THE NEW HUMANISM:
A CRITIQUE OF MODERN AMERICA, 1900-1940
By J. DAVID HOEVELER, Jr.
University Press of Virginia
Vii - While there has been no systematic investigation of the neglected New Humanists’ thought, they did have a theme: this was the thought of the dualism of human nature, extrapolated in part from Greek philosophy and Eastern religions.
The first chapter is a narrative biography of major players.
The second chapter explores philosophical dualism in depth.
Viii - “The intellectual revolution of the late 19th century too often became a sterile obsession with the unique, the individual, the immediate and the changing – want the pluralistic diversity of an “open university.”
Herein he feels he has especially short changed Paul Elmer More, who has received lots of attention elsewhere.
PART ONE – FOUNDATIONS
CHAPTER ONE: THE NEW HUMANISTS
“The New Humanism sprang from a profound disaffection with the modern age. Centering its attention on the governing ideas of the contemporary world, it surveyed the triumph of relativism in philosophy and social thought, of materialism in daily living, and of romanticism and naturalism in literature, and was convinced that twentieth-century man had lost his bearings.”
They were cultural traditionalists, defensive about classical principles of art, and neo-Burkean in their political and social views. They were not popular as they waged a war against pragmatism and Darwinism. They didn’t get popular till the end of the 1920s.
They anticipated much of the Southern Agrarians.
They blamed two trends for the loss of first principles:
1) The romantic tradition that dated from Rousseau. These folks overlooked human nature in favor of the individual uniqueness view; controlled by emotion and falsely praising primitive man.
2) Naturalism and pragmatism viewed man as a mindless victim of animal impulses.
4 - While having these two roots, they found many applications. Their aesthetic; also their attack on the nature and goals of American higher education with its vocationalism and elective system, the service ideal, and German traditionalism written all over it.
This meant the decline of classical and humanist traditions of the old time colleges.
This led to democratic excess.
They strongly defended the rights of property, disliked American plutocracy.
All were divided over religion. They all liked it. But some thought culture could substitute more than others.
5 – Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More were the earliest figures in the movement.
Babbitt was born in 1865 and his family moved a lot. But he was never close to his family. He hated his father’s spiritualism, cults, and romanticism.
He liked Buddhism and Greek (which he studied at Harvard).
8 – While he loved restraint in theory, he was the picture of untamed energy. He was in revolt against academia. Germanic pedantry was squeezing the zest from literature. He was at Harvard from 1889 to 1933.
9 – His lectures were amazingly influential and learned. Students bet on the number of authors he would mention in each lecture. The record was 75.
He loved classics and couldn’t teach in that department and his department didn’t like him.
And, he was at loggerheads with President Charles W. Elliot’s elective system and took issue with him at faculty meetings.
His ideals were fully formed at birth and never changed.
10 - Paul Elmer More was born in 1864. His parents were strict Calvinists. His wife read the bible to the family daily. And, he loved poetry from youth.
11 - They met at Harvard. The two were, together, the whole advanced class in Sanskrit and the Pali dialect. He said of Babbitt, “He turned the whole current of my life, saving me from something akin to emotional and intellectual suicide.”
He too failed to get a Ph.D. He was the literary editor of the Nation for a while. But More was frail and withdrawn “The Hermit of Princeton.” He couldn’t look at his pretty girl students.
12 – “Plato and a garden, what more should human nature desire?” He wrote. Edmund Wilson, H. L. Mencken and Randolph Bourne attacked him. But all respected him.
The first major outline of New Humanism was Babbitt’s ‘Literature and the American College” (1908). It attacked science and romanticism.
Rousseau led to individualism that led to course electives designed to help you materially aid society.
13 – The Masters of Modern French Criticism was Babbitt and NH’s most incisive statement of the philosophy of art. His Rousseau and Romanticism (1919) traced three centuries of intellectual history.
More, meanwhile, wrote of man’s evil lower nature and need for control for a higher self to emerge.
14 – More thought himself the least read and most hated author in America.
Stuart Pratt Sherman was a joiner who was born in 1881. His father taught him about the classics. But, he died when Sherman was young. His uncle taught him about Arizona mining camps.
He was a football player and poet and ended up at Harvard.
15 – He taught a course on Matthew Arnold.
Like Willa Cather, he saw WW I as German vulgarity and militarism against art, democracy and culture. He saw the weight of romanticism and naturalism on German thought. He called our ideal “Puritanism” wherein we decided and the Germans had government to decide right and wrong.
In 1917 he published Matthew Arnold: How to Know Him and On Contemporary Literature.
All disliked Theodore Dreiser. Man must not just record life, but capture the ethical center of the human experience.
16 – In the battle of the books, he wrote Americans
(1922) and The Genius of America (1923).
He said our authors formed the “religion of democracy” that he
celebrated as the essence of the American spirit.
Letters were to bring “the cultural unity of America” by illuminating the national character, especially its “profound moral idealism.”
Sherman popularized NH by taking on contemporary writers like Dreiser, Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis.
17 – More started to split off by 1917. He more and more saw that Platonism made Christianity true.
Sherman slightly defected by becoming more inclusive. He drowned in 1926, perhaps due to overwork and a heart attack (causing the drowning).
18 – Babbitt tried to direct Sherman away from his increasing praise of democracy and the common man. Sherman, on the other hand, found More and Babbitt “Remorselessly negative.”
Sherman wanted More to see the good in people. More responded that too much flattery was bad for people and we had to seek what was the best in ourselves. More suggested Sherman read more classics and leave modern lit for a bit.
Sherman said More’s relentless classicism failed to engage the modern scene.
19 – But More just went ever more into Platonism.
But New Humanism still gained strength in the 1920s.
Norman Foerster completed the inner circle. Born in 1887, he too was Babbitt’s student at Harvard. And, he kept championing More and Babbitt’s ideas after their deaths in the mid-1930s.
He wrote American Criticism in 1928 and Towards Standards in 1930.
22 - He moved the university of Iowa and wrote lots on the failure of higher education.
George Roy Elliot was another NH figure. He loved Babbitt and moved to religion as he got older.
