Henry Jackson Van Dyke was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to Henrietta Ashmead and Henry Jackson Van Dyke, a respected Presbyterian clergyman. The son was influenced by his father's role as minister, though the boy was not necessarily a model child. As his father said of his two sons, "Paul was born good, but Henry was saved by grace." In 1868 Van Dyke met Robert E. Lee, who gave him a ride on his horse, Traveller.
Later in life he said the three men who had most influenced him were his father, General Lee, and ‘Alfred Tennyson’, and from that comment can be seen the keynotes of his life: the dedication to honour and beauty and the willingness to fight for a cause. He studied at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and received an M.A. from Princeton University in 1876. He was an ideal student, active in a myriad of extracurricular activities as well as his classes. Yet, not wishing to be considered a bookworm, Van Dyke often disguised how much he studied and was willing to involve himself in some youthful pranks. He included in his college scrapbook a poster offering a fifty-dollar "reward for the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons who took the gate and damaged the fences on the Seminary and Library grounds." In the margin is the note: "They didn't catch us. H.v.D."
When he entered Princeton Theological Seminary in September 1874 it was with the understanding that he might not become a minister, since his real dream was to be a writer. However, in 1879 he entered the Presbyterian ministry and four years later became the pastor of the famous Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he gained a national reputation for his preaching. He had preached his first sermon on 21 October 1875 at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on "The Voice of God," about hearing God in nature, a theme that would resurface in much of his later writing. In fact, his love of the outdoors was a crucial part of his Christianity, and in the early twentieth century he became a conservationist speaking out for the preservation of Yellowstone. This dual belief in nature and religion colored his literary criticism as well as his other writing throughout his life.
As he was beginning his career as a minister, Van Dyke was also launching his career as a writer. In September 1879 he went with his friend the artist W. S. Macy to the Red River Valley wheat farms where he saw the problems with large agricultural systems that were depleting the land and exploiting migrant labor. With Macy he did an illustrated article for Harper's Monthly Magazine; it was the lead article for the May 1880 issue.
His first books, The Reality of Religion (1884) and The Story of the Psalms (1887) grew directly out of his role as minister and would be followed by many similar productions. By 1888, however, he was already very much involved in the literary scene, publishing a sermon he had preached on the "National Sin of Literary Piracy," which attacked the American habit of printing pirated copies of foreign books.
Ironically, Van Dyke's first copy of a book by Tennyson, Enoch Arden, ect. (1864), was a pirated edition, which he had bought for fifty cents when he was fourteen. His love for Tennyson, whom he ranked third among the English poets after William Shakespeare and John Milton, remained a guiding factor during his life. In 1889 his first book of criticism, The Poetry of Tennyson, was published. Before this collection of critical articles on Tennyson appeared, Van Dyke sent some of them to the eighty-year-old poet, who responded with a letter of thanks, some autobiographical notes, and corrections in the chronology for the second edition. The book, which is based on the premise that poetry should ennoble life, was well received by the public. On 18 August 1892 Van Dyke visited Tennyson at the older man's invitation. Tennyson said he had liked Van Dyke's book about him, with the exception of the criticism of Maud (1855). While the poet took his afternoon nap, Van Dyke listened to recordings of Tennyson reading his own poetry, and afterwards Tennyson personally read Maud to him. As a result Van Dyke changed his opinion of the poem in the third edition of his book.
The Poetry of Tennyson remained Van Dyke's principal volume of literary criticism, though he wrote much about literature throughout his life, blending it with religion and nature. His next significant work was Little Rivers (1895), a collection of essays about the value of the outdoors in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and John Muir. Fisherman's Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things (1899) was similar.
Van Dyke's short stories usually grew out of his pastoral calling and often resembled parables. Such is the case of his immensely popular The Story of the Other Wise Man (1896). Originally read as a Christmas sermon in his church and published in Harper's Monthly Christmas issue of 1892, it is the story of Artaban, a fourth Magus who sells all he owns to bring three precious jewels to the newly born Christ child. During his journey, however, he is detained by various individuals who need his aid and thus finally uses up all his jewels without ever seeing Christ. In the end at Golgotha he has a vision of Christ telling him that in helping others. Artaban has actually seen and helped Christ himself. This story, which has been published in at least eighteen editions in the United States and England and translated into many languages, fulfilled Van Dyke's criteria for a good short story: intentional brevity; singleness of theme; an atmosphere which enhances the value of the theme; and a symbolic meaning. It also reflects the limitations that modern critics have seen in both his writing and his Christianity--gaining grace is all too easy, too comfortable, too certain. As Bernard Baum has pointed out in his article "God of Hosts and Hostesses," Artaban doesn't really have to suffer or even encounter genuine suffering for the sake of his religion. Nor must he renounce tangibles since it is the very jewels he possesses that permit him to help others. This comfortable belief in Christian capitalism was reflected in an early sermon Van Dyke preached against communism and socialism: "For of two things you may be sure: first, if God has given you possessions in this world they are your own: second, He will certainly hold you to account for what you do with them."
