HAVING SHED THEIR PACKS AFTER A HARD DAY'S TREK THROUGH THE WILDERNESS, hikers may be seen sitting on a ledge. As a great Southwestern sun crashes down over the sea of rock before them, they sing out:
I have seen at sunset, looking north from Sonora some twenty miles, the whole tower-like shaft of Baboquivari change from blue to topaz and from topaz to glowing red in the course of half an hour. I do not mean edgings or rims or spots of these colors upon the peak, but the whole upper half of the mountain completely changed by them. The red color gave the peak the appearance of hot iron, and when it finally died out the dark dull hue that came after was like that of a clouded garnet. ( John C. Van Dyke, The Desert 91)
These words from a book a century old remain eminently vital, for they were written by a man far more heroic than we will ever be, a man wandering dazzled through a land far wilder than any of us ever will experience--and furthermore by a man willing to risk life itself to behold just such delicious pleasures. In such ways, John C. Van Dyke is the adventurer we'd all like to be. And largely for this reason, a Van Dyke bibliography seems especially appropriate at the one hundredth anniversary marking the publication of The Desert, the book generating such national enthusiasms. However, that is but the beginning of the story.
Because we tend to embroider our notions about those we admire, the actual lives of few writers live up to their colorful public images. John C. Van Dyke is the exception. Yet he is the exception with a twist. That the way he lived, recently discovered, turns out to be far more chromatic and intricate than even his romantic fans have imagined is in itself an interesting phenomenon; but more so because who he was and, far more, what he wrote, illuminates a late-Victorian culture in many ways much like our own in its ideals, yearnings, and stresses. His popularity, as well, throws a good deal of light on his admirers. They have applauded him down through the decades to our own day, and this tells us much about how we enjoy perceiving, sometimes falsely, those we esteem as models of our wished-for virtues and excitements.
In Van Dyke's case, this involves a cooperative, if unwitting, conspiracy, the writer egging on his willing audience, encouraging the image in which the public took comfort and often delighted, whereas in fact he and his writing could be quite the opposite of what thrilled his readers. All of which makes a study of Van Dyke an enlightening exploration, not only of a cultural force through the changing decades but also of ourselves.
If our need for heroes indicates a lack of confidence in ourselves as well as our aspirations toward ideals, Van Dyke himself alternated between a profound disdain for his audience and an eager anticipation of its approval, between a stuffy rectitude and a penchant for running ragged through the social conventions. They smelled pretty badly of mothballs in his own times, but he nonetheless held them up for others as the salvation of society. The head librarian at America's oldest and most prestigious theological seminary, he likely was an atheist; he had an illegitimate child with the wife of a fellow faculty member at Rutgers College (now University); and punctilious about minding the p's and q's of high society while strolling along the Champs Elysées or having tea with the ladies at Andrew Carnegie's monstrous castle in Scotland, he nonetheless skulked about with a bag of money down in Mexico, making a payoff to end one of the most sordid scandals in American history. Lastly, in many ways he gave not one whit for the desert he so soulfully claimed to love.
This may come as something of a jolt to our chanting hikers, who perhaps prefer to enjoy a simple reality of happy ‘‘truths’’ rather than deal with disturbing complexities. In the real world, the provenances of art are not always what we'd wish them to be. On the other hand, once liberated from his Sunday-school image as the Southwest's Plaster Saint wandering the deserts, John C. Van Dyke emerges as a figure far more intriguing, and even mystifying, than the portraits offered by the limited dimensions and colors of the popular clichés about him.
Yet above all, although large parts of his career are almost forgotten, he was a powerful force in shaping Americans' tastes in art. Related to this, he remains one of the strongest forces in our perception of America's most exotic landscape, a desert much adored by tourists but also badly misunderstood.
The bare outlines of Van Dyke's life reflect little of this. John C. Van Dyke ( 1856- 1932) was born in a three-peaked mansion set in the idyllic rolling countryside of fields and woodlands surrounding New Brunswick, New Jersey. 1 His father, also called John, hailed from an Old Dutch family going back to the settlement of New Amsterdam, from a line studded with Revolutionary War heroes and other public figures. Following this mode, the father was, at turns, an attorney, banker, congressman, and a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Likewise, John C. Van Dyke's mother, Mary Dix Strong Van Dyke, came from a venerable line, in her case of New Englanders dotted with civic leaders and clergymen and most immediately boasting her father, Theodore Strong, one of the nation's most prominent mathematicians and a professor at Rutgers. Perhaps the most famous Van Dyke of all, however, was John's contemporary, a cousin. Henry van Dyke, 2 a minister, diplomat, and professor at Princeton University, also was a fisherman who turned out poems and nature essays of classical purity and became almost a household name in John C.'s day.
In other words, what we have is this: With good reason the Van Dykes considered themselves part of America's unofficial aristocracy. They were well off, politically powerful, and well educated. They could boast of Abraham Lincoln as a family friend. Beyond that, the Van Dykes looked with pride on the3 Four became attorneys, the fifth a medical doctor. One of Van Dyke's elder brothers, Theodore, much admired by the younger John, eventually followed his bent, left his law practice, and in the West achieved status as a prominent rancher and outdoors writer. Among his many projects, he authored a book, The Deer Family, with President Theodore Roosevelt. 4
Theodore's shift in career, from lawyer to the much riskier profession of writer, symbolizes great changes in the Van Dyke family and indeed in the nation as a whole. It also foreshadows a certain waywardness in John. He would, priding himself both as a traditionalist and a rebel, add complexities and contradictions to a life of intricacies interwoven with bright talent.