Gerham Munson came to Humanism from being a Greenwich Village Bohemian and da da ist.
23 – Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership (1924) was his last big book. It attacked trifling Americans. His translation of the Dhammapada was published after his death.
T.S. Elliot liked the New Humanists.
24 – Babbitt and More forsook the Midwest. But, Foerster and Sherman thought it held the greatest promise for humanist growth.
25 – What really united them was a passion for literature. This was also a source of weakness. They too often confused life and literature. If the real world did not fulfill the highest human promise, then literature must.
Intellectually and spiritually, they shared a quest for certainty. They wanted to uphold universal standards without a recourse to metaphysics or religious dogma.
1930 was the pinnacle of NH. That year all journals debated them and 3,000 people came to hear Babbitt lecture at Carnegie Hall.
26 – The dearth of intellectual exchange was one of the unfortunate facts about NH. It was a perceptive and provocative analysis of modern America that Dewey and Mencken missed.
Its conservatism and traditionalism afforded insights on culture and national character that the relativists and liberals ignored.
Personality superseded intellectual criticism.
27 – The Great Depress ended much of NH’s power. The battle for spiritual conquest did not work during economic plight.
Why did it get popular? It was a reaction to a decade and more of liberal protest and criticism of the Puritan moral and classical aesthetic and the new lit of rebellion.
The 1920s general hedonism and materialism also provided a background. Even some liberal critics decried this crassness.
CHAPTER TWO: HUMAN NATURE
28 – In an age of scientific explosion, they focused on “the prevailing direction of ideas in this country and in the Western world at large.”
Though perspectives had shifted from Puritanism to rationalism and romanticism, religious thought still preserved moral and spiritual order.
The earlier transcendentalists defended the higher, divine self of man that linked him to a benevolent ‘Oversoul’ and higher laws. But, of even wider impact was Scottish Realism, that held nearly universal vogue in academia.
29 - These ‘common sense’ philosophers constructed a system based on dualism, intuitive moral principles and Christian teleology to counteract British empiricists.
Thomas Reid said, “The first principles of morals are self-evident intuitions,” that needed Careful Christian nurture. And this was tied to free will of man making him a responsible person, morally.
Darwinian challenged all this, the ‘spiritual’ had become the ‘mental.’ “Human intelligence was but an adaptive device for the survival of the organism.”
And, most disturbing to NH, it argued that change and flux were all; permanent, the traditional and universal naught.
30 – We were the mere product of time and circumstance.
Darwinism’s heaviest impact was in the Pragmatists. Pierce wrote that beliefs were only habits of action. Dewey was outspoken against dualism.
31 – No absolutes or higher moral order was a pragmatist theme.
But rather than look back, the NH sought to meet modernism on its own grounds, by defending a critical and empirical dualism that would overcome the naturalistic fallacy.
Aristophanes wrote “Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus.”
NH charged that modern man thought he would find happiness through the pursuit of his desires, but he was never more than a slave to his passions and material ambitions.
32 – Lacking any standards, modern man himself was standardized. Social progress, Munson noted, had become a species of popular religion; science tech and progress.
Babbitt said the malady of the age, “is not so much its open and avowed materialism as what it takes to be its spirituality.”
The sex culture was materialistic and mechanical. The social gospel controlled the outer world, and abandoned the inner.
33 – Others complained of this too, but the NH were different in that 1) They wholly turned to the intellectual and cultural past as a way forward.
Footnote: (in this they were anticipated by the “genteel” critics of the 1850s (Thomas Baily Aldrich, Charles Eliot Norton, Richard Henry Stoddard, and Bayard Taylor. But the genteel critics were mostly of the Eastern seaboard and did not worry about romanticism. They looked for an “art of individual genius” that would liberate literature from philistines. The leaders were, themselves, romantic poets. They also did not discuss dualism as did the NH.)
2) (34) They claimed naturalism and romanticisms view of man robbed him of mental resources.
One part of our nature was constantly changing, vulnerable to the play of feelings, perceptions and external stimuli. Another unchanging, our higher self.
35 – This higher self was the center of religious, spiritual and aesthetic man and the continuing of “all the race amid the infinite variety of its individual members.”
36 - Aristotle looked for balance in thought and action. Riffing on Plato they called this “war in the cave.” We needed conscious effort against our natural self, discipline.
But, Babbitt used Buddhism to stave off rigidity; Because one can perceive an element of unity in things, it does not mean establishing a world of essences above the flux is justified.
37 – NH were disinclined to establish a precise technical philosophical framework. This bothers people who care about precision in language.
Babbitt rested, though, on Aristotle, whose forms came from experience of the many.
We needed a ‘centre of humanity’ that would discipline the self. This was not to be romantic and vague, like Platonism, but grounded like Aristotle was.
38 – Humanists recognized that reason itself was powerless before the force of natural instincts. The Enlightenment was harmful because it only allowed for what we could measure. The higher reality “can only be grasped, and then never completely, through a veil of imaginative illusion.”
Reason was a middle level in humans, above the natural, but below the spiritual.
The higher life was unclear, but still the mind could find it via imaginative insight.
The imagination itself was neutral, it could be used for lust and violence. Imagination did its best work by joining forces with reason as a counterfactual to instincts.
39 – Babbitt wrote, “With the elimination of the ethical element from the soul of art the result is an imagination that is free to wander wild with the emancipated emotions. The result is likely to be art in which a lively aesthetic perceptiveness is not subordinated to any whole.”
We needed imaginative insight that could illuminate a realm of universal experience to be set against all the natural expansive tendencies of the individual ego.
40 – They were determined to direct modern man away from the intoxicating cult of individualism by emphasizing the norm of human behavior and his place in his own race.
The NH were not just looking for what men held in common, (instincts and emotions), but the highest sense of the permanent in the human race that came only from knowing what Matthew Arnold called “The best that has been thought and said in the world.”
Differences and idiosyncrasies of the individual romantic had to give way to similarities. “The progress of humanity did not come naturally; only when persons everywhere worked to discover their higher selves in the common best of their past might they assure the continued spiritual welfare of the race.”
