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A Crusader for the Uncommon Man

ISSUE:  Winter 1983
Irving Babbitt: Selected Writings. Edited with an introduction by George A. Panichas. Nebraska. $19.50.

Irving Babbitt, professor of French literature at Harvard, died in 1933, having taught and influenced thousands of students in a career of almost 40 years. Widely known in academic circles, especially among teachers of literature, he was almost unknown to the general public until the New Humanist creed he preached was popularized in the year 1929—30 in the literary monthlies and weekly book reviews, especially by Seward Collins, editor of The Bookman, who wrote a series of three articles in 1930. As presented in Babbitt’s books and by disciples like Collins, the New Humanism seemed to many people to have no relation to the humanist movement of the Renaissance but was instead a reactionary and obsolete set of doctrines not easily explained by its proponents. Babbitt came to be regarded by many people as a crotchety bigot, a Puritan elitist, a hard-nosed reactionary, and even a fascist. Norman Foerster, one of his disciples, put together in 1930 a symposium, Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook for Civilization, which was soon followed by a symposium edited by C. Hartley Grattan, The Critique of Humanism.

New Humanism was now widely discussed in New York and other literary circles, and Babbitt himself was persuaded in the fall of 1930 to leave his ivory tower and debate a leading opponent in Carnegie Hall. Reporters, who hardly knew what the fuss was about, interviewed him in his hotel, and his picture appeared in the New York papers. The debate drew a fair-sized audience; many people came merely to see the founder of the New Humanist movement (which was, of course, tiny) and were surprised to find a tall, elderly, softspoken and gentle man who completely lacked the qualities of an evangelist and moreover was a poor speaker.

The debate was not a success. Babbitt’s talk was too intellectual for most of the audience and, worse still, he could not be heard much beyond the front rows. He seemed to enjoy the experience, however, judging by his report to us students the next day and by the fact that he had become, briefly, a national figure. The negative impact he had made, judging by reports in the papers, did not bother him. He said he was not playing up to the peanut gallery. Three years later he died, and the Humanist movement gradually petered out except among a small number of disciples in the academic world.

Babbitt published a half-dozen books in his lifetime and a posthumous volume of essays appeared in 1940. His most important works are: Literature and the American College (1908), The New Laokoön (1910), The Masters of French Criticism (1912), Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), and Democracy and Leadership (1924). They were mainly read in colleges and universities, and one or two were occasionally used as textbooks.

Babbitt may be classified as a literary critic and a social and political thinker. He has been more widely accepted as a critic than either a social or political analyst. Grounded in the classics and in French and English literature, he was essentially a theorist rather than a critic of literary works. He evaluated writers by their humanism (or lack of it) which he never defined or expounded in a straightforward way; scattered aspects of his interpretation of this creed, largely based on Aristotle, Plato, and other classical writers, are found throughout his books. As a critic, he favored the moderns who seemed to think as he did. Sainte Beuve was one of them and Matthew Arnold another. He praised Arnold for “seeing life steadily and seeing it whole.” Arnold, said Babbitt, quoting Stuart P. Sherman, one of his students, “aimed at something like the democracy of Athens—without slaves. That remote idea he had in mind when he called himself a liberal of the future.” Arnold “wished to go with democracy on condition that it should be a qualitative and selective democracy.” In other words, Arnold, according to Babbitt, believed that only the “saving remnant” was worth addressing, a doctrine which he admitted “has been denounced as priggish. (But) it is the exact opposite.” The New Humanists seemed to have no interest in the masses and despised the utilitarians, the liberals, and the socialists.

In Rousseau and Romanticism, Babbitt’s most popular book, he traced most of the ills of the modern Western world to Jean Jacques Rousseau and his followers. They introduced the cult of the ego and launched the romantic movement in the arts which turned completely away from classical tradition and classical forms. In fact, said Babbitt, they “eliminated the element of conscious and deliberate art,” and the result is that “what we see on every hand in our modern society, when we get beneath its veneer of scientific progress, is barbaric violation of the law of measure.”

Rousseau was Babbitt’s favorite whipping boy; and when not attacking him in his lectures, he would turn to Voltaire, whom he criticized for lack of balance and egotistical indulgence in his writings, ignoring completely Voltaire’s tremendous value as a critic of the old order, an apostle of tolerance, and an enemy of the Church. At one time Babbitt remarked, speaking of Voltaire and Rousseau, that when he thought of one he preferred the other, a wisecrack that has always seemed to me apt for many things. Of his hangup on Rousseau, a wag once said that Babbitt looked every night under his bed to see if Rousseau were still there. This gained considerable circulation around Harvard.

Opposite to the doctrines of the romanticists Babbitt offered the Greek ideals. “The Greece of Socrates and Plato and the Sophists,” he said, “is rich in instruction for us—more so . . .than any other period of the past whatsoever.” This attitude, naturally, severely limited his interest in the bulk of modern literature. Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Dreiser, for example, were out of his range; he labeled them naturalists, a modern form of Rousseauistic romanticism.

