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Certain trends in the critical analysis of American literature since the World War, 1919-1940

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A Thesis
Presented to
the Faeulty of the Department of English
The University of Southern California
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
Isadora <j, Brosin
August, 1941
UMI Number: EP44168
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Th is thesis, w ritten by
u n d e r the d i r e c t i o n o f h X f s i 'F a c u l t y C o m m it te e ,
a n d a p p r o v e d by a l l its m e m b e r s , has been
presented to a n d accepted by the C o u n c i l on
G r a d u a t e S t u d y a n d Research in p a r t i a l f u l f i l l m e n t o f the re q u ire m e n ts f o r the degree o f
S e c re ta ry
D a te
Angus t.,.19.41.
F a c u lty C o m m itte e
\'I ^
j ir*
The conflict In criticism
. . . . . .
Purpose of the study . . . . . . . .
Importance of the study
. . . . . .
Review of similar studies . . , • • •
Bases of judgment . . . . . . . . . .
Organization of the thesis
. . . . .
History and definitions • • • • * • • • •
History of Impressionism •
. . . . . .
Spingarn’s theory of judgment . . . . .
Spingarn’s application of his theory
Spingarn’s contribution to
/ The effect of Spingarn’s writings . . .
H. L. Mencken’s Criticism . . . .
• •
• •
Mencken’s application of impressionism
The effects of Mencken’s writings
Mencken’s thesis of impressionism
. •
An evaluation of impressionism . . . . .
Definitions and background
• . . . .
Distinctions between humanist criti­
cism and the general humanism • •
Background of humanist criticism
Norman Foerster’s definitions . . .
Paul Elmer More’s Contribution
to humanist criticism
More’s definition • • • • • • • « •
More’s application of his system
Criticism of Irving Babbitt • • • • •
Babbitt’s definition of humanism
Babbitt’s application of his sys­
tem • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Stuart P. Sherman’s oriticism • • • •
Sherman’s intentions • • • • • • •
Sherman’s application of his theory
The effects of humanist oriticism
• •
Historical background of Marxism . . .
Definition of Marxist criticism
Joseph Freeman’s definition •
• • •
Hicks's statement on Marxism .
• • •
Cowley*s definition of Marxism
• • • •
Leading critic»s application of the Marx­
ian theory
Floyd Dell's criticism
. v•
• •
Joseph Freeman’s criticism
Granville Hicks’s criticism
Bernard Smith’s Forces in American Criti­
Effects of Marxist criticism
Evaluation of Marxist criticism
SUMMARY AND C O N C L U S I O N S ............ ..
Impressionistic break with standards
Spingarn’s emphasis on subjectivism
Mencken's writings evaluated
Humanistic complaint against impres­
sionist nihilism
• • • . .
Marxian application of dialectic mater­
ialism to literature
Problems which this study leaves un­
Since the World War there has been a great conflict
of opinion among those engaged in critical analysis of Amer­
ican literature.
Any significant critic, taken individually,
though he may dissent from all others in his evaluation of
critical standards, joins his fellows in proclaiming the
richness of the renaissance in American letters since 1919
and the keenness of the battle which has arisen over stand­
ards of judgment.
Norman Foerster, a critic in the humanistt
camp, indicates the severity of the conflict when he writes,
"Though criticism is always the battle-ground of literature,
the conflict has never been more bewildering than in Ameri­
Granville Hicks, a critic in the rival camp of the
Marxistse says,, "The period is rich in critics, able men most
of them, shrewd in their appraisals, quick to praise, fear­
less in condemnation.
1 Norman Foerster, American Critical Essays
Oxford University Phess,, 1930), ps viii.
2 Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition
Macmillan, 1933), p. 252.
(New York':
What has.t!happened Is that each critic goes away
from his task of criticism,, leaving behind him not only an
individual'*s reaction to a work of literature, but a stand­
ard of Judgment, which piremeditatedly or unconsciously,
comes together at certain focal points with other critics*
In this way, conflicting movements or trends of
critical analysis have arisen and developed.
It is the purpose of this study to clarify in a limi­
ted way this conflict of opinions, by an investigation of
three major trends In the critical analysis of American
literature from 1919 to 1940:
impressionism, humanism, and
For the most part, the critical writings and the:
works which they discuss have been written during these two
AS"a further limitation, the author will study on­
ly works of criticism dealing with critical analysis.
should be stated that this study is concerned mainly with
literary trends.
For this reason, only critics who can be:
proved to have Influenced the formation and development of
trends, ,or who have" themselves been influenced by such
movements will be considered.
In order to appraise the writings of any one critic:
at any one time, it seems necessary for the student of
contemporary literature to be aware of a double relation­
the individual work of criticism considered, first,
within the classification to which it belongs, according to
the terms of that writer’s basis of judgment, and ,second,
its relation to other conflicting and confluent standard®
of judgment*
It is for the purpose of providing such an in­
vestigation that this study is being made*
A search for other studies of contemporary American
critical trends reveals that with the exception of Bernard
Smith’s Forces
in American Criticism and Morton Dauwen
Zabel's Literary Opinion in America, such studies clarify
only certain periods or are in themselves polemics in sup­
port of favored types of criticism*
Smith’s Forces in Ameri­
can Criticism is wider in scope, but it is written from the
Marxist point of view, and is therefore discussed in con­
nection with other Marxist critics in Chapter IV.
Zabel’s Literary Opinion in America makes no cons­
cious attempt to clarify the controversy present in contem­
porary criticism.
It is an anthology which presents fifty
American critical essays.
The section headings give the
only clue to differences of opinion contained in the essays;:
“The Individual Talent”, "Versions of Tradition";1 and "Pros­
pects and Determinations".
Except as these headings serve:
as a guide, the reader must devise his own classification,
if he desires to do so, a practice which Zabel has explicit­
ly left to his readers by Introductory remarks:
. . . The reader or teacher will find this book profit**
able to the degree in which he makes it an opportunity
to become a critic himself, to disagree with the critics
who speak here, to compare their findings, and to de­
cide how the skill at reading and writing that has
brought them into the same company can be achieved.
The introductory chapter points out conditions un­
der which critics-have written about m o d e m literature and
mentions some of the problems which they have^faced.
however, consciously avoids controversy, and in this way
places the movements in m o d e m criticism— human ism, impres­
sionism, Marxism, and the like— outside the scene of criti­
He is interested, he says, in literary criticism as?
a craftl in itself, ’’unconfused by techniques, forms of be­
lief, or personal and popularizing motives which are today
pre-empting its authority.”
Zabel’s book has been helpful positively in sugges­
ting that certain controversial problems were present in
criticism, and negatively in indicating the necessity for
aligning these controversial opinions into a classifica­
The work has demonstrated that any standard of
judgment which tries to avoid controversy in literature,
cannot really evaluate a period's critical writing which
has dissension as its most significant feature.
3 Morton Dauwen Zabel, Literary Opinion in America
(New York: Harpers, 1937)» p. lx.
Although hooks of critical opinion were consulted
for the main hody of this study and the more fugitive type
of periodical hook review was avoided purposely, it was
found necessary at times, to utilize essays on critical
trends appearing in such periodicals as Southern Review.
Sewanee Review. The Nation. The New Republic. The American
Mercury., and North American Review. These periodicals were
helpful in filling the vacancies in critical comment whieh oc­
cur in the last five years.
In some cases, even though a
work was not directly incorporated in the study itself, it
had the effect of solidifying opinion and influencing eval­
The author's judgment and decisions for classifica­
tion are based upon the following factors:
(1) the critic's
own statement of purpose; (2) a study of the effects of that
critic's writings upon the-critics of his:own time and upon
later critics?;(3) an evaluation by the author of this study
of the critic's fulfillment of his statements.
Organization of the thesis is as follows:
Chapter II deals with impressionism.
It contains
definitions of impressionism by critics who develop* or op­
pose this kind of criticism.
It discusses the works of
major impressionists, and contains an attempted summary of
the composite effect of this movement on critical analysis
of American literature*
Chapter III studies humanism*
It defines humanism
and shows how the more important humanists contributed
towards establishing the trend.
Chapter IV discusses Marxism as it has been applied
to literary criticism.
It defines the terms, classifies
the works of certain Marxist orities, and summarizes the
effect of the movement*
Chapter V contains a summary of findings and general
conclusions concerning the conflict of opinion in American
critical writings.
It also contains a statement of problems
which this study has left unsettled*
It would seem almost impossible to give a specific
definition for as broad a movement as impressionism, for
each critic who uses this method of evaluation.
ism is a label, applied here to those systems which have
in common at least one characteristic in their Judgment of
literature, the recording of the c-ritlc-*s personal sensa­
tions as soon after the moment of stimulus as possible.
Bernard Smith has pointed out* the impressionist classifi­
cation includes any critic whose purpose is not to judge,
explain, or dogmatize, but to enjoy,
. . . to realize the manifold charm the work has
gathered in itself from all sources, and to inter­
pret this charm imaginatively to the men of his the
critic’s own day and generation.1
Ruth C. Child, in her discussion of the aesthetic of
Walter Pater indicates two uses of the term Impressionism.
It may mean a reasonably objective attempt, to ana­
lyze the central impressions of an artist’s work,
the impression it might be expected to make on any
sensitive, cultivated observer...; the term,
may also be used in a much more subjective sense,
as meaning the attempt of the critic to give merely
his own personal reactions to a work of art, however
1 Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism
(New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939)# p. 277.
whimsical or fanciful they may be, rather than a
reasoned judgment which would have'validity for
In either case,-the impressionist critic is using the work
of art as a stimulus to evoke a reaction in himself, and
the result is subjective, whether the expression which re­
sults is whimsical or reasoned.
The basic situation seems:
not to be altered whether we accept Bernard Smith’s definition
or Ruth C. Child’s.
It may be necessary to go back of the twentieth cen­
tury to Walter Pater, writing in 1873, for a parental state­
ment of impressionism.
Pater’s assertion that ’’the main du­
ty of the critic is to disengage the peculiar essence of each
creative artist’s work, to analyze and reduce to its ele­
ments the special, unique impression of pleasure produced by
the individual artist”,3 states a double purpose for the
(1) to find the intrinsic nature of each artist’s
writing: and (2) to analyze the impression received by the
reader in an effort to determine what unique qualities pro­
duce pleasure.
The American critic Joel Elias Spingara, writing in
2 Ruth C. Child, The Aesthetic of Walter Pater
(New York: Macmillan, 194o), pps: 129,;130.
3 Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renai­
(London: Macmillan Library Edition, 1910), ps Ix.
1910 produces a statement strikingly similar to Pater*s in
its implications:
To have sensations in the presence of a work of
art and express them, that is the function of criti­
cism for the impressionistic critic. • . Each of us
if we are sensitive to impressions and express our­
selves well, will produce a new work of art to re­
place the work which gave us our sensations.^Pater's?posing of the question (in his discussion of Botti­
celli), "What is the peculiar quality of pleasure, which
his work has the property of exciting in us, and which we
cannot:get elsewh e r e ? "5 has a counterpart in a similar ques­
tion "by Spingam:
Here is a beautiful poem, let us say Shelley's
Prometheus Unbound. To read it is for me to exper­
ience a thrill of pleasure. My delight in it is it­
self a judgment, and what better judgment is it pos­
sible for me to give?" All that 1 can do is to tell vhow it affects me, what sensations it gives me.®
Spingam's. negation of environment as a clue to the
Interpretation of the writer's work echoes an earlier state­
ment of Pater:
^ J. E. Spingam, The New Oriticism
lumbia University Press, 19115, PP. 3,? 4.
(New Zork: Co­
5 Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance.
Pi x.
^ Spingam, oj). cit.. p« 6.
It might even he said that the trial-talk of criti­
cism in regard to literature and art no less than to
philosophy begins exactly where the estimate of gener­
al conditions common to all the products of that par­
ticular age leaves off.7
It would be an error to assume a consciously planned
development of the impressionist method by American critics,
since not all impressionist critics acknowledge, or can be
shown to have received, the same influences, nor have they
in any sense worked in collaboration.
When we view the sub­
ject chronologically, we observe gaps between the writings
of one impressionist and another.
James Huneker, who is
credited with being the first to employ this method in Ameri­
ca, wrote a full two decades before the year 1919.
writings, therefore, are anterior to the period treated in
this study.
Ten years elapsed between Huneker’s-writings
and those of Joel Elias Spingam, the chief proponent in
America of impressionism as an organized system of judgment.
H. L. Mencken wrote almost contemporaneously with Spingam,
but as later analysis will show, Mencken was ideologically
independent of Spingam.
Huneker may be judged a free agent, since he admits
no influence and no subservience to a specific method.
7 Walter Pater, Plato and Platonism,
millan, 1920, pp. 124, 125.
New York:
his own admission and the evaluation of others, friends.and
foes, Huneker may he regard as a roving ambassador of the
I am Jack of the Seven Arts, master of none. A*
steeplejack of the arts. An egotist who is not
ashamed to avow it. . . All is relative— even our
poor relatives, as metaphysicians have observed— so
it doesn't matter what you gossip about, whether it
be the stars or clam-chowder. The important matter
lies in the manner of gossiping. The style oft pro­
claims the man.8
Morton Dauwen Zabel expresses the opinion that Huneker was
not a critic in the true sense, but merely a reporter:
He Huneker wrote about the arts as he wrote about foods and menus, and before their rich fare
professed nothing but an unlimited Epicurean capaci­
ty. His writings were the cosmopolite's textbook,
and involved no critical subtleties. 9
A resemblance between the thought of Huneker and
Spingam may be observed in that they both rebel against
preceding systems of critical judgment.
This is not to say
that Spingarn approved of Huneker*s. method or was influenced
by it in any way in his own writings.
Spingam may have ar­
gued against restriction just as did Huneker, but the former
imported a foreign system of judgment based almost entirely
upon Benedetto Groce's method.
Writing of Croce's influ­
ence upon his work, Spingam says:
8 James G-ibbon Huneker, Steeplejack, Vol. I
York: Scribner, 1920), pp. 5-7.
9 Zabel, op. cit., p. xxv.
But I for one needed no introduction to his work;
under his banner I enrolled myself long ago, and here
re-enroll myself in what I now say. He has led aes­
thetic thought inevitably from the concept that art
is expression to the conclusion that all expression
is arti 10
Further similarities between the aesthetic of Spingam and
that of his contemporary, Croce, will be discussed in the
portion of this chapter which deals with the analysis of
Spingam's criticism.
H. L. Mencken makes no admission of debt to any
He does, however, express approval of both
Huneker and Spingam.
In an essay of high praise to Hune­
ker, Meneken writes:
Looking back over the whole of his Huneker*s
work, one must needs be amazed by the general sound­
ness of his judgments. . .Here in three words, was
the main virtue of his criticism in America from its
old slavery to stupidity, and with it he emancipated
all the arts
This same appetitive zeal for which Huneker is noted, is al­
so a marked quality in the writings of Mencken.
The charac­
teristic of gusto, which Mencken makes a requisite of his
Spingam, op. cit., p. 19 •
11 H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922), pp. 65-83.
own credo of criticism, is apparent in the writings of both
Huneker and Mencken.
This aspect; of Mencken's work will he
discussed later in this chapter.
Mencken's, praise for
Spingam is not only tempered with, reserve, hut also with
disapproval of certain of its qualities.
Mencken praises
Spingam for his violence against the academic principles
which have governed American criticism:
It the theory of J. E. Spingam demands that the
critic he a man of intelligence, of toleration, of
wide information, of genuine hospitality of ideas,
whereas the others only demand that he have learning
t anything as learning that has heen said
Later in the same essay, Mencken complains against Spin­
g a m ’s opinions, because Spingam does not go far enough,
and because criticism "must he interpretation in terms that
are not only exact hut are also comprehensible to the read-
In summary, then, similarities have been shown to ex­
ist in the writings of Huneker, Spingam, and Mencken, and
these writings in turn show similarities to the aesthetic of
^ H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: First Series
Alfred A*. Knopf, 1919), p. 17.
Loc. cit.
(New York:
Walter Pater.
A large group of impressionist critics have
found in the theories of Huneker, Spingarn, and Mencken a
path to liberation.
Down it, they have proceded to the sup­
port of a number of varied causes.
A group of them formed
what is known as the ‘’debunking” school of criticism.
this school Zabel writes:
A great deal of it was negative in character.
They attacked prudery, decorum, politeness, and
every other evil that might be safely ascribed to
the Puritans. . . With so many prejudices to cor­
rect, it is little wonder that a critical basis for t
the new realism was never arrived at.l^There were also the Journalists or reviewers of booksr,
personalities, and the theatre.
Of these, Bernard Smith
writes, “Impressionism. . . was the very nature of their
third group, affected by the stimulus of Spin­
garn and Mencken, desired American writers to make use of
native materials, and sought “a pragmatic and disillusioned
approach to the life around them, a standard of honesty, and
if possible, a critical understanding of their problems."16
Robert Morss Lovett, Robert Littel, Harriet Monroe, Francis
Hackett, Max Eastman, Alfred Kreymborg, Harold E* Steams,.
Lewis Mumford, Willard Huntington Wright,, George Jean Nath­
an, and Vance Thomas— all these are affected by the wrlt-
14 Zabel,;op. cit., p.. xxxi.
15 Smith, op. cit., p. 269.
16 Zabel, op. cit., p. xxxii.
ings of Spingam and Mencken, whether they are 11debunkers11,
journalists and reviewers, or realists.
The basic opinions
from which these minor critics receive their stimuli are
those of Spingam and Mencken.
Since these last two may be
considered representative of impressionist critics in Ameri­
ca, the remainder of this chapter will be given over to a
study of their theories, and an attempt will be made to
show how each contributed towards the establishment of the
impressionist thesis in American criticism.
In hisr 1910 address, Spingam strikes a new direc­
tion away from the limitations of late nineteenth century
American criticism in his rejection of all previous criti­
cal methods.
He rejects historical criticism, because "it
takes us away from it
the literature being analyzed
search of the environment, the 'age,, the race, the poetic
school of the artist.!'l7 He objects to dogmatic criticism,
because he believes one does- not get- closer to the work of
arti by testing it according to rules or standards.18 Aesthet­
ics, he argues, takes the critic even farther afield and mere­
ly arouses speculation on art and beauty:
•*■7 Spingam, op. cit., p. 6.
18 Ibid.. p. 18.
As for me, I redream the poet’s dream and If I
seem to write lightly, it is because I have awakened
and smile to think I have mistaken a dream for real­
ity. I at least strive to replace one work of art.
by another, and art can only find its alter ego in
To illustrate that his desire for liberation from
confining standards is not unprecedented, Spingam traces
the history of criticism from the Greeks, through the Ro­
mans, through the sixteenth and seventeenth century classi­
cists, through the complicated course of eighteenth century
social criticism of the French group including the works of
Madame de Stael, Saint-Beuve, and Taine, and at last to the
enriching theory of expression of the German group from
Herder to Hegel.20 Spingam finds that although all these
theories have in common the idea that literature is an ex­
pression, none of them except the aesthetic of Italian Bene­
detto Croce asks the all-important question, "What has the
artist set out to do? and how far has he succeeded in carry­
ing this out?"SI Here, Spingam asserts his acceptance of
Croce’s conclusion that all expression is art.
In addition, Spingam issues a list of negations which
closely parallels the negations earlier asserted by Croce.