41 - The romantic and naturalist see life in infinite diversity and flux. “A constant gushing forth of novelties>” Henri Bergson said. This was a half-truth, Babbitt said. The challenge is to see life both in its variety and in its wholeness.
[This is excellent literary Darwinist insight!]
They did this as Dewey laid the blame for al ills at the feet of ‘bifurcated’ thought. Plato and Christ popularized the ‘spectator’ camp of knowledge and precluded ordinary experience from guiding us.
42 – Babbitt knew of Dewey and needed to confront the ‘moderns’ without metaphysics. But they were too western, too Baconian.
43 – So Babbitt turned to Buddhism’s “spiritual positivism,” which quelled desire in the flux, and so could help with the “battle in the cave.”
Yoga means “yoking” and Nirvana is the extinction of control by materialist desires.
Hegel and Spinoza created grand systems, they were yeah-sayers; Buddha, a nay-sayer.
44 – NH attacked, admittedly, a stick figure of romanticism. Classicists saw the natural as normal. Thus the Enlightenment looked at nature as a sign of rationality, law, balance, harmony and control. From this view, strong emotion or enthusiasm was a departure from nature to be distrusted.
But the romantics defined the natural as spontaneous play of emotion and impulse.
Reason, because it was a hindrance to such these faculties was now suspect.
45 – Babbitt attacked romantic’s refusal to discriminate morally; the beautiful soul of the drunkard, the courtesan. For Rousseau morality was reduced to an expansive sympathy, a passion itself, rather than a restraint on passion.
His cult of the innocent child also bothered Babbitt.
46 – But Romanticism wasn’t an intellectual system or set of values, but a common imagination. Lacking restraints, he drifted to the extremes defiant of norms.
In this critique, Babbitt missed what Arthur O. Lovejoy had written: the Enlightenment’s hatred of tradition and prejudice became a celebration of simple truths too. There was a kind of 18th century rational primitivism.
47 – Romantic was too subjective and Baconian science too objective. It substituted an outer for an inner self.
Will James defended free will. But, NH thought he found too much of consciousness in the flux. His many universes bothered the NH too. Like the behaviorists, all was reaction to the outer material world.
48 – Humanism and naturalism both could only flourish in a culture that had lost touch with the supernatural.
Two relevant points: NH were absolutists in a sense. They wanted permanent values: but they wouldn’t rely on the apriori morals of 19th century American intellectuals. And, it was individuaist in the sense that many lone individuals would need to find this truth.
They were not remorselessly negative” their lack of a transcendent thrust them back into this universe.
49 – And they knew humans had a dark side, but this didn’t mean pessimistic determinism. It appealed to the accomplishments of the race and our triumph over nature.
Ultimately, NH was into a type of conduct in life. The self-denial meant nothing if it didn’t result in a qualitatively better you and society.
They would today condemn our crass lack of imagination; and ask us to consider permanent concerns.
CHAPTER THREE: THE CREATIVE LIFE
The romantic intellectual was remote from the judgment of the race. And, materialism too denied any universal norm. Upholding the universal, for NH, became the universal values as the true test of creativity.
“Art must reflect life while also standing apart from it, and artist must be a creator but also a critic of life.” This required that they “introduce moral and intellectual criteria into aesthetic considerations.”
51 – “Properly conceived, art was the hope of the world, for true art was the successful unity of reason and imaginative insight and thus the basis of humanist culture.”
[in the margin, the previous owner of this book wrote, “As b Weinberg noted, a Platonic critic was a man without a text.” Best margin line ever!]
“The artist under these standards was judged to be creative only by virtue of his imaginative portrayal of the universal experience of a uniform human nature.”
52 – Romantic critics have always found the vocabulary of the classical critic – imitation, representation, norm, universality – restrictive and mechanical. But the NH did not think it corrupted genius or barred the local or individual from being discussed.
Babbitt loved to say that, “the artist must combine opposite extremes and occupy all the space between.” He wanted work that was original and representative.
Emerson commented that the classics all seemed to be written by one “all-seeing, all-hearing” author.
53 – Classic poetry’s main metaphor was a mirror; romanticism a lamp. It illuminates the inside; Bloom said, “The creative process is the hero of romantic poetry.”
Romantic poetry was allied with Kant! Whose Critique of Judgment sought to separate the aesthetic world from the world of science and morality and utility – aiming at disinterested satisfaction.
To be sure, Kant was not into individualism or art for arts sake, and he appealed to common sense. But he “clearly did initiate the transition from the late classical to the romantic period.”
54 – The classical was mechanical, critics said, the romantic, organic.
We must note, in terms of criticism, the NH were more interested in criticism than exposition, they were sensitive to ideas. And, so not so subtle and prone to emphasize and ignore to make points.
The NH liked the rule-bound 18th century, but understood its excesses. Babbitt said that the legacy of the romantic rebellion was “An eccentricity so extreme as to be almost or quite indistinguishable from madness.”
55 - Kant’s big failure came in his failure to associate genius in art to a purpose, an end or standard of value outside the artist himself.
56 – Babbitt attached German artists more than English ones. Germans liked music because it has so little connection with the outside world of objects.
The Romantics used Platonic language, but only to fuel egoistic outreach of the self. Their universal was weak; this was seen when it was tied to the infinite. In this way the ‘universal’ could no longer serve as a disciplining ethical norm.”
57 – German romantics also looked to the past. But, they looked to the Middle Ages. And, the NH looked to the past to critique and curtail the present. The NH saw the German use of the past as uncritical and at the service of primitivism and nationalism.
58 – There was a severing of reason and intellect from art criticism.
For Walter Pater, the whirl of existence was “a drift of momentary acts of insight and passion and thoughts.” “While all melts under our feet we may well catch at any exquisite passion . . that seems. . . to set the spirit free.”
59 – Pater became the NH straw man.
More precise statements of ‘art for art’s sake,’ came from Benedetto Croce and his American disciple, Joel E. Springarn.
Croce explained Artistic creation was the work of the ‘Aesthetic faculty” or “lyric intuition” or “intuition expression.” This was a non-cognitive, non-spiritual, non-moral exercise. It had no connection to the beautiful or pleasurable.