After the Civil War, the nation was on the move as never before. At the conflict's end, industrialization blossomed, radically changing the rural character of the Republic. Illiterate immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, speaking strange languages and practicing a frowned-upon religion, came flooding into the nation. They were a conundrum, at once a disturbing alien element yet one welcomed for its cheap labor. In any case, they upset the balance of the predominately Anglo society and threatened the cultural dominance of just such families as the Van Dykes. Adding to the turmoil, people who had worked the land for generations were leaving their farms for factories or rushing west toward imagined riches. From this flux they then looked back longingly, often with considerable nostalgia, on rural pasts in which folks had lived, so it was imagined, harmoniously in the bosom of nature. Darwin (soon to be followed by Freud) was rattling the foundations of religious faith. At the same time, prosperity and mass education were filling people with aspirations that led to mass frustration, an urge to ‘‘improve’’ their lot and achieve something more and ‘‘better’’ than had their ancestors. In other words, what we think of now as the middle class was emerging, pulled both forward and backward, and in that fluid state it longed for guidance in the business of refinement, guidance to know how to act, how to think, what tastes it should develop in the art and literature associated with the gracious living of its aspirations. Involved in the process himself as part of the crumbling aristocracy but shot through with Calvinistic certitude, John C. Van Dyke would tell them. 5
But first, in 1868 and for reasons still not entirely clear, John's aging father uprooted the family and moved it to a Minnesota just emerging from its wild frontier days. 6 This was a radical venture, a break with the past, for generations of Van Dykes had lived in the New Jersey area. John C. was twelve, and he later made much of what he touted as his ‘‘Natty Bumppo’’ stage. To the delight of his readers, he cloaked those early days with romance, claiming that he was mentored by ‘‘wild’’ Sioux Indians and the rough-and-ready characters of the border region. The former taught him, as such romanticized Indians should, to find his way by the stars when out on the plains and took the youth dashing bareback
Those preparatory boyhood fantasies, by the way, can be gripping. Nowhere else have I read passages as exciting and ringing with authenticity as when Van Dyke takes readers plunging into a speeding, maddened buffalo herd, riding hell-bent-for-leather through the pandemonium of boiling dust clouds punctuated by gouging horns. Yet when one caught his breath after that, even at night the dangers never ceased, for the lurking Cheyenne were sworn enemies of the Sioux:
Advance riders were continually looking over slopes for hostile bands of southern Cheyennes or prowling marauders from over the northern border. The last thing seen at night was scouts riding along the high divides, taking a final look around the huge circle. What a picture, those half-naked Sioux silhouetted against the blood-red twilight, each one bunched over his pony's shoulder and peering catlike into the gathering gloom! [See 78, p. 4].
I found [a] drunken raftsman with a ten-foot fire-poker (which he had got from under the boilers) in his hands, trying to stave-in the barrel-head. I called to him to stop. He paused, holding the poker in mid-air, and looked at me with the utmost contempt, for I was merely a thin, whey-faced boy. Then with a sudden blaze in his eyes he told me that if I did not get out of there he would run the poker through me. I was a new clerk, it was my summer's job to deal with the men of his class, and I realized instantly that I had to fight then or be trampled on forever after. Instantly I whipped out a small pearl-handled revolver and brought it to bear straight between his eyes [See 92, p. 175].
It was, of course, just what readers of the time wanted to hear, colorful stories about the Wild West, and it was just what Van Dyke, along with many other writers of the time, were telling them. The truth of the matter, however, was quite the opposite. In Minnesota the Van Dykes lived in a prosperous, urbanizing society, in yet another grand home, this one overlooking the Mississippi River. However, as was true of the nation as a whole, stability was an illusion. The family was breaking up, the brothers scattering. When John came of age, rather than go west and become a cowboy and engage in other of the high jinks he later put into books, in a sense he retreated. To jump ahead a bit, nostalgia would plague him for the rest of his life, as all his life he longed for the secure days of his boyhood in the idyllic New Jersey countryside, for the family's
As an early indication of this and in an act that pretty clearly seems an attempt at re-creation, the youth returned to the East. After attending Columbia Law School, he was admitted to the bar in 1877. Yet with the erumpent streak coming to the surface, he never practiced. Instead, the young man plunged into the new waves of aestheticism arriving from Europe, writing for the new art magazines and becoming an advocate of Art for Art's Sake. This roseate approach to art, an offshoot of romanticism, seemed tailor-made for wayward Van Dyke, for the rainbow-hued notion allowed the enthusiast, unencumbered by theories, to declare just about anything he pleased to be beautiful. Balancing this out, Van Dyke settled in hometown New Brunswick, where he'd remain for the rest of his life, the self-proclaimed rebel secure in the bosom of tradition. There, in familiar territory, he started writing books on art and nature and, gaining a reputation as a critic, eventually held dual positions, serving as director of the Gardner A. Sage Library of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary and as the first professor of art history at Rutgers College.
With that, although it would be shot through with personal turmoil, an overflowing measure of Sturm und Drang, the pattern of his life was set. Safe in his house on the Seminary campus overlooking the placid Raritan River, this man who claimed he rode at breakneck speeds with the wildest of vaqueros but was in fact often too sick from chronic respiratory problems to mount the lecture platform turned out book after book and dozens of articles for the popular magazines, schooling the nation in the new tastes we associate with Impressionism, entertaining the public with wild tales of the outdoors, and teaching Americans how to appreciate nature.
