Krutch, Joseph Wood
Joseph Wood Krutch 1893–1970
Krutch's literary criticism is characterized by his humanistic and philosophical concerns. In The Modern Temper he argued that because scientific thought had denied human nobility, tragedy had become obsolete. Upon its publication in 1929, The Modern Temper fascinated and outraged many of Krutch's contemporaries, who viewed the current technological advances with optimism.
Krutch's greatest critical successes were The American Drama since 1918, which analyzes the works of the most important dramatists of the 1920s and 1930s, and "Modernism" in Modern Drama, wherein he discusses the need for the return of traditional values to the twentieth-century stage. A conservative and idealistic thinker, Krutch was a consistent proponent of human dignity and the preeminence of literary art.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary].)
Lynn Harold Hough
The men who come to life not with standards, but with a vast and varied genius of understanding are, of course, all the while having their say. And work of this sort is done with distinction and skill by Joseph Wood Krutch in his volume of biographical criticism, Five Masters. He writes of Boccaccio, Cervantes, Richardson, Stendhal, and Proust. The fleshy aspects of the experience and writing of Boccaccio he describes and interprets with skill and understanding. But he moves rather like a blind man in the dark whenever he comes to speak of his deeper ethical or spiritual experiences. In their presence he has only the rubber-stamp phrases of depreciation with which the spiritual is described by those who always look upon it from without and never from within. Probably the best work done in the volume is found in the section on Cervantes. And here, indeed, we do meet with the world of standards…. Here Mr. Krutch is bringing in principles (which in our own time have been vigorously advocated by critical humanists) because they help to explain the achievement of Cervantes. But he by no means sails under these high authorities himself. When he comes to Stendhal and Proust, he accepts them upon their own terms and does not judge them by any humanistic standards. He is never more subtle than in following the strange processes of the mind and art of Marcel Proust. You feel that he is allowing this exotic and brilliant mystic of the senses to speak for...
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Charles I. Glicksberg
The Modern Temper admirably summed up the philosophy of defeatism of the muddled and sadly disillusioned post-war generation. Obviously, the intellectual atmosphere which Mr. Krutch described was the one held in part or as a whole by many of his contemporaries. He gives coherent and reasoned utterance to what many of them felt in a more or less nebulous, uncertain manner. The book, nevertheless, is primarily an effort at self-understanding. It is a personal confession as well as a study of "the modern temper". He can disentangle the nervous complexities and compulsions of modern thought with commendable clarity, but, as he frankly admits, his analysis of the emotional reaction induced by these tendencies, is "of necessity colored by an individual personality". Even though he endeavors to select for analysis only those emotional attitudes which are typical, his choice as well as his treatment was sure to be biased to some degree by his intellectual preconceptions. For he is concerned not with verifiable observations, but with a state of mind, "and in the effort to describe and account for it I am responsible not for Truth, but for the convictions, scientific or otherwise, which I and my contemporaries have been led to hold". What Mr. Krutch evidently means to imply is that he does not have to justify the state of mind of any age; it exists; he is merely recording it. But certainly in recording it—just as if he were tracing a nerve impulse in the...
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Walter Prichard Eaton
If Joseph Wood Krutch had been writing about our drama in 1909 instead of 1939, one suspects that what is now his most valuable asset as a critic would have been lacking, or would not have been an asset. He has no ax to grind; he is the champion of no style or -ism. [In "The American Drama Since 1918" he] asks what the dramatist has tried to do, and then considers how far he has succeeded and what importance the aim may have. At a period when the drama is plainly entering on an era of eclecticism, such criticism, if shrewdly made, is of great value—and Mr. Krutch's criticism is shrewd, informed, and expressed with clarity.
On the other hand, at a time when the drama is fighting against a dead weight of tradition for a new and more or less widely acceptable form, as it was in the '90's in England and the first decade of the century here, that critic is probably most valuable who is a champion, who is combative rather than catholic. By the standards of Mr. Krutch's volume, G. B. Shaw was a bad critic—but how useful (as Mr. Krutch would be the first to admit)….
I, for one, think [Krutch] greatly overrates Odets, and rather underrates the importance of a man like George Kaufman. It is quite true, as he points out, that Kaufman's wit, like Wilde's, "gives the lie to the famous moral of the play as a whole." Kaufman doesn't write true satire, which he defines as "what closes on Saturday night." But Kaufman, like...
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Mr. Joseph Wood Krutch, in a new biography called Samuel Johnson, has at last provided a study that is designed to restore to Johnson his real literary interest and importance. With all the work that has been done on Johnson and his friends, there has, as he says, been no such biography…. [Krutch] has devoted quite enough attention and given a quite favorable enough account of Boswell, and his nervously apprehensive glances in the direction of the Boswell fans are simply a part of that continued tribute which one dislikes to see exacted to that point by the vain and pushing diarist.