60 – The made the artist free and took out moral content.
Babbitt said Croce limited art to a sort of ‘lyrical overflow’ – the cult of speed and power.
61 – Criticism under Pater or Croce was then an explanation of what happened to ME when I looked at the art.
[The margin writer from the past says that Springarn was later the executive director of the NAACP. I love the margin writer from the past. Where is he now?]
Springarn taught that the artist was successful if they expressed their inner feeling. Then as a critic we only needed to reproduce the art within oneself and to become one with the artist’s genius and taste.
62 – Foerster noted that Pater had reduced artists goal to generating new thrills for the observer. Considered judgment and aesthetic standards were out.
“It was this ‘immemorial right to judge’ that the Humanists sought to reclaim for the critic.”
“Impressionism was not criticism at all. It accepted works of art as the scientist examines the works of nature, as objects for study and enjoyment but not for evaluation by a moral standard or measure.”
Babbitt charged the impressionist critics with irresponsibility: They encourage laziness and conceit. It aims to follow the emotional line of least resistance – the easy path to “genius.”
63 – “As long as we recognize that there is something unchanging in human nature . . . then the standards of art are unchanging.” “We need only ask to what extent any work of art combined individual uniqueness with an imaginative insight into the universally human.”
Impressionist critics explained “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself as an end.”
64 – Then how to judge? “[NH] They sought to judge art by moral and intellectual criteria and to derive those criteria from the higher experience of the human race.”
In Plato and the 18th century moral standards were a part of criticism. This in part explains the prevailing obsession with rules and formulas. Art was to be pleasurable and to offer moral instruction. “It is always the writer’s duty,” said Samuel Johnson, “to make the world better.”
Sherman quoted Matthew Arnold, “Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life . . . A poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a poetry of revolt against life; a poetry of indifference to moral ideas is a poetry of indifference to life.”
64 – Babbitt said “moral imagination” was the most important quality of a work of art.
65 - Babbitt acknowledged the ‘recreational’ value of romantic poetry. But, found it anchorless. Beauty loses most of its meaning when divorced from the ethical.
This was selective reading as Shelly’s Defense of Poetry, which said that poems that are beautiful are also moral. But, Shelly’s morals were thin.
66 – Babbitt noted “Books exist primarily to express ideas.” Not just “elegant aesthetic sensation.”
Literature devoid of “intellectual qualities” became a kind of ‘Debauchery,” a lazy emotional indulgence.
Springarn responded that Babbitt, excelled in the world of ideas, but could only wonder at a theory of literary criticism so inclusive as to find an interest in “every subject under the sun except imaginative literature.” He said Babbitt lacked the artistic temperament to understand art.
Babbitt replied that both the literary critic and the artist were confronted by the same challenge: to find unity in life amid the flux of experience.
67 - Matthew Arnold (MA) was the NH guide in fighting both romantics and naturalists.
68 – But the NH MA affinity was not absolute. MA did not write from a consistent intellectual viewpoint. As More noted, he lacked a philosophy that would “tie together [his] moral and aesthetic sense.” On the other hand, Arnold exhibited the aesthetic sense that was lacking in the NH.
The NH referenced MAs criticism, but not his poetry.
On to lit crit history: Herder preceded Hegel and saw literature as a measure of the historically developing national spirit. This view could offer judgment. “Great authors were those who identified with the community and its evolution and captured its spirit in their work.”
69 – Criticism then was to elucidate the movement of history by making clear its hidden meaning and to illustrate the peculiar national identity. This could involve historical documents and the study of old poetry’s style, manners, and customs.
Under French socialists we then get the social novel that depicts problems in society.
The NH called Zola and social novel folks “romanticism on all fours.”
For the NH the Herder-style criticism was personified by Hippolyte-Adoolphe Taine. Taine offered a secular Hegel model. Taine later employed Darwin. But then art expressed not individualism or culture, but instinct in the environment.
70 – Herder’s On the Knowing and Feeling of the Human Soul has been noted as the first inclusion of naturalism in criticism.
71 – More said we could explain Hawthorne’s work by a reference to environment and heredity, but it would explain little.
Historic nationalism criticism was science like, fact finding, objective, not judgmental. They found what differentiated one civilization and epoch from another. The truly significant artist transcended himself and his environment and expressed the universal.
73 – The NH also rejected Tolstoy’s “what is art?” that attempted to return art to the [romantically celebrated] community. The lowest common denominator of the crowd was not the way to go.
TS Elliot tried to establish impersonal art and criticism.
74 – TS Eliot also held that art must refine emotions have an external standard, for him these included the Christian religion.
74 – Eliot said, “the end of the enjoyment of poetry is a pure contemplation from which all accidents of personal emotion are removed.”
75 – And while Eliot thought morals should inform reading, he didn’t think moral messages made for good criticism.
John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate’s Southern Agrarian movement shared a lot with NH.
Like the NH, New Critics suspected that the advance of science was incompatible with the advance of art, that it corrupts the imagination, and restricts the ability to think in terms of symbols and myth.
76 – But they also wanted strict aesthetic standards. Tate said of NH’s More that he engaged in “moral mechanism” and “morality for morality’s sake.”
But in 1938 G. R. Elliott defended them. He insisted that great are is not so because it is moral, but that “it is moral because it is great. It does not strive for moral values; it attains these incidentally while striving for more inclusive forms of existence.”
PART TWO: HUMANISM AND MODERN AMERICA
CHAPTER FOUR: THE BATTLE OF THE BOOKS
81 – Why were the NH so strong and broad in their rejection of modern lit? Because, their case against literature was largely interwoven with their case against modern American life.
So they retreated to the literary past to find exemplars.
82 – The first outlines of NH appeared when realism had become the major tradition and style of American lit. And, it was happening when a shift was happening within realism itself. This was led by the offspring of the mass migration to the US (Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Carl Sandburg) or internal disruptions and fluidity of US life (Jack London and Sherwood Anderson).
They showed little sense of certainty and control. They were often thrown back upon themselves in trying to get truths. Even with the romantic Americans, Emerson and Thoreau, there was a naturalistic attention to detail, Darwinian chaos.
