The New Humanists Essay - Critical Essays

The New Humanists


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.

Representative Works

Irving Babbitt
Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (criticism) 1908
New Laokoön: An Essay on the Confusion in the Arts (criticism) 1910
The Masters of Modern French Literature (criticism) 1912
Rousseau and Romanticism (criticism) 1919
Democracy and Leadership (criticism) 1924
French Literature (criticism) 1928
On Being Creative and Other Essays (criticism) 1932

Kenyon Cox
The Classical Point of View (criticism) 1912

George Roy Elliott
The Cycle of Modern Poetry (criticism) 1929
Humanism and Imagination (criticism) 1938

Norman Foerster
American Literature (criticism) 1923
American Criticism: A Study in Literary Theory from Poe to the Present (criticism) 1928
Reinterpretation of American Literature (criticism) 1928
The American Scholar (criticism) 1930
Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilisation [editor] (criticism) 1930
Towards Standards: A Study of the Cultural Movement in American Letters (criticism) 1930
The American State University: Its Relation to Democracy (criticism) 1937
The Future of the Liberal Arts College (criticism) 1938

C. Hartley Grattan
The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium [editor] (criticism) 1930

Frank Jewett Mather Jr.
Modern Painting (criticism) 1926

Paul Elmer More
Shelburne Essays. 14 vols. (criticism) 1904-21
Aristocracy and Justice (criticism) 1915
Aristocracy and Tradition (criticism) 1917
Platonism (criticism) 1917
The Greek Tradition. 6 vols. (criticism) 1921-27
The Religion of Plato (criticism) 1921
Hellenistic Philosophies (criticism) 1923
The Christ of the New Testament (criticism) 1924
The Demon of the Absolute (criticism) 1928

Gorham B. Munson
Destinations (criticism) 1928

George Santayana
The Genteel Tradition at Bay (criticism) 1931

Robert Shaver
Progress and Science (criticism) 1922
Christianity and Naturalism (criticism) 1926
Paul Elmer More and American Criticism (criticism) 1935

Stuart Pratt Sherman
Matthew Arnold: How to Know Him (criticism) 1917
On Contemporary Literature (criticism) 1917
Americans (criticism) 1922
The Genius of America (criticism) 1923

Criticism: Major Figures

Francis X. Duggan (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Duggan, Francis X. “Humanism and Naturalism.” In Paul Elmer More, pp. 133-42. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.

[In the following excerpt, Duggan explores More's association with the New Humanists, focusing on the attack on his ideas in C. Hartley Grattan's The Critique of Humanism.]


Throughout the first three decades of the century Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More had been attracting a number of disciples and supporters who, despite their differences, were sufficiently united in principles and general aims to be known by and to acknowledge a common designation. These were the New Humanists of the 1920's and...

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Ronald Lora (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Lora, Ronald. “The New Humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More.” In Conservative Minds in America, pp. 69-83. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1971.

[In the essay below, Lora documents Babbitt's and More's contributions to the New Humanism and traces the development and eventual demise of the movement.]


Philosophical Conservatism found one of its classic expressions in the New Humanist movement of the first third of the twentieth century. In its two leaders, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, one sees the Conservative spirit articulating itself—a spirit skeptical of democracy, fearful of the mechanization of life,...

(The entire section is 5697 words.)

Stephen L. Tanner (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Tanner, Stephen L. “Sinclair Lewis and the New Humanism.” Modern Age 33, no. 1 (spring 1990): 33-41.

[In the following essay, Tanner comments on the relationship between Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken on the one hand, and the New Humanists on the other, noting their lack of understanding of one another.]

On December 12, 1930, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis delivered what has been called “the most widely publicized address ever given by an American novelist.”1 Those familiar with the contours of Lewis's career agree that this speech must be taken as the high point, the zenith of achievement and recognition beyond...

(The entire section is 5554 words.)

Criticism: Overviews

Allen Tate (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: Tate, Allen. “The Fallacy of Humanism.” In The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium, edited by C. Hartley Grattan, pp. 131-66. New York: Brewer and Warren, 1930.

[In the essay below, Tate analyzes the ideas of New Humanists Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and Norman Foerster, dismissing them as vague, self-contradictory, and lacking in cohesiveness.]