At times Babbitt seemed to fear that the romantic age, with its freedom of expression and licentiousness, “will never end.” In The New Laokoön he said, “Sainte Beuve, who was eminent both as a humanist and naturalist, feared that France had already had the classic age and was now on the descending slopes of decadence.” However, “dark as is the outlook for the humanist, there are nevertheless signs that the naturalistic wave has already reached (a peak) and that from now on we may expect some subsidence.” Luckily he did not survive into the post-World War II era.

As a social and political thinker, Babbitt’s beliefs clearly went against the grain of prevalent thought of his time. He was antagonistic to the liberal and socialist movements and came to the depressing conclusion that “if we do not develop a sounder type of vision than that of our “uplifters” and “forward lookers,” the history of free institutions in this country is likely to be short, and, on the whole discreditable. . . . The time may come, with the growth of false liberalism, when a predominant element in our population, having grown more and more impatient of the ballot box and representative government, of constitutional limitation and judicial control, will display a growing eagerness for “direct action.” This is the propitious moment for the imperialistic leader.”

Much of American life was antipathetic to him. In Democracy and Leadership he pointed out that America had 90 percent of the world’s motor cars, 75 percent of the oil, and 80 percent of the telephones and typewriters, and this “which would have made a Greek apprehensive of Nemesis, seems to inspire many Americans with an almost lyrical complacency.” Indeed, judged by a quantitative test, “the American achievement is impressive,” but qualitatively it is less satisfying. “What must one think of a country,” he asked, “whose most popular orator is W. J. Bryan, whose most favorite actor is Charlie Chaplin, whose best-known evangelist is Billy Sunday, and whose representative journalist is William Randolph Hearst? What one must evidently think of such a country, even after allowing liberally for overstatement, is that it lacks standards.” Standards was a word he frequently inveighed, meaning high standards, the hallmark of Greek culture. “If we in America are preeminent in lack of distinction, it is because of the very completeness of our emancipation from the Greeks.”

In Democracy and Leadership Babbitt subjects the American political system to the standards of ancient Greece, a collection of city-states, and finds it wanting because it is basically rooted in Jeffersonian idealism which derives from Rousseau and the theory of natural rights propagated by leaders of the Enlightenment. Babbitt says, “Liberty tends to disappear if it is a free gift,” and the theory of man’s natural rights “tends to oppose the natural order. . .(and leads to) not a better order but anarchy.” The right to life, liberty and happiness is countered with the Greek belief in “the rights of society” and the duties of the individual to that society.

Where Jefferson had complete faith in the common man, Babbitt was an elitist who upheld the “saving remnant,” an aristocracy of talent. In short, Babbitt did not have much sympathy with the common man, of whom he knew very little, having lived most of his adult life in an ivory tower. As Professor Panichas points out in his introduction, Babbitt’s was not “a compassionate mind. . . . Words like “sympathy,” “love,” “charity,” “kindness,” “pity” are not a visible part of his vocabulary.” He always used the term humanitarian, for example, in a derogatory sense and in a conversation once referred to Ramsay Macdonald, then prime minister of Great Britain, as a mere humanitarian.

Perhaps Babbitt’s greatest and most lasting contribution was his attack on the higher education outlined in Literature and the American College, his first book. He bemoaned the passing of the old-fashioned college education with all its limitations. Realizing it needed modernization and adjustment to a new age, he saw instead the infusion of a new spirit, embodied in the words of Dr. Eliot, president of Harvard: “training for service and power.” This, said Babbitt, could only lead to a lowering of standards and to “turning out, not men with sound ethical standards, but sociological dreamers.”

He was particularly hard on teachers of humanities, and especially English departments filled with members of what he called the “philological syndicate,” led by the autocratic Professor George Lyman Kittredge, chairman of Harvard’s English department. These men seemed to Babbitt woeful distorters of values, loading graduate students with philological rubbish and pushing them into the barren wastes of linguistics, quellenforschungen (literary sources), or trivial biographical research. Kittredge and his school emphasized the minute and inconsequential aspects of literary studies while ignoring the role of ideas and the fact that literature is an illumination of man’s experience and the key to a rich and moral life. The classic example of such pedantry was The Road to Xanadu by Harvard’s Professor John Livingston Lowes, published in 1927, which traced the sources of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” in Coleridge’s reading as revealed by his notebooks, letters, and other memorabilia. A work of 575 pages, of which 175 were footnotes, Babbitt dubbed it “a mountain of labor producing a mouse.”

As a teacher Babbitt’s influence was enormous, especially on the more receptive minds. T. S. Eliot described its full force:

To have been once a pupil of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position, and to be grateful to him for a very qualified approval (in my case). . . . If one has once had that relationship with Babbitt, he remains permanently an active influence; his ideas are permanently with one, as a measurement and test of one’s own. . . . Even in the convictions one may feel, the views one may hold, that seem to contradict most important convictions of Babbitt’s own, one is aware that he himself was largely the cause of them.

We owe Professor Panichas a great debt for producing a timely volume of Babbitt’s representative writings. Its only fault is that it lacks an index. Wrongheaded as he was about most aspects of American life, culture, and democracy, we can find in Babbitt’s works many wise and fruitful thoughts, completely germane to our present civilization. One feels lucky to have been a pupil of his, and his influence never vanishes. I can see him still walking in Havard Yard, a kindly man, listening to a novice graduate student, with a smiling face and a twinkle in his gray eyes.


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