83 – American romanticism portrayed an anguished soul in a tough world.
But E. E. Cummings and Ezra Pound also followed the French ideal of free expression, spontaneity and subjectivism.
84 – Critics across the board hated American materialism and conformity.
85 – Bourne and Mencken blamed the American Puritan, he was the prohibitionist, censor, preacher – moralistic and aesthetically numb. They hated “Comstockery.” This hindered writing and was part of a revolt against traditional America.
This resulted in anti-small town novels like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
86 – Sex and Freud were new emphasis in US lit.
Sherman’s rebellion against the above was more based in nationalism than Babbitt. But all NH understood the US needed a revitalization based on its traditions.
87 – Van Wyck Brooks’ The Wine of the Puritans was an assault on Puritans, and made him a leader of the ‘young critics.’ We were all low brow and no high brow, just workers.
88 – In short, American lit had failed to bring about the socialism Brooks wanted.
“Our society,” Brooks warned, “is rapidly breeding a race of Hamlets.”
88 - American lit tradition was under fire from the Right and Left. Mencken coupled his criticism with a disdain for American democracy. Are for peasants and small traders.
89 – Mencken held the absence of an aristocracy was the greatest source of spiritual failure in ‘merica. The puritan and democrat turned all aesthetic endeavors into moral questions.
89 – Attacking head on, Sherman mounded a defense of Puritanism as always pursuing his perfection with self-discipline. He found Emerson to be a good descendant of the Puritans.
His faith in the common man appealed to Sherman.
91 – Emerson did not submit to the taste of the mob and realized reform must rely on moral and intellectual regeneration.
Babbitt was appalled at Sherman’s praise of Emerson, because Emerson denied the ‘intrinsic evil in human nature.’ If we plant ourselves in our ‘instincts’ we plant ourselves in our crudeness.
92 – More liked the early New England poets and also had concerns about Emerson.
93 – Each saw his own world view in Emerson.
Shelby found that Thoreau had no ‘self-abandonment’ of Keats or ‘effeminate’ pantheistic reverie.
94 - Both Sherman and More loved Hawthorne. Hawthorne understood sin, the “war in the cave.”
Sherman particularly loved Whitman’s democratic enthusiasms and nationalism.
95 – But Babbitt hated Whitman too! Buddha was more spiritual. He said Whitman was a ‘cosmic loafer.” He also hated his ‘humanitarianism’ for all mankind.
Sherman liked Twain as a bulwark against ‘anaemic refinements, cosmopolitan tendencies, Teutonic heresies, imperial lusts, fraud and corruption.”
97 – Brooks said that conflict over the sad mediocrity of artistic prospects in America made Twain become a funny man. Only in Huck Finn could Twain be himself – in the guise of a child – on the subconscious raft on a river.
This reading in could make one “yearn for the aestheticism of the New Critics.”
98 – The problem was to use lit as an anti-materialist weapon. They did so by tying it to the past. But how to connect today’s lit to the past without going through the awful present? So their heaviest artillery aimed at the present artists.
Mencken celebrated Dreiser for his naturalistic turn. He praised its seeking without finding. Dreiser himself said he had a “sense of life as a complex biological phenomenon, only dimly comprehended.” Life is seeking without finding.
99 – Sherman found the profound moral idealism in Whitman and Twain. Dreiser had to suppress evidence to be indifferent to the moral forces of American life. Dreiser only saw a jungle because he himself was immune to the higher qualities in life.
100 – Sherman viciously attacked Mencken. Mencken reciprocated. Babbitt and More rarely got into the fray. Public press battles were Sherman’s realm.
101 – In American letters, More could nearly only get himself to read detective stories. Here there was no playing tricks with the 10 commandments, murder was still murder, adultery was still adultery, with no romantic or naturalistic apologies.
The problem with new books is that they keep you from reading old ones!
102 – The Humanists saw science’s influence in the psychological novel and particularly in its use of sex as a theme. This was also a variant of the romantic search for the intensely personal.
If art doesn’t consider the pursuit of truth, morals and democracy, it will go to a less valuable end. Having liberated beauty from its spiritual realities it was now all sensual gratification.
104 – Later Sherman came to like Sherwood Anderson. He didn’t reject his old values, he just thought some moderns ennobled America; Willa Cather for example.
105 – In 1921, Sherman nominated Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street to the Academy of Arts and Letters as the best novel of the year!
Work had to go past diagnosing America’s trouble to therapy. Lewis did this in Main Street, but not in Babbitt. He found some nobility in the new writer’s portraits of modern maladies.
Not so for Babbitt and More. They did not engage modern literature of the public.
106 - So when Sherman sort of left the fold, there was no one left to share the NH vision with the public.
CHAPTER FIVE: LIBERATING EDUCATION
“A university emphasizing everything emphasizes nothing.” Foester. (107)
107 – NH was a campus movement. By the second decade of the century, the American university had changed: Discipline and piety were replaced by vocational, professional training and public service aims.
Rather than tradition, the university sought to create new knowledge and social service.
108 - Practicality and the elective system were new priorities alongside the German research model. And this shallowness reflected America’s lame character.
“They all violated the essential purpose of education – to link the cultural past to the present.”
109 – The college only left the student prepared for the pressing momentary tasks of the day, with no understanding of the permanent.
Stentorian means loud and powerful.
America has long seen the new decade as a gain over the past.
But the old could also be defended on practical grounds. What today seems an education for efficiency may turn out to be merely a fixation in maladjustment.”
Liberal education works on the mind in general, leaving you flexible. Judgment, wisdom and perspective were the goals of a sound educational program.
110 – They were not adverse to the idea of the “faculty psychology.” But sought it via classics. Disciplines such as economics and sociology had the effect of “isolating the student from the great inheritance of the past.” Going into these ‘slums’ kept you from feeling at home ‘in the society of the noble dead.”
Classics mold character and prepare leaders.
111 – This was opposed to the naturalistic emphasis that adjusted man to his environment. The romantic strain only appealed to students’ passions.
The elective system assumed that the individual was mature enough to know the merits of one course of study of field of knowledge from another.
