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].)
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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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 laboratory—he is responsible for making veracious observations that can be tested. If his observations are in error, then his conclusions must likewise be wrong. No writer can afford to shirk the responsibility of truth.
Mr. Krutch is decidedly unhappy because he has discovered that the world of today is not the same world that has been pictured by thinkers in the past. Evil and good are not cleancut and diametrically opposed; Nature is supremely indifferent to those intrinsically human values which men cherish. How different, he laments, is the world of experience from the world of the heart's desire! But every intelligent, mature person has to some extent realized the wisdom of curbing his insatiable ego in its demands…. It is therefore an expression of sentimentalism to assume, as Mr. Krutch does, that in winning this knowledge man has forfeited a desirable world for one less desirable to which he must now painfully adapt himself. The truth is otherwise.
Mr. Krutch converts science into the serpent that has crept into the Garden of Eden and led man into sin and unhappiness. Poetry and religion, he declares, satisfied man's inner needs; science, on the other hand, is inexorably objective. The two, he concludes, are irreconcilable. Is this really so? Fundamentally, there need be no conflict between the two realms. Mr. Krutch is emotionally swayed by his nostalgia for the certitudes and absolutes of the traditional past. He speaks with despair of the cold immensities of space and the chaos of nature, unaware that he is employing value-freighted metaphors. He is equally subjective when he declares that Nature's purpose (if she possess one) is not the purpose of man. "Her desire merely to live and to propagate in innumerable forms, her ruthless indifference to his values, and the blindness of her irresistible will strike terror to his soul, and he comes in the fullness of his experience to realize that the ends which he proposes to himself—happiness and order and reason—are ends which he must achieve, if he achieve them at all, in her despite." This is eloquent but fallacious. Nature is neither friend nor foe. Wisely controlled, and science is the best instrument of control human ingenuity has so far advised, she aids man in fulfilling his purpose. Ignorantly opposed, she causes his destruction. Scientific knowledge may not give shelter and protection to our pet ideals and illusions, neither does it conceive of Nature as a sinister, implacable enemy. If science proves the death of many values once held sacred, what does that mean but that those values were not fitted to endure? (pp. 77-9)
Man's illusion of cosmic importance naturally decreases, but is it not assuming too much to say that he is left more and more alone in the universe? He is no more alone now than he was a thousand years ago. Mr. Krutch will reply that human desire is more essential than scientific truth. His indictment of science is primarily on the ground that the knowledge it assembles and works into a pattern has no bearing on human needs. Whatever truth science may discover, he asserts, man must live according to certain established standards of conduct. Since man is an ethical animal, neither he nor society can long exist without reference to some fixed and stable moral order. Science, it seems, has destroyed this, "man's most fundamental myth". Yet even if the universe contains no ethical element, no hint of a categorical imperative, even if that fundamental myth should die out, man can still formulate and abide by a rationally satisfying construction of ethics…. If, as Mr. Krutch puts it, man finds no answer to his questions and no fulfillment of his needs in a world of electrons and complexes, science can justly reply: The function of science is not to provide salvation. It is not a religion but an organized body of knowledge based on experiment and observation. In asking science to supply what is not its proper concern, you wish to make of it a form of mysticism. Science appeals to the intellect, not to the emotions. It aims to achieve truth, not to satisfy man's egocentric wishes.