19 Loc. cit.
20 Itoid.. PP. 9-13.
21 Ibid., pp. 16-17.
Spingam writes:
In the first place we have done with the old
rules. • .We have done with genres and literary
kinds. . ..To slice up the history of English litera­
ture into compartments marked comedy, tragedy, lyric,
and the like, is to be guilty of complete misunder­
standing of the meaning of Oriticism. ... • We have: done
with the comic, the tragic, the sublime, and an.iarmy
of vague abstractions of their kind . . . We have
done with all moral judgment of literature . . . We '•
have done with the history and criticism of poetic
themes . . . We have done with the race, the time,
the environment of the poet's works as an element in
criticism . . . We have done with the 'evolution of
literature * . . . Finally, we have done with the old
rupture between genius and taste . . . Criticism att
last can free itself of its age-long self-contempt,
now that it may realize that aesthetic judgment and
artistic creation are instinct with the same vital
life. Without this identity, Criticism would really
be impossible.22
A comparison may now be made with Benedetto Croce's
negations which state that art is neither "history, natural
science, the play of science, nor feeling In its immediacy,
nor Instruction, nor oratory."23
Comparing the positive
qualities of Spingam's theory of judgment with those of
Croce's* we find that Spingam considers the critic an ar­
tist, in that he intuitively feels and Interprets the es­
sence of the work of art:
22 Ibid.. pp. 20-35.
23 Benedetto Croce, "Aesthetics", Encyclopedia
Britannlca, 14th Edition, Vol 1, pp. 263-264.
Each of us, if we are sensitive to impressions:
and express ourselves well, will producer a new work
of art to replace the work which gave us our sensa­
tions. That is the art of criticism.2^
Listowell writes of Croce, that for him:
Aft or beauty is nothing more than ’Intuition'the
preeoneeptual stage of thought .. . . But intuition
is also 'expression', for ittis quite impossible to
-separate the image from its physical embodiment . •
to intuit is to express and nothing else than to ex­
press . . . but pure intuition is, besides, essential­
ly lyricism, which signifies the representation of_
states of mind, passion, feeling, and personality. ^
In addition, Spingam lists sympathy, genius, and
taste as qualities essential to the ideal critic.
ing genius and taste, Spingam writes:
By genius is now merely meant the creative faculty,
the power of self expression, which we all share in
varying degrees. By taste is meant the power to see
and understand and enjoy the self expression of others,,
a power which all of us must share or no art would
be intelligible.
In a later essay, "The American Critic", Spingam writes
that in addition to genius, sensitivity, taste, and a libera­
tion from restricting tradition, the American critic needs
a philosophy of art and a philosophy of life, but even here,
2^ J. E. Spingam, Creative Criticism, p. 6.
Earl of Listowell, A Critical History of M o d e m
(London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1933),
Spingam, op. cit., pp. 137-138.'
Spingam insists, “di-lettante criticism is preferable to
the dogmatic and intellectual criticism of
Concerning the anarchy of impressionism, Spingam believes
that it is a natural reaction against the mechanical theories
and “jejune textbooks of the professors.-28 The greatest need
of all,, he feels, is a deeper sensibility,, a more complete
“submission to the imaginative will of the artist, before
attempting to rise above it in the realm of judgment .*i29
Briefly summarized, Spingarn’s system of judgment con­
cludes that the critic is to be restricted in his judgment of
literature by no consideration of rules regarding style, moral
ity, tradition, chronology, race, social structure, personal­
ity of the author, or of;the relative position of any work
of literature to others before or after it.
In other words,
the critic examines his particular object in vacuo, applies
to it sensitivity, sympathy, genius, and taste, and then
records the reaction.
Spingam *s application of his theory of .1udgment.
Here, it should be interesting to note, first, that Spingarn
gives little attention to contemporary American literature.
28 l o g . cit.
For example, his essay ’’Dramatic Criticism and the Theatre”
discusses criticism of the drama from Aristotle to William
Archer and Arthur Symons, emphasizing the French and Italian
nineteenth century critics, hut stopping short of contempo­
rary Americans.
Both Archer and Symons are discredited by
Splngarn, because theirs is not true Impressionist criticism.
In reality, this essay is a restatement in terns applied to
the drama of the general thesis of impressionism.
It might
be stated parenthetically that even though Spingam dis­
cards the historical approach to criticism, this essay uses
that approach to establish his point.
The central comment
is that dramatic criticism as well as literary criticism
should consider only the work of art and apply to it the
tests of taste, sensitivity, and genius:
If we wish to understand dramatic literature it­
self, we must seek understanding in the great plays
and not in the dead material out of which plays are
Because of the lack of specific criticism of contem­
porary literature by Spingarn, it seems valid to assume that
he established a declaration of intentions for impression­
ism, but that he left to later critics, who would accept
his system of judgment, the task of applying it to actual
30 ibid.. pp. 137-138
cases of contemporary literature.
The effect of S p i n g a m *s writings upon other critics.
A-consideration of the effect which S p i n g a m ’s writings
has upon other critics will show that although he has fol­
lowers, he also has many whole-hearted opponents.
approves S p i n g a m ’s efforts toward liberation on the grounds
that they provide a much-needed “ventilation from the criti­
cal class-rooms and serve for a time its purpose in affront­
ing the conservatives, but unfortunately, S p i n g a m never
demonstrates by inspection and analysis the technique he de­
siderated. “31
Bernard Smith indicates the effectiveness of the de­
structive qualities of S p i n g a m *s criticism:
Impressionism was destructive to genteel and clas­
sical traditions because it argued the subjectivity
of taste. For if taste is subjective, so is thought,
and therefore neither standards, precedents, nor
social values are relevant to esthetic judgment, the
only degree being the degree of the reader*s pleas­
ure .32
Ludwig Lewisohn credits S p i n g a m with being the first real­
ly important rebel from gentility.
He attaches great sig­
nificance to the effect of Spingam*s writings upon that
31 Zabel, op. cit., p. xxxviii.
52 Smith, p. 275*
of other critics, and points out that S p i n g a m was important
because he "explained in America that style is not an embel­
lishment but is, in fact, the poet’s individual vision of
r e a l i t y .”33
Lewisohn finds it unfortunate, however, that
S p i n g a m was influenced by Benedetto Croce, which caused the
latter to approach his subject in a
v a c u u m .
Both Marxist and humanist critics have opposed Sping a m ' s impressionism.
Bernard Smith, who may be classed
with the Marxists, disapproves violently of Spingarn and
the impressionist method:
Today his Spingarn’s sole deseendents are the
few aesthetes who still somehow manage in the shelter
of precious magazines, to keep themselves aloof from
reality and to shirk the responsibilities of the in­
tellectual, in a community that needs philosophical
decisions, ideals, and purposes.35
Granville Hicks, another Marxist, opposes the impres­
sionists from the standpoint that they had nothing concrete
to offer, "that they denied the making of maps was part of
the critic’s function."36
The humanists have much to say in condemnation of im­
Norman Foerster indicates that all criticism
33 Ludwig Lewisohn, Expression in America
Harper, 1932}, p. 419.
(New' York:
34 Loc. cit.
Bernard Smith, "Huneker and the Tribe," Proletarian
Literature in the United States
(New York: International Pub­
lishers, 1935), p p . 374-375.
36 Hicks, The Great Tradition, p. 248.
may be divided into two types, that which is mainly interes­
ted in the foreground of ideas, and that which emphasizes the
background of ideas supporting literature.
He places impres­
sionism in the first group: "Though most criticism in recent
years has been impressionism . . . America has produced neith­
er a Walter Pater nor an Anatole
F r a n c e . ”57
In summary, the criticism of Spingarn has been studied
according to the following plan:
(1) a consideration of
his thesis; (2) an examination of how he fulfilled these in­
tentions; and, (3) an evaluation of the effect of his criti­
cism on other critics.
It was found that he demands sensi­
tivity, genius, and taste as qualifications for- the ideal
It has been demonstrated that Spingarn seldom dis­
cusses contemporary works of literature, but that he is ef­
fective in stating the general thesis of impressionism.
has also been shown that his writings are the cause for
much controversy among opposing factions.
H. L. Mencken is among those who accept the essence in­
herent in Spingarn*s system of judgment.
If Spingarn sounds
57 Foerster, American Critical Essays, p. lx.
the general call for Impressionism, Mencken is most signifi­
cant as a popularizer of the theory, since he applies the
fundamentals to actual writings, but with some additions and
Mencken1s thesis of lmpress ionism.
The first of Men­
cken’s additions is what he calls "gustiness."
The critic, to be interpretive of his artist, even
to understand his artist, must be able to get into
the mind of his artist; he must feel and comprehend
the vast pressure of the creative passion . . . This
is why all the best criticism of the world has been
written by men who have had within them, not only
the reflective and analytical faculty of critics,
but also the gusto of the artists.38
In a later essay, "Footnote on Criticism," Mencken en­
larges on this requirement by describing the good critic as
one who has the desire "to give outward and objective forms
to ideas that bubble inwardly. . . and to get rid of them
dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.,f39
Mencken is here only applying Spingam's idea of the oneness
of the artist and the critic.
The quality is stressed by
Mencken when he states that the critic's choice of criticism
rather than of creative writing is merely a matter of tem-
58 Mencken, Prejudices: First Series, p. 16.
59 ibid.. Third Series, p. 87.
Besides '’gustiness,” Mencken attributes to the good
critic the ability to get away from his subject in the sense
that when the critic confronts a work of literature, his reac
tions as a creative critic will set his emotions free:
But if a genuine artist is concealed within him . •
. if his feelings are in any sense profound and origi­
nal,, his capacity for self-expression is above the
average of the educated man, then he moves inevitab­
ly from the work of art, to life itself, and begins
to take on a dignity that he formerly lacked.
Mencken also defines emotion as one of the requisites of
impressionistic criticism:
Poe carried on his critical jehads with such ferocity
that he often got into law-suits— Poe, surrounded by
admiring professors, never challenged, never aroused
to the emotions of revolt, would probably have written
poetry indistinguishable from the hollow.stuff of say,
Prof. Dr. George E. Woodberry. 1
Skepticism is also submitted as an additional attitude neces­
sary for good criticism:
Criticism, at bottom, is indistinguishable from skep­
ticism . . . A critic who believes in anything abso­
lutely is bound to that something quite as helplessly
as a Christian is bound to the Freudian garbage in the
Book of Revelations.^2
40 Loc. cit.
41 Ibid.. p. 103
42 Ibid., p. 97.
To Spingarn1s bases of judgment— genius, sensitivity, and
taste— Mencken has added gustiness, the emotional reaction,
and skepticism.
Mencken1s application of the impressionist thesis.
In his concrete criticism of civilization and literature,
Mencken succeeds in employing the above standards of judg­
His essay "Huneker: A Memory" is written with an al­
most artistic frenzy.
The element of "gustiness" is- very
apparent in the following quotation from that essay:
There was a stimulating aliveness about him Huneker
always, an air of living eagerly and a bit reckless­
ly, a sort of defiant resiliency . . . And there are
half a dozen chapters in "Old Fogy"— superficially
buffoonery, but how penetrating! how gorgeously
flavored! how learned! that come completely up to
the same high specifications.43
Skepticism and emotion are combined in the essay,
"The New Poetry Movement."
It contains a complete emotion­
al rather than a reasoned, response in judgment of the renais­
sance of poetry current when the essay was written.
sing Ezra Pound, Mencken writes not of the merits or faults
of his poetry, but of Pound1s colorful character.
4-3 Ibid.. First Series, p. 90.
. . . Ezra Pound? The American in headlong flight
from America— to England, to Italy, to the Middle
Ages, to ancient Greece, to Cathay and points East*
Pound, it seems to me, is the most picturesque man
in the whole movement— a professor turned fantee,.
Abelard in grand opera.44
Skepticism predominates in this essay, culminating
in an invective against the idea that literature can be demo­
cratic :
No sound art • . . could possibly be democratic.
Tolstoi wrote a whole book to prove the contrary,
and only succeeded In making his case absurd. The
only art that is capable of reaching the Homo Boobus
is art that is already debased and polluted— band
music, official sculpture, Pears' Soap paintings,
the popular novel.45
The effects of Mencken's writings.
Zabel indicates
that the publication of Mencken's Prejudices "was a cardinal
event for the new American literature . . . His positive
treatment of Dreiser . . . was really a weight that tipped
the scales, . . . but Mencken's test of a book was rough
and pragmatic, uninhibited impressionism.
Granville Hicks writes in The Great Tradition:
Mencken has attacked the conservatives in many of
their citadels, taking politics and religion as well
as:literature as his province. But the same faults
44 Ibid., P. 94.
45 Loc. cit.
Zabel, op,, cit., p. xxxil.
are found in all his thinking. His views on relig­
ion are well suited to shock the Bible Belt . . .,
but he has nothing to offer the hosts of bewildered
agnostics except a blind nihilism . . . He and oth­
er impressionists encouraged the writers of the mid­
dle generation . . . but beyond that point they
could do nothing.^7
V. F. Calverton writes of Mencken, "Certainly Mr.
Mencken is unique, but so is a tight-rope walker or hobo . •
. Superficiality is his foremost attribute."^8
Frank condemned Mencken on the grounds that "he does not
build and does not hope, that he justifies and rationalizes
the impotence of the constructive American critic."^
Noraan Foerster bitterly berates Mencken's type of
criticism and those who accept it:
They have generally made of revolt and skepticism
ends rather than the beginnings of wisdom. For mater­
ialistic complacency they have substituted a smart
superiority resting on the most dubious foundations.
Their feebleness in constructive power is very po­
tent. They are part of the disease . . . symptoms
not remedies.-30
Ah evaluation of impresslonlsm.
The examples of
impressionistic criticism and the reactions to it presen­
ted here by no means exhaust the subject.
The conflict
^7 Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition, p. 249*
4-8 V. F. Calverton, The Hewer Spirit
Boni and Liveright, 1925), p. 1&5.
(New York:
49 Waldo Frank, The Rediscovery of America
York: Scribner’s, 1929), p. 179.
50 Norman Foerster, Humanism and America
Faraar and Rinehart, 1930), p. vi.
(New York:
over the values and deficiencies of this type of literature
continues to he written, defended, and repudiated.
It is
for this reason that any attempt at evaluation is tempered
with a degree of reservation.
This writer is inclined to
believe with the majority of critics that Spingam*s criticism
came at an opportune moment.
Its greatest service was that
of rescuing critical expression from the rut of academic for­
malism into which it had settled at the end of the nineteenth
The fact that Spingam asked questions about purpos­
es and methods might have insured criticism against the ex­
cesses of formlessness and subjective whimsy.
An adherence
to Spingam*s thesis would have meant at least a minimum de­
gree of adherence to a standard of judgment, for inasmuch as
it reflects the aesthetic of Benedetto Groce, it represents
a substantial and coherent solution to problems of litera­
ture and art.
The criticism of H. L. Mencken may have no such solid
central plan, and this fact may account for its popular ac­
ceptance on one hand and for the attacks against it on the
Despite the attacks against Mencken as a vaudevil-
lian, a tight-rope walker, a clown, a debunker, he had a
healthy influence in that he stirred up conflict and dis­
turbed the complacency of the critical scene.
Even if the
controversy which Mencken aroused is the only achievement
of hia writings, it has led to the asking and answering of
questions and has enriched American criticism.
The easy journalism and mere reportage in newspaper
and periodical reviews which is often the end product of im­
pressionism has no qualitative effect on that body of criti­
cism to which serious critics will look for an understanding
of American literature, and it may therefore be disregarded
in this connection.
Thus, the general conclusion may be
that wherever the impressionistic critic has been sincere,
his criticism has had an evocative and stimulating effect.
The distinction between humanism as a trend in criticism
and humanism as an intellectual or moral movement in general.
It is necessary, for purposes of clarity, to distinguish be­
tween the humanist criticism and humanism as a general move­
A definitive article in the Encylopaedia of Social
Sciences explains the latter in this manner:
Humanism as a technical term and as an intellectual
or moral conception has always leaned heavily on its
etymology. That which is characteristically human, not
supernatural, that which is raising man to his greatest
height or giving him, as man, his greatest satisfaction,
is apt to be called humanism. Humanism thus means many
things. It may be the reasonable balance of life that
the early humanists discovered in the Greeks. It may
be merely the study of the humanities in polite letters;
it may be the freedom from religiosity and the vivid
interest in all sides of life . . .It is in the last
sense elusive as it is, that humanism has had perhaps
the greatest significance since the sixteenth century. 1
It is not necessary in the present study to go into
great detail concerning the history of the humanist movement.
It should be sufficient to indicate its main current.
first arose in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Its ideas spread to all European countries and remained a force
in learning and culture throughout Europe.
It was suited to the requirements of the aristocracy
1 Edward P. Cheyney, "Humanism," Encyclopaedia of the
Social Sciences, Vol. 9, pp. 537, 542.
and upper middle classes rather than to those of lower station.
Humanism was the natural enemy of supernaturalism and naturism:
Humanism may therefore be conceived of in this philoso­
phical sense as forming with supernaturalism and natural­
ism, one of the three rival claimants to philosophic al­
legiance . . .Its dominant place has been an intellectual
climate in which men are considered the measure of the
universe and the architect of his own fortunes in it. 3
In other words, any system of super naturalism, authoritative
religion in particular, which placed power for improvement
outside of the human being was a natural enemy of humanism.
In the same way, naturalism which considered man merely an
organism of temporary importance in the general evolution of
nature, was of necessity in opposition to humanism.
ation has always operated as a force in the general humanist
Wherever religion was genuinely earnest it entered
into conflict with humanism, inseparably bound up as
the latter was with emancipation of spirit and free­
dom of thought. 4
Briefly stated, the general characteristics of the
humanist concept encouraged an interest in classical traditions,
formulated an educational system to spread classical learning*
2 Ibid., p. 539.
3 Ibid,, p. 542.
4 Ibid. , p. 538.
opposed any system of authority which might remove man from
the center of the universe, and relied on a faith in man to
solve his own problems.
F. C, S. Schiller explains the relation of the humanist
movement in criticism to general humanism:
There is in America a movement under the leadership of
Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More which also marches
under the banner of humanism. It protests against un­
bridled voeationalism in education and advocates a
return to the old liberal education in the classical
literatures. It stands for traditionalism in literary
criticism and emphasizes the necessity of order in
social relations, being in these respects related to
the type of French thought represented in an earlier
generation . . .by Bruntiere and more recently by
Julian Bends. Hhile this movement has no connection with
the philosophic uses of the term it is frequently with
some or all of them confused. 5
Definitions of humanism contained in the writings of
Norman Foerster.
Norman Foerster*s definitions of the humanist
movement appear in a series of anthological works.
(The term
humanist. in the remainer of this study, refers to the trend
in criticism).
Foerster emphasizes tradition as a requisite
feature of humanist criticism when he classifies Js&nerson and
Lowell as precursors of the present day humanists:
Specifically, it is their effort
Lowell's and
Emerson's as it was the premature effort of Arnold to
determine how much is durable in the two great traditions
5 F. C* S. Schiller, "Humanism,” Encyclopaedia of the
Social Sciences, p. 543.
of the West, the Greek and the Christian; to which the
leading humanists have added . . .the tradition of India
and China• 6
Professor Foerster offers as an additional qualification
for humanism, skepticism of the skeptical attitude of con­
temporary critics in opposite camps:
Our intellectual attitude is now rapidly changing, is
becoming charged with new interest. More and more persons
oppressed with the stale skepticism of the post-war period
are beginning to grow skeptical of that skepticism and are
looking for a new set of controlling ideas capable of re­
storing value to human existence. 7
Foerster’s general definition of humanism follows:
In its broadest significance it denotes a belief that
the proper study of mankind is man, and that this study
should enable mankind to perceive and realize its humanity.
