Howard Mumford Jones and the Dynamics of Liberal Humanism Summary

Peter Brier


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Howard Mumford Jones had a distinguished career as a historian and critic of American arts and society. At home in several literatures, he stressed transnational literary relations not only between the United States and the Atlantic community but also between the United States, Latin America, and Asia. He made himself an immensely erudite comparativist, on a level with such great European-born scholars as Erich Auerbach, Werner Jaeger, Leo Spitzer, and René Wellek. Like his colleague at the Johns Hopkins University, Arthur Lovejoy, Jones wrote seminal essays showing the impact of European thought on American writers and thinkers. Throughout his long life, he vigorously defended the tradition of humanistic rationalism and the necessity for the broadest, most cosmopolitan scholarship in American studies. He served ably as president, at various times, of the Modern Language Association, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Peter Brier, professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles, has written an ambitious study that seeks to serve several purposes. It is an affectionate biography of Jones the scholar and teacher, it expounds and explicates his most important ideas, and it raises the ghost of Jones as “a strong scholar of the recent past to challenge the present discourse in cultural and literary criticism.”

Howard Mumford Jones was the son of an insurance agent who died when the boy was fourteen and left his Wisconsin family in near-poverty. Jones received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin, then an M.A. in 1915 from the University of Chicago. His master’s thesis was an essay on and translation of the great German poet Heinrich Heine’s lyric cycle “The North Sea.” For the next decade he taught at the Universities of Texas, Montana, North Carolina, and Michigan. He worked on a doctoral dissertation for Chicago’s graduate school, researching the relationship between French and American culture. When his dean insisted that Jones take courses that he had already taught in the university’s summer program, he refused and abandoned his Ph.D. candidacy. The fifteen honorary degrees he was to receive in later years surely compensated Jones for his lack of a doctorate. He had the satisfaction of having the University of North Carolina Press publish his non-Ph.D. “dissertation” in 1927; America and French Culture, 1750-1848 becoming a standard work in the field. In 1974, the University of Chicago awarded him its prized Alumni Medal.

In 1936, Harvard University’s president, James B. Conant, did Jones two significant honors: He invited him to receive an honorary degree at the grand celebration of the university’s tercentenary, and he requested Harvard’s English faculty to consider him for an appointment as full professor. In what turned out to be the middle year of his life, forty-four, the Midwestern Jones joined a brilliant cadre of specialists in American literature at Harvard: New Englanders Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, and Kenneth Murdock. Brier states that Jones’s teaching left few students with mild responses. Some resented what they considered his overbearing pedagogy, as he hurled armies of facts at them and insisted that they take lecture notes in a prescribed manner and notebook. Behind his back they derided him as “Howard Mumford Duck.” Others, however, admired his energy, verve, enormous learning, and devotion to the highest standards of scholarship; they found his kindness of heart equally present with his intellectual rigor.

Jones regarded literature as a Dionysian art that defies binding definition, and was not particularly interested in literary theory. For him, literary criticism teaches society much about its culture, which is largely delineated by its art. History mattered far more than aesthetics, cultural typology far more than the organicism of the New Critics, who regarded literature as a self-enclosed, special kind of language often opposed to the language of science. Jones thought that literature and science should be allies, just as literature and history are. Formalist critics accused him of tending to desert the text in order to illustrate shifts in sensibility and cultural taste. Jones insisted that he served the text best by locating its meaning in the broadest possible historical perspective and sophistication. Brier states that “Howard Mumford Jones not only trusted in the past as a source for the information and ideas that would enable him to interpret great literary art, but he also believed that holding on to the legacy of humanism was the best insurance against cultural and social decline.”

Like the literary historian Van Wyck Brooks, Jones believed in a “usable past,” and that past was, centrally, European culture. His aim was to show how the United States could achieve the highest hopes of European civilization. The founders of the United States thought in terms of the Enlightenment and, in Jones’s words, “believed this republic could live...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)