Woodberry, George Edward
George Edward Woodberry 1855-1930
American critic, poet, and teacher
A highly active figure in American letters, Woodberry is primarily remembered for creating the popular image of Edgar Allan Poe as a debauched and desperate character, a notion that has been subsequently discredited. He was a successful professor at Columbia University and was warmly remembered by several generations of students, including John Erskin, who claimed to owe much to Woodberry's influence.
Born to Henry Elliott and Sarah Dane Tuck Woodberry in Beverly, Massachusetts (which one of his ancestors had helped to found), on May 12, 1855, Woodberry enjoyed the privileges of belonging to a prominent New England family. He spent his adolescence at Exeter, where he contributed to the school newspaper, and went on from there to Harvard, where he studied with Henry Adams, attended Ralph Waldo Emerson's last lecture, became something of a protégé to James Russell Lowell (whose library he catalogued), and edited the Harvard Advocate. It was here that his lifelong commitment to classical literature and philosophy took root. In the years that followed his graduation in 1877, he acquired a position at the University of Nebraska, where he taught for three non-consecutive years, 1877-1878, and 1880-1882. During this time he also composed poetry, visited the Mediterranean coast of Europe, and contributed articles to the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, and other journals. He was always active in American literary life, and in 1888 was hired as the literary editor for the Boston Post. Over time, through his constant presence in the journals and the success of a number of his critical books, Woodberry became a substantial presence in American letters. In 1891 he was appointed professor of English literature, and later of comparative literature, at Columbia University, where he served thirteen highly successful years. He resigned for unknown reasons in 1904 and began traveling and teaching throughout the United States, with occasional trips to the Mediterranean. Throughout this period he wrote voluminously on literature, current American culture and ideology, and on broader philosophical ideas, in which he voiced increasing pessimism about the fate of mankind. World War I had a devastating impact on his world view. In the last years of his life, Woodberry began to slow the pace of his work, and eventually retired to Beverly, where he died on January 2, 1930.
Woodberry's most enduring work was his Edgar Allan Poe, which appeared in 1885. He praised Poe's artistry while condemning his personal life, creating in the process the myth of the debauched, drug-addicted Poe that would endure until less censorious twentieth-century scholarship discredited it. In 1890 Woodberry published Studies in Letters and Life, which was reissued in 1900 as Makers of Literature. His primary critical point of emphasis here, as it was throughout his career, was the condemnation of realism. Woodberry felt that literature should be uplifting and instructive, and that realism would ultimately have a demoralizing, even irreligious, effect. This viewpoint would find further expression in his 1899 work, Heart of Man, in which he again took realism to task as standing in opposition to the inherent yearning of mankind for knowledge and virtue. Woodberry's second important biography, Nathaniel Hawthorne, appeared in 1902. In it, he attempted to place Hawthorne's works in their historical and philosophical context, and he based his—on the whole approving—evaluation of Hawthorne's writings on his own previously articulated standard of idealism. As with Poe before, Woodberry made judgments about Hawthorne personally, assessing him as a highly reclusive and antisocial man, a notion that was also subsequently discredited. He followed this Hawthorne biography one year later with a complete survey of American literature, America in Literature, in which he dated the beginning of real literary culture in the United States to James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. Woodberry's portrait of American literature was finally unflattering, however, as he felt all but the New England writers, culminating with Emerson, were insufficiently reflective. Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau were dismissed out of hand. After leaving Columbia, Woodberry attempted to fully articulate his ideas in his 1905 work, The Torch: Eight Lectures on Race Power in Literature. Defining "race" more or less in the same terms as "soul," Woodberry discoursed about the transition from generation to generation, and the vital importance of transmitting the best qualities of each to the next. Woodberry was confident in The Torch that all ethnic and national differences would eventually disappear, and that literature would one day be produced for all mankind, out of a collective perfection of morals and ideals. Subsequently, Woodberry went on to publish three books in 1907: a biography of Emerson; a study of Miguel de Cervantes, Sir Walter Scott, John Milton, Virgil, Michel de Montaigne, and Shakespeare; and a philosophical book on the literary life. Three years later he attempted to reconcile the irrational with his intellectual ideology in poetry, and in 1914 he attacked the New Critics in Two Phases of Criticism: Historical and Aesthetic, taking issue with their view that critics should refrain from passing moral judgment on literature and need not pay attention to historical detail in their evaluations of works.