But the studyof mankind is capable of yielding all manner
of results, so that for a long time to come, we may expect
the word denoting this study to carry a large variety of
meanings. 3
Foerster also defines humanism as a system making "a
resolute destination between man and nature and between man
and the divine." Here he cites More and Babbitt as the two
critics who firstmade this distinction most clear.
For an historical statement of humanism, we have
Foerster's exposition;
6 Borman Foerster, American Critical Essays, p. x.
7 Ibid., p. vi.
SIbid. ,
9 Ibid. , p. x-xi.
Though we have in America the semblance of a new move­
ment, humanism itself is not new. It was new . . .when
human wisdom was new. It was comparatively new in Ancient
Greece, Judaea, India and China. It was rather old by
the time of the Henaissanee . . . In one way or another,
its doctrine and discipline have been clarified ,by.persons
as varied as Homer, Phidias, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius,
Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare,
Milton, Goethe; more recently by Matthew Arnold in England
and Emerson and Dowell in America. 10
To link the old with the new humanism, Foerster offers an es­
sential core, "that central order which is the fruit of disciII
Discipline is a virtue preached by the humanists,
whenever discipline is deemed necessary, as in self re­
straint, centrality, roundness, and self-control. 12
Foerster then concludes his introduction to the humanist
criticism with a rebuttal to the arguments brought against
These arguments will be stated in the portion of
this chapter devoted to the effects which humanist criticism
had upon other critics.
Foerster1s apologetics include answers
to the charges that humanism is academic, un-American, reae13
tionary, and puritanical. He closes his exposition of humanism
with this statement:
If they iCthe humanists! speak more of the past than of
the future, it is because the wisdom of the ages is on
record and the wisdom of the future a hope devoid of
10 Ibid,,p, xi.
11 Ibid.,p. xii.
$££• °ii«
13 Ibid., pp. xiii-xv.
useful content. 14
In Foerster*s Introduction to the humanist criticism,
we have the following practices common to all humanist critics;
(1) they examine the past to preserve its useful features;
(S) they maintain a skeptical attitude towards the agnosticism
of this age; (3) they hold that the proper study of man is
mankind itself; (4) they construct a system of dualism whereby
man preserves his dignity as an organism outside of the realm
of nature; (5) they hold an attitude towards life and literature
which has discipline as its central core; (6) they believe in
moderation in all things to produce a well-rounded individual.
More *s definition of humanism.
Paul Elmer More and
Irving Babbitt provide the general conditions for the humanist
system of judging literature.
Since More*s work supplies
certain fundamental definitions, his system will be discussed
first. In the recently published Selected Shelburne Essays.
More makes clear his many differences with opposing critics.
14 Ibid.,
p. xiv.
15 In this particular, the elasticity of humanism is
apparent. Where humanism was once aligned against religion in
an age when society was dominated by religion, it is now opposed
to religious agnosticism. This is merely an illustration of an
effort on the part of humanists to preserve moderation in all
16 Paul Elmer More, Selected Shelburne Essays, (Hew Yorks
Oxford University Press, 192T6y, p. xiTI
These lie in his convictions that any "basis for Judgment
must do two things:
(1) it must consider the relationship
“between literature and life; (2) it must be founded, on faith.
In More*s own words;
I am utterly convinced that literature divorced from
life is an empty pursuit, and that an honest search for
the meaning of life must lead to the simple faith of
theism. 17
The first condition contrasts with the impressionist
eredo of freedom, the second condition opposes both eclectic
and Marxist criticism, both of which deny any system based on
theistic faith.
More explains how such a system of order and faith may
be achieved by considering the individual from two vantages:
the individual and nature; the individual and society.
cerning the individual and nature, More uses constantly the
term flux, which to him means "the sum total of desires and
impressions" which comes from without. Besides the flux, there
is an inhibition upon impulse, providing a prolongation of
action. This he terms the inner cheek. More believes that
we cannot define rationally the inner check, since "reason,
17 Ibid. , p. xii.
18 Paul Elmer More, Shelburne Essays; Eighth Series.
(New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913}, p. 24’?.
19 Ibid., p. 248.
which is our instrument of analysis • • .is itself an organ
of flux,"
By the use of the term inner check, we accept the in­
ability of reason to define positively this element of
our being, but imply also that it may be the cause of
quite positive and definable effects within the flux. 21
More thus explains the inner cheek as an undefinable
something which defies further definition.
To achieve happi­
ness, the individual must conquer impulses by the use of the
inner check. The faculties of memory and imagination are then
Regarding memory, More says:
The inner cheGk allows to memory the opportunity to
balance a present impulse with the impulses of experi­
ence . . .Hot the seope only, but the selective activity
of memory in response to the opportunities afforded by
the inner check, measures the fullness and richness
thereof. 23
Of imagination, he writes:
^Imagination is a fact which
sensualizes the data of experience apart from ourselves. n
Concerning the individual in relation to nature, this
critic establishes a system of dualism, in which each factor
is kept aloof from ^he other:
The word nature may be applied specifically to the
sum of phenomena exclusive of the living body of the
man himself. 25
20 Ibid. , p. 248.
21 Lop. ojt.
22 hoc, cit.
23 Ibid,, p. 255.
24 Ibid. , p. 257.
25 Ibid. , p. 261.
He then creates a minor dualism of soul and body, the
former also being an ^indefinable quality, the latter, the out26
ward and specific phenomena of the physical qualities of man*
When the phenomena of nature are controlled by the inner check:,
men are happy*
In direct opposition to the impressionist concept of
art, More holds that true art recognizes the distinction be­
tween nature and man, and that the critic must take this as
a standard of consideration when he judges.
He says further
on this point:
Taste, or the appreciation of art passes from the im­
pressionist whim of the individual and from the larger
convention or a people to a universal canon, just to
the degree that it is regulated by the inner check.
Criticism is thus not left to waver without a fixed
criterion; and in the understanding of dualism, it
possesses further a key to the main divergences of thought
and action, and a constant norm of classification. 28
Talent and genius of the critic are measured to the
extent that the critic recognizes and applies this dualism in
his expression.
More's system opposes pragmatism, "because the prag­
matists take the flux as the whole of consciousness and hold
fast to the . . .intuition of the impulses as a continuous
* P* 259-
27 Ibid. , p. 261.
28 Ibid., p. 265.
29 loc, cit.
stream in time. Its result is to dissolve attention and to
discredit discipline.”
His critique opposes science when the latter passes
beyond the field of positive observation into metaphysics,
and when it attempts to form a changeless law. More is against
rationalism because it ”is the attempt to erect reason into an
independent power . . .taking the place of the inner check.”
He is against Romanticism because ”it is a confusion of the
unlimited desires and the infinite inner cheek.”
More believes the man of character is one who has built
txf> the will to refrain or the inner Cheek to combat the false
impulses and desires which accost him.
He believes, also,
that the man of character is ”one in whom a vigorous disposition
' 34
is continuously controlled by the habit or the will to refrain.”
Thus far, the discussion has considered the man as an
individual in his relation to nature.
In considering man’s
relation to society, More says:
As the common disposition of mankind is lacking in
character, the will to refrain needs to be . . .rein­
forced from without. The proper effect of this external
check is a discipline which produces healthy instincts
capable under ordinary oireumstances, of taking the
3G Ibid., P- 268
31 Ibid., P* 269
32 Ibid., P» 270
33 Ibid., P« 271
34 Ibid.. P* 272
place of character.
Justice, which More indicates* as coming under the relationship
of man to society, has as its function the ability to produce
”the same balance • . .as already exists in the individual.”
In this way, individual morality is controlled by the inner
check and social morality is controlled by the external cheek
of society.
A later volume, On Being Human, discusses specifically
the criticism of literature.
It poses the main faults of
other trends of criticism, and arranges these into two cate­
(l) the fault of the critics who assume the attitude
of futility and confusion; (2) the fault of those who assume
the naturist conception of the world.
About those who accept
confusion and futility, More states:
On another point our humanists are well agreed: they
all perceive and • . .explicitly declare, that the present
confusion in letters is connected with a similar confusion
in our ideas of life, fhey see that as we live so shall
we paint and write. 38
Concerning the view of man as a unit in nature, he asserts:
Against those who still hold that man is only a frag­
mentary cog in the vast machine which we call the universe,
moulded by the foree of some relentless, unvarying, un­
conscious law the humanist asserts that we are individual
35 Ibid. , p. 279.
36 Ibid., p. 284.
37 Paul Elmer More, Hew Shelburne Essays, Vol. III.,
(Princeton: Princeton Univers11y Preas, 1936), p. 7.
38 Ibid. , p. 8.
personalities endowed with the potentiality of free will
and our choioe of good or evil. 39
More clarifies, here, his position with regard to
religion, indicating that the driving force of humanism must
come from religion:
It Creligion3 must come into the heart of man not without
austerity of command, yet with salutary hope, assuring
us that practical sense of right and wrong, of beauty
and ugliness, is justified by the eternal canons of
truth . . .it must fortify the purpose of the individual
by inspiring him with a conviction that the world in
which he plays his part is not a product of change or
determanism, but the work of a foreseeing intelligence,
and is itself fulfilled with purpose. 40
Thus, More’s statement for humanist criticism contains
the following conditions:
(1) the critic must relate litera­
ture to life; (2) his system of judgment must accept the
dualism of man and nature; (3) it must rely on discipline or
the inner check; (4) it must oppose the scientific or naturist
conception of life; (5) it must oppose skepticism and confusion.
More *s application of his system of judgment.
humanists show a remarkable paucity of concrete criticism of
contemporary American critical writings.
It seams that in
keeping with the emphasis on tradition, More has neglected
the current scene.
Even in his essay ’’Criticism,” he writes
of Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Raskin, the Huxleys, Rousseau,
39 Ibid., p. 38.
40 Ibid. , p. 23.
Erasmus, Luther, Cicero, Ben Jenson, almost to the exclusion
of American criticism, and entirely to the exclusion of eon41
temporary American criticism. The volume Shelburne Essays:
Volume III contains an essay on Irving Babbitt.
this essay according to the standards of judgment which More
sets up, we find that he violates that system in general.
is an impressionist essay, containing enthusiastic comment on
the life, genius, and intellectual achievements of Babbitt.
More retells anecdotes and recalls interesting conversations
between Babbitt and himself, but, there is no systematic
evaluation of Babbitt’s work.
Concerning the literature of
Babbitt, More generalizes:
Literature and problems of education were much in his
thought; but the staple of his more serious talk, owing
chiefly to his own inclination but partly . . .to provoca­
tion from my side, was ethical and religious. 42
The foregoing is an example of the extent of More’s
critical evaluation of Babbitt.
His account is highly compli­
mentary, but in a very small measure critical.
The essay is
personal, and at no point does it rise above this level.
may not be characteristic of the critical essays which More
has written about classical and European writers and critics,
41 More, Selected Shelburne Essays, pp. 1-25.
42 More, Hew Shelburne Essays, Vol. III., pp. 31-32.
but it is characteristic of his few essays on contemporary
American writers.
Although this study treats only the criticism of con­
temporary critics and disregards essays outside of these limi­
tations, we must make an exception in the case of More, in
order to evaluate the application of his standards of judgment
Since the essay "Irving Babbitt” is in the nature of biographi
cal trivia rather than critical analysis, and since there is a
lack of analysis of modern critical writings of Americans, we
substitute for analysis More's essay ”Proust: the Two Wayj?',
This choice is made for a number of reasons:
First, the
society of France as depicted in Proust's A la Bicherche de
temps perdu is in a restricted degree similar to that same
cross-section of American society.
Second, in this essay
More applies the standards for evaluation which he has set
Third, the essay was first published in 1920,
By this
time* Proust's work had been evaluated by many contemporary
American critics, and at several points in More's discussion
of Proust, this American criticism is evaluated.
In this
roundabout way, we are able to get More's views on contempo­
rary American criticism.
More, according to one of the chief postulates of his
own system of judgment, relates Proust's written product to
42 Ibid., pp. 42-68.
life according to the following outline:
{1} Proust’s
personal qualities, his heredity, and education; (2) the
author’s place in society, his economic and social status;
(3) his depiction of the manners and morals of the society
in his hooks.
In the last connection, More applies his system
of the major dualism of nature and man and minor dualism of
the soul and the impulses or emotions*
He is concerned with
Proust’s motives, his emotions, and his fears, and places
Proust among those contemporaries who have discarded the
traditions and are controlled hy the flux rather than the
inner check:
To most of these the old answers are no longer valid;
tradition seems indeed to he the mere negation of liberty
and the very warden of the brazen walls they would escape.
These, I take it, the rebels determined to be free, yet
a little dubious of their goal, form the bands of Proust's
votaries. It is the imagination that sets them at large,
and to the imagination they look for a pilot over the un­
charted seas* 44
More applies here his belief in religion as a standard
of critical evaluation.
He feels that Proust, the characters
in his books, and the American critics who have accepted
Proust’s writings have renounced philosophic and religious
discipline, and therefore live uncharted and empty lives:
44 Ibid., pp. 47-48.
It is not a joyous road, this philosophy, hut to the
disciplined will it offers a grey-hued calm of acquies­
cence in the fact. And there is the way of religion,
which avers that through and heyond the veil it dis­
covers not emptiness hut eternal realities of the
spirit; and this path promises to lead to the peace
of great joy. 45
Again, More emphasizes this absence of the inner check, whether
it he religion or some other restriction, as leading to un­
happiness and chaos:
let there he no mistake about this . . .Humanity as
portrayed in Proust’s imagination is without aim, with­
out joy, without peace* without outlook of any sort;
his people have no occupation save, to think about them­
selves, and in le neant heyond the phantasmagoria of
unsatisfied and forever insatiable desires the only
reality for them is the grinning figure of Fear. 46
More’s evaluation of the American criticism of Marcel
Proust castigates those critics who accept Proust’s work un­
and this is one of the paradoxes of
modern taste
a growing circle of enthusiasts, mostly
very young, pretend to read such works with avidity and
suck some kind of pride out of pretension. Why, one
asks. And the answer, if one may believe them, is de­
finite enough: their delight is not in the thing re­
presented— -and indeed life itself, they say, in any
veracious account can give joy to no one
but rather
in the act itself of representing. 47
More concludes his evaluation of Proust's work with a
criticism of M m u n d Wilson’s judgment of Proust as a decadent:
45 Ibid. , p. 50.
46 Ibid., p. 56.
47 Ibid. , p. 57.
I think Mr.
vicious circle
later exchange
Proust for the
Wilson only plunges more deeply into the
when he proclaims a way of escape hy his
of the individualistic naturalism of
communistic naturalism of Marx. 48
More approves Wilson’s rejection of the Proustian world of
sense-impressions hut will not accept his contemporary’s
substitute (which More labels as Marxism) because it does
not measure up to the humanist doctrines
If there is any healing for our sickness it is by
taking another way, which is unknown to the "symbolist”
and holds to a reality quite different from that of the
realist. It believes,-rather, that men must be brought
once more to feel their responsibility to a law within
nature but not of nature in the naturalistic sense of
the word. It is because Mr. Wilson and his kind can
see no reality in this something not of-nature, and
will grant no inalienable authority to its command,
that, seeking reality, they fly distractedly from the
admiration of Proust to admiration of Marx. 49
Thus, Edmund Wilson, the contemporary American critic is re­
jected because he does not evaluate literature according to
the system established by More.
In the essays devoted to classical and modern European
criticism, More applies his system of humanist criticism more
accurately, but these essays are outside the scope of this
study, which is concerned with the evaluation of contemporary
American criticism.
The effect of More’s criticism will be
studied in connection with the effects of other leading human­
ist critics, since it has been the practice with critics to
Ibid. , p. 68.
Ibid., p. 69.
discuss the literary humanists as a group rather than as
Irving Babbitt's definition of the humanist critics.
Taken on the whole, Babbitt's exposition of the humanist
critic's duties is in general agreement with More's definition.
Babbitt's volume Democracy and leadership enlightens the reader
in two degrees:
it sets forth the purposes of its author as a
humanist and then applies these purposes to a critical evalua­
tion of the total American culture.
Babbitt's The Critic and
American life, repeats much of the general definitions of
More, but adds specific qualifications for the literary critic.
Since it is conceived of as part of the humanist movement in
criticism that literature must be related to life, the general
definition in Democracy and leadership must be considered as
well as the specific definitions in The Critic and American
Babbitt sets as his general purpose for the first work,
the task of defending the will to refrain and of combatting
impressionism and expressionism:
This book in particular is devoted to the most tinpopular of all tasks
a defense of the veto power-as against the expressionist of every kind, I do not
hesitate to affirm that what is specifically human in
man and ultimately divine is a certain quality of will,
a will that is felt in certain relation to his ordinary
self as a will to refrain.
Throughout the remainder of the book there are definitions
and qualifications for the terra the inner check.
Babbitt first
indicates that he uses this term differently from the strictly
Christian usage, in that his ’’interest in the higher will and
the power of veto it exercises over man’s expansive desires is
humanistic rather than religious." He also indicates that in
this connection he is against social reforms because their
acceptance would mean turning away from the individual to the
My own objection to this substitution of social reform
for self-reform is that it involves turning away from the
more immediate to the less immediate. 5S
Babbitt also states as a minor purpose to necessity of
dealing exclusively with human nature as a clue to the under­
standing of contemporary American criticism:
I dwell persistently on the aspect of human nature that
the naturalists have no less persistently neglected in the
hope that the way may thus be opened for a more balanced
view. 53
Ignoring the present offerings in philosophy is a
third purpose stated by Babbitt:
50 Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership, (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924), p. "57“
51 Ibid,, p. 5.
52 Ibid., p. 7.
53 Ibid., p. 23.
The truths of the inner life may he proclaimed in
various forms, religious and humanistic, and have actually
heen so proclaimed in the past and justified in each case
hy their fruits in life and conduct* It is because I am
unable to discover these truths in any form in the phi­
losophies now fashionable that I have been led to prefer
the wisdom of the ages to the wisdom of the age. 54
To these three purposes, to defend the will to refrain
(or the inner check), to deal exclusively with human nature,
and to ignore the present opposing philosophies, Babbitt adds
a host of qualifications and definitions for terms used.
argues first for the elasticity of humanism:
A purely traditional humanism is always in danger of
falling into a rut of pseudo-classic formalism . . .We
desire a spirit that is more free, flexible, and imag­
inative, such as is found in &reek humanism at its best. 55
Adding too a qualification for tradition in humanism, Babbitt
writes, "fctffthout a convention of some kind it is hard to see
how the experience of the past, can be brought to bear on the
Qualifications for the inner check include a justifi­
cation for placing this idea at the core of his system:
At the centre of the great religious faiths of Asiatic
origin is the idea of a higher will that is felt in its
relation to man's ordinary will or expansive desires as
a power of vital control. 57
54 Ibid. ,p. 26.
55 Ibid.,p. 36.
56 m a . ,p. 301.