With his reputation growing apace, his two institutions must have thought him quite a star, for they allowed Van Dyke extraordinary leaves for travel. This also fit in nicely with the capricious side of his character. For months at a time, Van Dyke wandered the world, haunting the art galleries of Europe, searching in Mexico, in Egypt, not only for the strangeness he craved but also for the warm climate and dry air that allowed him to breathe freely. Yet he always came back to damp, chill New Brunswick. With Van Dyke, then, we have almost always the tension between opposites pulling at one another. The imperious man who served as the head librarian of the nation's most renowned theological seminary sat, no doubt with his own dalliances in mind, wryly at his desk in the shadow of a statue of Hagar and Ishmael. The man who stormed in The Money God that return to the Ten Commandments and the Christian virtues was the country's only hope for survival (vii) slyly skittered off to Mexico with a bag of money to transact a little underhanded business for his friend Andrew Carnegie. And in fact, the man today known as a great nature lover dedicated his famous desert book, often thought to be one of the most effective pleas for preserving our arid wilderness,
There is no resolving or excusing such contradictions. We can only say that they were there, that we certainly would not honor them and in fact might condemn Van Dyke entirely, except for his extraordinary writing talents, and that likely it is the very anomalies themselves that helped enrich his writing. They are the contradictions in all of us, brilliantly exaggerated in Van Dyke. Rarely do great saints produce much worth reading unless they have also been great sinners.
Supplementary to this, I can suggest a tentative portrait of the everyday Van Dyke cobbled together from fifteen years of research and interviews with those few people still alive who remember him. ‘‘Distant’’ and ‘‘dignified’’ are the two words that first come to mind. Tall, handsome, mustachioed, wielding his cane, Van Dyke was seen strolling about the tree-lined walkways of the lovely Rutgers campus, fiery eyes flashing--adored from afar by women of a romantic bent, a figure instilling awe in children, caution in sensible men. He spoke little, tending instead to drift away into his own aesthetic realms beyond the world of most mortals; and now and then he would slide off into bitterness, become stuck in the dark morass of his soul. After all, the seeker of ideal beauty has a hard lot of it, constantly bloodying his nose as he crashes into the messy realities of everyday life. Likely arising out of that, an eccentric whimsy sometimes swept over him. Once, so it is said, when his nerves could no longer take the strain of the pigeons jabbering up in the eaves of his library, he stomped outside with a pistol and blazed fiercely away at the offenders--much to the glee of the students, who nevertheless kept their distance.
Further details on all such things may be found in my Introduction to Van Dyke's The Desert, more elaborately in his edited Autobiography, and, finally, for readers to judge for themselves, in the works cited below. In the meantime, however, several major comments need to be made as a context for the following bibliography. The first is immediately related to the above. That for nearly a century Van Dyke was misunderstood is exactly what he wanted. Savoring his own image as the tortured Byronic hero, he probably had a grand old time rubbing his hands together, taking his brother Theodore's actual experiences roaming what was then the wilds of the West, coloring them with the crayons of his imagination, and presenting them to the public as his own. 7 But likely there was more than creative delight going on here.
Van Dyke both rejoiced at applause and despised the same public who gave it. On this there can be no doubt, for he brags about it in his most intimate correspondence. In his letter of May 23, 1901, announcing to his editor at Scribner's that the manuscript of The Desert is on its way, the elitist thumps, ‘‘It's a whole lot better than the swash which today is being turned out as 'literature.' And it will sell, too; but not up in the hundreds of thousands. It is not so bad as that. My audience is only a few thousand, thank God’’ [See 524, p. 39]. Some years before that, in even stronger language, he had advised Kenyon Cox, a fellow art critic, to pay no mind that the general populace ignored his work, for ‘‘the public
And yet, and yet ... there is some evidence that he wanted to be caught, at least eventually, at this game. Just where the bulk of his papers went is unknown. He did, however, leave--it would seem intentionally--enough evidence behind to be found out. There is the published writing itself, at times with exploits so preposterous and with factual data, as in The Desert, so comically wrong that he must have known someone, someday, would find him out. 8 Beyond that is his huge scrapbook preserved in the Sage Library. It not only contains a letter with instructions from Andrew Carnegie appointing Van Dyke his agent to Mexico, but the letter also bears Van Dyke's own notation written across the top drawing future readers' attention to it. 9 Thus, over the success of his shenanigans Van Dyke has delivered the final thumbing of his nose to all who, going goggle-eyed, have uncritically adored him.
We now know better. 10 But that we have only recently come to our senses and found this out says a good deal about our longing for romantic heroes and, perhaps more revealingly, about literary historians. Americans have always pegged great hopes to their landscapes. Crowding across the ocean, landless peasants escaping the heels of their masters in Europe grew bug-eyed at the prospect ahead, of free land and the free-for-all for its riches. That was the material side of the dream. At least since Emerson the attitude has taken on an oneiric, even a spiritual, dimension. If the land could save us physically, yielding the prosperity of abundant crops, gold, and lumber, it might be the means to save our souls, too. With transcendentalism, an offshoot of romanticism, came the appealing notion that in nature we might find a reflection of the very essence of our beings. Hence, in our literature from James Fennimore Cooper down to Ernest Hemingway, Americans have been plunging off into the Big Woods to mend their weary spirits and find self- fulfillment.
And where better to find such things than in the desert, the most exotic landscape of all? There, cacti writhe into weird shapes, the wolves still howl, and Indians in strange, feathered garb, close to the earth and its primitive gods, still dance on mesa tops to bring the rain. Come with me, sang out Van Dyke, as he rode ahead on his Indian pony, turning in his saddle to wave us on to follow him ‘‘far beyond the wire fence of civilization to those places ... where the trail is unbroken and the mountain peak unblazed’’ [See 25, p. x]. An appealing promise to those weary, bored Americans too much in city pent--as it is today to us urbanites, as well as to those chanting in the monasteries and ashrams dotting the desert. As a result, the desert has become an open-air cathedral generating buoyant feelings. To quote a popular magazine:
To those who come to the Desert with friendliness, it gives friendship; to those who come with courage, it gives new strength of character. Those seeking relaxation find release from the world of man-made troubles. For those seeking beauty, the Desert offers nature's rarest artistry. This is the Desert that men and women learn to love [See 311].
