

Of course, we heard nothing of the dark side of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. The European diseases that almost obliterated the native American population before Miles Standish and company ever stepped ashore. The mutual atrocities of King Phillip's War. The utter certainty of the Puritans that God meant them to inherit a land that had long been inhabited by others. The grim and unforgiving tenor of Puritan religion, with its affection for the stocks and the lash.

But none of that is what I found in Van Wyck Brooks. By the 19th century Cotton Mather had given way to William Ellery Channing, and a gloomy Calvinism was replaced by a more life-affirming Unitarianism. Thoreau, Hawthorn and Emerson were the new secular saints. Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, and Alcott were spinning out a brand of sentimental literature perfectly suited for the great American experiment in public education (including long poems my mother had memorized word for word).

The New England I absorbed there on the floor by the bookcase was as cool and detached as the waters of Walden Pond. Not even the horrors of the Civil War seemingly disturbed the intellectual civility of 19th-century Boston and environs, where a young Emerson would take a copy of Pascal's Pensees to church to read during the sermon. Channing exhorted his congregants: "We want great minds to be formed among us. We want the human intellect to do its utmost here."

Van Wyck Brook's summed up the age and place: "Mind, mind required all one's care!" It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would end up in the environs of Boston, as much a product of New England Emersonian Transcendentalism and Thoreauvian Naturalism as of Chattanooga Catholicism.