George Edward Woodberry Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.

PRINCIPAL WORKS

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