Woodberry's work is all but forgotten by modern critics, with the one exception of his biography of Poe. In his own time, Woodberry was a prominent and popular figure, but one who was rapidly outdistanced by developments in philosophy and criticism. His most acclaimed work overall was his biography of Emerson, which was praised for its clear portrayal of Emerson's spirituality, and which is still regarded as an important contribution to literary biography.
A History of Wood Engraving (essay) 1883
Edgar Allan Poe (biography) 1885; revised and enlarged as The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1909
The North Shore Watch, and Other Poems (poetry) 1890
Studies in Letters and Life (essays) 1890; republished as Makers of Literature, 1900
Heart of Man (essays) 1899; republished as The Heart of Man and Other Papers, 1920
Wild Eden (poetry) 1899
Nathaniel Hawthorne (biography) 1902
Poems (poetry) 1903
America in Literature (essays) 1903
The Torch: Eight Lectures on Race Power in Literature (essays) 1905
Swinburne (biography) 1905
Ralph Waldo Emerson (biography) 1907
The Appreciation of Literature (essays) 1907
Great Writers: Cervantes, Scott, Milton, Virgil, Montaigne, Shakespeare (essays) 1907
The Inspiration of Poetry (essays) 1910
A Day at Castrogiovanni (poetry) 1912
Wendell Phillips: The Faith of an American (biography) 1912
The Flight, and Other Poems (poetry) 1914
North Africa and the Desert: Scenes and Moods (essays) 1914
Two Phases of Criticism: Historical and Aesthetic (essays) 1914
Ideal Passion: Sonnets (poetry) 1917
Nathaniel Hawthorne: How to Know Him (essay) 1918
Literary Essays (essays) 1920
The Roamer, and Other Poems (poetry) 1920
The Torch, and Other Lectures and Addresses (essays) 1920
Studies of a Litterateur (essays) 1921
SOURCE: A review of Heart of Man by George Edward Woodberry, in Poet-Lore, Vol. XII, No. 4, 1900, pp. 586-96.
[In the following excerpt, the critic praises Heart of Man.]
One of the most encouraging signs of the literary times is the coming into increased favor of the thoughtful essay among both writers and readers. There are enchanted realms of intellectual activity—who will deny it?—that cannot reach adequate expression in any form but that of the essay; neither in poetry nor in the novel, and most certainly not in so-called literature of knowledge. The essay is, indeed, pre-eminently the medium for the unfolding of the intricate mazes of creative thought, fitting itself to every whim of the fancy, to every profoundest feeling of the soul, as a silken glove to the delicate traceries or the deep lines of the human hand.
Is it not this intimacy of the form with man's thought that makes the essay so powerful a rival of the poem in the race for immortality? Poetry "shoots into a mould" the universal emotions of the race; but the creative essay does no less a service. It "shoots into a mould" the universal thought of the race, the mould in either case being of a piece with the imagination and tempered only by the ideal. Thus they each in their own sphere have a universality of appeal that the novel and the literature of knowledge, because concerned with the relational aspects of...
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SOURCE: "A Confessional," in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. III, No. ii, 1913, pp. 69-72
[In the following review, Henderson offers sardonic commentary on The Kingdom of All-Souls.]
The most amazing feature of this small volume of poems [The Kingdom of All-Souls, and Two Other Poems] is the preface. It is at once a gloss upon the text, and a confessional. At least without this gloss, the spiritual crises in the first poem, and a large share of the spiritual intention of the other two poems, might not be comprehensible; yet, to be exact, the preface gives us so much more insight into the poet's mind, that the poems are in reality a gloss upon the preface. I shall quote therefore from both. Mr. Woodberry says:
These three poems, though written without reference to one another, have a slight element in common which may perhaps excuse their being placed together, in that they are all poems of expectancy, in the mood of faith in the future. They have a touch of prophetic conviction, and that atmosphere of largeness of world-hope which is a trait of our time.
They are grounded in personal feeling and reality, and the first of them is charged with specific allusions to my own experience which may not be sufficiently self-explanatory. The editor who published it, for example, desired more light on what I meant by the "Youth" in the...
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SOURCE: "A Modern Solitary," in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. II, No. 2, 1917, pp. 103-05.
[In the following review of Ideal Passion, Monroe describes Woodberry's poetic style as outdated.]
