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Farewell to Humanism

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium. Edited by C. Hartley Grattan. New York: Brewer and Warren. $3.50.

One of the most disheartening features of intellectual life in America is the fact that ideas fall in and out of fashion with the rapidity and perversity of fashions in millinery. Even if one could not sympathize with the New Humanists, there was at least the hope that their rather arrogant and confused attempt at seizing intellectual leadership might develop into a situation of some consequence, producing at least an interesting, perhaps amusing, reaction from their enemies. Nothing of the sort is happening. It is safe to say that both Humanism and Anti-Humanism, as aspects of a controversy, are well on the way to the speedy decrepitude which overtakes so many ideas in our peculiar American intellectual climate. “The Critique of Humanism” puts a period to the incredible spurt of doctrine that fell upon us last January. Not that its contributors have done so effective a bit of work that Messrs. Babbitt, More, and Foerster will hang their heads in shame and cease to yearn after “decorum,” “the inner check,” and “the higher immediacy.” On the whole, Mr. Grattan’s little band of critics is little more illuminating than the satellites of Professor Babbitt. With the exception of Mr. Grattan himself, who argues seriously and astutely, Mr. Edmund Wilson, who is characteristically urbane and trenchant, and Mr. Burton Rascoe, who is perhaps the most sensible of all in throwing a liberal element of clown-play into the controversy, there is not much to prefer. Mr. Allen Tate, for example, in “The Fallacy of Humanism,” has not been sure that his light is not darkness; at least the reader’s darkness will probably be as oppressive and impenetrable as before, after repeated attempts to grapple with his terms and his casual allusions. Bernard Bandler II contents himself with a semi-biographical account of Professor More—a procedure much like that which caused the Anti-Humanists to pounce upon Mr. Robert Shafer’s essay on Dreiser. Mr. Yvor Winters talks of “mid-Americanism” and “the great stylists of the middle and earlier generations,” by which he means Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot. He regards William Carlos Williams as “a major writer.” If “the higher immediacy” or “the inner check” presented difficulties for complete comprehension, are we to accept placidly such indeterminate expressions as “mid-Americanism” (“mid” from what date or period?), “major writer” (“major” by, what canon?), or “great stylists” (“stylists” in what sense, dandiacally?) ? And what, after all, have these matters to do with the Humanist tempest-in-ateapot? The strongest pieces in the volume are by Lewis Mumford (“Towards an Organic Humanism”), Henry Hazlitt (“Humanism and Value”), and Joseph Chamberlain (“Drift and Mastery in our Novelists”).

One closes the book, however, with the regret that not one of these contributors thought the general subject deserved more than a pamphlet. The majority of the essays have appeared in periodicals. They were composed either between the routine duties of harried journalists or as jobs set before them by editors capitalizing a flurry among the intellectuals. Perhaps the curious and pathetic phenomenon of Humanism, as outlined in “Humanism and America,” deserves no more than a blanket attack by pamphleteers pausing from their regular duties. On the other hand, Humanism is not an independent phenomenon; it has implications, it suggests timid and shy yearnings after something a little less brash and mechanical and immature than the Mencken decade could provide. As such it deserves a more thorough-going treatment. As a movement in itself, it deserved much less—not much more than Mr. Rascoe’s devastating foolery. But there is every possibility that the whole LIumanistic question, as it now presents itself, will be irrelevant in six more months, if not before. Mr. More will shut himself up with the Hindus, Mr. Babbitt will resume his desperate pursuit of Rousseau, and all the sad young men just out of college and looking for ideas with which to pull themselves into the reviews will have to turn away from the professors, renounce the enchantment of wielding proud old words like “Platonic” and “Humanism” and of making learned references to Sophocles and the Confucian Analects, and engage themselves in the heart-breaking task of creating or criticising contemporary American literature.


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