Yes, this is a very heavy burden to put on the desert. Yet this also is a very real phenomenon in a culture needing to believe in nature's fantasyland. And, as is the case with delusions, once the first step is taken, everything else falls into place. Ignoring the flagrant trail Van Dyke had left for them, the critics preferred touting Van Dyke as the Politically Correct sensitive male wandering about in Wonderland. That is, they saw the Van Dyke they desperately wanted, rather than grounding their opinion in a close reading of his work and a study of his life. This is a dangerous, if easily satisfying, impulse, reflecting the currently fashionable trend to write history to match our present wishes. We can give thanks for the change involved in the recent discoveries about Van Dyke, since in the hands of such admiring littérateurs he was turning into a misty-eyed desert lover of saccharine proportions. In view of this, it's heartening that a new generation of scholars, unburdened by the old orthodoxies, has shown itself willing to put aside wishful thinking and to evaluate Van Dyke according to the evidence.
Still, far too much can be made of catching Van Dyke with his hand in the cookie jar. The important thing is not the revelation itself but that it throws open a window on the man, on his books, and our culture. Given the incredible range of his writings and activities, Van Dyke makes a particularly valuable candidate in this regard. Seen from the wider, more enlightened perspective, Van Dyke and his world turn out to be far more richly complex than most people had suspected. What I am simply urging is this. In order to fully appreciate Van Dyke and his context, we need to adopt a more comprehensive view of him, one that certainly takes in his writings on the Southwest but goes far beyond that to encompass the full range of the man, his writing, and his times.
Yet there's perhaps still another step we need to take toward a full appreciation of Van Dyke. His lush paean The Desert remained in print throughout his life, popular with Americans, ever more mobile and prosperous, beginning to travel ‘‘Out West’’ and reveling especially in the exoticism of the Southwest. Since his death in 1932, the book has enjoyed three reprints, one by a major university press. Writer after writer has hailed the little volume for schooling the public to see the cactus sweeps in dramatic terms, in terms of epical storms whirling up in golden billows from the desert floor and peaks glowing like fierce, hot iron in the sunset. In this sense, The Desert has become a Southwestern icon.
In the midst of such excitement we tend to forget that the New York Times' lengthy obituary on Van Dyke didn't even mention The Desert. Other such notices followed suit, either omitting the book entirely from their columns or giving it only a nod. Instead, they made much of the storm Van Dyke had created with Rembrandt and His School, a scholarly work severely reducing the oeuvre
John C. Van Dyke at right; other figures unknown. Sonora, Mexico, 1900 Credit: Special Collections and Archives, Rutgers University Libraries
of the Master by attributing many of his canvases to his students. No doubt, Van Dyke would have agreed with the emphasis of the newspapers. Foremost, he thought of himself, as did his reading public, as a critic and art historian. The majority of his books and articles reflect just this: the patient academic meticulously assembling a case on this or that issue in art for his readers or, more popularly, instructing them in the wonders of informed seeing. The point here being that for decades we may have been looking at Van Dyke through the wrong end of the telescope.
He was, first of all, a see-er, a man who delighted in looking at the world carefully--whether paintings in museums, nature, or cityscapes--and taking supreme pleasure in what he saw. What librarians now catalogue as travel books or nature writing were in fact part of this continuum, part of his act of seeing, and the writing itself a continuation of the initial artistic act. As Van Dyke traveled the world, he was as delighted with the snowy effects of sand dunes as he was in the Caribbean, with the light glinting on the fronds of coconut palms. To savor how he saw and wrote we need to consider him from this perspective, as the man who viewed his world as a series of canvases.
In this, it helps a great deal to remember that The Desert was not an isolated peak but one in a series of six books spanning most of Van Dyke's writing career, meditations on the visual delights of such of the earth's features as mountains, oceans, and woodlands. All the volumes bear some version of the subtitle Studies in Impressions and Appearances, thus signaling that in his view Van Dyke
Then Van Dyke betrays his own talents. That for whatever reason with The Desert, The Open Spaces, The Autobiography, and chapters in other works, Van Dyke felt compelled to hoodwink us, reeling off ‘‘facts’’ about the life of the coyote that are patently wrong and claiming impossible derring-do as a cowboy in Montana, is more than a corroding misfortune, it was entirely unnecessary.
One might go through all manner of contortions to excuse and explain this. With his artistic bent he was, after all, an illusionist, a dealer in the beautiful lies that are the artist's stock in trade. Following this, as a nihilist seeking beauty's temporary salve, he was an early Deconstructionist. Along these lines, hadn't he warned us in his very lying pages that ‘‘The reality is one thing, the appearance quite another’’ [See 25, p. 109]? And elsewhere, at least occasionally, as in The Mountain, that the facts of science are but secondary, the raw stuff which the imagination shapes according to its own will (xvii)? Then, too, as already touched on, the American West has always been a land of tall tales. If Van Dyke chose to sling his own fair share of them around in his adolescent mocking of readers whom he felt were pretty flat-out stupid to begin with, well, he certainly had a solid line of similar practitioners behind him. The literature of the West is rife with just such breezy high-handedness. Yes, then, on all such scores. Certainly his Preface-Dedication to The Desert is about as slick a job of deceptive rhetoric as one is likely to encounter, blatantly leading us to believe that its author is telling us the truth, the facts of what he's seeing and doing, even while he looks us straight in the eye and urinates in our pockets. The point being, however, that, a sly manipulator, he doesn't bother to distinguish between the factual truth and the artistic truth he passes on. Therein lies danger for his readers [See 330].