Mr. Woodberry's sonnet sequence [Ideal Passion] has the frail beauty of perfumed summer days, days spent in an old garden, out of range of the winds of the world. The garden is formally patterned but softly overgrown—a sweet refuge for a sensitive solitary soul. In its paths, beside its mossy marble finials, a poet may live in the spirit and be indulgent of dream. He may see the light that never was, and celebrate a mystic marriage with a lady too fine and fair for flesh; and then, dreaming himself into etherealized passion, he may weave a fabric of poesy in her praise.
Indeed, the suggestion of the book is monastic. The poet took the vows early, and his life has been expurgated of all common things. He is monkish in both his distaste for the world and his rapture of spiritual emotion. Mrs. Henderson, four years ago in Poetry, characterized one of Mr. Woodberry's poems as "the tragic experience of a conventional soul facing unconventionality—life." But the attempt was not only tragic but abortive—Mr. Woodberry has never really faced life; he could not. And the present poem, recording a frank withdrawal, is perhaps the truest expression we have had of his...
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SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in The Nation, Vol. 114, No. 2956, 1922, pp. 261-62.
[In the following review of a reissue of six volumes of Woodberry's essays, Van Doren characterizes Woodberry as a mediocre critic]
By collecting his literary criticism, or by permitting the Society which bears his name to collect it, Mr. Woodberry incurs the query whedier he is to be known among America's critics, and indeed the world's. The challenge of these large volumes [Literary Memoirs of the Nineteenth Century, Studies of a Literateur, Heart of Man and Other Papers, Appreciation of Literature and America in Literature, The Torch and Other Lectures and Addresses, and Literary Essays] is clear. They seek position beside the volumes of Emerson and Lowell, of Dryden and Johnson and Hazlitt and Macaulay and Pater, of Sainte-Beuve and Anatole France, of Lessing and Goethe. They are, of course, the work of a comprehensive critic. Are they at all the work of a transcendent one?
Since any critic is more important for his personality man for his principles, for his genius than for his faith, it is interesting in Mr. Woodberry's case to turn first to his miscellaneous matter—the articles and reviews which he contributed to the Atlantic and The Nation during the eighties and the nineties of the last century. It was then that he was finding his...
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SOURCE: "George Edward Woodbury, 1855-1930: An Appreciation," in George Edward Woodberry, 1855-1930: An Appreciation, edited by R. R. Hawkins, The New York Public Library, 1930, pp. 3-7.
[In the following essay, Erskine gives a laudatory assessment of Woodberry as a poet, critic, and teacher.]
George Edward Woodberry was first and last a poet. He used to say that his life had somewhat missed its aim, since he enjoyed the leisure to produce only a few volumes of verse; his time was necessarily taken up with teaching and with the miscellaneous writing of the man of letters. But the importance of his teaching lay precisely in the fact that he treated all literature as creative, as poetic, in the larger and truer sense, and his essays and biographies are memorable precisely because he envisaged poetry as the most natural as well as the noblest activity of man. Whether he spoke of the individual poem, of the particular poet, or whether he occupied himself with a large historical period, he saw life always as a mass of urges and impulses tending toward the expression of the heart and the imagination of man. If there ever was a humanist, he was one. "Nature is great," he said, "and her science marvellous; but it is man who knows it." In his youth our civilization still heard the summons to return to nature. The voice of Wordsworth was still near, and in Woodberry's world Emerson and Thoreau were still close at...
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SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in Commemorative Tributes of The American Academy of Arts And Letters, 1905-1941, Books For Libraries Press, 1942, pp. 247-52.
[In the following essay, which was delivered as an address in 1930, Johnson offers an appreciation of Woodberry.]
In paying this tribute to our colleague, one of America's foremost men of letters, I feel derelict, almost disloyal in its inadequacy. Woodberry's literary activity subtended so large an arc that I have only been able to encompass a small part of its flowing beauty. I am the more chagrined by knowing that, were the situation reversed, he would be more just and comprehensive in his judgment of me. I purpose however to do his memory at least one service: to quote a little of his engaging rhyme and a little of his mellifluous prose, so that, absent though he be, he may speak for himself.
I doubt if there ever was a poet, however distinguished by his prose—Shelley, Arnold, Emerson, Lowell, Stedman—who would not prefer to be judged by his verse. A wider appeal and a surer permanence are given to imagination and emotion by that form of music we call poetry. Knowledge and the power of presenting it in its relations to life carry immensely farther in meter than in criticism.
Woodberry had above everything else the conscientiousness and candor of the true critic, and this is felt in every line he wrote....
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SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Letters of George Edward Woodberry, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933, pp. ix-xxv.