If utility and self-expression were all, there were little grounds for imposing a uniform or required course of studies.
112 – The elective system showed both a democratic blindness to distinction and quality and a lingering romantic notion of individual uniqueness and personal whim.
Having a course called “problems of the high school cafeteria” shows what was wrong with electives.
Education does not exist to confirm the young mind in its natural temperament or exist to pursue the present and easier pleasure. Electives mean money and whim would decide curriculum. This is enslaving.
People flocked to easy courses and America was becoming lazy.
113 – We’re not different so each shall know the norm of humanity measured through civilization and its past achievements. Electives said the civilization’s achievements were equal to the whims of a sophomore.
Foester didn’t like the state universities, but Sherman did.
114 – They expanded farm yields, and spread education widely but very thinly.
115 – The service ethic shows a naturalistic faith that human happiness derives from the adjustment of the human species to its environment.
Paul More saw Eliot’s elective system as Spencerian at heart.
116 – Rather than wanting to prove something valuable, people just wanted to prove something. Students scrounged for undocumented 5th tier poets to publish about.
117 – In literature historical explanation had replaced studying the human content of the literature itself.
Schools were also weighed down by the concern for the helpless mediocre, as if it were an intellectual sick chamber. But then how many could / should be educated?
118 – NH pleaded for the redeemable few: Jefferson’s natural aristocracy.
The purpose of the university is not to encourage the democratic spirit, but to check the drift toward a pure democracy.
The tide partially turned their way when Abbott Lawrence Lowell replaced Eliot (after 40 years) and Nicholas Murray Butler took over Columbia.
120 – The rapid material advance, it was said, gave people a false sense of confidence in breaking with the past. Differences in our material circumstance make us feel that we can no longer understand people of the past.
[So might a reversal make us look in the past? To what extent does Darwinian universalism allow us to see the past?]
120 - Robert Hutchins in his “The Higher Learning in America” wrote we are interested, “in the attributes of the race, not the accidents of the individual.”
In 1930 N. Foerster became the director of the School of Letters and Science at his University of Iowa. He immediately attacked departmental rigidity. He created classes and the “American civilization” major.
121 – Then, since the doctoral degree did not show qualification – he thought – in lieu of original research, he said he would accept “imaginative or critical writing.”
He fought with the Classics department because he thought the teaching dry and dull and characterized by ‘rudderless scientism.’
His work was attacked by a progressive ‘educationists’ who wanted electives and specialization.
122 – He lost and resigned in 1944, denouncing the ‘reactionary’ liberal arts program.
The education battle illustrates what no NH could see, that no effective democracy can ignore the broader mass of its people. The 2 older NH knew that democracy is inevitably a compromise with the higher standards, but resisted the fact by entrusting the culture to a higher intellectual elite. This meant while they were against philistinism, they were ready to assign the majority to vocationalism.
They also seemed ignorant of the demands of a technologically advanced society.
The central fact of American education was its diversity.
123 – Still, in the age of TV, it is hard not to read them without sympathy.
It was not just romantic and naturalistic philosophy changing American higher ed, it was massive social forces, including business, professional interests, political, scientific, etc.,
124 – But by the mid twentieth century we can see that the humanities are under attack and those in charge are ill – prepared to justify their existence.
Therein the NH use of dualistic philosophy, with its higher self and the universality of human experience can still prove useful.
CHAPTER SIX: THE DEMOCRATIC DILEMMA
The NH ventures into political and social commentary brought them most into troubled waters. Their criticism of democracy and defense of property, and autocratic sympathies were not warmly welcomed.
Brooks charged that the NH literary sympathies were a guise for other interests.
Actually, the NH had no plan for society, theirs was a plan for individuals only. They largely talked of governing oneself.
126 – Still they did move from lit philosophy to a philosophy of the state. More asked how the people could be saved from themselves. He and Babbitt harped on restraint being necessary to liberty.
Democracy needs a dualistic human nature view, because this view calls for restraint of the lower by the higher. A society in which people are out of control, needs external controls. So were democracy and Puritanism linked.
127 – Burke also promoted the idea that people are qualified for civil liberty in proportion to their willingness to put restrictions on themselves.
So, the challenge was to find the outer source of control. Democracy needed checks; aristocratic checks.
128 – The founding fathers had wisely seen this and limited suffrage. Progressivism was leading to radical democracy. An attempt to break down all barriers against instantaneous registration of prevailing opinion.
This required wisdom lest, as with individuals, mere emotion might push it off the deep end.
Why was American abandoning its traditional truths? Science and romanticism.
129 – “Inasmuch as there is no conflict between good and evil in the breast of the beautiful soul he is free to devote all his efforts to the improvement of mankind,” Babbitt said.
It was in exchange for the deity. God directed man’s attention inward in search of sin, now man looked outward to service. Rather than small inner conscience of scrutiny, we have conscience as emotion that shouts out as if through a megaphone.
Sympathy for the underdog replaces all other virtues.
The criminal is a victim of the environment, because inherently good and so not morally responsible. Herein we have cooperation between those who mechanize life and those who sentimentalize it.
Humanitarianism proposed to save the race by increasing its comfort. Again, romantics and naturalists in cahoots.
130 – “A civilization based on the avoidance of suffering and discomfort is negative and hollow.” Foerster protested.
The NH HATED and distrusted humanitarian do-gooders as charlatan hypocrites. They never improve themselves, only others.
The Utopist was the worst, vague ideals propelled by all-consuming emotion, he was marked by ‘instability and intolerance’ that made him suspicious. “Imperial egoist masked as a benevolent brother.”
131 – The NH were vague, they seldom spoke of specific issues; they ignored social and economic factors. Since all reform was internal, some critics found them irrelevant.
Worse than sentimental philosophical flaws, socialism was the “bastard humanitarianism pushed to further excess.”
132 – But socialism was democracy’s egalitarian ethos loosed from its moorings.
A program could not save the US, individual improvement, not ‘man’ was the answer.
Excellent aristocratic men were especially necessary. This required strong absolute property rights. “To the civilized man, the rights of property are more important than the right to life.” This line was repeated often to show the NH as reactionary.