All this not only was entirely unnecessary but worked against the book's own high seriousness, undercutting the success of writing by a person whose ‘‘truths’’ were in themselves richly dazzling and needed no immature doctoring. Despite such blemishes, if we can look past them or through their autobiographical distortions, Van Dyke's volumes stand as supreme aesthetic creations.
In any case, we must take books, and their authors, as we find them. Did he betray us? Yes, of course, he did, as with many a lover, many an artist, giving us the lies we wanted to hear--the lies which were a bright fantasy, his best reality, in his own head. In that process he caught a cultural swing, turning a hot and rather humdrum region into the fantasyland the nation already yearned for and at the same time giving us a vocabulary to speak about it. Such a lovely fraud, ‘‘always riding into the unexpected’’ (198), to see ‘‘indigo lizards’’ streaking about the sandy wastes (173) while above the air shimmers through its narcotic colors (84). And if, in our privileged state, now air-conditioned and immune from the desert's harsh conditions, he taught us to see dull sand and rock with an
As to the stems and bonnets of bibliographic concerns, to take one for instance, the biographical sketch about Van Dyke in the work edited by Max Herzberg mentions that Van Dyke served as editor of the Art Review. This neither can be confirmed nor denied, and Van Dyke himself doesn't prove helpful on the score. His statement in his Autobiography, that he was asked ‘‘to write the editorials’’ for the brave but short-lived little journal, leaves settlement of the issue open to go either way (58). Finding rare copies of the journal won't help, either. Van Dyke did write two signed pieces for this publication, The Beauty of Paint and Two Private Collections in Paris, but the publication's masthead adamantly refuses to name its editors, and the editorial material just as adamantly remains unsigned. In his Autobiography Van Dyke further tortures the researcher with vagueness. He says on the same page quoted above that he ‘‘wrote some articles’’ for The New York Evening Post. When one churns through the microfilms of the period, he finds pieces on art and a regular, mostly Saturday, feature, Art News. However, as was customary in that day, most of the pieces are unsigned, while others bear the initials of writers obviously not Van Dyke. I came across only one, Philadelphia Art Exhibition, ending with ‘‘J.C.V.D.’’ My hope is that the person who has the time and mental strength to read through a fifteen-year chunk of this newspaper (say, from about 1885 to 1900) will find further articles by Van Dyke. 11
Along similar lines, some Van Dyke material simply is ghostly. Tantalizingly so. The Autobiography states that his unpublished novel, The Jaws of the Desert, finally told the truth about his desert travels. The manuscript lies, we are further told, ‘‘in a table drawer,’’ one supposes somewhere in New Brunswick (139). No avid opening of table drawers in that city has uncovered it. Was this, too, one of Van Dyke's jokes? As to other spectral material, some supposed reprints of his books over the last few decades may actually have been printed or they may not; occasionally one sees them listed in this bibliographic resource or that, but when a particular edition can be found in no holdings of any library in the United States, my conclusion is that, even if it were indeed published, in essence it is unavailable. Concerning this, as well as the elusive Jaws, the wise bibliographer learns to live with such things.
As a final bibliographic note, the present study is intended to be supplemented by a planned volume on Van Dyke's brother Theodore, a rancher and well-known writer of the day. Delving into related issues, such as the early silent Westerns filmed at Theodore's ranch by nephew and movie director W. S. "Woody" Van Dyke, this volume should go some distance in filling out the broader context of the Van Dyke family while also further examining Theodore's likely heavy influence on his younger brother.
In this spirit, turning to the future, other issues may well be pursued with good results by researchers. Over the years, I've often half chuckled to myself, characterizing Van Dyke's outlook on the world as Neo-Darwinian Calvinistic Aestheticism. But only half chuckled. In light of Van Dyke's diverse activities and his ranging through subjects almost without bounds, it's difficult to pick out any one strand in his interrelated mass, but, in any case, studies could take place on several levels. A good place to begin would be his attitudes toward nature, or Nature, as he called it. No ecologist recognizing the adjustments of creatures to their environment over the eons, Van Dyke paints the desert as a vast circus of violence, a hyperactive arena of tearing and clawing where animals must strive more fiercely than anywhere else on earth to survive: ‘‘Every muscle is strung to the highest tension. The bounding deer must get away; the swift-following wolf must not let him’’ (155). Yet there are benefits to such earnest commotion, for the competition has honed the survivors to a bizarre perfection. Hence, we have wildcats on the desert drawn to a glorious savagery found in wildcats nowhere else, for in Van Dyke's pages they stride about with ‘‘eyes like great mirrors, the teeth like points of steel’’ (156). And yet, contradictorily, in ways he does not explain, the same environment has worn down the poor Indians, leaving them in a state of physical and mental decay, brutes who cannot distinguish colors (13). Whether or not Van Dyke believed such nonsense--I suspect he believed whatever sounded good to him at the moment--no one can know, but he certainly put such logical shambles to good use when he gussied them up and paraded them across the stage of his desert.
Yet what about Nature herself, the embodiment of all such things? Ah, she's his very prima donna of the boards. Here, Van Dyke dares to ride cliché, dragging out old Mother Nature; but Van Dyke's mind is so macabre that even when clichés pass through it they emerge as something wondrous to behold. That is, the prose streaming from this master's hand can be so empurpled it's brilliant [See 407]. For example, throughout The Desert, following Van Dyke's Darwinian bent, Nature is both Mother and Destroyer, the hand that rocks the cradle the same that murders as, for her own heartless purposes, ‘‘She continues the earth-life by the death of the old and the birth of the new’’ (230).