57 Ibid.,p. 163.
Again Babbitt justifies the use of the inner check in the
sense of decorum:
"The decorum or principle of inner control
that he [confucius1 would impose upon the desire is plainly a
quality of will.rl58
As a paramount function for inner control, Babbitt
submits the inner control as an aid to the attainment of lib­
Man should look for true liberty neither in society
nor in nature, but in himself— his ethical self, and
the ethical self is experienced, nat as an expansive
emotion but as an inner control.
The principle of dualism, which More defined so thorough­
ly, is also defined by Babbitt.
as atwo-way law of
He not only suggests dualism
nature and man, but adds that to be tru­
ly modern the critic of literature must accept this law as a
positive fact:
Those who have piqued themselves on modernity have
thus for the most part been persons who have been
more or less critical according to the natural law,
and then have pieced out that incomplete survey of
facts by various ritualistic devices, or else by
idyllic imagining . . . The term modern should be
reserved for the person who is seeking to be criti­
cal according to both the human and natural. 60
The essay "The Critic and American Life” repeats many
of the standards for a literary judgment.
p. 297.
&bid., p # 298.
Ibid., p. 145
As in the former
essay, however, the application to literary criticism is much
more imminent.
Babbitt emphasizes moderation and poise as
prime virtues for the humanist eritie: "The serious critic is
more concerned with achieving a correct scale of values than
with self-expression. His essential virtue is poise." Again
in this essay, Babbitt places control by the inner check at
the central point of his critical system:
"The crucial point
in any ease is one’s attitude towards the principle of control."
Babbitt insists upon making man the centre of the universe and
the only reality for a system of judgment, placing him in his
proper relation to nature:
Here at all events is the issue on which all other issues
finally hinge;for until the question of moral freedom-the question of whether man is a responsible agent or only
the plaything of his impulses and impressions— is decided,
nothing is decided; and to decide the question under exist­
ing circumstances calls for the keenest critical discrimi­
A summary of Babbitt’s intentions thus includes the
following factors:
(1) criticism must
be related to life;
(2) the critic must defend the concept of the will to refrain,
or the inner check, and combat any form of Impressionism or
expressionism; (3) he must recognize the individual as an
61 Irving Babbitt, "The Critic and American Life,"
Literary Opinion in America, Morton Dauwen Zabel, editor,
pp. 61-52.
62 Ibid., p. 54.
63 Ibid. , p. 58.
entity outside of nature; (4) lie should relate the wisdom of
the ages to the present scene; (5) he should strive to keep
humanism elastic and avoid the pseudo-classic formalism.
justify the choice of these rules for right action in criti­
cism, Babbitt submits a series of defenses:
(1) the idea of
the higher will has always been at the centre of ancient reli­
gions; (2) all other forms of modern philosophy fail to solve
problems for Babbitt; (3) any system which makes of man an
irresponsible agent cannot satisfy.
Babbitts application of his system of standards in
critical writing.
In relating literature to life, Babbitt
first applies his system to an analysis of the general con­
temporary civilization in America.
He states that Rousseau
prepared the way for the world in which we are now living:
The acceptance of Rousseau's philosophy gave rise to
the present situation in which the humanitarian— is not-concerned with the individual and his inner life, but with
the welfare and progress of mankind in the lump. 64
In the essay "The Masters of Modern Criticism" Babbitt
objects to modern criticism on the grounds that it fails to
distinguish between the one and the many and that it sub­
stitutes Rousseau's return to nature for the principle of
vital, control.
Babbitt traces this process through its
development of the law of nature and the glorification of
64 More, Democracy and [Leadership, pp. 9-69.
* PP* 70-154.
In keeping with his beliefs in the inner check,
Babbitt objects to Rousseau's established traditions, and the
relegation of reason to a minor role.
He objects to Rousseau
as a visionary:
In the case of Rousseau himself, even his sensibility
is subject to the imagination he conjures up . • *the
Arcadian state that he terms nature . . .it leads to con­
clusions that Justify emotional revolt against everything
established. 66
Babbitt links the modern liberal movements in literature
with the forces set free by Rousseau and condemns the movement
on the same grounds as he condemns Rousseau:
fhus many of our "liberals" conceive that it is in
itself a virtue to be forward-looking, whereas it may
be a vice, if what one is looking forward to should
turn out to be pernicious or chimerical. 67
Babbitt objects to Rousseau also because he incites
revolt and thus breaks down tradition, fie attacks Rousseau
on the grounds that he is revolutionary,
"fhe side of Rousseau
that has moved the world, is the side that exasperates and in­
spires revolt . • .it is the mother of violence, the source of
all that is uncompromising." Babbitt also believes that the
frenzied nationalism in Rousseau breeds wars.
66 Ibid., pp. 82-83.
67 Ibid.,
p. 84.
I*oo. Git.
69 Ibid., p. 90.
70 Ibid. , p. 85.
In his essay "Democracy and Leadership" Babbitt objects
to the emphasis on materialism in modern society in America
on the grounds that "the power of Occidental man has run very
much ahead of his wisdom."
He substitutes the idea that to.
be completely modern the critic must be positive according to
the human law as well as to the natural law; He believes we
should go back to the "Peloponnesian War in Greece to under73
stand our democratic imperialistic era."
To correct these errors in our civilization, and thus
to provide a literature and a body of criticism in keeping
with such a civilization, Babbitt submits that we use the
principle of inner control or decorum that Confucius "would
impose upon the expansive desires."
In Chapter VI of Democracy and Leadership
makes the statement:
"The choice to which the modern man will
finally be reduced . . .is that of being a Bolshevist or a
Jesuit." Thus Babbitt links his type of humanism with
Catholicism, and in keeping with this decision, he rejects
Protestantism, showing how the latter has failed. Babbitt
71 Ibid., p. 120
72 Ibid., P. 143
73 Ibid., P. 145
74 Ibid., P- 148
75 Ibid., P- 186
76 Ibid*, P* 188
feels that the humanitarians from Bacon down to the present
day have "been superficial:
’’Even when they do not fall into
the cruder tuantitative fallacies . . .they conceive of work
in terms of natural law and of the outerworld and not in terms
of the inner life*1* He attributes to this conception of work
a host of evils:
(1) dishonesty in the form of a pseudo-justice;
(3) tampering with the monetary standard; (3) the disappearance
Of the competitive spirit; (4) confusion of money with property.
In his criticism of present-day American civilization,
Babbitt includes a tirade against the present-day ethics and
"Any attempt to give the primacy to freason* in any
sense of the word will result in the loss of humility and lead
to a revival, in some form of the Stoical error,"and again:
"The types of material progress on which the Occident has been
expanding its main effort for some time past, so far from
promoting moral progress, is likely to make against it*"
Bater he affirms a dualist concept as the only valid position:
The humanitarian assumes that men can meet expansively
and on the level of their ordinary selves. But if this
notion of union should prove to be illusory, and men can
really come together only in humble obeisance to something
set above their ordinary selves, it follows that the great
77 Ibid.* p. 197.
78 Ibid., pp. 200-314.
79 rIbid. , p. 217.
80 Ibid. , p. 234.
tempi© to humanity that
for several generations
the Tower of Babel, and
if it is being stricken
has "been in process of erection
past in the modern equivalent to
so we should not "be surprised
with a confusion of tongues. 81
One additional criticism which Babbitt has to make of
the democratic society in which Americans now live, is that
commercialism %s standardizing all its manifestations so that
one is sometimes tempted to define democracy practically as
standardized and commercial melodrama.
The greatest fault which Babbitt finds in the current
form of society is that it has produced inferior leaders be­
cause of the Bousseauistie qualities of the voters, the
triumph of Jeffersonianism over Washington*s constitutional
type of democracy. He feels we are in danger of losing
constitutional liberty, and that such a loss can be traced
to our drift away from the traditional standards:
When evil actually appears, the Jeffersonian cannot ,appeal
to the principle of inner control . . .It should be clear
at all events that our present attempt to substitute
social control for self-control is Jeffersonian rather
than Puritanical. 84
Babbitt favors an aristocracy of the remnant in the
Platonic sense.
"Our American d r i f t h e writes, "for a
81 Ibid., p. 242.
82 Ibid., pp. 235-236.
83 Ibid., pp. 243-247.
84 Ibid., pp. 251-252
number of years has unquestionably been towards a democracy
of . . .a radical type.11 He concludes with the statement:
"Circumstances may arise when we may esteem ourselves fortUr
nate to get the equivalent of a Mussolini, he may be neces86
sary to save us from the American equivalent of Lenin.”
An examination of Babbitt’s ?he Critic and American
Life will yield more evidence of how Babbitt has applied his
system of judgment Concretely to the literary scene.
finds present-day criticism remiss in that it concentrates
upon breaking rather than preserving traditions:
fhe outstanding fact of the present day period . . .
has been the weakening of traditional standards . . . .
It is unfortunate that at a time like the present,
which plainly calls for a Socrates, we should instead
have got a Mencken. 87
Babbitt applies the condition of inner control to the
modern American critics, in saying:
"(Dhose who stand for
this principle in any form or degree are dismissed by the
emancipated as reactionaries, or still graver, reproached
as Puritans.” On this point of the inner control, Babbitt
finds in its lack in our modern criticism much of the cause
for present evils:
85 Ibid.,
p. 311.
86 Ibid.,
p. 312.
87 Babbitt, ,f!Phe Critic and American Life," Literary
Opinion in America, p. 52.
88 Ibid.,
p. 57.
The characteristic evils of the present age arise
from -unrestraint and violation of the law of measure
and not, as our modernists would have us believe, from
the tyranny of tahoos and traditional inhibitions. 89
Babbitt judges our creative efforts as unsatisfactory
because of the lack of standards in our culture:
A genuinely critical survey would make manifest that
the unsatisfactoriness of our creative effort is due to
a lack of standards, that culture alone can supply.
Our cultural credity and insignificance can be traced
in turn to the inadequacy of our education, especially
our higher education. 90
Babbitt views the equalitarian democracy as the cause
for a mediocre education in America.
He also feels that our
education is utilitarian rather than humanistic, because it
disregards the inner check and elsssieal standards, and is
bound to the acquisitive life:
As it is, our institutions of learning seem to be
becoming more and more hotbeds of ‘idealism. * Their
failure, on the whole, to achieve standards as something
quite distinct from ideals on the one hand, and standard­
ization, on the other, may prove a fact of sinister im­
port for the future of American civilization. 91
Babbitt closes with an appeal for a critical attitude
based on humanist lines:
"James Itussell howell»s dictum that
before having an American literature we must have an American
criticism was never truer than today."
89 Ibid. , p. 57.
90 Ibid. , p. 61.
91 Ibid., p. 63.
93 Ibid,, p. 66.
An examination of Babbitt*s application of the humanist
system of criticism elicits the following generalizations:
(1) Babbitt has on the whole accepted and applied Hore*s
standard of judgment; (2) he attempts to relate literature
to the general American scene; (3) he finds that our culture
is deliquescent because it springs from the Rousseauistie
doctrine; (4) he objects to contemporary American criticism
because it rejects the dualistie conception of the humanist
and accepts the naturalistic philosophy of Rousseau; (§)
he finds our leaders delinquent because they are interested
in quantitative progress; (6) he urges return to traditional
standards and an acceptance of the humanist concept as the
only means of producing a sound civilization and a sound
The study of the humanist trend will continue with a
consideration of the criticism of Stuart P* Sherman, and will
conclude with a review of the effects of the trend as a whole
upon contemporary critics.
The intentions of Stuart P. Sherman*s criticism.
Sherman can be taken as a representative of a group of critics
who accepted the humanist system as set down by Babbitt and
He is especially interesting because he later turned
away from the group and joined the eclectics.
His work will
l>e discussed here in his humanist connection,
Horman Foerster
says of him:
Sherman "became the writer of two hooks permeated with
humanistic principles, one on Matthew Arnold, conceived
as a comment on the Victorian humanist, and one, On
Contemporary Literature conceived as a chaos of natural­
ism. Phen •
.lie' drifted away from his humanistic
position and into an ever vaguer faith in the common man.
In his volume On Contemporary Literature, Sherman
accepts the More and Babbitt type of humanistic criticism.
He writes:
Mr. Paul Elmer More and Prof, Babbitt, in more or less
cooperation, are . • .the critics in America who have
most consistently striven to make the movement against
naturalism conscious of itself and agressive and formi­
dable. Phey have defined its objectives, illustrated
its principles, contrived its strategy, and richly pro­
vided it with munitions of war. 94
Sherman suggests three ways to discredit the current
chaos of naturalism:
(1) it can be attacked on metaphysical
grounds; (3) it can be shaken unanswerably on religious
grounds; or (3) it can be overcome by the use of the critical
movement of humanism.
Of the three he chooses humanism:
though he Cthe humanist} shun the metaphysical abyss
and profess his inability to climb the steeps of mystical
insight, he is at one with the saints in his clear per­
ception of the eternal conflict between the law of things
and the law of man. (Phis is the rock upon which the
humanist builds his house. 95
93 Foerster, Humanism in America, p. ix.
94 Stuart P. Sherman, On Contemporary Literature,
(Hew York: Henry Hold, 1917),“p.“I X
95 Ibid.. p. 13.
Sherman affirms More's and Babbitt's limitations, that
the proper study of man is mankind:
It is irrelevant to approve or condemn this or that
possible line of oonduet oh the basis that it is or is
not in conformity with nature. It is pertinent only to
inquire whether it is in harmony with the constitution
and aim of human organization. 96
Sherman also emphasizes the use of the inner check as
a necessity for a moral code and as a restriction in criticism
It is according to the nature of an animal to preserve
its own life and to reproduce its species, but is of the
essence of man to lay down his life for his great-grandmother and to check the impulse to indiscriminate repro­
duction out of consideration of his great-grandson, fhe
impulse to refrain thus indicated we can find nowhere in
nature. It is part of the pattern or design of human
society that lies in the heart of man. 97
Sherman has approved More and Babbitt's definitions
and the use of their humanistic standards for Judging litera­
ture, in his acceptance of the law of dualism, in his defini­
tions of mankind as the only proper study of man, and in his
acceptance of the inner check as a moral and ethical force.
Sherman1s application of the humanist standard in
evaluating critical literature.
only in his reaffirmation of the
Sherman is akin to More not
several purposes of humanist
criticism, but also in his application of these purposes.
Sherman, like More, neglects the contemporary American critics
96 Ibid,,
p. 14.
97 Ibid.,
p. 15.
On Contemporary Literature asserts principles for judging
modern literature in its introduction, tut has only one essay
on a contemporary subject:
Theodore Dreiser,
The Barbaric Haturalism of
The remainder of the essays are given over
to evaluation of writings of the Americans, Mark Twain end
Henry James; the Frenchman, Anatole France; the Englishmen
Shakespeare, Arnold Bennett, George Moore, and H. G. Wells,
In his consideration of Theodore Dreiser, Sherman has dealt
in a minor way with the critics of contemporary literature.
After exposing Dreiser as a barbarian in method, motive,
and ethics, Sherman accuses critics who accept Dreiser as
being neglectful of the humanist qualities which would make
them good critics*
Sherman discredits this group of critics,
because they do not question the naturelistieisra underlying
Dreiser's novels.
"The critic who keeps pace with the move­
ment no longer asks whether the artist has created beauty or
glorified goodness, but merely whether he has told the truth,”
Sherman rejects Dreiser and those who accept him because they
possess the unhumanistic trait of emphasizing temperament:
He fPreiser} has deliberately rejected the novelist's
supreme task
understanding and presenting the develop­
ment of character; he has ehosen only to illustrate the
unrestricted flow of temperament, 99
98 Ibid., p. 86.
99 Ibid., p. 94.
Sherman cannot accept the critics who term Dreiser a
realist hut relegates them to the naturalists according to
the humanistic standard of judgment*
He denounces Dreiser
and the complimentary critics as naturalists because they
do not follow the humanist concept of dualismt
Sinee theory of animal behavior can never be an
adequate basis for a representation of the life of man
in contemporary society, such a representation is an
artistic blunder. When half the world attempts to
assert such a theory, the other half rises in battle.
And so one turns with relief from Mr. Dreiser's novels
to the morning papers. 100
Although Sherman comments little upon contemporary
critics in the humanist period of his writings, he accepts
the humanist standard of judgment inviolate during his early
writings, and at such times when he is dealing with contem­
porary American criticism, he applies these standards in
Thus far, we have distinguished literary humanism in
American criticism from the larger humanist movement; we have
defined literary humanism generally; and we have shown how
Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and Stuart P. Sherman have
contributed towards establishing a trend in American criticism.
The portion of the chapter which follows will discuss the
effects of the humanist concept upon other contemporary critics.
10° Ibid.,
p. 101
Perhaps no other trend in American criticism has caused
as much controversy as the humanist trend.
In the ranks of
its enemies stand the eclectics, the impressionists, the
Marxists, and several minor groups.
Hostility is "based on
charges of incompleteness, oversimplification, reaction,
un-Americanism, concentration on outworn standards, academic
evasion, limitation, neglect.
Lewis Mumford, an eclectic, grants the humanists a
minimum degree of approval.
He feels that the humanists have
refused to degrade the status of man;
It is to the merit of the Hew Humanists that they
reject much of what is false and shallow in creed of the
Hew Mechanists • . .They refuse to how down to a fact
just because it happens to he an accomplished one, and
they Insist that the goodness or badness of a piece of
literature, or a political doctrine, a habit of mind,
cannot be determined by whether it is ‘modern1 or
‘practical* but whether it supports and fosters fine
human ends, or whether it undermines or cripples them. 101
On the other hand, Mumford disapproves of humanism
because it has continually denied the values of scientific
The cooperative research, the collective testing of
ideas, the elimination of idiosyncracy, the reliance
upon determinable measures of weight and number, in
101 Lewis Mumford, “Towards an Organic Humanism,”
The Critique of Human!sm, C. Hartley Grattan, Editor, (Hew
York; Brewer and Warren Inc., 1930), pp. 310-311.
short, the whole morale of science has had a value which
is slowly talcing possession of other departments of
thought and action; the pervasive impersonality of
science has done not a little . . .to temper the as­
perities of social intercourse, and as this technique
becomes more ingrained, the ethical contribution of
science will become more obvious. It is unfortunate
that the Hew Humanists recognize as ethical an earlier
canon of conduct* 102
Mumford views the humanist attack: on Homantieism as
unnecessary repetition of work already performed:
"All these
weaknesses were examined and criticized long before the Mew
Humanism had come into existence. " Mumford finds the humanists
unfriendly to contemporary fact:
The Hew Humanist cuts himself off from the live forces
of today and substitutes decorum and the inner check of
Dante and Confucius, forgetting the slow process and
background of the growth of these perfections.