Mr. Krutch, then, has taken on a job which very much needed to be done, and has acquitted himself with honor. This biography is by far the best book that I have ever read by Joseph Wood Krutch. His [Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius], written back in the twenties, was a rather half-baked performance: incomplete, depending too much on a Freudian oversimplification, insufficiently sympathetic with its subject and somewhat distracted in its judgments by what one might call the despair-hysteria of the period. The Johnson is quite another affair. It is scrupulous and comprehensive, and it makes use of the insights of modern psychology in a careful and moderate way—in fact, perhaps leans a little too much over backward in the attempt not to press them too far…. This new book also shows a capacity for steady and independent judgment, as...
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Joseph Wood Krutch has accurately sub-titled ["Modernism" in Modern Drama] "A Definition and Estimate." According to him, modernism consists of a rejection of three beliefs fundamental in the previously-held credo of post-Renaissance man—that man is "a creature capable of dignity," that life "as led in this world" is worth living and that "the realm of human rationality is the realm in which many may most fruitfully live." Krutch takes a dim view of the modernism in modern drama, and his opinion of the achievements of modern playwrights is greatly troubled because they have made one or more of the above-mentioned rejections. He also notes with disapproval the tendency, especially marked in the work of Pirandello, to "dissolve the ego," a tendency particularly characteristic of the present century. He does discern a return to more traditional attitudes, especially in the efforts of O'Neill and Anderson to write tragedy; and he even notes a similar trend in the work of Williams and Miller. But he does not appear to be particularly impressed by this swing of the pendulum even when he entertains the possibility that it may go further; and, curiously, he makes little of the traditionalism of Eliot except in general terms. Krutch's mind is largely fixed on the theme of modern disorientation and upon the chasm between today and the "Past," or rather upon the belief he attributes to Ibsen, Shaw and others that the past and the future they contemplated...
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In his attempt to apply psychoanalysis to the career of Edgar Allan Poe for purposes of literary criticism [Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius], Joseph Wood Krutch exhibited a commendable degree of competence for a layman. He seems to have had at his command a fairly good, though incomplete, outline of psychoanalysis as it was constituted circa 1926 and a serviceable understanding of the nature of unconscious conflict as well as certain of its overt manifestations. The psychoanalytic concepts which he uses are interpreted, for the most part, with a fair degree of accuracy. What is especially noteworthy is that even technical terminology is correctly employed. By 1926 enough of the basic material of psychoanalysis had reached print—much of it in English translation—so that it was theoretically possible to go even further than he did, but although his knowledge of it was not very extensive he seems to have understood better than most people what he had read. He is nowhere guilty of the gross falsification of psychoanalytic doctrine which was so common then, and which even now gives trouble. His competence served him well—up to a point.
That point is reached when he tries to evaluate Poe's writings solely as manifestations of psychic conflict without regard for their aesthetic character. Up to then he is on perfectly solid ground. A poem is, as he indicates, as much a psychic product as a slip of the tongue or a...
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In Krutch's autobiography [More Lives Than One], there is a strong sense of crisis, insight and redirection at two points in his career; the result in both instances was a book that seemed to write itself, rapidly, out of a fullness of conviction and intensity of feeling. The first was The Modern Temper; and to the extent that it entailed a deliberate embracing of human values sanctioned by art, history and tradition, it may better be termed a reversion than a conversion. Apparently it saved him from the later Marxist conversion of his contemporaries, as he became in both literary and social criticism a spokesman for a conservative humanism. Experience and Art (1932) developed an aesthetic consonant with the cosmic pessimism of The Modern Temper; in it, he argued for the value of the arts in maintaining an imaginative environment hospitable to human nature, a kind of sanctuary within the inhospitable world revealed by the sciences. Was Europe a Success? (1934) developed a roughly analogous argument for Western culture vis-à-vis the Marxist vision of the future. But throughout these middle years of his career he continued his youthful hobby of amateur microscopic investigations; he bought a rural home in Connecticut, commuting to New York; and in 1948, shortly after completing his study of Thoreau, there came a second book that, like The Modern Temper, seemed to write itself as though flowing naturally from a...
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John D. Margolis
Looking back on [Krutch's] career, one must acknowledge certain shortcomings. Perhaps, by the most austere standards of literary history, Krutch falls short of deserving a place in the very first rank of American writers. After abjuring the effort to become "distinctly high-brow"—an effort which brought him his earliest fame but hardly his greatest happiness—his literary ambition, like his thought, became more modest and also more genuine. His search as a man for values prevailed over his search as an artist for literary perfection. As a man of letters, he wrote to his day, rather than to posterity; he hoped to be read by his contemporaries, rather than studied by his successors. And he sought to bring delight to his readers and, indirectly, profit to the world, rather than (as in his writing in the 1920s) literary glory to himself.
If he was absolute master of no single literary genre, he worked skillfully in many. The versatility of his writing, the many-sidedness of his interests, and the range of topics treated in his works—a breadth which makes his career as a whole such an interesting one—prevented Krutch from achieving that depth which might have brought him even greater, if different, recognition as a clearly preeminent figure on any one ground. Intellectual fashion may underrate the value of the nonspecialist perspective Krutch brought to so much of his writing. But for many readers the modest, earnest enthusiasm and...
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