After an illustrious career as a minister, Van Dyke agreed to accept a chair as Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton in 1900. (He would retire from that position in 1923.) He had already been elected in 1898 by the Academy of Social Science Association to a group of literary men who helped create the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Yet, just as he had incorporated literature into his preaching, now he incorporated his preaching into his literature. His next book of literary criticism was a small volume entitled The Poetry of the Psalms (1900), which was later collected into books of essays such as Counsels by the Way (1908) and Companionable Books (1922). In it he discussed the Bible as literature, "a noble and impassioned interpretation of nature and life, uttered in language of beauty and sublimity, touched with the vivid colours of human personality, and embodied in forms of enduring literary art." He discussed the difficulties of reading the Psalms as poetry in English rather than the original Hebrew because of what is lost in the translation, both metrical verse and subtleties of language. Yet he went on to point out the value that is left and recommended the psalms as poetry to his readers.
Books, Literature and the People (1900), later collected into Essays in Application (1905), dealt with the difference between good literature and best-sellers and once again extolled the value of literature to "refresh the weary, to console the sad, to hearten up the dull and downcast, to increase man's interest in the world, his joy of living, and his sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men."
In 1913 Van Dyke was appointed by friend and former classmate Woodrow Wilson as ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg, but he resigned in 1916 because of those countries' neutrality during World War I and became lieutenant commander for the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Navy instead. Strongly anti-German, he saw no conflict between "deep faith and good fighting." During this time he turned increasingly to patriotic themes, publishing his well-known Fighting for Peace in 1917 and What Peace Means in 1919. Two of his talks, "In Defense of Religious Liberty," and "For Freedom of Conscience," a radio address of 3 October 1928, were distributed by the Democratic National Committee in 1928.
Companionable Books, a collection of appreciative essays about Van Dyke's favourite books and authors, was published in 1922. In addition to two chapters about the Bible, it contained discussions of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Izaak Walton, Samuel Johnson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Robert Louis Stevenson, combining biographical comments with literary evaluation.
The Man Behind the Book: Essays in Understanding (1929) followed a similar format but attacked as well as praised. It began by considering Geoffrey Chaucer as English poetry's first luminary, Edgar Allan Poe as a minor but talented American poet, and Walt Whitman as a misunderstood poet-preacher whom Van Dyke deemed a far better writer than Poe. The next chapter attacked Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915), both for its view of life and for its free verse, which Van Dyke called "chop-stick prose--knockkneed, splay-footed, St. Vitus prose." His essay did not mention Masters by name but called him "Spoon Riverman" and "the necrologist." Under the heading "Problematic Natures in English Literature" Van Dyke considered Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Thomas Carlyle. The last section of the book dealt with four novels, George Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feveral (1859), Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), and Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). He discussed each work favourably, first giving a biographical sketch of the author (though he admitted he knew little about Wilder other than what the book jacket provided), followed by a summary of the plot with comments along the way explaining what he found of value in the work.
Much of Van Dyke's later significant literary criticism came in the form of speeches and letters to friends, in which he attacked the new literary movements he saw around him. He opposed art for art's sake because he felt all art should serve man and make him a better, happier person. Of free verse he was a little more tolerant, though he disliked most of it because he felt it lacked substance as well as form. Yet, he acknowledged that some had substance and some had both "and may be taken as an indication of the possibility of developing new metrical arrangements in English verse, which will have a measured and perceptible rhythm of their own." However, he found much free verse too strong and unconventional. He wrote to Edwin Mims at Vanderbilt University: "Must real poetry go off with a bang and fizz like soda water? or claim attention by its strong smell like Limburger cheese?"
He railed against what he called the "new fireworks school of criticism" and at seventy-five attacked the "Smart Aleck School" of writers who "demand too much from life and don't give enough." At a Germantown Business Man's Luncheon Club meeting on 28 March 1930, he publicly criticized the awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Sinclair Lewis because he felt Lewis's work presented too negative a view of America and its people. "It isn't the darkness of his views I object to," said Van Dyke, "it's the meanness of them." He felt that William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) gave a truer picture of America. He himself had seen many main streets in America and had met good people as well as base ones like those portrayed in Lewis's novel. He thought writers such as Willa Cather, Booth Tarkington, Hamlin Garland, Struthers Burt, and James Boyd were more deserving of the honour. In his speech accepting the prize in Stockholm, Lewis referred specifically to Van Dyke's criticism, calling him "the fishing Academician," and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, to which Van Dyke was elected president in 1912. Lewis said that the academy did not "represent literary America today; it represents only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow."
Henry Van Dyke's stature as a literary critic, though solid throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has consistently dwindled since the 1920s. Though some of his work has remained popular with the general public--an edition of The Story of the Other Wise Man appeared in 1959--most critics today view him as a man of Victorian taste whose attitude toward the function of literature was too narrow and whose Christianity sat perhaps too easily on his shoulders. Yet, the man Helen Keller called "an architect of happiness" accomplished much; he was an influential and powerful speaker and writer who tried to bridge the gap created by World War I and contend positively with a world of growing scepticism and despair.