For what . . .is theHew Humanist's preoccupation with
the ‘inner check,' the 'moral veto,* the 'will to refrain,'
if it be not an effort to protect the personality from
the risks and mischances that all creatures must run in
course of their development . . .As a purely temporary
protest, paving the way for a more central and capacious
philosophy of life, theHew Humanism has perhaps its
chief justification. 104
The humanists are in disfavor with Mumford because they
make a fetich of morality:
102 Ibid., p. 342.
103 Ibid,, p. 343.
104 Ibid., pp. 345-346.
The Hew Humanist makes a fetich of morality . , .
they read art, literature, philosophy, social custom
in terms almost solely of their ethical significance . . .
to isolate ethical judgments from these organic re­
lationships to the whole of life, and reduce good
conduct, as Mr, Babbitt does, to the application of
the moral veto or the inner check is to lose the sig­
nificance of ethics itself . . • 106
The final criticism which Mumford makes is that humanism
is a philosophy of negatives:
whereas the belittled Bomanties influenced happily a
score of activities from the planting of gardens to the
writing of histories, restoring his sense of dignity to
the degraded machine worker and reawakening culture which
had lain dormant under political tyranny, the Hew Humanists
have opposed to the weaknesses and infirmities of the
present society a series of anxious negatives . . .In
short, the Hew Humanists are empty. Ho wonder they are
so strong in polemics; for they derive their chief sig­
nificance from the presence of their enemies. 106
G. Hartley Grattan attacks humanism because he believes
their choice of the word humanism is a misnomer.
Grattan re­
fuses to accept this term, and substitutes the title Hew •
It is hardly surprising, then, that Mr, Babbitt cannot
see that he has committed an error of major proportions in
appropriating the word humanism to designate his particular
doctrine. He is more apt to congratulate himself, on his
brilliant strategy in forcing his opponents to attack a
doctrine masquerading under a term which all sensible men
regard as representing a most respectable and desirable
attitude. 107
105 Ibid., pp. 345-347.
106 Ibid., pp. 350-351.
107 C. H. Grattan, "The Hew Humanism," The Critique
of Humanism, pp. 5-6.
Grattan considers Babbitt’s evaluation inadequate
"because it studies the individual and neglects his environ­
Instead of attempting to achieve a "balance "between the
Individual and the environment which, after all, is the
true nature of the problem, he ignores the environment
entirely and concentrates on the individual. His diag­
nosis is therefore partial and his prescription inade­
quate. 108
Grattan discredits humanism as a system which makes literature
the handmaiden of morals:
But really it is a perversion of literature to make it
a source and support for moral dogmas, just as it does
violence to cultural history to trace all modern ills
back to Sousseau or Bacon. Humanism is based upon a
fundamental misapprehension of the purposes of literature.
Literature is not a source of moral precepts; nor a
source of a pseudo-religious discipline; it is a phase
of experience* 109
Ludwig Lewisohn, a third eclectic, calls the humanist
trend reactionary, since its spokesman, More, has defended
strike-breaking and opposed generally any betterment of labor
He QloreJ defended the breaking of the Colorado strike
of 1914 by armies of paid bullies and spies, a method at
which even Federal judges have since blushes . . .he
berated Jane Addams for laying at the door of society the
moral break-down of a child between twelve and sixteen,
who found the burden of supporting a whole family greater
than he could bear; he objected to Miss Addams' investi­
gation of the connection between working-glrlsr starvation
» P* 7-
109 Ibid., p. 29
wages and their morals. This, Baul Elmer More declared,
was ’not helping the tempted to resist'; he asserted that
‘with the idea of an avenging Deity and a supernatural
test there disappeared also the sense of deep personal
responsibility. 110
hewisohn cannot accept the values which the humanists
have chosen, nor their views of truth as it existed in former
times as standards;
According to them authroitative wisdom exists in fixed
and final form; the hooks of life are closed; they are
like that Caliph Omar who caused the Alexandrian library
to be burned on the ground that if the books contradicted
the Koran they were blasphemous; if they agreed they were
useless. Ill
The values they mean are the values of the seventeenth
century. By choice they mean not a continuous and
creative choice, but the enforced choice of Calvinism.
According to them all truth was long ago discovered and
is now in a frozen state. 113
It is lewisohn’s belief that the humanists deter
The fiat of the humanists that nothing shall be doubted
or discarded until a new thing is ready to take the place
of the old would throw mankind back to the cruel stagnacy
of arrested primitive tribes who have forgotten the very
reason for the practice of rite and observance of taboo
and like the animals observe the same gestures from
generation to generation. Thus it is clear how the
humanists have perverted formally eorrect statements
into absurdities. 113
110 Ludwig lewisohn, Expression in America, pp. 43E-433.
111 Ibid.,p. 436.
11E Ibid., p. 435.
113 Ibid. , p. 430.
And finally, lewisohn accuses the humanists of inconsistency
in that they set up qualities in their philosophy which they
themselves discredit:
On the hases of these private intuitions he (Paul
Elmer More) "builds up a pseudo-philosophical structure,
quite like that of the school-men, careless, as he says
in another connection . • .His inner processes are, in
fact, thoroughly romantic and "both Babbitt and himself
are subject fundamentally to the very kind of romantic
muddleheadness which they feign to abhor . . .Intuition
for intuition and instinct for instinct, I would prefer
even those of Bousseau and Bergson, neither of whom is
among my masters, to those of Professor Babbitt and More,
The truth is . . .that our humanists have, without either
applying the inner check of reason or the outer check of
knowledge and fact, elaborately rationalized their
conscious and subconscious preferences. They have sought
in the usually slightly sadistic fashion to make their
limitations serve as truth, decency, decorum, and to
impose their inhibitions \xpon all mankind. Truth or, if
one prefers, reality can proceed only from large and noble
and free personalities^ Bepression begets intolerance
and the weapon of the constricted soul is the whip. 114
Waldo Prank, the fourth in this.series of eclectic
critics, finds Irving Babbitt inadequate in his definition of
terms and in his application of these terms:
Mr. Irving Babbitt*s definition of Puritanism as *the
inner check upon expansion of natural impulse* says too
little and too much. Too little, because it does not
allow for the natural impulse of acquisition of power. 115
Prank feels that Irving Babbitt*s criticism of the
inadequacies of democracy are justified, but that Babbitt's
114 Ibid., pp 437-438.
115 Waldo Prank, The Rediscovery of America, p. 100.
rejection of the whole scene rather than rejection of its
faults, only, disqualifies Babbitt for leadership:
His work has much to commend it for influence on young
America. He criticizes "blind democracy, revealing the
inadequate thought that underlies its tenets; he stresses
the need of an aristocracy of mind and morals; he makes
clear that such leadership ensues * . .he is outraged "by
our impressionistic criticism • • .He is alive to the
splendours of certain historical conditions and traditions,
and attempts to consider the mastery of Christ and Buddha,
of Socrates and Confucius . • .All of this . . .should
make him central to what is cleansing and constructive In
our intellectual movements. And yet, the contrary is i;rue.
Something is in Babbitt which disqualifies him from leader­
ship, which makes ineffectual his judgments and vitiates
his values . . .Every specific count he brings can be shown
to be correct; yet his inquiry is invalid since he fails
to understand or even to consider the causes under the
symptoms he decries. 116
The Marxists object to humanist emphasis upon morals.
They also accuse humanist critics of evading social and economic
Malcolm Cowley deals with the doctrines of humanism,
first as theories, then as a statement of an application to
problems of criticism:
Everything is reduced, in the end, to the morality of
the individual. By practicing self-restraint, by applying
the law of measure, by the imitation of great models
chosen from the antiquity of all nations, he can arrive
at the Humanistic virtues of poise, proportionateness,
decorum, and finally attain'the end of ends' . . .which
Babbitt says, is individual happiness.
These are the general doctrines of Humanism, and it
seems to me that they can be accepted, so far as they go,
by many opponents of More and Babbitt. They can also be
116 Ibid. , pp. 164-16S.
criticized, but ehiefly for what they omit. They can be
criticized in theory, first, for their incompleteness as
a system of ethics, and second, for their total disregard
of social and economic realities; 117
Gowley complains that the humanist critics fail to consider
man in relation to society*
Without ceasing to be strictly humanist, they eould
have developed a complete system of ethics, but only by
considering man in relation to society. This they have
failed to do; in this increasingly corporate world of
ours, they have confined their attention to the individual.
Economically, socially, their doctrine is based on nothing
and answers no questions. 118
The vast economic machine that is America would continue
to function aimlessly; great fortunes would continue to
grow on the ruins of smaller fortunes; millions of factory
workers would continue to perform operations so subdivided
and standardized as to be purely automatic . . .the
Chicago beer barons would continue to seek their fortunes
and slaughter their rivals, revealing once more a de­
plorable ignornace of the Inner Cheek; the students in
the New Humanist university, after a two o ’clock lecture
on Plato, would spend an hour at the talkies with the It
Girl— and meanwhile because of a few thousand Humanists,
our society, our government, our arts would be genuinely
and ideally Humanistic. 119
Cowley finds the humanists reactionary in their emphasis
on a remnant society:
Paul Elmer More, for example, damns a whole school of
American fiction partly for literary reasons, but partly
because its leading members are men of no social standing.
• . .It is as if Parnassus were a faculty club, at the
doors of which More and Collins stood armed with black­
balls. It is as if the world of letters were a university—
117 Ibid., pp. 66-67
118 Ibid. ,
p. 68.
119 Ibid.,
p. 71.
one which applied the quota system to Irishmen and jews,
and which demanded a signed photograph with every request
for admission. 120
Cowley closes his discussion of the humanist trend with the
charge that there is a complete absence of the creative
element in humanist criticism:
Among the Humanists in general there is a real
antipathy toward contemporary literature. They do no
creative writing themselves and they hold an undying
grudge against those who do . . .But perhaps I am
laying too much stress on the importance of ‘Creative*
literature. Criticism, too, can be creative; it can
express new values in a style that pleases the senses
as well as the intellect: it can have form, vision,
imaginative power • . .(Turning back to the book
Foerster*s Humanism and America we find that with
a very few exceptions, ."those of Eliot and More himself—
the fifteen critical essayists write either colorless
prose or prose conspicuous for its muddled metaphors,
harsh rhythms, awkward vocabularly, and lack of original
ideas. 121
Bernard Smith points out that, as theory, the humanist
principle of relating literature to life is commendable; in
this respect* he says, the humanists are good critics, but
he finds them limited by outmoded standards:
As theoretical principles these observations are
incontrovertible, and in debate over theory the Hew
Humanists have often been remarkably effective . . .
Their preposterous philosophy has made it impossible
for them to understand any writer who is sympathetic to
modern ideas, and their passion for traditional forms
12G Ibid., pp. 72-73.
121 Smith, Forces in American Criticism, p. 80.
has mad© them incapable of appreciating esthetic
experiment . . .The Hew Humanists have been quite
shrewd at analyzing the drift of contemporary litera­
ture— at describing • . .its temper and character*
They have been especially apt at detecting the symp­
toms of introversion and decadence. But they have
denounced these tendencies as violations of laws that
have been moribund for centuries, for they have studied
living literature without being themselves parties to
the anxieties, habits, and ideals of living men. Every­
thing that literary criticism ought to have, their
criticism has— except one thing. The touch of life is
missing, and without it scholarship is pointless and
an interest in philosophical issues is futile. For
without it reality is hopelessly distorted. 1SS
The humanists trend in American criticism has now been
studied from three aspects:
definitions by leading represents
tives of the movement; an evaluation of the application of
these definitions; and the effect of this system of criticism
on contemporary critics.
The following chapter will study the
Marxist movement as applied to literary criticism in this
Before dealing with Marxist criticism— outlining its
ma^or premises, indicating how these premises were applied in
actual criticism, and demonstrating the effects of the trend
on contemporary criticism— we should essay a hrief outline of
the history of the movement.
This background seems particu­
larly requisite since the Marxist type of criticism, from the
time of its introduction to the American seene up to the
present moment, has been in a formative and changing state.
In this connection, Bernard Smith writes:
Marxist criticism has undergone extraordinary change
throughout the 1930*s. . .Its interest, its temper,
with respect both to contemporary literature and to
the perennial problems of esthetics have not been
constant. 1
The actual beginning of the socialist criticism of
literature in America is set in 1901, with the founding of
the Comrade by a group of Mew York Socialists.
The magazine
announced that it would publish:
1 Smith, Forces in American Criticism, p. 375.
2 "Socialist criticism1’ is a term used synonymously
with "Marxist criticism” in this historical account of the
trend, since it is a term used by the majority of the critics
when they speak of the precursors to the Marxist critics.
such literary and artistic productions as reflect the
soundness of the socialist philosophy . • .To mirror
socialist thought as it finds expression in art and
literature , . .and to develop the aesthetic impulse
in the socialist movement. 3
In discussing this early period, Bernard Smith writes:
Marxism is the name which this system is known "by to­
day, hut it was not nearly so in daily use thirty or forty
years ago. But the traces of Marxism were there and they
had great significance for literary criticism, 4
The Comrade was published from 1901 to 1915 and Smith
characterized its main policy to he one of substituting "radical
social values for strictly ethical ones," Among the contributors
to Comrade was Michael Gold, whose writing as a Marxist cfltic
will be discussed later in this chapter.
Another representative initiator of Marxist criticism
was the international Socialist Heview, published from 1902
to 1918,
Snith writes that this periodical contained little
criticism of literature, but that the little it did publish
was animated by doctrines presumed to have been derived from
3 Joseph Freeman, "The Tradition of American Revolution­
ary Literature," American Writers Congress, (Hew Tork:
International Publishers, 1935), p. 52.
4 Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism, p. 287.
5 Ibid., p. 289.
6 Ibid., p. 295.
During the interlude from 1901 to 1918, another period­
ical which contained Marxist criticism was- launched.
the Masses, whose first issue appeared in 1911.
This was
Its first
editorial said:
It is natural that Socialists should favor the novel
with a purpose, more especially the novel that points a
Socialist moral* As a reaction against the great hulk
of vapid, meaningless, too-elever American fiction with
its artificial plots and characters remote from actual
life, such an attitude is a healthy sign . . .Socialism
has more to gain from a free, artistic literature re­
flecting life as it actually Is, than from an attempt
to make facts for the Socialist theory. Socialism has
nothing to fear from a true reproduction of life, be­
cause life is never opposed to Socialism. 7
The Masses was banned when America entered the World
War, and was followed by the Liberator, a magazine which took
over many of the writers of the Masses. It also assumed the
same editorial policy.
The qualities which characterized the
literary criticism in the Masses were typical of the qualities
of the criticism in the Liberator.
Joseph Freeman writes of
Masses1 critics:
As individual writers and artistis* the Masses group
championed two causes: socialism and free "art. Some­
times these two ideas were fused; at other times they
clashed • . .At odds with bourgeois America, the MassesLiberator writers fought now at that time as iournalistle allies of the proletariat, not through the tourde-force of creative art, which ranged, in letters from
the most saceharine sonnets to stirring revolutionary
poetry, 8
7 Quoted by Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism,
from editorial in Masses, February, 1511, p. 295.
8 Joseph Freeman, op. cit. pp. 54-55.
©he October Revolution in Russia in 1919 seems to have been
the turning-point for Marxist criticism in America, since it
apparently served the American Socialist critics as a confir­
mation into fact of Marxian doctrine.
At this time the ideas
of Marxist critics are said to have become solidified.
brief resume of the fundamentals of the doctrine is stated by
Joseph Freeman as follows:
1. Every social class has its own idealogy and its own
literature. She proletariat has its own idealogy and its
own literature.
2. The revolutionary writer not only creates novels,
plays, and poems, and criticism which voice the aspira­
tions and struggles of the workers, but he, Cthe writer}
himself participates actively in those struggles— direct­
ly— in the organization of the workers.
3. Capitalism retards the development of culture today.
She proletariat is heir to the best of the old culture and
the initiation of the new. For the purpose of combatting
capitalism and aiding the proletariat, for the purpose of
developing the new eulture, intellectuals organize in
their own organization*
4. It is necessary for the writer to subscribe completely
to the political program of the proletarian party in order
to aid the workers. 9
In the earlier twenties, the Hew Masses was founded.
It carried the same general policy as the old Masses.
ditional magazines and publications with similar policies of
literary criticism appeared such as The Partisan Review and
9 Ibid, , pp. 56-57
The Hew Theater.
These publications printed throughout the
•twenties criticism reflecting the policies indicated above.
After 1930 and the economic crisis, a type of literary criti­
cism emerged which stated standards of evaluation.
to Joseph Freeman, who accepted early the fundamentals of the
Marxist movement:
"The economic crisis, the spread of fascism,
the menace of a new war, opened the eyes of the best American
writers to the meaning of the class struggle."
Discounting the elements of bias in Freeman's writing,
it is a fact that the American Writers Congresses in the nine­
teen-thirties listed for many of their objectives, Marxist
doetrines, that the Marxist polemic appeared in many books of
literary criticism, and that there evolved in that decade a
system of critical judgment which had its basis in Marxian
It is with the criticism in the last ten years that
this study is mainly concerned.
It is not the purpose of this writer to engage in a
discussion of the dialectics of Marxism, nor to take part in
the campaign of name-calling and wrangling which is character­
istic of the Marxists, particularly in the last three years.
10 Ibid., p. 57.
However, in stating the definitions of Marxist criticism,
these differences of opinion over the problem, "what consti­
tutes Marxist criticism” should be noted;
It should also be
pointed out that a number of critics who at one time may have
subscribed to Marxism, have repudiated the Russian program
since the fateful treason trials in 1937.
If, on one hand we
have the general summary definition by Bernard Smith,
The Marxist thesis may be briefly stated as follows:
a work of literature reflects the author’s adjustment to
society. To determine the character and value of the
work we must therefore, among other things, understand
and have an opinion about the social forees that produced
the ideology it expresses as an attitude towards life.
Marxism enables us to understand those forces by explain­
ing the dialectical relationships of a culture to an
economy and of that culture to the classes which exist,
in that economy. At the same time, by revealing the
creative role of the proletariat in establishing a com­
munist society, which alone can realize universal-— peace
and well-being, Marxism offers a scale of value. 11
we have Edmund Wilson’s accusation in December, 1939, that the
great body of literature which is now called Marxian or pro­
letarian is nothing but party-line propaganda of the American
Communist Party, and that ”Marx and Engels ; . *never attempted
to furnish social-economic formulas by which the validity of
works of art.might be tested;”
11 Smith, op. cit. , p. S88;
12 Edmund Wilson, "Marxism and Literature,” Atlantic
Monthly, Vol. 160, pp; 141-50, December, 1937.
That statement is from the same Edmund Wilson, who
earlier (in 1932) had written, "Today the culture of Communism
is a great intellectual force." The case of Edmund Wilson’s
changing attitude toward Marxist criticism has many counter­
parts among Marxists.
It may be necessary for purposes of
showing the development of this system of judgment to take
these critics only at the moment in their careers when they
adhered to the principles of "Marxist criticism," as the
proponents say, or of the "propagandist party-iine policies,"
as the opponents would have them called; Whenever it is
possible to do so, however, a critic’s transient position
in the Marxist camp will be pointed out and a suggestion of his
new course will be eharted;
Definition for Marxist criticism in the writing of
Joseph Freeman.
In an introduction to an anthology, proletar­
ian Literature in the United States, cooperatively published
by a group of proletarian poets, dramatists, novelists, and
critics, Joseph Freeman states the requisites of the proletar­
ian writer.
Freeman uses the term proletarian
with Marxist, and the word writer as a blanket term for poet,
artist, novelist, essayist, and critic.
the line-up in literature as triple:
He first indicates
the fascist, the liberal,
13 Edmund Wilson, "Literary Glass War," Hew Hepublie,
Vol. LXX, Ho. 909, pp. 319-323, May 4, 1932; NoTTlO', pp.