If the necessity for virtue could tell us how to practice it, we should be virtuous overnight. For the case of the American Humanists against modern culture is damaging to the last degree. The truth of their indictment, negatively considered, cannot be denied. But this is not enough.

There is a...

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Irving Babbitt (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: Babbitt, Irving. “Humanism: An Essay at Definition.” In Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization, edited by Norman Foerster, pp. 25-51. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1930.

[In the following essay, Babbitt explicates the major tenets of humanism.]


The art of defining is so indispensable that one needs to define the limits of definition itself. A very eminent humanist, Erasmus, showed his awareness of these limits when he complained of the attempts of the theologians of the Reformation to formulate deity that every definition was a disaster. Though the humanist does not seek to define God and is in general...

(The entire section is 8757 words.)

William Van O'Connor (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: O'Connor, William Van. “The New Humanism.” In An Age of Criticism: 1900-1950, pp. 92-109. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952.

[In the following essay, O'Connor summarizes attacks on the New Humanists in the late 1920s and discusses their influence on other critics.]

During the postwar years reductive naturalism had made debunking biographies, drab fiction, and behaviorist drama seem inevitable. Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and their followers were among those who most firmly resisted the tenets of reductive naturalism and the kinds of literature to which it gave rise.1 The New Humanists were looked upon variously as defenders of the genteel...

(The entire section is 5046 words.)

Walter Sutton (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Sutton, Walter. “The New Humanism.” In Modern American Criticism, pp. 26-50. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

[In the essay below, Sutton presents an overview of the main works, figures, and detractors of the New Humanists.]

Many intellectuals sensitive to the confusion and disorder of the early twentieth century looked to the past for sustaining values. In the midst of the rebellion against “Puritanism,” they defended the principles of decorum and restraint against what seemed to them the excesses of modern scientific, literary, and social thought.

In criticism the staunchest defenders of an older order were the New...

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Criticism: New Humanism In Education And Literature

Michael R. Harris (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Harris, Michael R. “Irving Babbitt: Civilized Standards and Humanistic Education.” In Five Counterrevolutionists in Higher Education, pp. 49-79. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1970.

[In the essay below, Harris evaluates Babbitt's ideas pertaining to higher education.]

To repudiate the traditional Christian and classical checks and at the same time fail to work out some new and more vital control upon impulse and temperament is to be guilty of high treason to civilization.

—Irving Babbitt, 1932

Preeminent among the New Humanists, Irving Babbitt opposed educational...

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J. David Hoeveler Jr. (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Hoeveler Jr., J. David. “The New Humanists.” In The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940, pp. 3-27. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.

[In the following essay, Hoeveler traces the individual paths that led Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and other writers to align into the movement known as the New Humanism and comments on the social context of this intellectual trend.]

Fighting a whole generation is not exactly a happy task.

—Irving Babbitt

The New Humanism sprang from a profound disaffection with the modern age. Centering its attention on the...

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Abdul R. JanMohamed (essay date spring-fall 1984)

SOURCE: JanMohamed, Abdul R. “Humanism and Minority Literature: Toward a Definition of Counter-Hegemonic Discourse.” boundary 2 12-13, nos. 3 & 1 (spring-fall 1984): 281-99.

[In the following essay, JanMohamed traces the influence of New Humanist ideas on later evaluations of minority literature, arguing that the New Humanists established rigid cultural standards that still impede criticism of non-traditional literature.]

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist and poet, claims that in the process of articulating the plight of their people, in depicting the trauma produced by colonial domination, and in the attempt to redefine the direction of indigenous cultures,...

(The entire section is 8654 words.)

Further Reading


Babcock, Charles L. “The Classics and the New Humanism.” In The Endless Fountain: Essays on Classical Humanism, edited by Mark Morford, pp. 3-27. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972.

Applies the principles of the New Humanists to a discussion of literature education and criticism in the 1970s.

Blackmur, R. P. “Humanism and Symbolic Imagination: Notes on Re-reading Irving Babbitt.” Southern Review (autumn 1941): 309-25.

Discusses Babbitt's theory of humanism, concluding that the role of the intellect is “in coping with disorder.”

Fincher, John L. “The Writ of...

(The entire section is 185 words.)