[In the following essay, de la Mare describes who Woodberry was, as reflected in his letters and other writings.]
In a brief paper on Thackeray's letters, written in Woodberry's earlier years, he remarked how often and how easily biography may distort the truth, and may mislead its readers concerning the very man whom it was intended to reveal. 'A quarrel that was but an incident of a lifetime becomes a long episode in the book … an imprudent witticism, a blunder in some fit of dullness, a piece of self-deception mat was only momentary, and all the thousand and one superficial matters that fill the day are brought into prominence, as if they, and not the spirit that underwent these crosses, were the life itself. But the real man is in his books.' And though he himself discovered the Thackeray of the novels—the real Thackeray—in his letters also, even the most natural and familiar of written confidences should be read with a similar caution in mind. And this particularly of course if … they are only representative of a long lifetime's correspondence.
[Selected Letters of George Edward Woodberry] contains, that is, merely a selection. Letters of little vital interest have been omitted, and as few as possible included of those closely resembling one...
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SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in Criticism in America, University of Oklahoma Press, 1956, pp. 156-62.
[In the following essay, Pritchard discusses the influence of Aristotle on Woodberry's criticism.]
George Edward Woodberry entered Harvard when Lowell was finishing his career as a professor. Lowell became interested in the impecunious undergraduate who aided in cataloguing his library, and in 1891, shortly before he died, recommended the young scholar for the new chair of comparative literature at Columbia University. There for fourteen years Woodberry taught. He established the new department upon the firm basis which has ever since been its characteristic, and inspired in his students, among whom were Joel E. Spingarn and John Erskine, the same love of letters which had been developed in him by Lowell.
Woodberry was a curious combination of characteristics. A Yankee by birth, he learned at Harvard to love the Mediterranean lands and literatures. Spingarn described him as intellectually a frustrated effort to combine the individualism of the transcendentalist, which had inherited a Calvinistic substratum, with the European Platonic and Roman Catholic tradition. In spite of his assertion that Athens was the finest achievement of man and her defeat at Syracuse the great tragedy of history, he was more Hellenistic than Hellenic. In him the classical spirit was overlayed and to some...
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SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in American Literary Criticism: 1900-1950, Hendricks House, 1969, pp. 91-108.
[In the following essay, Glicksberg identifies the aesthetic principles of Woodberry's criticism.]
Born at Beverly, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1855, Woodberry was educated at Phillips Exeter and then attended Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard, he taught at the University of Nebraska and served for a short period on the staff of The Nation. From 1882 to 1891 he settled down to literary work, contributing material to the Atlantic Monthly and acting as literary editor of the Boston Post. His distinguished lifework began in 1891 when he was appointed professor of English at Columbia University. Upon his retirement from his teaching duties in 1904 he devoted his time to writing and lecturing.
His was a long and fruitful writing career. His first book, A History of Wood Engraving (1883), was followed by his biographies of Poe (1885, revised in 1919), Hawthorne (1902), and Emerson (1907). These books gained him a substantial reputation as a scholar and critic. His critical and literary essays breathe a deep and genuine love of literature. Though his work is at present largely neglected, he was an inspiring teacher and highly stimulating critic. His interests covered a wide and varied field. Taking all of Western culture as his...
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Erskine, John, and Hawkins, R. R. "George Edward Woodberry, 1855-1930: An Appreciation" and "A List of Writings by and about George Edward Woodberry." Bulletin of the New York Public Library 34, No. 5 (May 1930): 275-96.
Memoir describing their acquaintance with Woodberry, followed by a comprehensive bibliography subdivided into an alphabetical list, a chronological list, a list of works edited by Woodberry, and a list of writings about Woodberry.
Brooks, Van Wyck. "The Epigoni." In New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915, pp. 431-54. E. P. Dutton, 1940.
Describes Woodberry as a "lost and bewildered romantic."
Going, William T. "Three Letters of George Edward Woodberry." Papers on Language and Literature VIII, No. 3 (Summer 1971): 308-12.
Brief biographies of Woodberry and his correspondent, Samuel Minturn Peck, Alabama poet laureate.
Crawford, Nelson Antrim. "Teacher-Poets." Poetry XVIII, No. 1 (April 1921): 44-6.
Mildly negative review of The Roomer and Other Poems that comments: "technical excellence a-plenty is found in all the poems.… What is lacking is intensity. There is about the emotions an unearthly pallor."
Additional coverage of Woodberry's life and career is...
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