347-349, May 11, 1932.
the communist li*£. proletarian Marxist},
Since Freeman’s entire polemle is a weapon against the
capitalist state, he does not present here a specific argument
against it.
He attacks, instead the literal critic who "vaeil-
atesn between the two extremes. ' Freeman discredits the liberal,
who will not commit himself permanently, and who, he believes,
cannot maintain this state of suspension permanently, and is
in reality, not above the seene but part of it:
Wrapping himself in linen, donning rubber gloves, and
lifting his surgical instruments— all stage props— the
Man in White, the 'impartial1 liberal critic, proceeds
to lecture the assembled boys and girls on the anatomy
of art in the quiet, disinterested voice of the old
trouper playing the role of 'science*. He has barely
finished his first sentence, when it becomes clear that
his lofty 'scientific* spirit drips with the bitter gallof partisan hatred . . .In the case of the liberal critie-rwe have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something
else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a polit­
ical weapon which turns out to be itself a political
weapon. 15
Freeman, after discrediting the liberals, takes up
their charge that art is neither action nor seience:
We ^bhe Marxists} have always agreed that there is a
difference between poetry and seience, between poetry
and action; that life extends beyond statistics, indices,
resolutions. 16
14 Joseph Freeman, Proletarian literature in the
United States, p. 9.
15 Ibid., p. 10.
16 Ibid. , p. 11*
But he will not admit, as he states the liberal does, that art
exists, in a vacuum, and should be fudged in vaeuo:
It is true that the specific province of art, as
distinguished from action or science is the grasp of
transmission . . .However, the experience of the artist
is conditioned by his environment, his economic and
social setup, his class. 17
Freeman insists that experience which grows out of such
subject matter is just as valid as any other experience and
that its significance, in many instances, ^transcends flirt­
ations and automn winds and stars and nightingales and getting
drunk in Baris cafes.” He also points out that art is not
self-dependent, and that the critic cannot approach art with­
out considering the relationships existing between art, science,
action, class bias:
in short, the complete social scene:
Art, however it may differ in its specific nature from
science and action, is never wholly divorced from themj
it is moreover less self-dependent and sovereign than
science and action are self-dependent and sovereign* 19
Freeman emphasizes the class basis of art and its spec­
ific nature:
The class basis for art is more obvious when a poem,
play, or novel deals with a political theme. Readers and
critics then react to literature as they do to life, in
an unequivocal manner . . .
17 Ibid., p. 10.
18 Ibid. , p. 11.
19 Ibid. , p. 12.
Freeman feels that i f -our present writing is to he true
to conditions of the contemporary scene, it must reflect the
complete social scene:
The experience of the mass of humanity today is such
that social ana political themes are more interesting,
more significant, more normal than the personal themes
of other eras, SI
Freeman feels that the writer should he sympathetic to the
It does not require much imagination to see why workers
and intellectuals sympathetic to the working class— and
themselves victims of the general social-economic crisis—
should he more interested in unemployment, strikes, the
fight against war and fascism, revolution, and counter­
revolution than in nightingales, the stream of the middleclass unconscious, or love in Greenwich Tillage. SB
Freeman then says that pure art will he possible only
when a classless society exists.
In an essay 11Toward the Forties1* which appears in the
report of the Second American Writer*s Congress, Joseph Free­
man elaborates on this general thesis.
He views the writer*s
participation in, and positive bias towards, a political pro­
gram as absolutely necessary for the writer of today.
quotes Thomas Manh on this point to corroborate his statement?
21 Ibid. » p. 16.
22 hoc, eit.
23 Ibid., p. 17.
In his remarkable lecture on Wagner, delivered early
this year, in Hew York, Thomas Mann quoted the composer as
saying that ♦whoever tries to get away from the political
befools himself1 . . .more than any other writer of our
times, Mann has occupied himself with the problems of the
artist . . .He has pondered, and written about, the aspir­
ations, struggles, defeats, and triumphs of the literary
personality in Western civilization. 24
The author gives reason, in this essay, for the necessity
of such a revolutionary change in the concept of the function of
literature in general and criticism in particular.
He says that
there has been a tremendous change in the last thirty years:
, . .the World War, the Russian revolution, the great
American boom and the still greater American depression,
the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the success of socialist
planning in the Soviet Union, the beginning of a new round
of imperialist wars . . .At no period in human history has
the alteration in things, relationships, and values been
so violent, so far reaching*
How can a writer live through such a period and remain
untouched? . . .if he is a writer at all, he deals with
experience; and in our time, simply to record experience
is to record aspects of a universal conflict and the most
profound social transformation in the history of mankind, 25
Freeman indicates as immediate causes for the writer's
acceptance of the Marxist doctrine:
(1) the economic crisis
beginning in 1930; (2) the barbarous practices throughout
Germany with the coming of the Nazi regime in 1933; and, (3)
the beginnings of new imperialistic wars in Spain and elsewhere
in Europe and Africa.
24 Joseph Freeman, "Towards the Forties," The Writer in
A Changing World, (New Yorkr Equinox Cooperative Press, 1^3777
pp ^ 10-117
25 Ibid., p. 15.
26 Ibid., pp. 27-28.
Freeman closes his essay with a prophetic forecast of a
new literature which will result from the collective union of
writers, on the side of the workers in all countries:
There is every indication that American literature is
about to enter a new period. The rich movement initiated
seven years ago has run its first lap, and has left be­
hind works which will increase in,importance with time.
Bow there is a pause for a second wind* There will be
more mature and significant work: the best writers are
now armed with the knowledge and insight that they
formerly lacked . , .In this new creative period it is
those writers who are allied to the progressive forces . .
throughout the world who will play the important role. 27
Freeman's premise, viewed in summary, proposes a system
of criticism which takes into consideration the class element
in society and counts as valid only the transmission of exper­
iences directed toward eliminating the elass-struggle.
a system of necessity, would be sympathetic toward the proletar­
iat, or working class, and would have a strong political bias
in favor of the proletariat.
Definitions for Marxist criticism in the writings of
William Phillips and.Philip Bahv.
In an essay by William
Phillips and Philip Bahv in the anthology, Proletarian litera­
ture in the United States, many of the functions already stated
are repeated.
The authors believe that it is part of the
critic's function to resolve the contradictions in the class
27 Ibid., p. 33.
Moreover, since forms and methods of writing do not
drop like the gentle rain of heaven, but are slowly evolved
in creative practice conditioned by the developing social
relations, it is only natural that sharp differences of
opinion should arise, fo a Marxist such differences are
not personal and formal, but actually reflect the stress
of class conflict, Phus, the development of revolutionary
literature is not Unilinear; its progress is a process
unfolding through a series of contradictions; through the
struggle of opposed tendencies, and it is the business of
criticism to help variters resolve these contradictions. 28
Phillips and Bahv also include spontaneity and forwardness as
neeessary functions for the Marxist critic:
IBhe critic is the ideologist Of the literary movement,
and any ideologist, as Lenin pointed out is worthy of the
name only when he marches ahead of the real road, and when
he is able, ahead of all others, to solve all the theoret­
ical, political, and tactical questions which the material
elements of the movement spontaneously encounter. It is
necessary to be critical of it the movement to point
out its dangers and defects and to aspire to elevate
spontaneity to consciousness. 29
2?he authors demand of the critic that he perform the
following function:
(I) evaluate the degree of the writer's
awareness of strata in his audience;
(2) judge the author's
ability of imaginatively assimilating political content; (3)
judge the author's differentiation between class-alien and
usable elements in the literature of the past; and, {4)
measure the development of Marxist standards in literature.
28 William Phillips and Philip Bahv, "Becent Problems
of Bevolutionary Literature," in Proletarian Literature in
the United States, p. 368.
29 Ibid.,
p. 369.
30 Ibid.,
p. 370>
These critics desire from the Marxist critic a synthetic
The essay closes with an admonition to the critic
that he must expect from the writer not a political tract,
hut an imaginative literary work:
Literature is a medium steeped in sensory experience,
and does not lend itself to the conceptual forms that
the social-political content of the class struggle takes
most easily. Hence the translation of this content into
images of physical life determines— in the aesthetic
sense— the extent of "the writer's achievement. 31
Like Edmund Wilson, Philip Bahv is one of the critics
who in the early 'thirties adhered to the official Marxist
program, hut later repudiated its policies.
“Proletarian Literature;
In his article
A Political Autopsy,” Bahv uses
the following line of attack;
{1} Proletarian literature in the Thaited States, through
the sponsorship of the Communist Party, does not reflect the
interests of the American scene as a whole, or even of class
interest, hut only the co-ordinated needs of the Communist
The Communist Party, through a virtually dicta­
torial policy, has imposed upon proletarian literature a
formula which degrades it to the. status of official party
31 Ihid., p. 372.
32 Philip Bahv, "Proletarian Literature; A Political
Autopsy,” The Southern Beview, Vol. IV, Winter, 1939, pp 616-29.
(3) This formula is purposely vague and generalized so
that its utilitarian nature is not apparent.
The formula is
therefore mystifying, since it misleads the writer who thinks
to ally himself with the working class, hut instead in reality
surrenders his Independence to the Communist Party.
Rahv accuses the proletarian
i. e. Marxist critics of
being limited by utilitarian objectives * and characterizes
their criticism as artificial, artistically chaotic, and
regimented for organizational activities.
He writes!
At present this literature is whithering away because
the party no longer needs it . . .Everything within its
t the Communist Party’s^ orbit, including the proletarian
literary movement, is being done away with . . .A certain
type of cannibalism— -witness the Moscow trials— is in­
trinsic to its history and necessary for the fulfillment
of its peculiar task. 35
Thus Rahv, who saw in the Marxist policy of 1930 a
hope and a promise, finds in 1939 that the carrying out of its
policy has resulted in a criticism devoid of aesthetic quality,
a confusing, misrepresentative, mystifying, and completely
fraudulent movement.
Henry Hart »s definitions of Marxist criticism.
33 Ibid., p. 619.
34 Ibid., p. 620.
35 Ibid., p. 629.
In the
introduction to American Writer’s Congress, Henry Hart,
states the "belief that all writers in the present, critics
included, have identified themselves with the class struggle,
and have chosen to champion the cause of the property-less
and oppressed:
American letters have "begun to depict the aspirations,
struggles, and sufferings of the mass of Americans. Even
those writers who continue to cling"'€0 the old aesthetic
attitudes begin to be aware that, if culture is to survive,
all men and women who create it, absorb it and cherish it,
must unite with those social forces which can save the
world from reaction and darkness. 36
Hart also takes the stand that the Marxist critic helps
to establish a worker’s government and attempts to destroy the
monopoly of capitalism.
Hart insists upon the immediacy of the problems of the
present-day writer, and in doing so, emphasizes the need for
adjustment to a revolutionary change which has been an oftrepeated premise of Marxist criticism:
We are faced with two kinds of problems. First, the
problem of effective political action. The dangers of
war and fascism are everywhere apparent; we all can see
the steady march of the nations toward war and the trans­
formation of sporadic violence into organized fascist
36 Henry Hart, "Introduction,” American Writer*s
Congress, p. 9.
37 Ibid. , p. 10.
In the second place, there are the problems peculiar
to us as writers, the problems of presenting in our work
the fresh understanding of the American scene that has
eorae from our enrollment in the revolutionary cause.
The revolutionary spirit is penetrating the ranks of
the creative writers. 38
Henry Hart, here posits two major premises for the
Marxist critic:
(1} that he consider the writer’s depiction
of the masses; and- (S) that he enroll himself in the revolut­
ionary cause.
Granville Hicks' statement of the Marxist function.
Granville Hicks in the article "The Writer and the Future,"
states that any writer who tries to "defend the special
privileges of the capitalist," who takes refuge in the doct­
rine of ’Hhe aristocratic minority, nature's noblemen" is
doomed to frustration.
Hicks also castigates the writer who wishes to be aloof
from the political scene and who maintains that the writer
must keep an impartial attitude:
The only trouble with this program of aloofness is
that it will not work. It will not work . . .because,
while we are calmly going about our literary labors,
the forces of fascism are sedulously creating a world
in which such labors cannot be carried on. Try to be
aloof while storm troopers' clubs are beating upon your
skull . . ^aloofness is not humanly workable in such a
period at ours. 40
38 hoc, cit.
39 Granville Hicks, "The Writer Faces the Future," The
Writer in £ Changing World, p. 186.
40 Ibid., p; 187
In the remainder of his program for Marxist writers,
Hicks approves the premises set down earlier in the chapter,
Malcolm Cowley's contribution toward defining Marxist
Malcolm Cowley's article "What the Revolutionary
Movement Can Do For a Writer,” states first the negative
qualities inherent in Marxist doctrine.
Me feels that the
movement cannot give the writer personal salvation; it can­
not immediately transform the middle-class writer into a
oroletarian writer; it cannot create genuises out of inferior
fhe positive opportunities which are offered the Marxist
writers are these;
(1) it offers them an audience; (2) it
gives writers a whole new range of subject matter; (3) it
allows the critic a perspective on himself; (4) it gives the
writer an opportunity to align himself with a rising class
instead of with a class that is confused, futile, and decadent.
In "The Seven Years of Grises,” Cowley makes a plea for an
interest in social problems on the part of the writers.
Considering "whether or not the writer should take part in
the political struggle, Cowley states that it is impossible
41 Malcolm Cowley, "Revolutionary Movement and the
Writer,” American Writers' Congress, pp. 59-60.
42 Ibid, , pp. 61-62.
43 Malcolm Cowley, "The Seven Years of Crises,” ffhe
Writer in a Changing World, pp 44-37.
for the writer to avoid doing this:
There is no use adjuring them to take part in it or
warning them to keep out of it • • *The artists will
and do take part in it, because they are men before they’
are writers . . ^and because their human interests are
involved, and because they can’t stay out of battle with­
out deliberately blinding and benumbing themselves and
even then they are likely to find that they have been led
into it without their knowledge and on a side that per­
haps they wouldn't consciously have chosen, 44
Concerning the side with which the writer should align himself,
Cowley would prefer that he take side with the worker,
presents the view that the awareness of the outside scene will
enrich the scope of both the creative writer and the critic:
Artists used to think that the world outside had become
colorless and dull in comparison with the 'bright inner 45
world* that has been enfeebled as a result of the isolation.
Cowley accepts in its broad outlines, the polemic of
the group of Marxist critics.
His emphasis on the social en­
vironment, the alignment of the writer with the working class,
the stress on the advance position in criticism, are principles
which he advocates to the critic.
Thus far the history of Marxist criticism has been traced
from its beginnings in socialist criticism to its present-day
status in a system which demands that the critic understand
44 Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return, (Hew York:
Horton and Gampany, 1934}, p. 306,
» PP« 302-3.
W» W.
the class-strugglef and that he work with the proletariat in
establishing a resolution to the class problem.
He must
evaluate literature from this standpoint, accepting as valid
only that literature which advances the proletarian welfare,
and rejecting all literature which encourages a maintenance
of the status quo,
This chapter has presented the opinions
of a group of critics who have expressed the premises upon
which Marxist criticism is based*
There are undoubtedly many
more authors who have contributed definitions of this trend.
However, a statement of all such critics would mean a needless
repetition of premises.
Therefore, we have included only a
selection of the more specific statements of the Marxist thesis.
Writings of a group of representative critics have been
selected to Illustrate the application of Marxist principles to
critical analysis.
The majority of Marxist critics in the last
two decades have contributed largely to magazines and period­
icals, such as New Masses and The Modern Quarterly, and to
some extent to the liberal monthlies, The Nation, and New
In some cases, Marxist critics have published their
writings in book form.
It is from the latter group that a
group of representatives has been ehosen.
The writings of Floyd Dell illustrates the beginnings
of the Marxist viewpoint, although to the Marxist who came
later, Dell was regarded as a precursor to this type of
In the "Preface," to his took:, Intellectual Vagabond­
age , Dell indicates that his task will be to show the weak­
nesses of the past generation’s culture, and the weaknesses
inherent in the literature of his own generation.
In fulfilling this two-fold intention, Dell used many
of the premises peculiar to the Marxist standard.
To him
literature was an expression of a whole people's thoughts
(i.£. the masses) rather than of an individual's opinion:
A significant writer is a person whose conscious emotion
corresponds to the deep unexpressed feelings of others and
whose candor and courage and sheer writing ability are ade­
quate to the task of expressing these feelings . . .Depend
upon it, if Great Writers had chanced to express what no­
body but themselves had felt, we should never have heard
of them. It is because they have spoken for the mute unglorious many that we know of their existence; and it is
the extent to which they speak for us that we can satisfy
the judgment which has pronounced them great. 47
Here we have the emphasis on the many rather than on the indiv­
idual, which is characteristic of Marxist dialectic.
That Dell
meant this in a very specific sense is illustrated by his later
comments concerning Darwinism.
His analysis of the conflict
over Darwinism finds that the struggle is not based on the
religious "versus science problem" prevalent before and after
his time, but on religious versus the economic problem. To
Dell, Darwinism against the Church was an economic manifestation.
46 Floyd Dell, Intellectual Vagabondage, (Hew York:
George H. Doran Company, 1926), pp. ix-xiii.~
47 Ibid. , pp. 22-23.
It made plain the fight between the exploited and the ex­
We are now in a position to see why 'Darwinism” be­
came the moot question of the day. It did * . .discover
at the very basis of the scheme of life the hated con­
dition of the new capitalistic order— the life— and
death struggle between more and less fortunately equipped
individualSi 48
In this way, Dell points out that the Darwinism concept supplied
an argument for the ”dog-eat-dog” competition.
Floyd Dell uses
the same technique in showing how the Pre-Raphaelites escaped
from the horrors of the Darwinism concept by making eompatable
art and industry. From the Pre-Raphaelite movement, says Dell,
came two tendencies:
the school of Romantic Socialism founded
by William Morris and the Marxism Socialism founded by Engels
and Marx.
The other escape from capitalistic horrors laid bare by
Darwin, says Dell, was the "Ivory Tower" concept created in
England by Rosetti and Swinburne, and culminating in Walter
Pater and Oscar Wilde.
It [The Way to the Ivory Tower) is the final renunciation
of relations with a world felt to be intolerable; a spirit­
ual divorce from reality. In this mood, the artist does
not quarrel with the world, nor laugh at it, nor seek to
persuade it that its realities are poorer than his dreams;
in this mood, the artist does not quarrel with the world . .
48 Ibid. , pp. 88-83
49 Ibid.,
p. 90.
50 Ibid. , pp. 91-98,
he remains in but not of the world; utterly content with
the realm of his own dreaming.
This is the last frontier of literature, the steppingr
off place into the realm of madness— of private and incom­
municable dream, 51
This is the literature of the past analyzed into categories by
one category is realistic, Marxian; the other is romantic,
Romantic Socialism; the third is escape, ”The Ivory Tower,”
All three have their basis in economics according to Bell,
Part two of Bell’s bools: is an informal commentary of belles
The opening ehapter states the premise of the ne­
cessity for change.
We were of the present. And, though we did not realize
it, what we wanted was an interpretation of our own time—
an interpretation, which would make us feel its signific­
ance, and the significance of our part in it . • .