So far, so good. But Van Dyke can't let it rest at that. In The Grand Canyon she becomes the Great Goddess, a Grand Strumpet of Cosmic proportions. Bedecked in jewels, ‘‘carmines on her cheeks’’ (8), she strides about in Oriental splendor before her picayune observers, quaking with fear and awe as she passes (8-9). At times, Van Dyke is one of this quivering host. Acting as a bedazzled, if distraught, character in his books, Van Dyke was in this sense a desert lover, but one bedeviled by beauty to the very verge of madness. To see Van Dyke's skill at using this, his ability to build a passage beginning sensibly enough with a scientific observation, working up to wonder, then ending in an all-consuming, inescapable pain, is worth a longer quote. Lying out in the desert in his blankets, so he leads us to believe, the wanderer does a fatal thing. He looks up and considers full-face the Great Heavens above:
Van Dyke's aestheticism was a kind of magic thinking, a temporary balm. However, the unbeliever, clinging to Nature's beauty for salvation, ultimately found the buoying loveliness a dissolving life preserver. Then, adrift in the sea of stark reality, all he can do is issue the deep soul's cry.
Was this another of Van Dyke's histrionic poses or a moment of genuine distress? We have suspicions but, finally, cannot know. Yet we can measure, or at least feel, the reverberations, the effectiveness of the passage. Its position fits in exactly with Van Dyke's use of The Sublime, that blend of beauty and horror combined with a fearsome subject into a churning style still awaiting thorough investigation by scholars. How delicious it must have been for staid late Victorians, vicariously orgasmic, to feel their blood rushing with Van Dyke and bleed with him on the thorns of life. If this was a rather bizarre placebo, it was a very strong placebo.
Reviewing such aspects, a researcher might explore how they complement Van Dyke's ideas about art, which also flew around, rebounding sometimes wildly from the extremes. A classicist as well as a neoteric, he honored the Old Masters with his keen analyses, yet fancying himself also a rebel in the avant-garde, he charged about upsetting the artistic applecarts of his day--only to harden into his own version of orthodoxy, turning his back in later life and all but refusing to talk about the new waves of painters brightened by Cézanne and Picasso. Yet, again, there he stands, ecstatic before the works of J. M. W. Turner in his late stage, when the Englishman's canvases, all but pure color now, were sliding off into his own version of the Incomprehensible Great Goddess, toward abstraction.
Was this simply the immense wobble-room Art-For-Art-Sakers gave themselves, or were there intricate patterns here? In his books, Van Dyke can come across as an unshakable absolutist, thumping that realism is ‘‘the lowest and most contemptible form of art’’ [See 100, p. 176] and scoffing at ‘‘anything that is of popular interest’’ [See 143, p. 87]. Yet time and again he can be found writing for
Related to this are those people who likely helped shape Van Dyke. Among these, besides brother Theodore, are millionaire Andrew Carnegie, editor William Crary Brownell, and art critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. In accord with this, I have provided some basic materials on such figures. They should lead the avid researcher toward further discoveries. In addition, it would be good to know more about the influence of Calvinism on the sometimes imperious Van Dyke, on both his personal life and on matters of art; about his financial affairs and his privileged status at his two institutions; and to the nitty-gritty, more about his relationship to cousin William Ferdon and Van Dyke's activities at the Montana ranch. For those who care about such things, the precise story of Clare, Van Dyke's child out of wedlock, has never been told, and, indeed, it is still spoken of in whispers on the Seminary campus. Such a search for the facts may not be entirely idle, since, as pointed out elsewhere, the sometimes bitter circumstances surrounding Clare likely had a heavy bearing, not only on Van Dyke's jaded outlook, but on where Van Dyke traveled and thus on what he wrote about [See 524, p.16-17, 22]. 12
My hope is that the following will be useful to students of Van Dyke, of the literature and art of his immediate context, indeed, of the period itself. That pleasant but intricate goal lies behind this reading bibliography. The idea here is to get the reader as close as possible both to the primary and secondary sources so that they might reveal themselves. This should give a fuller picture of Van Dyke while also pointing researchers toward further possibilities. Almost all of the items, then, come not only with summaries of the material but also with suggestions as to the significance of the pieces in filling out the picture of Van Dyke and his society.
The entries concerning Van Dyke's involvement in the dispute over the Lorenzo Lotto portrait of Columbus, for example, surely do not nearly span the entire subject--an undertaking that would comprise an extensive bibliography of its own. However, the Ellsworth Papers at the Chicago Public Library, mentioned in the Archival Sources, alone provide a good jumping-off place into the subject for further, independent exploration. Going in an entirely different direction is Margaret Armstrong, a book designer and buoyant literary talent contributing to Van Dyke's success, a woman all but forgotten now. A glimpse into her life, that of her artist father, who held many friends in common with Van Dyke, and indeed into the whole Armstrong family, tells us much about everyday life in Van Dyke's circles and in the particular about the intense enthusiasm for art in the day.
Beyond these examples lies any number of other opportunities. We may already have taken the McLuckie episode, the stuff of novels, as far as anyone ever will go into the murky world of those times in Mexico. However, despite Hiesinger's certitude, I'm not entirely satisfied that historians have resolved the situation surrounding the yacht Namouna. Then, of course, there's the Rembrandt uproar, rocketing Van Dyke into the greatest fame of his lifetime. No one to my knowledge has thoroughly explored that. Lastly on our short list, there's the glancing reference to a mysterious kidnapping threat [See 524, p. 137]. At times, Van Dyke's life seems full of delectable intrigues. I'd suggest that the above, along with other issues provided below with certain bibliographic detail, might well prove valuable core samplings into the dynamics of Van Dyke and his times.
