book cover imageThe Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait
by W. Barksdale Maynard.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 276 pages, $34.95.

When an author writes of a place that he or she loves, there is always the danger of slipping into an overly sentimental paean that might exclude readers who have not experienced the neighborhood described. W. Barksdale Maynard has avoided this pitfall by providing a background rich in historical events and characters and creating a portrait of an American valley capable of engaging any person interested in such diverse subjects as American history, geology, literature, art, gardens, and conservancy. This is the first scholarly history since 1941 of the Brandywine Valley, an area that arguably should be better known for its importance in American history,industrial history, and contributions in the history of art.

The Brandywine Valley is located west of Philadelphia, in the region that encompasses the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. According to the map provided at the beginning of the book, it extends from West Chester, Pennsylvania at the north to just south of Wilmington, Delaware. The eastern border abuts Route I-95 as it crosses the line from Delaware to Pennsylvania, and the western border is around Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The only major city in the area is Wilmington, but the valley includes other institutions whose names may be known to people unfamiliar with the region—like Longwood Gardens (one of the major formal gardens in the United States), Winterthur (which boasts the best collection of American decorative arts as well as botanic gardens), and the Brandywine River Museum of Art (which houses the works of American illustrators Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish as well as the extended Wyeth family of artists). Wilmington, too, is home to the Delaware Art Museum, which contains the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in this country, as well as the Hagley Museum and Library, a museum of industry located on the grounds of one of the DuPont powder mills.

One aspect of Maynard’s writing that makes this book particularly successful is his ability to integrate an historical narrative with a thematic categorization. The book begins, appropriately, by giving the “lay of the land”—the river and configuration of the terrain before any settlers arrived. Maynard then follows the accounts, in chronological order, of the various human inhabitants, from the Lenape Indians to the Dutch, followed by the Swedes, and then the English, after the arrival of William Penn. Maynard keeps the narrative interesting by integrating colorful marginalia, such as that the first log cabin in America was built at the Swedes’ Fort Christina.

Subsequent chapters outline the region’s historical events, organized thematically as well as chronologically, offering the reader a comprehensive overview while maximizing entertainment value. One chapter, for example, focuses on the natural properties of the valley and its changes over the years, detailing the longstanding local interest in nature conservancy which continues to this day. Another chapter tells the story of industry in the valley, galvanized by the speed of the rushing water that provided power to early factories. The central story here is the history of the DuPont powder mills along the Brandywine in Wilmington, whose revenue enabled patronage of the arts and gardens that now are ornaments to the area. Later chapters are dedicated more specifically to the literature and art produced in the region.

One of the valley’s key historical events was the Battle of Brandywine, a Revolutionary War battle fought on September 11, 1777. This famous site still draws tourists—the farmhouses that served as the headquarters of Washington and a nineteen-year-old Lafayette who led the American troops are still available for view, although the battle itself was a disaster for the Americans, who suffered high casualties and allowed the British to take Philadelphia. Throughout the book, Maynard returns to this battle and its site as a subject in art and especially literature. He also interweaves an interesting history of the valley’s tourist visitors, who came as early as 1800 to see the battle site. These sightseers include Lafayette himself who revisited the site in 1780 (before the war was even over) and again in 1825.

The chapter on Brandywine valley artists includes such well-known painters as Thomas Doughty and Thomas Eakins, who visited to paint the beauty of the landscape. But the artists most associated with the area are Howard Pyle, illustrator of several books on King Arthur, who opened an art school in Chadds Ford, and N. C. Wyeth, a student of Pyle’s who created the iconic image of Long John Silver for Stevenson’s Treasure Island. N. C. Wyeth was the father of Andrew Wyeth, one of the best-known painters of the twentieth century, who grew up in the valley and used the local landscape in his paintings. His realistic landscapes could be said to be nostalgic and retrograde in a time when abstract expressionism was painting’s front line. Yet many people, including several United States Presidents who loved representational art, sought and collected his paintings. Maynard interviewed Wyeth’s son, the painter Jamie Wyeth, whom he quotes as saying, “It was quite a daring thing to do at the time. He consciously decided to focus on this little valley. He barely traveled. His whole world revolved around this small area. It all relates back to the battle of the Brandywine and Washington.”

The chapter on literature suffers a little by comparison with the chapter on artists. The names of the writers are little known, although F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda graced the valley with their presence briefly in a rented house in Wilmington from 1927 to 1929, where Fitzgerald wrote part of Tender is the Night. Maynard introduces the reader to some authors long forgotten, although popular in their time. One example is George Lippard. His Blanche of Brandywine: Or, September the Eleventh, 1777, which was a commercial hit in 1846 and later became a play billed as “the first domestic drama on the Revolution.” The author makes us care about this little-known writer with a short but punchy biography, which includes such delicious comments as “Lippard once rescued his associate Edgar Allan Poe from starvation.” The light sense of humor that illuminates comments like this does not distract from the narrative, but makes the book a pleasure to read.

Although this is not a “picture-book,” the author has selected an interesting variety of images. Fifteen color plates include several paintings by Andrew Wyeth, and there are also a number of black and white photos of the valley and people who lived there, including several of no longer extant bridges over the Brandywine. (Bridges are no doubt a particular interest of Maynard, who includes an appendix on “Bridges of the Brandywine.”)

Any reader who is lucky enough to have lived in or spent time in the Brandywine Valley may find himself wishing the author had lingered more on other locally lauded gems, such as the stone houses that display the characteristic domestic architecture of the area, or even the distinctive sycamore trees that dot the countryside (he does mention the sycamores on page 197 and one is represented by a Andrew Wyeth painting in plate 15). But although Maynard has a Ph.D. in art history, and has written on the architecture of Wilmington, he has extended the scope of this book to include geographical, historical, and sociological perspectives rather than concentrating primarily on the visual.

While Maynard’s affection for the area is manifest throughout, the book never becomes a self-indulgent tribute. Instead, this comprehensive view of the Brandywine sheds light on the larger scope of America’s political and cultural history, viewed through the people and circumstances of one rather small but beautiful part of the Eastern corridor.  

Sarah Phelps Smith has a Ph.D. in the history of art and has written articles on Victorian and Renaissance painting. As an independent art historian she has taught at the university level and taken groups to study Renaissance art on site in Italy. She and her husband have eight children and live in Cleveland, Ohio.