And to this question of ours, the literature of the
nineteenth century furnished no reply, 52
Bell writes that instead of a realistic literature, the escape
literature of Jules Verne or the dead issue of Darwinism or
Atheism were offered. Education did not present the real
Emerson, Thoreau, or Whitman but merely anemic, heroic por54
traits, with all the economic elements eliminated, Dell offers
as an additional sign of the emasculation of the age the in­
fluence of Fitzgerald’s Rubiyat.
51 Ibid. , p. 102.
52 Ibid. , p. 107.
53 Ibid., pp. 108-115.
54 Ibid., pp. 115-118.
He says that the real awaken-
ing cam© to M s generation when it discovered the olass-struggle
It was a great moment, for such of us as persevered
until we reaehed such a point; when we ceased to believe
in puny mitigations of the struggle between the classes—
when we saw that struggle as the very essence of contempo­
rary life, and indeed in one form or another as the essence
of all human history. We had only to realize that the
working class stood as the protagonist of the future and
cast in our lot emotionally with its hosts, 55
Comments on the background of the acceptance of Wells
and Shaw in America as an outgrowth of World War disillusionment
conclude the Intellectual Vagabondage,
They add little to
actual application of Marxist principles to criticism of litera­
In short, Dell’s application of the. economic element
and a recognition of the class-struggle as factors in determin­
ing the course of nineteenth and twentieth-century literature
were the extent of his use of the Marxist polemic,
For this
contribution, he has been given recognition by later Marxist
critics as a precursor of the more thorough Marxian analysts.
Michael Gold, another of the earlier Marxists, illus­
trates in his "Wilder— Prophet of the Genteel Christ," the
application of Marxian principles.
To Gold, the group of
problems which Thorton Wilder presents in his book is outmoded
and unnecessary.
He writes of the characters in Wilder’s books:
Here’s a group of people losing sleep over a host of
notions that the rest of the world has outgrown several
centuries ago: one duchess's right to enter a door before
55 Ibid. , p. 148.
another; the word order in a dogma of the church; the
divine right of Kings, especially of Bourbons. 56
To Gold, the hooks of Wilder represent a decadent, even
extinct group of people and ideas which does not portray the
American soene, hut in reality is a refuge of the American
literary snob.
Wilder is unacceptable beeause he does not
take the environment of contemporary America into aecount.
Gold says; "let Mr. Wilder write a hook ahout America.
predict it will reveal all his fundamental silliness and
superficiality, now hidden under a Greek ehlamys.”
Gold criticizes Wilder for his evasion of social and
economic factors in present-day America:
And this, to date, is the garden cultivated hy Mr.
Thorton Wilder* It is a museum, it is not a world. In
this devitalized air move the wan ghosts he has called
up, each in ♦romantic* costume. It is a historical
junkshop over which our author presides. 58
Gold adds to his disqualification of Wilder's literary snohhery
and a neglect of the contemporary scene, the charge that his
literature is for a small class, and does not represent the
productive forces in American society?
For to repeat, Mr. Wilder remains the poet of a small
sophisticated class that has recently arisen in America—
our genteel bourgeoisie. His style is their style; it is
56 Freeman and others, Proletarian Literature in the
United States, p. 349.
57 Ibid. , pp. 353-354.
58 Ibid,,
p. 350.
the new fashion. Their women have taken to wearing his
Greek chlamys and faintly indulge themselves in his smart
Victorian pieties. Their men are at ease in his Saris
and Borne. 59
Judged hy Michael Gold, Wilder1s evasion of economic
and social factors and.neglect of the class-struggle discredit
him as a critic.
Joseph Freeman *s application of Marxist standards, in
the writings of Joseph Freeman we find examples of the applic­
ation of the Marxist system of judgment.
In the “Introduction”
Proletarian Literature in the United States, Freeman sub­
jects contemporary American literature to a dialectic analysis
and sets up three general categories:
(1) poetry in time;
(2) poetry and class; and (3) poetry and party. He indicates
that in the first period from 1912 to 1929 writings centered
on the problems of Time and Eternity; “The Movement had its
prophet in Walt Whitman, who broke with the ‘eternal value of
feudal literature and proclaimed the here and now.'” Freeman
is of the opinion that in the second period, the years from
1929 to the middle thirties, the feeling that our society was
classless, was shattered.
Freeman asserts that the writers
were forced to face the fact that this is a class society,
59 Ibid., p. 54.
60 Freeman uses “poetry” in the German sense of Bichtung,
creative writing in any form.
61 Ibid,, p. 19.
but that they were still "burdened with antiquated shibboleths
about art and society, art and propaganda, art and class.”
During the following five years, in freeman's opinion,
writers first accepted a dualistic conception in which as men
they supported the working class* and "as poets they retained
the umbilical cord which bound them to bourgeois culture."
But, writes Freeman, the intensity of the depression, the
violence of the class-struggle, and the emergence of writings
steeped in revolutionary lore caused the writer to see that
"it was no longer an abstract question of art and class, but
the specific challenge; which class?"
Then* employing the technique of historical analysis
based on economic and social elements, Freeman traces the
history of the class concept of literature from Werther, Rene,
Denis and Diderot to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Of the
last two men's contribution. Freeman says;
fo followers of Karl Marx the connection between poetry,
politics, and party was so obvious, that wherever the
Socialist Movement developed there grew up around it
groups of Socialist writers and artists, where the class
struggle was latent, the Socialist Movement was weak.
Where the class struggle was sharp, the movement was
strong; where the movement was strong, the art it in­
spired was strong. America has been no exception to
this rule. 65
62 Ibid., p. 20.
63 Ibid. , p. 21.
64 Doc, cit.
65 Ibid., p. 23.
Employing social and economic forces as a cine for the
criticism of literature, Freeman rewrites the history of
American criticism according to its social and economic "back­
He concludes his analysis of American literature with
the observations that the revolutionary point of view in
American letters through its recognition of the class-struggle
and the positive militance against fascism and war is the
valid approach.
The application of the Marxist polemic to American
literature by Granville Hicks,
in 1935, the first American
Writers* Congress met to determine general policies of signif­
icance to American writers.
An examination of the reports
of these writers reveals that, in a major degree, the issues
were dealt with in the first and second Congresses according
to Marxist theory.
Such questions as the critic’s attitude
towards fiction, the drama, and literary criticism, were de­
All phases of the writer's craft were discussed*
book publishing, the dissemination of books through existing
channels of trade, the participation of writers in politics;
in short, the status of the writer in American contemporary
Granville Hicks in his article, **5?he American Writer
and the Future," makes plain his concept of the place of
literature in the political struggle.
66 Ibid. , p. 28.
Looking at the aehieve-
ments of American •writers in the past, Hicks finds their work
lacking in importance because of their emphasis on frustration:
For nearly forty years literary criticism has been
preoccupied with the frustration of American authors*
Puritanism, we were first told, was the cause of fail­
ure. fhen Van Wyck Brooks looked more carefully and
indicated our money-centered culture. Finally the
Marxists have talked about frustration in terms of the 67
contradictions and the decline of capitalist civilization.
In considering the question of frustration, Hicks be­
lieves that it has been the result of evasion of basic issues,
and that writers in America will remain in utter confusion
unless they assist in resolving the conditions of our age.
He feels that we are now in the depths of chaos, and that with
a realization and application of the Marxist conception,
writers may in the future, help in the evolution towards a
more planned and stable era:
I believe we are in the midst of a worldwide revolut­
ionary struggle, and I am determinist enough to hold that
there can be no doubt as to the struggle’s outcome. I am
confident that sooner or later Communism will be established
throughout the world and that its establishment will begin
. . .a new era in human history. 69
Examining the more immediate scene, Hieks finds in it
the issues which will concern writers in America for the years
which will follow.
Hicks urges the necessity for the writer’s
67 Granville Hieks, ”'Dhe Writer Faces the Future,” !The
Writer in a Changing World, p. 180.
68 Ibid..pp. 181-182.
69 Ibid. , p; 182.
occupation with such practical problems, if he is to escape
future frustrations.
Such starkly practical problems may seem unworthy of
consideration in a paper that began with the rather grand­
iose aim of discussing the dangers of literary frustration
in the coming years, but it is on our ability to solve
just such problems that our survival depends. 70
Hicks enumerates the problems with which the writers of today
have concerned themselves, and with which they must concern
themselves in order to produce significant literature in the
These are the writer and fascism, the writer and
labor, the writer and political parties.
Hicks'- book The Great Tradition, which appeared in 1933,
includes criticism of American literature since the Civil War
and is a record of the frustrations of American writers from
that period to the present day.
Hicks has elaborated on the
idea that the underlying reason for the tradition of frustration
in American letters, may be traced to the political, social,
and cultural background.
For example, Hicks' chapter dealing with American culture
during the era from 1912 onward stresses the following facts:
culture was in the hands of a relatively small group of prosper­
ous middle-class people who demanded of literature that it be
A sense of pessimism arose, he writes, with the
tendencies towards urbanization, with the concentration of
wealth, and with the decline of the middle-class, to which the
writer belonged.
Finance capitalism controlled not only the government
but also the means of education and the organs of express­
ion. Before this force the middle-class was helpless; it
could not prevent war, it couldn’t abolish corruption; it
could not eliminate cyclical depressions. However, satis­
factory its situation might be at the moment, it was at
the mercy of forces it could not control. 72
We can now understand, Hicks asserts, why we find a
sense of frustration everywhere in the work of the middle gen­
Spingarn, he calls mystical and negative; H. 1.
Mencken has nothing fundamental to suggest.
leading impressionists:
He says of these
trIn order to avoid problems they did
not care to examine, the impressionists consistently mis­
represented the character and minimized the importance of
Hicks deals with the humanists on economic grounds:
fheir selection of self-restraint as the distinctively
human virtue has no basis in science or ethics, and in
practice it meant a defense of private property, the
existing order, and Puritan morality# 74
Gf critics like Van Wyck Brooks, Hicks writes that these do
not go far enough. Summarizing the scene of critical writing
72 Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition, p. 213.
P* 247 •
74 Ibid. ,
p. 250.
75 Ibid.,
p. 251.
during the twenties, Hicks writes:
The period is rich in critics . . .better eritios by
far than recent generations had produced. But the need
for clarification was desparate. The impressionists well
absorbed in other tasks; Babbitt and More had their own
interests to protect. Brooks was restrained by a strange
sort of timidity. If there had been someone to say, 'This
is the situation of society today, these are the forces
that have shaped that situation; here is the power that
can bring changes. ' If someone had said, ’Though this
civilization is dying, a new civilization is in process
of building,1 poets might not so quickly have lost their
hope. . . .Hot every artist could have responded to such
words, but some would have. The words alas were never
spoken; 76
With the coming of the depression, writes Hicks, the issue be­
came clear.
Writers either accepted the situation or worked
to overthrow it.
Krutch is studied.
In this connection, the critic, Joseph Wood
Hicks writes of Krutch:
The Modern Temper is an excellent statement of the
phi1osophieal theories of contemporary pessimism, but it
would be less significant if it lacked this honest con­
fession that there is but one alternative to pessimism,
faith, in the emergence of the masses, and that this
alternative is unacceptable to Krutch and his kind. 77
Hicks considers T. S. Eliot’s choice of religion for a solution
to problems as an evasion of reality and places here the cause
of futility in his writings. "For the writer who is not quite
ready for the church," writes Hicks, "there is humanism,"
76 Ibid. , p. 253.
77 Ibid., p. 263.
78 Ibid., p. 269.
79 Ibid., p. 271.
E. P. Blackmur's criticism earns the same brand of seorn for
its evasion of social conditions and its concentration on
esthetics; "and the criticism of such men as Yvor Winters,
and Dudley Fitts resembles the impassioned quibbling of de80
votees of some game." The anxiety of a group of young writers
to form a leisure-class literature is also frowned upon by
Hicks, and here he cites T. S* Eliot, Allan Tate, and Thorton
This development is looked upon as a great and
eminent danger by Hicks;
There are many other signs that in the coming years the
effort of a certain mjmber of critics will be devoted not
to the creation of a leisure-class culture, but to the de­
velopment of a body of capitalist apologetics. Most of
them, will not presumably defend capitalism, as such, but
they will defend a set of doctrines that involve not merely
the preservation but the consolidation of preservation of
capitalistic power. They will, in short, become fascists, 81
Hicks sees only one alternative to this sense of frust­
That is the identification of the writer with the pro­
letariat and its struggle for revolutionary change;
Freeman . . .has for nearly a decade been demonstrating
the effectiveness of the Marxist method ; i .Joshua Kunltz
and Bernard Smith have written on Marxist theory and more
recently Hewton Arvin , . .has written in Marxist terms on
American writers . . .Others reviewing are moving in the
same direction and there is a growing body of theoretical
discussion, 8E
80 hoc. cit.
81 Ibid., p. 287*
82 Ibid. , p. 296.
Reviewing Hicks* criticism of American literature since the
Civil War, we find that he considers vital only those writers
who have tried to understand American life in terms which led
into or developed from the Marxist concepts:
The writer if he is accurately and intelligently to portray
American life, if he is to express whatever is vital and
hopeful in the American spirit, must ally himself with the
working class;
The writer has a series of choices. If he ignores the
class struggle, he surrenders all hope of arriving at a
clear interpretation . . .If he assumes the role of impart­
iality, he merely deceives and confuses himself . . .If he
accepts the existing order . . .he becomes an apologist,
and dishonesty and misrepresentation follow. If he recog­
nizes the existing order for what it is and nevertheless
accepts it because he profits by it, he avoids the weak­
ness of evasion, but he euts himself off from a large part
of the human race, and callousness is substituted for the
sympathy which is so important an attribute. If, however,
the writer allies himself with the proletariat, there is
no need of evasion or self-deception. 83
Hicks has called the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman,
Howells, Horris, Irondon, and Sinclair, and the works of the
recent Marxists the great tradition of American literature,
•'critical of greed, cowardice, and meanness.”
Thus Hicks links the critical spirit in the past with
the critical spirit in the present, tracing the failures in
criticism to evasion of economic and social Issues, and the
successes to standards of judgment which adjust men to their
83 Ibid. , pp. 304-305.
84 Ibid. ,
p. 305.
85 In 1939, Granville Hieks resigned from the Communist
£arty, asserting that he could not remain in the party while
harboring doubts.
file application of the Marxist standard of .judgment by
Bernard Smith.
Another major work which applies the Marxist
method is Bernard Smith's Forces in American Criticism.
Considered from its point of scope, this study is perhaps the
most complete study of criticism of American literature to
come out of the Marxist group.
Smith begins with, what he
calls "Provincial Criticism" and carries his work through to
the present day.
It is Smith's intention to survey ".the main
currents and to sketch the principle figures," in American
Introductory remarks state Smith's belief that
only that critical system is valid which Indicates the connect­
ion between general cultural history and
literary history. He
stresses the fact that he is an advocate of the scientific
method whenever that method is applicable to the critical
analysis of literature.
In his own words:
It should be said + . .that I believe in the use of
scientific methods • . .that I am antagonistic to mysti­
cism; and that I am biased in favor of the broadest
possible democracy. 87
As part of his plan to indicate the connecting links
between literature and life, Smith stresses soeial forees, and
to him, the term social forces means the economic, social,
and political, and cultural background of the writer.
86 Smith, Forces in American Criticism, p. viii.
87 Ibid, p. ix.
In this
way, the Individual critic becomes what he is because of his
time and his place.
In discussing the provincial critic
Charles Brockden Brown and Joseph Dennie, Smith first provides
a general background of.which the two were representatives.
He says of their criticism:
It was certainly a natural expression of the period*
for it was nothing but an application to esthetics of the
utilitarian philosophy of Bentham and Adam Smith • . .
First of all, obviously, it provided a Justification for
literature, seeondarly, it provided a consistent stand
in regard to art of the period, 88
An examination of Smith’s writings on romanticism will
serve as a further indication of how he has used his system
of analysis of social forces to explain an individual critic’s
The coming of the machine age was the material spark
that ignited the spiritual flame we call romanticism, 89
For background it should be borne in mind that the men
who led the romantic movement in Hew England were not re­
volting against Christianity; they were merely attempting
to convert an arid Protestantism into something richer,
freer, more humane— -something that would fit not merely
the psychology of nascent industrialism but also the pride
of idealism accompanying it, 90
In his study of Emerson as a romantic and a transcendentalist, Smith establishes first what he means by romanticism
and by transcendentalism.
88 Ibid., p, 37
89 Ibidi, p, 67
Then he conducts his study along the
following line:
(1) Emerson’s life in "brief outline; (3)
his social and cultural background;
(3) his philosophy of
literature; (4) his effects on the readers of his own time
and upon later critics.
It will be noticed that only in the last two steps does
Smith actually concentrate on the critical writings of Emerson
as such, and even there the connections between them and the
social life of which their author is a part are never neglected.
This example of Smith’s method is illustrative of the
manner in which he studies all critics from romanticism, to
the roots of realism, through the confining hot-house attitude
of gentility after the Civil War, to the study of the twentiethcentury critical scene with its explosive climax in post-World
War chaos.
The examples which have been provided should show that
Smith has stressed the relationship between social forces and
the individual critic’s writings.
In this regard, Smith has
utilized the Marxist premise of relating art to social forces.
When Smith reaches the chapter in his book called ’’Consequences,”
in which he discusses the Marxist polemic is clearly shown.
The liberal critic Smith calls confusing: Waldo Frank is a
91 Ibid., pp. 99-109
92 Ibid. , p. 363.
mystic; Van Wyek Brooks and Carl Van Boren have ossified;
Lewis Mumford he terms ’’nostalgaic”; Henry Hazlitt's critique
is one of compromise; Joseph Wood Krutch is a pessimist. These
evaluations huild up to a discussion of Marxist critics.
is no wholesale acceptance of Marxist criticism.
In fact,
there is much criticism of the system of judgment which the
Marxist have employed:
That is not to say that Marxist critics have solved their
problems. On the contrary, they are now at last facing
them. To begin with, they have consistently slighted esth­
etic appreciation . • .Secondly, they have not effectively
dealt with the problems of communication. The Marxist
uses innumerable words differently from the way they have
been traditionally used. 97
On the whole, however, Smith approves of this trend of
criticism, and in general, the work is built along Marxist
These are his final remarks:
One must conclude that the Marxist possess what Adam
wanted. They have a philosophy of history to explain the.
present and guide them to a desirable future. They have
a faith. They have a unifying idea . . .10 critic can ask
for more; no critic should be satisfied with less. He who
cannot accept their principles is obliged to offer alter­
natives for which as much can be claimed and vfliich are as
susceptible to being tested by reason and experience^ 98
Thus far, this chapter has been concerned with a state­
ment of intentions of the Marxist critics and with an estimate
93 Ibid., P. 364.
94 loc, cit.
95 Ibid., P« 365.
96 Ibid. , P« 366.
97 Ibid., p. 379.
98 Ibid., P. 380;
of these intentions*
In several instances, it has been
necessary to pursue the method of discussing one critic’s
statement of intentions, and later demonstrating how another
has utilized the economic interpretation of literature, since
some critics have specialized in definitions of the method,
while others have concentrated upon application^
The degree
of difference in interpreting the Marxist polemic is very wide.
With some critics it means merely an identification of the critic with an economic interpretation of literature without
actual identification with the political implications of
With other critics, an economic interpretation of
literature means support of the principles of Communism.
critics have interpreted the Marxist polemic simply as a guide
to a discovery of what has been traditionally valid in American
culture and literature.