In the larger view, the bibliography discusses several works of a broad historical nature, such as Barbara Tuchman's Proud Tower, and a few theoretical books, including Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, offering perspectives on Van Dyke's era and on his intense aestheticism. In addition, although a listing of the reviews concerning Van Dyke might go on nearly endlessly, readers will find a representative sampling for the more important works by and about him. At times, quotable Van Dyke seems almost ubiquitous, and a similar handling applies to the dozens of times he's mentioned in books, articles, and bibliographies about the Southwest. That is, not wanting to send the reader off on wild goose chases, I've tried to be judicious when deciding whether or not to include an item. Along these lines, Van Dyke can be found in seemingly innumerable sites on the rapidly evolving Internet. By far, the large majority of these are in the nature of testimonies lauding Van Dyke as a heroic traveler and desert lover. For the sake of thoroughness, but with some embarrassment, I include only a small sampling, for they're likely to be of little use to scholars except as they reflect the will to easy fantasies and the overwhelming appeal of Van Dyke's rhapsodic, albeit badly misleading, image. Beyond this, a few sites will prove of great help, for instance offering the texts of Van Dyke's articles and letters, and I list these opportunities in the Archival Sources.
Taking all the above into consideration, despite pleas for a comprehensive view of Van Dyke, he'll likely, and quite understandably, given the interest in the exotic Southwest, be remembered most often as a desert writer. This brings up another issue. If he so colorfully misled us on the matter, what is the desert really like? In order to measure his poetic accomplishment against some standard, it is a valuable question, especially for newcomers to the desert. On this, we have a near embarrassment of riches, a host of splendid and quite reliable books of history and natural history; and, for reasons of space, to list only the few of them suggested below, by such as Jaeger, Lee, and Steven, in no way implies a slight to the many others. We also have a fine selection of works about the kinesthesia of the desert, what it's like to hike its mesas, thread its dry canyon labyrinths, and wake in a sleeping bag to the liquid aquamarine joy of the Morning Star. In this, again given space considerations, I suppose I have
However, there is a danger here. The desert can't be found between two hard covers. As Edward Abbey reminds us, ‘‘you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets’’ [See 159, p. xii]. That is, we need to abandon the old, romantic notion that the desert has an essence we can discover. There is no Holy Grail out there waiting to be found by the avid searcher. After all, as the old song says, when the bear, waxing curious, goes over the mountain, he sees the other side of the mountain. The desert, as with any other landscape, simply is itself, that medley of history, ecology, and present human activity all interacting with the perceptions we bring to it.
The tendency in all this, promoted by the modern tourist industry, as well as with far greater talent by Van Dyke in the past, is to tout the desert's dramatic features, its Wagnerian sunsets, stunningly weird, writhing cacti, and dancing Indians, as a Gee-Wow acrylic fantasia. More things to put on the list to abandon, at least for a moment of consideration. ‘‘True’’ as these things may be in their own discreet right, they are only the more colorful parts of a whole ultimately beyond human comprehension. I say put such concepts aside for a while, simply walk out into the desert, and, confronting the heat and lurking scorpions, enjoy your stroll. I can think of no better start--with your relaxed, best self--than that. Be sure, however, to take plenty of water.
Lastly, swinging back to end on a more scholarly note, the student of Van Dyke and his times will find many of the issues both above and below further explored in the thousands of pages of my Interviews and Notes Regarding John C. Van Dyke, in the archives of the University of Arizona. Perhaps researchers will find these notes, documents, and photographs a useful resource.
1. The stately mansion and carriage house are still there, the first structures on the right just across the town line as you leave New Brunswick on Hamilton Street and cross the bridge over Mile Run. The old Van Dyke place is now owned by a nearby church.
2. Henry's wing of the family used the small ‘‘v,’’ a mode often violated by others.
3. Somewhat phenomenally, then, we have a family of four prominent authors all writing at once. There was, in order of public acclaim, cousin Henry; John C.; Theodore; and historian Paul, another cousin to brothers John C. and Theodore. A fifth member of the family, like his father, Henry, also a minister, was somewhat less acclaimed but nonetheless was known for publishing poems and articles in the popular magazines. In John C.'s time, the Van Dykes took up a huge chunk of the nation's literary territory.
4. In an age when egalitarianism is celebrated (although not necessarily practiced), we might show our prejudices by raising eyebrows over the attitude as presumptuous. Yet the sense of social obligation was, among some circles, a firmly held and laudable stance. Renehan sums it up in his recent The Lion's Pride, a study of Theodore Roosevelt and his times:
The educated class had a duty to rise and govern in the American democracy, offering inspired, selfless, incorruptible leadership to the common run of people who would otherwise be left victims to the political manipulations of capital and its operatives. (19)
Lastly, since we're on Theodore Roosevelt, a member both of Van Dyke's subculture and the Reformed Church, he makes a strange appearance in Van Dyke's Autobiography [See 13, p. 60], and then is soon mentioned in passing again [See 13, p. 62]. My note tries to shed some light on this (223-24 note 10).
5. Chuckling while remaining completely serious, Van Dyke states in his Autobiography, ‘‘All my books of whatever name or nature are infused with this spirit, the missionary spirit of carrying the gospel of art and nature to the heathen’’ (128). This likely was more than the burden of the culture bearer mentioned above; it also was a carryover from the energetic, worldwide proselytizing then going on in the Reformed Church (240-41 note 1). In another way of looking at it, critics with a psychological interest in the backgrounds of writers might construct a case that Van Dyke's whole career was propelled by the drive to assert the family's prestige and to assume what he at least imagined to be his rightful place in guiding America as part of her unofficial but privileged aristocracy. At times his books overflow with Calvinistic rectitude, and his family history, The Raritan, leaves little doubt that Van Dyke looked upon his family as special people destined for special leadership. Yet, whatever the illustrious ancestors Van Dyke claimed, not all of them were stellar; as a youth, his father had been a poor farm boy [See 590, p. 463]. Snell gives more on the elder Van Dyke and his hamlet.
