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A Humanist for All Seasons

ISSUE:  Spring 1986
Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study. By Thomas R. Nevin. North Carolina.$20.00.

It is extraordinary that 53 years after his death Irving Babbitt (1865—1933), professor of French at Harvard, where he taught for 40 years and became the head of a Neo-Humanist cult at the end of his life, should be the subject of a full-scale intellectual study. To a graduate student of his, it is an occasion to ask himself, “What did I gain by sitting in his classes? How did it change my life?” and more important, “What did he contribute to American culture?” I am sure that, being a modest man, he would be pleased and amazed that he is still remembered and books and articles continue to be written about him. Few American professors of literature, no matter how brilliant in their lifetime, have achieved such posthumous fame.

I first met Babbitt in the autumn of 1928 when I signed up for his seminar in the History of Criticism. I had heard of him from Bernard DeVoto, a Harvard graduate who was my teacher at Northwestern University, where I took a bachelor’s degree. I had read none of his books and knew little about his beliefs and prejudices. About 15 students were sitting around the table at the first meeting of our class in Sever Hall that bright, crisp autumn morning. Babbitt entered when the bell rang, a tall, heavyset, gray-haired man with a pale, handsome face, square jaw, and a twinkle in his eyes. He stooped a little, as tall older men do.

After a brief introduction outlining the course, he handed out a reading list and began lecturing on Aristotle’s Poetics in a soft, low voice. He galvanized our attention at once. The ideas flowed in sparkling succession. The facts were illuminated by a running commentary, concise and witty, and loaded with quotations. I had never encountered such a teacher. He did not ask questions or engage in a discussion with students, except after class. As Professor Stuart Y. Sherman of the University of Illinois, later editor of the New York Herald-Tribune Books, said: “The ideas Babbitt threw out in one course of lectures, the bibliographies he tossed off, would take a lifetime to study.” His knowledge of English, French, and German literature and the Greek and Roman classics was formidable.

I came to Harvard to take a Ph. D. in English Literature, having an M.A. from Columbia University, but was dismayed to find that the “philological syndicate,” as Babbitt called it in his first book, Literature and the American College, published in 1908, had taken over the direction of graduate work in literature. Indeed, the head of the syndicate was the autocratic Professor George Lyman Kittredge, chairman of the English Department. A student who sought the doctorate was expected to take Anglo-Saxon, Old French, Old Norse, and Middle English and be able to recount the development of English vowels and consonants from the proto-Germanic down to Modern English. Kittredge usually presided at the oral examinations and, though a kindly man, flunked students who were remiss in philological knowledge.

Babbitt rightly said in his book, “The danger of the modern scholar today is rather to philologize everything, to turn literature and history and religion into a mere circle of tales,” —in other words, “to make endless accumulations of facts, and then fail to disengage from those accumulated stores their permanent human values.”

In Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study Professor Nevin has produced the most complete exegesis to date of Babbitt’s work and provided a full biography. Oddly, his father was “a businessman, a socialist, and an advocate of “physical culture,”” a popular fad in the early 20th century. He founded the College of Magnetics and as its dean published The Principles of Light and Color, Human Culture and Cure, and Social Upbuilding. He also invented instruments which he claimed could cure tuberculosis, rheumatism, dropsy, and neuralgia.

Babbitt grew up in New York City; after his mother died, he went to live with relatives in Cincinnati, worked on a newspaper, herded cattle in Wyoming, taught in a country school, and saved up enough money to go to Harvard. After graduation in 1889, he taught Romance Languages at Williams College, and in 1894 became an instructor of French at Harvard. After publishing Literature and the American College, a devastating attack on the debasement of the humanities in college curricula, he published The New Laokoon, An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910), The Masters of French Criticism (1912), Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), Democracy and Leadership (1924) and a posthumous translation from the Pali of The Dhammapada, a Buddhist classic.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary calls Babbitt “a teacher and a moralist.” As a moralist, says Professor Nevin, “he became a legatee, one of the last, of American transcendentalism. . . . But he was also its hostile critic. He acquiesced in its burial of the Puritanic god and welcomed the transformation of “salvation” from a theistic to a human sense, but he wanted to retain the arduous, inhibitive properties of belief. . . . To this end he weighed everything in the scales of volition. . . . Divine will was demoted to an ambiguous “higher will”; the inner light of radical Protestantism became the “inner circle.”” This is the core of Babbitt’s teaching. While not a believer in revealed religion, he found toward the end of his life that Buddhism, not Christianity, was most congenial to him. The humanist virtues of “moderation, common sense and common decency” which Babbitt preached “were integral to Buddhist doctrines.”

As a literary critic, he evaluated writers by their humanism or lack of it. “The essence of the humanistic method,” says Nevin, “was mediation between temperamental extremes, that in art, as in education, self-discipline was essential.” This is an alternative to the romanticist’s belief in giving free rein to the emotions, libido or one’s fancy. Rousseau, the creator of the Romantic movement in literature, was Babbitt’s bête noire, as Goethe, “the Olympian antithesis,” was his ideal.

Decorum, right thinking, balance, nothing too much, these were the mainsprings of humanism, and the ones a civilized person should embody. Babbitt had much to say about these ideas in his books and lectures, but his thoughts were best summarized in notes for a lecture which Nevin found: “Civilization rests more than upon any one thing, upon the orderly transmission of right habits. A society that does not come close to some kind of working agreement as to what habits are civilized and then insists on these habits being perpetuated through education is at once cowardly and degenerate.” He was thinking of his own generation; what would he think of ours?

John Dewey, the father of progressive education which debased the curriculum of our public schools, he dismissed as “a dangerous humanitarian.” For Socialists who wished to reform society to give the masses a better life, he had contempt. It was this aspect of humanism that aroused the ire of liberals such as Edmund Wilson, Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken, and others. In Democracy and Leadership he called democracy “a standardized and commercialized melodrama . . .moving through an orgy of humanitarian legalism towards a decadent imperialism,” a very wise perception.

Babbitt believed that only the elite were fit to lead the nation, as Plato explained in his Republic. As early as 1909 he wrote to his friend, Paul Elmer More, “So far as I have any vision of the future at all, it is one of frightful social convulsions brought about by the present materialism and childish illusion as to the real facts of human nature.”

T. S. Eliot, Babbitt’s most famous pupil, best summarized his contribution as a teacher: he speaks of his “intellectual passion, one might say his intellectual fury. . . . The constant recurrence of his dominant ideas; what gave them delight was their informality, the demand they made upon one’s mental agility and the frankness with which he discussed the things which he disliked.” Not the least of his virtues was accessibility by students. Where other Harvard professors interposed a barrier between themselves and their graduate students, he was eager to talk them, asked them to walk home with him, continuing a discussion begun in class. Professors of literature tend to be pallid personalities, not expressing opinions on the controversial subjects Babbitt handled in every lecture, and hence they fade out of one’s memory quickly. Not Babbitt.

I left Harvard in January 1931, disgusted with the philological curriculum. I wrote to Babbitt afterward but had no reply. Two years later he was dead. But as Eliot said, “To have been a pupil of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position, and to be grateful always . . .for a very qualified approval. . . . If one has once had that relationship with Babbitt, he remains permanently an active influence.” Over the years I have thought a great deal about his ideas, rejecting his more conservative, antidemocratic, and antisocialist views. But I still adhere to his insistence that happiness comes from leading a life not given to romantic excesses, not obsessed with emotional experiences, one that is rich and pleasant by virtue of what he called “the inner check,” nothing too much.


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