Marxist critics discussed in this
chapter, insist at least upon this minimum program for literary
criticism must take into account the economic
struggle which, the critic believes, is the central factor in
society today.
There is also the group of critics who started
the 1930's in the left Wing, but at the end of the decade,
felt that they had been betrayed by the Communist Party’s
abuse of Marxian principles.
This group includes, among others,
Edmund Wilson, Hewton Arvin, Granville Hieks, and Philip Rahv.
Marxist criticism has had effects along four lines;
First of all, it has added to its ranks many critics who were
formerly impervious to the social and economic factors in
American culture.
Malcolm Cowley is an example of a group
of self-exiled authors who found no satisfaction in the
American scene, fled to Europe, and there adopted various
foreign systems of writing and judging literature.
returned to America to ally himself positively with the
Marxist group.
In Exi l e d Return, he explains his own and
several fellow writer’s conversion to the Marxist trend.
manner irjwhich certain Marxist critics have influenced other
hostile critics to an acceptance of the Marxist polemic is
implicit earlier in this chapter.
Aside from adding more henehmen, Marxist criticism
causes an opposite reaction, illustrated in the intense attempts
to offset Marxist reasoning hy humanists, impressionists, and
former Marxists.
Still one other reaction, which is just as
intense, is that process of criticism which ignores the Marxists
Morton Dauwen Zabel*s comments on the Marxists in
criticism represents an objective attempt at evaluation of its
Zabel tries to weigh in the balance all elements of
this type and their effect upon the general critical scene in
Zabel writes of Marxism:
The social line of criticism since 1930 has profited
by a situation much more conducive to serious discipline
than existed before. For one thing, controversy is
sufficiently active to offset the extravagences of party
politics. For another, the defenders of the esthetic
approach to literature have bestirred themselves to a
more severe line of reasoning in order to match the
subtleties of the materialistic dialetlc, and thus
benefited their own cause while challenging the extremes
of its opposite. Again, fresh growths of socially
motivated literature have revealed the pitfalls of
propaganda so obviously as to provide a caution to those
critics who have defended this function in art too glibly.
And finally, the profound economic distress of the times,
has aroused a general agreement on the moral ends of
literature. 99
Zabel states also the corresponding evils accompanying the
Marxist doctrine^
He finds it too contemptuous of other
systems of judgment, too simplified a system, too centered
on the economic question:
Critical activity has been distracted by false simpli­
fications and partisan bias. Its magazines have sub­
stituted personal abuse for sober thinking, and eloquence
for logic. There has flourished a loose contempt . . .
and a consequent discarding of literary works that might
lighten the dispute . . .to far greater advantage than
the shoddy tracts that are often seized upon as profoundly
significant. And there has arisen so slovenly and un­
critical a warfare of terms and premises— debates over
the ’function’ of art, ’utility,’ ’ideology,’ ’mass con­
sciousness,' versus progaganda’— that the mere communi­
cation of intelligence about these causes, lacking as it
does the very discipline of logic or dialectic that is
the- boasted advantage of their exponents, has lapsed into
* * .and confusion. 100
99 Zabel, Literary Opinion in America, pp. xlix-1.
100 ioc. cit.
Zabel calls Granville Kicks’ The Great Tradition an
ambitious attempt at aligning literary history to the Marxist
concept, but finds in it an over-simplification of issues in­
. . .its coherence of argument and its graphic distinction
are soon rendered suspect by the facility with which he
accepts or dismisses the writers of American literature
according to the degree in which they satisfy his highly
simplified and crudely applied proposition on the inter­
dependence of literature and economic law. 101
Zabel also objects to Marxist criticism when it becomes the
agent of propaganda:
4 . .when that purpose succeeds, the critic falls into
fully as great an ineffectuality as when he takes on the
robes of academic pedantry. He the critic may be
serving a nobler cause, but his claim to the critic’s
title is fully as spurious. He may express a just con­
tempt of aeademic routine or the irresponsibility of
•liberalism1 and impressionism, but he may merely be
shirking his own responsibilities when he does so and is
likely to have little of value to say about literature. 102
Van Wyck Brooks, after a consideration of the traditional
belief in leadership, finds that it is not feasible in America:
The Marxist reject great men and are themselves the
creatures of Karl Marx— Nikolai Lenin— labelled in his
own person, as the lie it is, the notion that statesman­
ship cannot be creative; and Lenin’s tomb today is the
visible witness of the spiritual power which the hero
exercises in life and after death . . .we are obliged, as
regards the function of writers and artists, to accept—
and let them call it what they like— the ’melodramatic’
view; for history bears us out* We are obliged, in a
101 Ibid., p. li.
102 Ibid., p. liii.
word, to believe in heroes, whether they swagger or not. 103
Brooks also believes that the real forces which determine social
evolution are to be found within the feelings and emotions of
the individual.
To him, the individual comes first, then the
The events of recent years prove nothing so much as that
the motor forces in social evolution are not by any means
*currents of material interest*' The only thing they
really prove, in fact, is the infinite plasticity of
human nature. 104
Joseph Wood Krutch cannot accept the Marxist doctrine
because he feels * that, even if such a state as is indicated
by its principles were to exist successfully, it would eventu­
ally lapse again into despair, since the cycle of growth and
following decay is inevitable:
The world may be rejuvenated in one way or another, but
we will not. Skepticism has entered too deeply into our
souls ever to be replaced by a faith, and we can never
forget the things which the new barbarians will never
need to know. This world in which an unresolvable dis­
cord is the fundamental fact is the world in which we
must continue to live, and for us wisdom must consist,
not in searching for a means of escape whieh does not
exist, but in making such peace with it as we may. 105
Irving Babbitt’s slap at the Marxist program is explained
by these charges:
that it encourages revolt; that it offers a
system based on ritualistic devices and is idyllic and imagin­
ative; that its result would be either despotism or servitude;
10$ Van Wyck Brooks, Sketches in Criticism (Hew York!
E. P. Dutton and Company, 19$1), p. 3(10.
Ibid., p. 306.
105 Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper (Hew York:
Harcourt, Brace and Company, 192"$') , p. 247.
that the Idea of social justice inherent in the doctrine would
mean confiscation of property; and that the salvation of man­
kind lies in the redemption of the individual rather than in
a plan centered on the benefits of society at large.
Babbitt's objection to "liberals" advocating revolt
goes beyond Marx, back to the writings of Rousseau?
"It the
liberal movement
leads to conclusions that justify revolt
against everything established." Babbitt bases his charge
of ritualistic devices and imagination on the fact that the
"modern" critics have derived their criticism from a study
of the natural law and a rejection of the inner restraint:
Those who have piqued themselves on modernity have
thus far been for the most part persons who have been
more or less critical according to the natural law, and
then have pieced out their incomplete survey of the
facts by various ritualistic devices, or else by idyllic
imaginings, 107
Babbitt believes that the Marxist doctrine leads to ruthless
despotism because it eliminates competition:
The attempt to apply the utilitarian-sentimental con­
ception of work and at the same time to eliminate compet­
ition has resulted in Russia in a ruthless despotism on
the one hand and a degrading servitude on the other. 108
And again?.
106 Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership, p. 83.
107 Ibid. , pp. 144-145.
108 Ibid.,
p. 198.
They [the Marxistsi do not take accounts of that form
of work which consists in the superimposition of the
ethical will upon the natural self and its expansive
desires. The very notion of this form of work , . .has
tended to disappear with the decline of the doctrine of
grace. 109
The question of social justice is solved "by Babbitt
with a statement of its Impossibility if this would mean the
confiscation of property*
The interests of property require that at least some
member of the community should work with a very different
sense, and that they . . .set it a good example. 110
Babbitt's statement, "Man should look for true liberty neither
in society nor in nature, but in himself," eliminates the
Marxian emphasis on society.
Specifically, Babbitt attacks
the ethics and mores of collectivism, because it "substitutes
phantasy of social justice for real work."
A more specific discussion of the literary aspects of
Marxism is contained in James T» Farrell's essay "i, Hote on
literary Criticism." Farrell first gives his definition of
the Marxist concept of literature, outlining its purposes and
aims, as he interprets them:
The Marxist approach to literature is largely genetic.
Basically, it is a highly revealing method of probing into
109 Ibid. , p. 197.
110 Ibid. , p. S09.
111 Ibid. , p. 298.
112 James T. Farrell, "J. note on literary Criticism,"
Ration, CXLII, Part I, March 4, 1936; Part II, March 11, 1936,
pp 276-277; 314-315.
backgrounds, and of indicating the social origins and
ideological relationships between the content and material
of a literary work and the society which it springs from, 113
Farrell believes that this essential core of the Marxist may
have its uses in a functional interpretation, but when the
Marxists exert their system exhaustively, he cannot accept
He objects particularly to such slogans as, "literature
is a weapon in the elass-struggle," and "All art is propaganda,"
He cites two examples:
One young revolutionary writer declared in a speech
that Shakespeare was a propagandist, citing as ’proof*
of this statement that Shakespeare defended British
imperialism. 114
"Are we to understand from this," asks Farrell, "that plays
like ‘Macbeth* and ’Hamlet* are like the Singapore base, part
of the defenses of the British empire?"
Marxist judgment of Dickens as a propagandist is
Farrell’s second example of the "All art is propaganda" theory?
Today much of his Chickens*J propaganda is stale; we
read him because we obtain from his books a sense of the
life of his time. He created characters who exist in
their own right; his works possess also a pictorial
quality, the result of his extraordinary talent for
describing scenes and objects so vividly that we are
aware of their contours and of their actual ’feel.1 It
is such qualities as these, which are indubitably
aesthetic, that explain why Dickens still survives as
a living imaginative force. 116
113 Ibid., p. 276.
114 Ibid. , p. 277.
115 hoc, cit.
116 Ibid. , pp. 276-277;
Farrell attempts to prove that Marx never intended the economic
interpretation to he completely exhaustive, that even Marx felt
that art maintains an objective validity:
We, like Marx, derive an experience
tion of Greek art and culture which is
aesthetic. Greek art, in other words,
validity which persists to the present
from the contempla­
at least in part
has an objective
day. 117
Farrell accepts the Marxists contention that literature
cannot be judged in a vacuum, but he cannot accept simple
equations and formulas by which objective situations are used
to delimit and control thought:
U?o make such an attempt is to practice determanism of
the sort which Engels drastically criticized . . .for a
writer to insist that economic factors have a direct,
equal, and coordinate effect, and are an evenly casual
factor in all situations is to reduce the world to a
most unrealistic simplicity. Feither Marx nor Engels
permitted himself this easy intellectual luxury. 118
Farrell interprets Marx and Engels in relation to their
times and finds that their materialism was a revolt from the
metaphysics and supernaturalism prevalent in German philosophy
of that period.
Farrell writes:
Henee cultural manifestations such as formal thought, art,
and literature, which are directly related to the basic
material relationships on which a society is founded in
one era, depart from that sort of relationships as the
process unfolds in the passage of time, and in turn be­
comes causal factors in the general stream of conscious­
ness. 119
117 Ibid., pp. 276-277
118 Eoc. cit.
119 hoc. cit.
Ho definition of proletarian literature, writes Farrell,
should be so interpreted that the application of the Marxist
polemic creates categories of value which exclude all works
120 .
not fitting with ease into such categories. Farrell sums up
his objection to "Leftist" revolutionary criticism with a
charge that its functional nature encroaches upon aesthetics:
. . iit ^Marxist criticism} ignores the proper tasks which
criticism must perform. Literature is created out of a
complex in which the preponderantly casual factor is
material relationships; but it in turn has an effect on
the future. It both reflects the past and organizes the
future. But its functions are not exhausted or even well
performed if it seeks to limit itself to the usurping of
functions better served by direet political agitation and
political pamphlets. 121
Evaluation of Marxist criticism^
It is difficult to
form a judgment of Marxist criticism because of the confusion
which surrounds the movement.
What is Marxist criticism to
one critic is political propaganda to another, and many writ­
ers who enrolled themselves in the Marxist cause in the ‘twenties
and ‘thirties often drop from the Marxist roll today.
The im­
partial observer of this confusion is therefore led to accept
James T. Farrell's opinion that the movement which began with
the desire of reviving criticism from a tired frustration by
relating literary problems to a social background has now in
120 Farrell, “A Hote on Literary Criticism,” Nation,
CXLII (March 11, 1936), p. 314.
121 Loc. cit.
the nineteen-forties produced "a new generation of tired radi­
cals, radicals who are perhaps more tired than their predeces­
sors, of 1917 and 1918.”
Farrell*s statement that there is no proletarian crit­
icism being written today that is worth the paper it is print­
ed on may seem a harsh indictment, hut a review of biblio­
graphical lists will reveal that actually little Marxist criti­
cism has been printed since 1937, and that little may be found
in the official party organs of the Communist Party,
A similar
review of the writings of many former adherents to the Marxist
cause will show a profound disgust with the role that has been
assigned to the Marxist critic,
This collapse of the movement
may have been caused by the reduction of literary criticism
to a weapon in class warfare and an instrument for the spread
of political propaganda.
Perhaps a fair evaluation should
point out that the sincere Marxist critic sought, in the
beginnings of the movement, a relief for American literature
from the slough of post-war confusion and economic distress,
and he therefore attempted an evaluation of literature by
emphasizing social-economic backgrounds from which it springs.
In this respect the critics may have asked the right question,
but the answers which have been given have distorted litera­
ture to a caricature of its real nature.
The years from 1919 to 1940 show a profound Interest
in the problems of literary criticism in America,
In their
search for an hypothesis upon which to base their standards
of judgment, critics often went beyond aesthetic considera­
tions to the social, political, economic, philosophical, and
psychological milieu of writers.
They felt that in order
to form judgments of the American literary scene, they^must
first understand and make decisions about general movements
in American culture and civilization.
Even the impressionists, whose avowed purpose it was
to ignore preceding standards of judgment, to view a work
of literature subjectively, and to consider it only from
the standpoint of the pleasure it brought to the reader,
could not always separate literature completely from the
historical soil from which it sprang,
huneker, Spingarn,
and Mencken, who were influenced by the aesthetic of Wal­
ter Pater, discovered when they applied these standards to
American literature, that they were dealing with a body of
writings which needed special consideration because of the
differences between the American and European scene.
Huneker, who never set down a definite statement of
eritlcal terms and who dealt seldom, if at all, with Ameri­
can literature showed a certain sense of awareness of his
American audience in his deliberate iconoclastic pose*
wonders if his writings were not purposely designed to shock
the complacency of his readers*
If this country had "been
the continent of Europe, of which Huneker wrote so lovingly*
would his expression* bizarre to the American scene , have
created such a furor?
Spingarn’s criticism came to a literary scene well
supplied with stilted standards of judgment.
His theories
broke with tradition and emphasized sensitivity, taste, and
Spingarn's principle of "redrearning the poet*s
dream” and his practice of placing the poet in the position
of a lyric artist satisfied a wish for liberation, while
his sincere championing and incorporation of the aesthetic
of Croce in his own criticism made the latter seem respec­
table and dignified.
Even though he may have cried, "We
have done with rules, genres, moral judgment, the history
of criticism," his criticism still employed historical anal­
ysis, still made claims to morality, and still made a central
philosophy of art and life necessary for ideal criticism*
But for a professor of comparative literature at Columbia
University in 1910 to express openly a preference for the
anarchy of impressionism to the "jejune textbooks" which
at that time commanded the literary scene meant a step to­
wards a new direction in criticism.
Spingarn’s special
interest was comparative literature, and one may find in
this fact an excuse for his neglect to criticize contemporary
American literature*
As this study has shown, even those critics, like the
Marxists, who demanded didacticism in their critical theory
and who chastised Spingarn for his failure to consider econ­
omic and social, factors, could see a historical justification
for Spingarn in his revolt against the confinements of nine­
teenth century American criticism*
It was to he expected
that the humanists, who placed restraint and the reverence
of traditional^learning and standards at the core of their
critical thesis should condemn Spingarn for his emphasis
upon sensitivity, genius, and taste, unhampered by considera­
tions of ethical and moral values.
It has already been demonstrated how H. 1. Mencken’s
thesis of impressionism accepted Spingarn’s bases of judg­
ment and added the mannerisms of Huneker’s gustiness*
these commitments, he received the condemnation of humanists
and Marxists alike, as a mere debunker who could go no far­
ther than agnosticism and revolt, and who could offer noth­
ing positive to American criticism*
The humanists were much aware of their times.
perceived even more clearly than did the Marxists that the
end product of impressionistic criticism is a kind of nihil­
istic skepticism, and that endless debunking and ignorance
of traditional literary standards could produce no permanent
systems of judgment.
It has been shown how Babbitt and
More tried to examine the past to preserve its useful feat­
ures, how they tried to make man the study of mankind to the
exclusion of science and naturalism, how they made discipline
end the inner-check the eentral core of their theory of judg­
ment, and how they believed that moderation in all things as
the quality which would produce a well-rounded criticism.
The humanists wrote little actual criticism of con­
temporary American literature, and devoted themselves main­
ly to classical and modern European literature.
They pro-
vided a general statement of the needs of American criticism.
The effect of the humanist criticism has been to engender a
minimum of approval and a maximum of hostility.
They have
been praised because they refused to accept that which seemed
popular, modern, or practical, and because they fostered
**fine human ends. °
The humanists are condemned for the following reasons:
they Ignore scientific progress and contemporary facts;
they make a fetich of morality; they study the individual
and neglect his environment; they pervert literature to
make it a source and support for moral dogmas; and they
fail to consider man in his relation to contemporary society.
The Marxist critics sought to supply that political,
social, and economic background which they found lacking in
impressionism and humanism.
They felt that only such litera­
ture as used the Marxian theory of dialectic materialism
could evaluate and criticize completely,
They went one step
farther and asserted the necessity for the writerfs alliance
with the proletariat.
In imerica, this meant active alliance
with the Communist party, and this faet left them open to
the attack that they had distorted criticism to a weapon
for class warfare and a tool for political propaganda.
have also observed how former Marxists have repudiated the
practices of fellow critics on the grounds that they have
emphasized this political-economic aspect of criticism to
the exclusion of other necessary factors in judgment.
The study has omitted the classification of many critics
whose works place them in none of the three trends which
have been considered*
This fact by no means indicates that
they are considered of minor importance.
On the contrary,
this may indicate that their significance lies in the fact that
they could not be relegated to a class and disposed of un­
, 129
der the "banner of a movement or cause.
Some of these critics,
like Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Louis Barrington,
V* F. Calverton, and T. S. Eliot may show in their criticism
influences from one or several of the movements discussed,
"but they assert exclusive allegiance to none.
have been above the battle.
Perhaps they
If this is so, each of them
would need a study more thorough than an investigation of
movements in critical literature could give him.
Babbitt, Irving; Democracy and Leadership. Hew York:
Houghton, Mifflin Company, 19&4* 349 pp.
, Rousseau and Romanticism. Hew York:
Mifflin Company, W W V
486 pp.
Brooks, Van Wyck, America1s Coming-of-Age.
B. W. Huebsch Company, 19i5. 183 pp.
, Sketches in Criticism.
Company, 1932. SO6 pp.
Hew York:
, Three Essays on America.
"ton Company, IL9&4. Sl6 pp.
Hew York:
Hew York:
E. P. Dutton
E. P. Dut-
Calverton, V, F., The Liberation of American Literature.
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