Property was a visible mark of distinction between men.
133 – We must honor achievers. And if such folks withdraw from public life it is a serious loss.
Marxism was mere deadening numbers and stats. But, it also had a romantic idealizing of the manual over intellectual labor. We must prioritize those who work with their minds over those who work with their hands.
The quality of a man’s work should determine his place in the hierarchy. Genius advances society materially and spiritually, for all.
134 - But some at the top were dangerous too. The decay of Rome spread from the top down. We must warn against calls for “social justice.”
There was greed at the top. But, we must reform that group, not attack property.
Herein, philosophically, the NH had a contradiction; the business leaders as corrupt versus engines of capital.
135 – Whereas Christ made the rich man humble, Rousseau made the poor man proud.
Romanticism and naturalism left the unsuccessful feeling like a victim of society.
Social reform had gone from restraining the man at the top to inflaming the man at the bottom. Attacks on property are always attacks on industry and thrift in favor of laziness and incompetence.
136 - In critiques of democracy, Mencken and the NH agreed. But this was not enough to make them allies.
Early on Mencken had been a champion of Nietzsche, her morality, superman and all. But while both disdained the herd, NH feared the ruthless seeker after power. This huge danger from the top came exactly from the romanticism of Nietzsche types.
137 - Nietzsche, More said, posited not a duality within man, but between man and society. The external dualism yielded not only the anarchist and the humanitarian, but the superman. They only saw passions and desires, like Rousseau.
In retrospect, we can see how many Victorians made the same claims; especially Carlyle, Ruskin and Arnold.
138 - Carlyle borrowed from Fichte in his super-elite saviors formulation. But, was a first cousin of Nietzschean superman and foreshadowed fascism.
The NH were closer to Matthew Arnold. But MA had a greater sense of despair than Ruskin or Carlyle because he had no faith that the English aristocracy would self-reform.
Thus he used schools to create a supply professions, universities, churches and the civil service with a cultured elite. Ultimately, not a class, but the ideal of a humane civilization was needed.
But the NH appealed to MA for aesthetic guidance, not social guidance.
139 – Between the disdain for the cult of the individual and corporate power, the NH had only feeble solutions, no real program.
They had a theory of justice, but it just began with Plato’s ideal of inner and outer conduct. One had to put his own work before the world’s work.
140 – NH said the battle was between Rousseau and Burke, two different types of imaginations.
141 – And Rousseau’s imagination was strong, incorporating the nearness to God motif. It flattered the man at the bottom, making him believe he was superior to those of the upper ranks. His view of the uncorrupted state of nature also made all less than the ideal, the fault of someone or civilization.
142 – Rousseau’s focus on the individual dismissed the value of the past. Only individual emotion was a guide. The religious and political traditions of society were arbitrary and artificial. So we have no dual self- but the single self, in the present.
Against this, More and Babbitt placed “the moral imagination” of Burke, who noted we have a self we share with others. This commonness is the bond of social cohesion.
The conventions of a particular time and place restrain the appetites of the individual.
Rousseau was individualistic, Burke organic.
143 – Americans tended towards total individualism, change and the transient.
144 – Rather than balance, life is now about infinite expansion. In this Britain was superior to America. We lacked something to appeal to when excess was offered.
Democratic humanism was, in their use, a bit of a contradiction. And, the author doesn’t see a necessary connection between NH philosophy and conservative politics.
145 – Sherman and others were more emotive than systematic philosophers. Sherman never referred to issues of the day in the paper.
Treating democracy religiously, he thought to see it glorified in our literature. Sherman thus chided his cohorts for rejecting democracy and consigning themselves to irrelevance.
That his appeal was so emotional bothered Babbitt and More.
146 – Democracy would turn from a blessing to a curse if we fill it up with conceit and call it heroic and curse those who criticize it. Sherman replied that idealizing democracy was a bulwark against crude naturalism.
(Sherman, the footnotes say, was like Whitman, not a leveler, but a democrat with a thirst for distinction. He liked giants like Carnegie and Roosevelt.)
147 – Babbitt did not like nationalism as it was akin to romanticism. Rousseau celebrated emotion in individuals; Herder in the nation. Same. This was a celebration of a particular temper, not a common humanity.
148 – Germany of 1919 had not compared itself with the standards of the world. Symbols of the past were defended for their restraining effects on nations and individuals.
International peace would also follow this ideal. As people, nations needed to mind themselves.
The author wonders how these symbols of control are to be kept from becoming symbols of pride and expansion.
149 – NH partially failed because it did not translate its philosophy into a program of social action. In this regard the Southern Agrarians did a better job and so maintained their influence through the Depression.
And Dewey’s engagement with science and modern sociology, his dissolving the duality between the individual and society and the mind and body and his programs for action, kept him more popular.
The NH dualism was remote, but didn’t have to be. Sociology was young when the NH were emerging and so stood with the classics.
Durkheim wsa dualist and managed to incorporate institutions in his analysis.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE RELIGIOUS ALTERNATIVE
Though they sometimes criticized it, the humanists loved religion.
They thought religion could not work in the modern world. But, More went through humanism to religion and T.S. Elliot insisted that religion was necessary for the reforms they envisioned.
153 – They never disagreed on the goal of spiritual renewal of America, but quarreled on programs to this end.
Babbitt’s father wrote Calvinist self-help books. So Babbitt was not a fan of religion, didn’t read in religion, but respected it.
154 – Religion offered what Greece could not, Babbitt admitted, by creating doctrines that humbled reason and created symbols that controlled his imagination, and thereby his will.
155 – Babbitt thought religion and humanism were allies against romanticism. Unlike romanticism’s arcadia, Christianity looked at this world as a trial.
Thus Babbitt liked Buddhism as the least theological of all religions.
Foerster thought religion was a great supplement to culture, just ‘so long as the modern or criticial spirit continues to dominate men’s thinking.”
156 – More went full cycle. As a youth he rejected Christianity and came to a near total endorsement at the end of his life.
More like St. Augustine!
157 – Sherman’s ‘religion of democracy,’ was spiritual and based on literature. He stayed away from religion, but looked to American traditions and habits instead.