6. Perhaps we can go some distance in resolving this little mystery, important to the shape of John C. Van Dyke's life and writing because, if for nothing else, it gave him the opportunity to brag (falsely) that he had been raised on the frontier. Although his Autobiography is vague about a motive for the move to Minnesota [See 13, p. 35], according to family tradition, the elder Van Dyke, a crusty politician, left New Jersey in a huff over political reverses [See 508, p. x]. Considerable substance may well lie behind the family stories. Investigation of state records shows that Justice Van Dyke was the target of serious charges and impeachment proceedings brought against him two years before the move to Minnesota (New Jersey General Assembly, Select Committee, etc.).
Several factors likely fed into this action. Politics, as we know, breeds turmoil. John Van Dyke invited more than the usual share of it. For one, independent to the point of stubbornness, he often was at odds with his colleagues [See 508, p. x; 590, p. 465]. Second was the acrimony in the aftermath of the Civil War. Although New Jersey was a Northern state, it churned with ‘‘ferment and disagreement about slavery’’ [See 508, p. ix]. Indeed, the very governor openly advocated slavery to such an extent that he urged secession from the Union [See 508, p. ix-x]. Flying in the face of this, John Van Dyke was in the middle of the fray, opposing the governor and his supporters by touring the state in support of Lincoln [See 13, p. 14-15].
The best I can make of it, the impeachment attempt likely was one result of such collected animosity. And it was all the more vengeful and extraordinary because by that time John Van Dyke's term of office had expired [See 345]. In any case, nothing came of the impeachment ploy, except, one might guess, more animosity. In a bipartisan move, both New Jersey's General Assembly and its Senate cleared John Van Dyke with the same language, finding the charges against him ‘‘unfounded and wicked’’ [See 402; 404]. A likely scenario is that the charges were venomous and at least symptomatic of factors contributing to the elder Van Dyke's uprooting his family at what was then the advanced age of sixty-one, quitting New Jersey for a fresh start in Minnesota. Note, however, that as the biographical articles about him reveal, he again took up his political career in his new state.
The above, no doubt, does not tell the whole story, but, given the documentary evidence cited, I have fair confidence that it at least begins to penetrate major aspects behind the move. A number of fine scholars helped ferret out this highly specialized information, and although the conclusions from it are my own, I especially want to thank Laurice Niceler, of the New Jersey State Archives; Nola Crawford, of the New Jersey State Law Library; and Professor William Gillette, in the Department of History at Rutgers University, for their diligent help when a complete stranger called.
7. And not only adventures, but also imagery and sometimes Theodore's rare mistakes, too. Compare, for example, the imagery of treading in The Desert [See 25, p. vii-viii] to Theodore's The Quails of California [See 563, p. 464] or The Desert's misinformation about jackrabbits never drinking water [See 25, p. 151-53] to Theodore's own error [See 559, p. 116].
8. See, for example, how, during a chapter full of fantastic adventures, while in Germany he manfully hurls a thief out a hotel window [See 13, p. 137]. As to The Desert, it is riddled with lazy coyotes, sluggish rattlesnakes, dwarf deer, and other such nonsense[See 25, p. 158-59, 167, 169].
9. [See 524, p. 127-28]. The letter is also reproduced in the photograph gallery following 27.
10. The credit belongs to two Arizona scientists, Neil B. Carmony, formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey, and David E. Brown, formerly of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The trail began when in the early 1990s these two outdoors professionals reviewed manuscript chapters of Van Dyke's Autobiography and came back to me appalled at Van Dyke's nature-faking. For further details [See 632].
11. Related to this discussion is Van Dyke's involvement in yet another periodical. He claims that he was ‘‘asked to edit the art department’’ of International Monthly but that ‘‘only three or four volumes of the magazine were issued’’ [See 13, p. 130]. I was able to corral volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of International Monthly, spanning July 1900 through March 1903. (The title changes with volume 6 to The International Quarterly.) The magazine ran signed and fairly frequent articles on art, but none are by Van Dyke. As with the Art Review, no masthead lists the various editors. Yet this time we have one hard piece of evidence confirming Van Dyke's participation. An unnumbered closing page of volume 6 lists Van Dyke as one of three members of the magazine's fine-arts advisory board. In this capacity he may have helped line up writers on art for the magazine.
My sense of it in the overview is that, although Van Dyke's publishing activities were many and admirable, he also was something of a trophy collector and the Autobiography sometimes inflates his involvement with such periodicals.
12. Her full name, as recorded in her will and sometimes used elsewhere, was Clare Van Dyke Lambert Parr. Early on, not knowing that Van Dyke had a child, nevertheless, I sensed something amiss here. Operating mainly on intuition, I began to piece the general story together when idly looking on the reverse of William M. Chase's portrait of Van Dyke in the Gardner A. Sage Library. With some surprise I noted Clare's full name there as the donor, an event recorded in my Interviews and Notes Regarding John C. Van Dyke. People associated with the Seminary remain tight-lipped about Clare, and not wishing to give offense I have not pursued the issue.
For all that, one can't help but remain at least curious. One notes the Lambert in her name and Van Dyke's mention of Lambert cousins in the Autobiography [See 13, p. 44]. However, if one considers this in conjunction with Strong's comment about a liaison with the wife of a Rutgers faculty member [See 508, p. x-xi], he continues to draw blanks. Faculty directories reveal no Lambert on the Rutgers faculty during the likely time frame. Possibly, if the Lambert connection holds true, Clare was using her mother's maiden name.