Paul Elmer More: America's Reactionary

Article excerpt

LONG AGO, THE NATION HAD a conservative editor. Paul Elmer More edited the already venerable magazine for five years just before the First World War. On joining The Nation, More was already an entrenched conservative; indeed, he preferred the term "reactionary." While at the magazine, he wrote 600 articles. At his departure, he was well along the path that would lead him at last to Christianity. Perhaps if Henry Adams had forgone France, he would have come up with a title such as "The Virgin and the Dynamo" for an essay on America's pre-eminent progressive magazine and its Paul Elmer More.

More occupies a unique place in The Conservative Mind. He was as reflective as any figure in Kirk's volume, yet his life and literary biography were marked by a restlessness that seems characteristically American. The Americans in Kirk's book, in the main, were not the restless sort. Figures such as Santayana and T. S. Eliot stood out in their cultural milieux for their impassivity and stoicism, not to mention their Europhilia. Several of Kirk's minds were involved in the hurly-burly of public debate--More's forbear at The Nation, E. L. Godkin, and More's sometime colleague at Harvard, Irving Babbitt--but these, some critics contend, were never able to write a truly lasting book. More was described by Mencken as "our nearest approach to a genuine scholar"; More may well have exceeded Mencken as an editor, too. (1)

More did enjoy one advantage that enabled him to become a serious scholar: he married late. That is to say, after he had mastered Sanskrit (and of course, the classical languages). He was not, however, born rich, or, like certain other heroes in Kirk's book, to a dynasty in decline. But More did understand at an early age that a life of leisure was advantageous to the scholar. He managed--not entirely unlike Kirk himself--by the age of 33 to be in possession of a small manor house (in New Hampshire), from which he would bring forth many volumes of scholarship over three decades.

More is one of the most significant Platonists that America has ever produced; one of our most important Christian eschatologists; and one of our most accomplished literary editors and essayists. But he arrived as one of America's most eminent men of letters by way of disillusionment with America's intellectual institutions.

I

Paul Elmer More was born in Saint Louis in 1864. He attended that city's Washington University, and for a few years after graduation did a bit of everything. He took a Wanderjahr in Europe, taught school, and published poetry. By his late twenties, More began to turn against his own romantic side. As a young man he had been "steeped in the rankest romantic literature of Germany," as he recalled later in life--but he was wise enough soon to be "acutely aware of the mischief done me." (2) The antidote was to go to graduate school, where More could study something difficult, otherworldly, and profound. His field would be Oriental languages, in particular Sanskrit.

More attended Harvard, and his brief experience there only convinced him to establish himself as a scholar on his own distinct terms. On the positive side, More met Irving Babbitt at Harvard. Babbitt mentored More, weaning him off sentimental novels and philosophy by directing his reading in the classics. Babbitt, More said, "was born in Horace's cradle." (3) Babbitt also imparted his notorious intransigence to More. Babbitt's withering contempt for modern languages, his disdain for "pertinence," his insistence on the idea of decline--these all became More's own hallmarks. In time, this intransigence would gain More, as it had Babbitt, many young disciples. But mentoring such young persons proved to be more in line with Babbitt's talents--who was a lifelong professor--than More's.

More quit graduate school after three years without taking a degree. As any number of his subsequent essays--supremely, "Academic Leadership" of 1914--show, the "new" Harvard and the maturing Paul Elmer More were not a perfect fit. …