The New Humanists Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The New Humanists

The New Humanists were a group of influential American literary critics who were active from the first decade of the twentieth century to approximately 1930 and reached their greatest prominence in the 1920s. In their writings they championed conservative values, voicing their opposition to the avant-garde in art and literature and to liberals and reformers in politics and education. Their detractors regarded the ideas of the New Humanists as reactionary, elitist, and antidemocratic. The public debate between the two camps reached a climax in 1930 with a series of public debates and the publication of two monographs representing the New Humanist and the anti-New Humanist point of view.

The two leading figures of the New Humanists were Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Babbitt, a professor of literature at Harvard and a prolific literary critic, first outlined the ideas of New Humanism in his Literature and the American College (1908). More was the editor of the Independent and the Nation, where he propagated New Humanist theory in his many reviews and articles before retiring in 1914 to teach at Princeton University. Citing their profound dissatisfaction with modern culture's stress on wealth and progress—as well as the notions of utilitarianism, pragmatism, and scientific thought that shaped educational curricula—Babbitt and More waged a campaign against what they regarded as the excesses of their day, including humanitarian liberals and reformists, whom they decried as promoting falsely religious ideals. In the domain of literary criticism, they sought to discredit Romanticism and Naturalism, which they believed focused too much on the freedom of the individual and depictions of humanity in its naturally degraded state. Rejecting modern trends in art and life, Babbitt and More advocated a moral program based on wide reading in the Greek and Roman classics, particularly those works which emphasized reason, proportion, and decorum in all things. They argued that humanism could provide a sufficient basis for curbing man's base instincts, lead to intellectual and cultural enlightenment, and even serve as a kind of religion in its own right. The New Humanists used the examples of the philosophies of Plato, Socrates, Confucius, and ancient India to illustrate highly ethical systems based on humanist rather than religious principles. Babbitt and More were soon joined by like-minded critics, including Norman Foerster, Gorham B. Munson, Stuart Pratt Sherman, George Roy Elliott, and George Santayana, who kept their ideas in the intellectual forefront through numerous articles in such journals as the Criterion, the Bookman, and the American Review.

The New Humanists' views came under attack from many critics—most notably H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, Howard Mumford Jones, and T. S. Eliot—who pointed out their hostility to modern literature and culture, dogmatism, underdeveloped sense of aesthetics, gaps in logic, and elitist tendencies. From the point of view of religion, New Humanism was attacked for advocating humanist values as a substitute for theological ones and for denigrating the humanitarian ethic. At the height of the controversy about the New Humanists, a public debate was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City in May 1930, with Babbitt, Henry Seidel Canby, and Carl Van Doren defending the group's ideas. That same year two collections of essays about New Humanism were published—The Critique of Humanism, edited by C. Hartley Grattan, which criticized the principles of the New Humanists, and Humanism and America, edited by Foerster, which upheld New Humanist values. After 1930 interest in the New Humanists declined as the country slipped into an economic depression and more immediate political and social concerns became paramount. Literary historians point out that the New Humanists played an important role in calling attention to what they perceived as culturally detrimental tendencies in their time and in suggesting ways to remedy them.