Magazine article Free Inquiry

Humanist Potpourri

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Humanist Potpourri

Article excerpt

The American Academy of Arts and Letters is one of United States' best-kept secrets. Founded in 1904, the prestigious organization consists of the nation's major artists, writers, composers, and humanists. Although many know of France's l'Academie francaise, which dates to the 1630s and has a fixed membership of forty, few know about the Academy, which is located on 156th Street in New York City and is limited in membership to 250 artists (painters, sculptors, architects), writers (playwrights, poets, novelists, non-fiction writers), and musicians. In addition, the American Academy has seventy-five foreign honorary members, including such individuals as English painter Lucien Freud; English novelist Iris Murdoch; Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz; Senegalese poet and former president Leopold Sedar Senghor; Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko; and Nigerian playwright, poet, and novelist Wole Soyinka. Of these, Paz, Senghor, and Soyinka are members of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism's (CODESH's) Academy of Humanism. Also, Freud, Murdoch, and Yevtushenko are nontheists.

Poets Carl Sandburg and E. E. Cummings and novelist John Steinbeck all disliked being labeled, but each was nontheistic. Sandburg and Cummings had been Unitarians. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a humanistic treatment of the Cain and Abel myth, depicts man's struggle between good and evil and highlights the memorable character Ma Joad, who symbolizes the plight of expropriated Oklahoma farmers when she exclaims, "We ain' gonna die out. People is goin' right on.'" Meanwhile, the character of Grandma is a tired and fanatically religious person, and an ex-preacher with the meaningful initials J. C. - Jim Casy - is a rustic socialist whom The Establishment throws in jail because he is a labor organizer. That novel's final scene, which is shocking in its realism, is among the most vivid presentations of nontheistic humanism ever before delineated.

Past nonbelievers in "the divinity of Jesus" who were in the Academy are Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian and the first woman so elected; Samuel Clemens, William Dean Howells, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who were among the first seven to have been originally chosen; George Santayana, philosophic naturalist; Van Wyck Brooks, critic; poet William Carlos Williams, Unitarian; and Leon Edel, James scholar, to name but a few.

Which current Academy members are nontheists? Paul Cadmus, the painter who has completed more inspiring studies of the male nude than anyone since Michelangelo, is a naturalistic humanist. Artist Wayne Thiebaud has written, "It seems to me that painting is somewhat anti-categorical by its 'nature.' So naturalistic (or aesthetic) humanism is closest to my easel and my life." Musician David Diamond is against "all superstitious mumbo-jumbo." Composer Lou Harrison, an admirer of Epicurus and no believer in immortality, has described himself as "a card-bearing humanist" for years. Architect Cesar Pelli, noting that various forms of humanism have affected artists over the ages, has written that "secular humanism defines our moment." Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., although liking Reinhold Niebuhr's interpretation of the incompleteness of merely human experience and the inadequacy of merely human resources, is a Unitarian and a naturalist rather than a supernaturalist. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., is the Humanist Laureate in the Academy of Humanism.

Many Academy members, however, both dislike accepting labels and taking specific stands, suggesting that their philosophy can best be found in their work. Asked if he is a secular humanist, for example, playwright Arthur Miller has replied, "Depends on the day. I'd call myself a secular humanist, excepting when the mystery of life is overwhelming and some semi-insane directing force seems undeniable."

Only one member has ever been expelled, believer Wilhelm Diederich in 1947, for writing anti-Semitic letters on the Academy's official stationery. …

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