Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study

Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study

Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study

Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study

Synopsis

Few men in America's intellectual history have sought as much as Irving Babbitt to be a crucible for the cultural values that America, expecially in its "progressive" epoch, had no inclination to receive. Over sixty years after his death, Babbitt remains a figure of controversy. He retains his reputation as a reactionary defender of genteel morality and taste, yet, as Thomas Nevin reminds us, he continues to be a scholar of importance and an erudite, forceful teacher who influenced -- among others -- T. S. Eliot, Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippmann, Austin Warren, and David Riesman.

Nevin argues that the tradition Babbit represented did not so much uphold class mores as it urged that literature embody and inculcate discipline. In this book-length study of Babbitt's humanism, Nevin examines the controversial critic's attacks on collegiate educational reform, his literary and aesthetic criticism, his political philosophy of an "aristocratic democracy" and his fusion of humanism with Buddhism. Included in each chapter are substantial portions of Babbitt's unpublished correspondence with Paul Elmer More, letters that eloquently reveal points of agreement and difference between Babbitt's humanism and the theism that More came to espouse.

Although this study reflects the variety of Babbitt's concerns, it concentrates on his major ideas: the need to maintain the dualism that is the legacy of the Western philosophical tradition, the imperative that critically sound standards of judgment be maintained in the individual and in society, and the affirmation of the human will against the reductive forces of materialistic ideologies. Humanism, as Babbitt defines it, opposes the ascendance of utilitarian science because the sciences, however legitimate in the area of phenomenal inquiry, as a secular faith supplant the traditional strength and appeal of cultural and religious standards. Literature itself under the influence of naturalism either reflects a mechanized, demoralized society or merely escapes aesthetically from its ugliness.

With the reprinting of some of Babbitt's writings, scholars may now reassess his thought. Irving Babbitt should renew interest in a major American thinker and vindicate many of his arguments that apply to the problems of our own day.

Originally published in 1984.

Excerpt

From 1894 to 1933, Irving Babbitt taught French and comparative literature at Harvard University. in that time and long after his death he was reputed to be a reactionary defender of genteel morality and taste. Although Babbitt had mentors in the Victorian age, notably Charles Eliot Norton and Matthew Arnold, the tradition he represented was not one of class mores but of a transcultural assumption that literature had to embody and inculcate disciplinary values. This humanism, as Babbitt understood it, stood directly contrary to the ascendance of utilitarian science at the turn of the century, for the sciences, however legitimate in the area of phenomenal inquiry, had become a secular faith that supplanted the traditional strength and appeal of cultural and religious standards. With the rise of this naturalism, literature itself had become either a reflection of mechanized, demoralized society or an aesthetic escape from its ugliness.

This study examines Babbitt's formulation of humanism according to the themes of his five books and two collections of essays. Following in rough chronology from 1908 to 1932, the topics include Babbitt's attacks upon collegiate educational reform; his literary and aesthetic criticism; his political philosophy of "aristocratic democracy"; and his fusion of humanism with early Buddhism as a tentative proposal for an internationally based cultural decorum. One chapter is devoted to Babbitt's work in French letters and its relation to his conception of humanist culture.

This study is not a biography. Rather, it is a history of Babbitt's mind, his allegiances, the sources of his values and his language, and their part in his highly polemical assault upon his era and indeed upon the direction of twentieth-century society. Closely complementing his published works are his forty years of correspondence with fellow humanist, Paul Elmer More, and his extensive files of notes. I have drawn heavily upon both collections so as to allow Babbitt to speak for himself but also to qualify or amplify points he made in his books.

Babbitt deserves more attention than he has been given as a major figure in America's intellectual history. He was a highly erudite, forceful teacher who influenced the thought of some of America's foremost men of letters, including T. S. Eliot, Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippmann, and many others. Babbitt had strong, intensely felt . . .

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