Nevertheless, Mr. Krutch, like many serious thinkers before him, persists in asking the query: What is to be done? How shall man live? He cannot arrive at any positive and robust affirmation of faith because his mind is untrammeled by theological delusions, because he knows that not every problem humanity posits is necessarily solvable. Having gone thus far, he indulges in dismal speculations on the survival possibilities of human beings…. The picture Mr. Krutch draws of the future is lugubrious and fantastic—a future in which only those who found no lack in nature would reign supreme…. Science is thus convicted of having failed to serve man or reconcile his conflicts. Man is faced with a task of readjustment more stupendous than any made before; if this is not possible, the human spirit, we are told, will face extinction. (pp. 79-81)
Perhaps the most significant chapter in The Modern Temper is the one entitled "The Tragic Fallacy", which attempts to show that we no longer write tragedies in the dramatic or any other form because the human spirit has grown enfeebled. Man has lost, we are told, the ability to impose upon the welter of life a pattern of meaning which would satisfy his metaphysical hunger. Today the soul of man is portrayed as commonplace; whereas, according to Mr. Krutch, the idea of tragedy is invariably associated with the idea of nobility. Tragedy presupposes faith in the importance of man and his life on earth. The tragic writer must believe in humanity, for such a belief reconciles man to his fate. That Mr. Krutch is largely wrong in his premises and conclusions, which rest on a pathetic fallacy, has been demonstrated by Mr. Mark Harris in the book, The Case for Tragedy. Aside from the mental atmosphere, the sociological conditions of an age and place stressed by Mr. Harris as relevant for an interpretation of the tragic spirit in literature, is it true that man must be made to seem great enough to justify the portrayal of tragic suffering? If we do not tell tales of the fall of princes, it is not that we do not believe that they exist, but that we would invest all men, no matter how humble in origin or low in the economic scale, with the inherent human dignity, that quality of nobility which Mr. Krutch finds essential for the creation of tragedy. He feels that tragedy can stalk by only in sceptered pomp and royal robes; the critics with naturalistic leanings know that it can wear the rags of a beggar and the mud-caked jeans of an old degenerate tobacco farmer. Tobacco Road and Beyond the Horizon are fundamentally as tragic in expression, though not derived from the same tradition, as the tragedies by Sophocles and Shakespeare.
A religious yearning, disguised and at times even suspicious of itself, is at the heart of Mr. Krutch's writings. His exacting and skeptical intelligence repudiates the demands made by this channeled mystical libido, but his inner emotional self intensely craves the certitude and consolation, the definite meaning and purpose, however illusory, it imposes on life. Even his system of aesthetics is conditioned by this spiritual conflict. Art, he believes, suggests a realm of peace. It provides a medicine for the sickness of the spirit; it pictures a world which is perfect and entirely acceptable. But art is based on order, while to found life on art is to end in anarchy. Thus art may "furnish a means by which life may be contemplated, but not a means by which it may be lived". Art, in short, is contemplation, not action. Aesthetics can give no answer to the riddle man's questioning intellect propounds. The affirmations of art are ethically and empirically without value—a point of view more elaborately developed in his book, Experience and Art. (pp. 81-2)
Mr. Krutch is among the few critics who, in a period of profound social and political change, have kept their poise and detachment, refusing to be swept along in the turbulent current of sociological criticism. He is also exceptional in that, far from using his criticism as a springboard for political or social propaganda or any special doctrine not implicit in literature itself, he formulated a comprehensive philosophy of literary criticism—a system of aesthetics which, whether right or wrong, has the supreme virtue, at least, of being clearly defined; he is free from besetting dogmas or intellectual preconceptions. His is a remarkably independent intelligence; analytical, dispassionate, rarely, if ever, resorting to worn-out counters of rhetoric.
In Experience and Art, which is concerned primarily with the aesthetics of literature, Mr. Krutch states his fundamental premises. He is not given to extremes, he does not indulge in hard-and-fast generalizations. He notes tendencies, trends; remaining at the same time keenly aware of exceptions, subtle distinctions, important qualifications. He steers clear of the fallacy which assumes that since art is enormously important to the culture of a race, it is therefore to be identified indiscriminately with some social or ethical philosophy. Literature for him is not a record of fact; it has no covenant with literal truth; it is, on the contrary, the expression of everything man is capable of believing. Once a work of art is born, it may awaken experiences similar to those in the realm of nature, but the two types of experience, he feels, are not and cannot be the same. Art is the intellectual and spiritual dwelling-place of man. If this be granted, does it not follow, he argues, that "Literature is not a psychological purge any more than it is a sociological treatise"?...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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