George Edward Woodberry Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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


H. A. C. (essay date 1900)

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 life rather than with the universal, rarely possess. Plato's 'Symposium' and Carlyle's 'Sartor Resartus' will no more cease to stimulate the imaginative thought of mankind than the creations of Homer, Shakespeare, and Browning, will cease to stimulate the imaginative emotion of mankind, while Scott and Dickens, even Zola, grow archaic. For these reasons a single volume of essays, like Woodberry's Heart of Man, appears a more enduring contribution to the literature of America than hosts of the popular novels, which, clever as they often are, smack of the mortality of the hour.

The Heart of Man is in many ways a remarkable volume, full of wisdom and beauty, and showing in the range of subjects and their treatment how various may be the charm of this form of literature. The first essay, 'Taormina,' combines an exquisite description of the natural beauties of that picturesque and historically interesting spot in Sicily with a striking sketch of the vicissitudes of fortune it has undergone for many hundreds of years. And, best of all, the manner of the telling breathes the rich human sympathy of the writer,—a perception of the beauty of earth, almost unearthly in its loveliness, and of the pathos of a great human woe that lies like a canker even in the heart of the beauty, letting itself be known only through the hopeless calm of the poor fisher-folk of Taormina, whom the centuries of life and tumult have at last cast adrift outside the wheel of progress, with no future before them but decay and death.

Not the least charming division of the essay takes one back to the ancient poets, whose songs are redolent of the perfume of this delightsome region. Our essayist saw with his own eyes a storm such as he had before wondered at in Virgil, and an idyl the counterpart of which he had loved for long in Theocritus.

Quite different is the second essay, 'A New Defence of Poetry,'—different in subject-matter, different in style. It is a closely reasoned argument to the effect that the very body of literary art must be the ideal, since "the subject-matter of literature is life in the forms of personality and experience, and the particular facts with respect to these are generalized by means of type and plot in concrete form, and so are set forth as phases of an ordered world for the intelligence, to the end that man may know himself in the same way as he knows nature in its living system." Those who deny this, and restrict literature to the actual in life, deny art, "which is the instrument of the creative, to literature; for as soon as art, which is the process of creating a rational world, begins, the necessity for selection arises, and with it the whole question of values, facts being no longer equal among themselves on the score of actuality, nor in fitness for the work in hand. The trivial, the accidental, the unmeaning, are rejected, and there will be no stopping short of the end; for art, being the hand-maid of truth, can employ no other...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)

A. C. Henderson (essay date 1913)

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...

(The entire section is 1394 words.)

Harriet Monroe (essay date 1917)

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...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Mark Van Doren (essay date 1922)

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...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

John Erskine (essay date 1930)

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...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)

Robert Underwood Johnson (essay date 1930)

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...

(The entire section is 1719 words.)

Walter de la Mare (essay date 1933)

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...

(The entire section is 4673 words.)

John Paul Pritchard (essay date 1956)

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...

(The entire section is 2487 words.)

Charles I. Glicksberg (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 1357 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 188 words.)