The humanist and moralist tradition

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Arnold’s ideas had great influence in shaping both literary study and broader discussions of culture both in Great Britain and in the United States. The first notable American disciples were a group of writers known as the New Humanists. Chief among the group are Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and Stuart Sherman.

Dedicated to the promotion of so-called high culture, these writers evaluated poetry using Arnoldian standards. In a number of writings Babbitt attacks the Romantics for their emotional excess and for promoting what he describes as the celebration of the “native” over the more refined civilization that in his view marks humankind’s greatest achievements. More, in his Shelburne Essays (1904-1921; 11 vols.), insists that great poetry can be appreciated only when readers have a highly developed historic sense. More also devoted considerable energy to rehabilitating the neoclassic poet Alexander Pope, whose satires depend on readers’ knowledge of the social and political milieu to be fully effective. For More, Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735) is substantially more valuable than any work by the Romantics because it treats great human themes with exceptional insight and skill. Although not a New Humanist, the critic Edmund Wilson also contributed to cultural criticism in essays and collections that stress the social dimensions of literature, especially modern literature.

The successors of the New Humanists were the New York Intellectuals, a group of more than two dozen philosophers, sociologists, historians, and literary critics, including the influential writer-critic Lionel Trilling. Throughout his career Trilling expressed interest in the way literature reflects social values and simultaneously shapes them. Trilling tends to value literature that reflects qualities such as sincerity and authenticity, although he frequently found merit in the more experimental work...

(The entire section is 792 words.)