Sherman liked Arnold’s tying religion to conduct and righteousness with emotional backing. For MA religion was “ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling.”
158 – When you stripped away superstition, passion for what must be done on earth remained.
159 – The church’s decline in the 1920s, after the Scopes trial, let to NH’s popularity. Intellectuals especially didn’t respect the church.
160 – Religion must touch the heart, but be more than a warm feeling for spiritual rejuvenation. The struggle between the upper and lower worked here.
Transcendentalism ignored the war in the cave. Sherman and More thought Emerson too easily skipped the dark side.
161 – The Church to Babbitt only gave aestheticism and the cult of nature, talk of helping the poor and progress. Social welfare, materialism, Christian socialism and materialism.
Human altruism swapped for a supernatural god.
162 – More’s five volume “The Greek Tradition” showed continuity between Plato and Jesus.
163 – First he saw Christianity as an adjunct to Platonism, then the culmination. More was totally drawn to the forms.
164 – He believed that the ideas, beginning as intuitions of the mind, are perceptible only to the ethical imagination. These is a real new dualism. The forms are not just ideas, but principles, powers and laws.
Apart from More, the NH religious debates were not over true philosophy, but what was a more practical mode of social reform.
Babbitt thought humanism was up to the task, TS Eliot thought religious belief necessary; (165) it provided the necessary restraints on the individual.
Eliot said, Babbitt was trying “to build a Catholic platform out of Protestant planks,” and the structure suffered in strength because it lacked the hard cement of a single spiritual core and a dogmatic creed.
Babbitt wanted a scientific age higher self. But, Elliott asked, to lead to what if there is nothing above the individual? And, Elliott liked the agenda, just didn’t think it would work.
166 – Eliot thought NH a genuine mediator between harsh dogma and vague sentiment in the church and that without Humanism, religion was sterile.
G. K. Chesterton agreed with Eliot and attacked Babbitt and Foerster.
Foerster said Humanism was more popular than religion and growing. And, the real issue was not for uniform discipline, but any civilizing discipline.
We cannot submit to the authority of Rome! Inner authority, not outer, is good.
167 – Tate and the Southern Agrarians also stood for religion. Tate noted that the NH really were naturalists after all and so their quasi-supernaturalism was misguided. They expected naturalism to unnaturalize itself.
168 – Tate said religion could lift man wholly above naturalism. The unity religion provided was the sole basis for values.
Eliot accused the NH of using religion of culture and not believing it, they were trying to cash the checks of humanism on the credit of religion. And, NH reason and imagination were likely to be naturalized.
169 – In 1925 More became a Christian.
170 – To justify his switch, he relied on his inherent sense of right and wrong. They are ‘inherent in my very nature as a man.” But the seen world shows no purpose.
If you reject intuition and so be rational. But faith fixes us on the content of our intuition.
171 – And the life directed and controlled by faith is religion. It brings our inner life to this world. More appealed to the belief in responsibility and free will, not materialism. Is the world teleological or without purpose? There is no middle ground. Intuition tells you which is right. He intuited soul.
172 – More backed Christianity as it was the only teleological religion in the world.
Was this evolution from Plato to the prophets to Moses to the incarnation simply cultural evolution, a process of change through some inner force, or something more profound? Directed by God?
Faith brings an ever-growing assurance of our living in the line of the prophets among particular people. He felt himself in the story, so cosmically connected.
173 – And More defended religion on pragmatic social reform grounds.
174 – People cannot be saved via positive rationalism, we need the story. Still he never really joined a church, he didn’t like Rome.
175 – He would accept an authoritative Church, that tied us to the past, but not an absolute one.
176 – So, where does NH fit within the Western cultural tradition? It started with he Classical tradition as a weapon against naturalism and romanticism, but went more towards religion at the end.
But M. H. Abrams showed Christianity was internalized and secularized. The romantics too lived out the drama of grace and redemption, recovery and renewal, the quest for a new heaven and earth. It is an apocalyptic vision centered on heaven and hell in the individual.
177 – So the battle between NH and romanticism was who would take over the spiritual heritage of Western civilization.
And, NH’s failure to take hold long, does not mean that religion wins by default.
EPILOGUE PAGE 179
Other groups shared the NH concern with relativism. The Southern Agrarians, for example.
They were against industrial living.
180 – Anti-naturalism, they liked the old God of fundamentalism.
181 – T. S. Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Nation” looks to preserve homogeneity without a large number of free-thinking Jews. The SA had the same attitude towards ‘negros.’ Their journal, the American Review, was “fascist minded.
Another Neo-Orthodoxy movement came from Reinhold Niebuhr by himself. He saw biblical faith as a cure to the same problems NH saw.
182 – The tragic view of life seemed irrelevant to modern man. Idealists were too rational and missed man’s spiritual self.
He too was dualist.
183 - He disliked the happy optimism of romanticism, with its lack of engagement with evil.
Dewey too had man totally in nature. Man reduced to physiology and chemistry. This too removed sin.
184 – He too knocked NH for seeing man as reason battling, but within a natural world. Christianity transcended.
185 – Niebuhr shows that criticism of Dewey on religious grounds does not necessarily lead to conservatism: their politics were nearly identical.
The movement that most continued the NH critique was that of the New Conservatism after WW II. They were against the secular ideologies like fascism, and communism which caused the western world to hemorrhage.
They were against Social Darwinism’s rude competitive order.
186 – The Poet and historian Peter Viereck was the first to chronicle the intellectual dimensions of the New Conservatism. In ignoring evil, we let loose Nietzschean superman ideals.
Very Burkean. He wanted vitalization via education.
187 – The church also had to become an agent for moral recovery. And, his organic whole society included elitism, unapologetically.
188 – Viereck, like Sherman, was pro-American democracy and its spirit.
Russell Kirk called Babbitt ‘his mentor.’
While most intellectuals followed the reform / pragmatist line, there was a line of alienated conservative intellectuals on the fringes.
Liberals were comfortable with the New Deal and plurality.
The alienated conservatives have not even felt comfortable with technology. Their eloquent defense of tradition deserves a hearing.